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Last week, The Frisky writer Jessica Wakeman stood up in defense of the facial. Wakeman argued that the old porn standby—-whereby a man ejaculates onto a woman’s face—-isn’t inherently demeaning, as long the woman wants it. “In some porn films, the facial is played up to emphasize his humiliation of and domination of her, but in other porn flicks, the money shot is just something the actors do,” she wrote. “In real life, I suspect facials happen more for pleasure than for humiliation, seeing as women have a little thing called self-respect.”
But Wakeman errs in her either/or assumption about the sex act: that facials are either grounded in mutual respect, and elicit pleasure,or are grounded in degradation, and elicithumiliation. In fact, facials can imply all of these things, though we rarely analyze it all in the moment. Plenty of sex acts made popular in mainstream pornography, like facials, are based on achieving male pleasure. Under this model, the female’s pleasure is derived by successfully pleasing the male—-and in the process, allowing herself to be degraded. As Amanda Marcotte writes, “our culture constructs sex as something women do for men, and men do for fun.” That model of sexuality is undoubtedly objectifying for women. But it nevertheless—-voilà!—-conjures up an idea of “pleasure” for both sex partners.
Interestingly, Wakeman concedes that the facial is an act loaded with objectification and subjugation—-in porn. When this act is removed from the context of pornography and placed into the bedroom of a Man and Woman Who Love Each Other Very Much, however, those demeaning undertones disappear for Wakeman. I can understand that: actually thinking about the implications of why we like jizz on our face tends to put a damper on the whole mutual-attraction-to-degradation thing. So what do we do? We compartmentalize. When porn stars do it, it’s degrading; when we do it, it’s respectful:
I think leaving facials up to the porn stars—actors who are making the facial appear to humiliate the woman—-is what keeps it looking demeaning. Certainly some facials are depicted in porn as humiliating or degrading, but not every man who wants to give a facial wants it to degrade and humiliate just like it looks onscreen. Many do love and respect their partners, and know, to varying degrees, that porn isn’t real. Likewise, some of those female partners enjoy the act as well.
When Wakeman liberates the facial from the demeaning clutches of the porn industry, she performs a useful little trick for us feminists—-she separates her sex life from her personal philosophy. We all perform this function in our daily lives—-detesting cruelty to animals while eating meat, denouncing philanderers while cheating on our wives, denouncing corporate America while smoking cigarettes. But it’s a particularly common move when it comes to sex. Why? Because getting off is very necessary, very much informed by a tradition of male dominance over women, and can be very, very hard to accomplish if you only allow yourself to get off progressively. Of course, that doesn’t mean that enjoying performing or receiving facials means that you hate women, or that you have no self-respect, or that you’re a bad feminist. It just means that the patriarchy affects a lot of the things that we perform and enjoy on a daily basis, and it’s good to remember that our attempts to recast these acts as “empowering” isn’t so much transgressive as it is convenient.
See, facials are like weddings. We all know that the institution of marriage is one of the patriarchy’s all-time greatest hits, in which women are sold into sexual slavery from father to husband in exchange for livestock. And yet, who derives the greatest joy from weddings? Women! It’s the craziest thing. But even though we all know that weddings were clearly institutionalized to facilitate the willing subjugation of women, feminists figure out a way to do it anyway. Why? Probably because even though we all know it’s sexist as fuck, weddings—-like facial ejaculation—-still make some people happy. And feminists deserve to be happy, too. But that doesn’t mean we should forget about the sexist tropes that sometimes inform our happiness (and our sex lives).