“I don’t believe in marriage, it’s a relic of an outdated patriarchal institution”, I said as an obnoxious eight year-old feminist.
I never imagined that some 14 years later, as a 22 year-old lesbian, I’d be regularly speaking in a variety of fora, arguing for the expansion rather than the abolition of marriage.
This is not a post about marriage (though for the record while I’m very pro-marriage equality I still don’t personally believe in it) it’s about how my feminist identity and my sexual orientation intersect and conflict.
For as long as I can remember I’ve identified as a feminist. It’s not something I ever struggled with or questioned. It’s a fundamental part of who I consider myself to be.
My sexual orientation, on the other hand, is something that I questioned for years. To be honest, I still do – sometimes labels don’t really capture the complexity and fluidity of attraction – but by the time I was 17, I’d come to the conclusion that I identified as (mostly) gay.
As a gay woman, I’m attracted to women. I check women out. I make judgments about whether or not I think they are physically attractive. I discuss my opinions about women’s attractiveness with other people.
This is where I start to feel conflicted.
As a feminist, I think that the objectification of women is wrong. I think that there is much more to women than their appearance, and obviously I would never date someone just because they were physically attractive. But I still check women out.
Similarly, burlesque and drag performances by and for women are a significant feature of the lesbian ‘scene’. In these acts, women are frequently wearing minimal clothing, and performing for an audience that is “appreciating” their bodies.
Is there any difference between a room full of women doing this and a room full of men doing it? Arguably, I guess so, because as women we aren’t a part of the institutional power of the patriarchy, but I’m still not that comfortable with it. I’m just not sure that replicating what I, as a feminist, consider to be something that is an oppressive behaviour is in any way advancing the cause of women. Surely something is wrong if women are themselves perpetuating the ‘male gaze’ and objectifying other women?
It’s something I’ve discussed a lot with my lesbian friends, and it’s complicated – if women feel liberated performing in front of other women, who are we to say that they’re participating in the patriarchy? If I’m not comfortable with it, I’m free not to attend, I shouldn’t enforce my perceptions of feminism and appropriate behaviour on other women.
The problem is, women can and do feel objectified by other women. I once had a conversation with a friend about going to a particular Newtown pub’s lesbian night, and she said she didn’t want to go because “walking in there is worse than walking into a room full of seedy old dudes”.
I guess the difference between the two situations is that the woman performing for a room full of same-sex attracted women is consenting to the objectification – I don’t really think you can argue it’s anything other than objectification – while the woman casually walking in to the pub for a drink with a friend isn’t.
But where does that leave me, the same-sex attracted woman sitting at a café on King Street in Newtown watching women walking past and mentally assessing their attractiveness? Women walking down the street can’t consent to be looked at and judged (regardless of what they’re wearing – nothing is an invitation to be objectified). Ultimately I think checking out people of the gender to which you’re attracted is a just a natural instinct.
So maybe it’s all just a question of how you define objectification. Do I check women out? Absolutely. But I also respect them. I believe there is much more to a person than just their appearance – to be honest to me nothing is sexier than intelligence and a good sense of humour – and I don’t think that women exist purely as objects for my sexual satisfaction. I think that’s the important difference. Not between me as a woman checking out other women and men checking out women; but between me (and everyone else who is both attracted to and respects women) and other people. Other women and men who don’t see women as people, as independent individuals with personality and agency over themselves and their sexuality, but as passive recipients of their desire. That’s when a natural behaviour becomes participation in the patriarchy and oppresses women.
** All opinions my own and do not reflect the policy or position of the National Union of Students
Donherra Walmsley is the National President of NUS. You can follow her on twitter at: @NUS_President