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Tomi-Ann Roberts: popular media and girls

January 25, 2012

Tomi-Ann Roberts (Colorado College) has been studying how popular media teaches girls to think of their bodies as sexual objects.  She is a member of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (you can read a recent report by them here.)

In this 20 minute video, she gives a brief lecture on her findings.  Quite an interesting presentation.

She says:

Girls are not passive recipients of these cultural messages. Girls are active agents. We know from developmental cognitive psychology that young boys and girls, once they know what their gender is, are very motivated to be the best example of their gender. And if the examples of femininity around you are a sort of tarted up, pornographied sexuality, then that’s what you’re psyched to be.


(This post is taken from a long and rambling comment thread elsewhere on this blog.  See also the comments here.)

39 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2012 5:44 pm


    As you know, this recent report from the APA first came out in early spring of 2007. USA Today‘s Sharon Jayson, quoted Dr. Tomi-Ann Roberts then as saying, “The preponderance of evidence suggests a cause for concern in these sexualized images and the mental health outcomes for girls” and as stressing the need for “a body of [research] work that illustrates how these problems [of eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression] are ‘directly linked’ to sexualized images in ads and popular media.”

    We’re all glad that you posted the report and the much newer video (posted to youtube by Radio Colorado College from early this past fall of 2011). Roberts says in this video:

    As a psychologist, I’ve always been really interested in what are the psychic consequences, for girls and women, of existing in a cultural milieu where the female body is always scrutinized, always used to sell things from tires to shoes, and what that means in terms of lifespan development of girls and women over time. How do they encorporate a sexually objectivized standard in their own psyche? And what must that mean?

    Now I notice your post title particularly focuses on “girls” and popular media. The report title does too, of course. And so does the title of the posted video.

    Nevertheless, I think we should be aware that Roberts, as she says in her video, is wholly interested in both “girls and women” and that she always has been interested not only in girls but also in women, and that it’s the effect of the sexualization of girls and of women, profoundly, over time, over their lifetimes, that is critically important.

    The young women with whom Roberts works at Colorado College, as the Director of the Feminist and Gender Studies Program, are women who rather overtly are encouraged to explore things like pornography and sexually suggestive public displays and understanding sex acts that were once taboo and still are hardly mainstream in Colorado, the United States, or in the world. They explore sexualized language and even publish a wordplayful newletter entitled, The Monthly Rag.

    In the spring of 2008, Roberts spoke out in the RockyMountain News to publicly defend and to explain this publication by the Feminist and Gender Studies Program at her College:

    Our program’s bathroom publication, the Monthly Rag, is itself something of a parody, if you note its title, which emphasizes the idea of women being ‘on the rag.’ It is meant as a playful, informational flier regarding “taboo” subjects related to women’s bodies and sexuality. It is one of several bathroom fliers sponsored by groups on campus…. [In one issue] our flier has a point of historical fact with “Did You Know” as its heading. In it the term vagina dentata is explained. (The vagina dentata, or ‘toothed vagina,’ appears in the myths of many cultures, representing castration fears.)

    The issue of the Monthly Rag which Roberts particularly defends is one also that announces a free lecture “My Life as a Feminist Porn Activist” (and two books for sale, Hardcore from the Heart and Dr. Sprinkle’s Spectacular Sex) by Annie Sprinkle, Ph.D., who is described in the publication as a “World-Famous Prostitute & Porn Star turned Sexologist & Artist.”

    In Roberts’ Program’s publication, there is also “The Bitch Manifesto,” which is printed as follows:

    Bitches … clomp upstairs, stride when they walk and don’t worry about where they put their legs when they sit. the have loud voices and often use them. Bitches are not pretty.

    The “Word to Know” on the flier’s left column is “Packing,” a way to change one’s sexual appearance as if sexually titillated, “a form of gender play, gender bending, transgender identiy, transitional identity fo transsexuals, drand, and/ or to imply sexual intentions to a partner.”

    Given our rambling conversation at the other post, I think there can’t be any question that by the conventional and common definition, at least some of what Roberts’s Program’s publication, the Monthly Rag, has promoted is pornography.

    (For those who want to view the particular issue of the newsletter that Roberts is defending, they can find it here, posted at a website that is trying to defend a parody of this parody. Though Roberts is right to call a “parody” the publication of the Program she directs, it’s also true that the same publication serves as a newsletter to publicize actual events, such as the one with Sprinkle. The Program flier just spices up the announcements with questions such as,

    “What is Feminist Porn?
    Can Feminist Port exist?
    Who is active in this industry?
    What do they do?
    What do they stand for?”)

    For Roberts, I’m quite sure, there is no contradiction in her own life work:

    She’s rightly concerned about girls and women with respect to the possible damaging effects of popular media images of female objectification. And also she’s even correctly concerned about not denying but even about finding healthy ways to give girls and women agency over how they may re-present themselves in public sexually.

  2. January 25, 2012 8:30 pm

    Well Roberts may be concerned about both girls and women. But the issues are different.

    We afford special protection to children that we do not afford to adults. This is certainly true in the case of law — children have a different court system than adults. In most jurisdictions, children cannot consent to sexual relations (statutory rape). Children cannot enter into binding contracts. Children are even restricted in the movies that they can watch and the music they can buy.

    Now, in many cases, I think this verges on the ridiculous: When I was a kid, I needed special signed permission from my parents to check books out of the local library — children were restricted to only checking books out from the “children’s library.” And I find it hard to believe that listening to music will corrupt children — I find those “Parental Advisory” notices on CDs absurd (and why don’t they put them on opera albums)? I’m no fan of Tipper Gore and her absurd Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society.

    And also, the age of emancipation seems a bit arbitrary — why are 18-year olds adults but not 17-year olds? Why are other marks of adulthood — saying the right to be able to legally drink, restricted until age 21?

    Regardless of these inconsistencies, we have, as a society, singled out children for special protection. So even if Roberts links both girls and women together, society does not. A child has freedom to buy all the Bratz dolls that she wants. I’m not sure that we want to grant girls the same freedom.

    Regarding Roberts defense in the Rocky Mountain News of some students’ publication — I read it completely differently than you did: Roberts does not associate herself with the publication, rather she explicitly says that it was written by students. The issue in fact was not with her publication, but rather with The Monthly Bag which included such bon mots as a graphic article on something called a “Standing Wheelbarrow” position surrounded by articles discussing high-powered firearms.

    I do not know that Roberts was the one who approved the Annie Sprinkle talk — but even if she did, discussion of pornography is not the same thing as pornography. If it were, then we would need to take down this entire thread and several others too. I don’t know about your university, but at mine, we have lectures of people with a wide variety of viewpoints: anarchist, socialist, authoritarian, etc. Columbia University famously hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Harvard University famously hosted Jiang Zemin and Wen Jiaboa (in fact, Summers personally invited the latter) — which does not mean that either institution in any way endorsed those speakers or their views. Indeed, I suspect that almost all Columbia faculty, for example, would strongly oppose Ahmadinejad, his statements, and his policies.

    I regularly host visitors and lectures that I vehemently disagree with — that’s part of academic life. So even if Roberts personally invited Sprinkle, I don’t see the connection with her arguments for shielding children from sexualization.

  3. January 25, 2012 9:18 pm

    Roberts very carefully and clearly enough describes and defends, but never derides or denounces, what the students in her Program have written. She calls The Monthly Rag with all that these women have written in it “Our Program’s.” Do you read that differently?

  4. January 25, 2012 9:57 pm

    Do you read that differently?

    Yes, I do.

    Roberts’s op-ed piece is a response to an attack column by Vincent Carroll (who wrote a subsequent attack column in response.

    Carroll’s charge, in essence, is not about the The Monthly Rag — rather it is that the Feminist and Gender Studies program is full of censors and hypocritical censors at that. He does not challenge the right of students to distribute fliers, but rather claims that the two Monthly Bag authors were subjected to unfair procedure. You can see Carroll’s heat because he uses “radical feminists” twice in his follow-up and “radical activists” once.

    Carroll was wrong though. There were no punishments. There was a hearing before a student conduct committee. The decision to refer the incident to the student conduct committee was made by the president of the college — not by Roberts and not by the Feminist and Gender Studies program. In his follow-up, Carroll charges that there feminists were secretly behind some (still unclear) persecution (the term Carroll uses: “star chamber”) of the two Monthly Bag authors. That charge reminds me of the way that some people claim that the Jews are secretly in charge of the world’s media and banks or that the Muslims secretly control Obama or that the communists are secretly behind fluoridation of water.

    Roberts defends her program — not in terms of institutional authorship, but in particular as not being censors or hypocrites. She points out (a point that Carroll scoffs at):

    Excuse me, Mr. Carroll, but did you ask any feminists if they were offended? No. The response by CC President Richard Celeste and the decision to put the incident through the Student Conduct process were ones that were made entirely outside of our program. In fact, many of us disagreed with the conduct process as the appropriate way to handle it. [empahsis added]

    Seen in this light, your isolating two words, “our program’s,” is a misreading. First, you capitalized both words — but Roberts did not capitalize “program’s” and she only capitalized “our” because it began a sentence. More to the point, context clearly shows that Roberts was not indicating authorship in this phrase but rather describing affiliation. We may refer to “France’s Le Monde newspaper” or “Israel’s Haaretz newspaper” or “America’s Fox News” or “America’s USA Today” (which even has the name of the country in its title) but that hardly establishes that any of those newspapers are official publications of those states; indeed, I think it is safe to say that a majority of French readers probably disagree with editorials in Le Monde and a majority of Israeli readers probably disagree with editorials in Haaretz. (Sadly, on the other hand, it may very well be the case that a majority of Americans — or at least a very noisy minority — agree with editorial opinions of Fox News.)

    Roberts is defending free speech in her op-ed speech. She doesn’t even criticize the opinions of the Monthly Bag writers.

    I for example, would have considered the mere act of taking down the Monthly Rag fliers to be an act that deserved investigation by a student conduct board.

    The mayor of Berkeley, California, had to face plead guilty in court after he admitted stealing newspapers that endorsed his opponent. The punishment was minor (a $100 fine), but my point is: merely taking down the Monthly Rag was likely a criminal offense.

    Read in context, Roberts’s op-ed piece is a balanced statement in favor of free speech.

    (There is no contradiction in supporting free speech and finding some speech offensive. For example, I find the fact that newspapers publish columns on astrology offensive — astrology is proven to be completely fallacious — but I do not advocate censoring those newspapers.)

  5. January 25, 2012 10:33 pm

    Lol, Theophrastus, you are reading way too closely. The capitalized Program’s means nothing but that I’m writing too fast and reading on an iPhone and typing with fat thumbs.

  6. January 25, 2012 11:33 pm

    I wonder if you saw this analysis by Adam Kissel. He makes the claims that the “Monthly Bag” writers dis not take down the “Monthly Rag” but rather wanted both posted side by side to emphasize the satiric contrasts. Kissel also claims that Roberts defending the “Monthly Rag” was writing disparaging or at least accusing things about the “Monthly Bag.”. Kissel’s claim is that Roberts was being “vociferous against the Bag.”. This reading of Roberts’ words supports the idea that she defended the flier of the women in her program but was not valuing the ideas in the parody piece at all.

    Kissel’s article is posted on the same sight where I found the copy of “The Monthly Rag”:

  7. January 26, 2012 12:11 am

    No, I didn’t see it. But Kissel has no first hand knowledge of the subject, and I don’t see where any of his analysis is better than mine. He runs an advocacy site. He’s a polemicist. His “evidence” almost entirely consists of his own articles or blog sites that depend on Kissel for facts.

    The only actual evidence that Kissel has contradicts his statements. The claimed letter of sanction indicates that the Colorado College President only asked the students to hold a forum explaining their views. In other words, he gave them an appropriate platform for their speech.

    Previously you made some good points about judging someone’s writings or art works in the context of their life’s creative output. So I googled Adam Kissel to see what else he has written about. I notice that he is now on a crusade against diversity efforts at Virginia Tech. Kissel has no apparent connection with VT. VT is a public university. It is a public university in a former slave-holding state. It is a public university in a former slave-holding state and was, in 2007, the site of the worst mass-murder by a single gunman in US history.

    I support freedom of speech, but I also think that human decency requires a certain degree of sensitivity. For example, I cannot support arguments that Westboro Church’s hate speech protests at military funerals should be protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, I think that Kissel is both wrong and insensitive.

  8. January 26, 2012 10:41 am

    I agree with your analysis and understanding of Kissel’s rhetoric. I’m still not clear where you stand on Roberts and on how she must The Monthly Rag given what she has and has not said about it.

    Would you agree that Roberts seems to have no problem with the issue of The Monthly Rag?

    Doesn’t she appreciate “its title, which emphasizes the idea of women being ‘on the rag’”?

    Hasn’t she validated it “as a playful, informational flier”?

    Isn’t she endorsing how students in her program are “regarding ‘taboo’ subjects related to women’s bodies and sexuality”?

    Might she be considering important the “point of historical fact” related to “the term vagina dentata“?

    Hasn’t she found it to be a good thing for she herself to further explain how “vagina dentata, or ‘toothed vagina,’ appears in the myths of many cultures, representing castration fears”?

    Would she have about the same regard, do you think, for the “Word to Know,” for “Packing”?

    And, do you think that Roberts sees any contradiction between 1. her assertion that “Girls are not passive recipients of these cultural messages” and 2. the cultural message of “The Bitch Manifesto,” which advises young women not to “worry about where they put their legs when they sit”?

    In your understanding, does Roberts, as you listen to her and read her statements, think that 1. the “World-Famous Prostitute & Porn Star turned Sexologist & Artist” with her “Life as a Feminist Porn Activist” represents 2. the kind of “pornographied sexuality” that is one of the “examples of femininity around you … sort of tarted up”?

    Do you really imagine that Roberts would “vehemently disagree with” Sprinkle?

    I know you so disagree with lecturers you have invited (and have seen invited by your colleagues) to your campus. But don’t you agree that Roberts appears not to be just engaging and inviting views she disagrees with vehemently? Doesn’t she seem generally not only to have no disagreement whatsoever with the messages of The Monthly Rag but that she’s also willing to support many of its messages, even though, at first glance, these messages are obviously highly sexualized cultural messages concerning females?

  9. January 26, 2012 11:47 am

    You ask a long series of leading questions; but I’ve already stated the context of Roberts message in comment number 4 above.

    Roberts clearly states her intellectual interests:

    I am currently the Winkler-Herman endowed Professor of Psychology at The Colorado College. My research interests center around the social psychology of women, gender, and the body. I am fascinated by existential questions relevant to our “corporeality,” and particularly to living in a female body in a culture that sexually objectifies women. To this end, I explore attitudes toward women, as well as women’s own self-evaluations and emotions such as anxiety, disgust, shame and pride.

    Roberts’ speech, which I linked to my original post, speaks for itself — I think it is articulate and compelling. Your questions are a long series of “guilt by association” questions ending up at the absurd — so no, I don’t think Roberts is running a brothel out of Colorado College with training sessions run by Sprinkle. I find it much more plausible, for example, that she might find that prostitution and pornography represent intellectual challenges to feminist studies. She may be interested about how women have self-evaluations and emotions such as anxiety, disgust, shame and pride in the face of sexuality. That is a far cry from arguing for sexualizing women as sex objects, the way that images from do.

    Roberts is not a long-dead Greek philosopher — someone whom we may only psychoanalyze across millennia. She is a living person with an e-mail address. If you are sincerely interested, you could simply write her an e-mail. Or you could read her academic papers. (Just one example: It is unclear to me why you regard discussion about menstruation — a nearly universal phenomenon for late adolescent girls and young women — as being sexualizing at all. Rather than suggesting that Roberts fetishizes menstruation, you could look at her studies on female objectification and menstruation or self-objectification and menstruation.)

  10. January 26, 2012 12:22 pm

    I find it much more plausible, for example, that she might find that prostitution and pornography represent intellectual challenges to feminist studies. She may be interested about how women have self-evaluations and emotions such as anxiety, disgust, shame and pride in the face of sexuality. That is a far cry from arguing for sexualizing women as sex objects, the way that images from do.

    Thank you. Until you wrote that I really wasn’t sure of your opinion since I obviously hadn’t asked you clearly enough yet. (“Leading questions” sure sounds accusing enough. But that’s hardly my intention. Nor am I “lawyerly” as you’ve asserted before that I am. Please be patient and know that, in conversation, you might actually get to what I’m hoping to say. Finally, I get what your view is.)

    Note that in my first comment, I already expressed what I think, which I don’t mind repeating since you seem to want to ascribe to me views that I don’t hold (i.e., your begging the question claims such as that I’ve not read Tomi-Ann Roberts’ studies and such as your equally fallacious argument that I “regard discussion about menstruation … as being sexualizing at all.”) Again, I’m glad I now understand your view; please understand mine:

    For Roberts, I’m quite sure, there is no contradiction in her own life work:

    She’s rightly concerned about girls and women with respect to the possible damaging effects of popular media images of female objectification. And also she’s even correctly concerned about not denying but even about finding healthy ways to give girls and women agency over how they may re-present themselves in public sexually.

  11. January 26, 2012 12:49 pm

    The first sentence of my post was “Tomi-Ann Roberts (Colorado College) has been studying how popular media teaches girls to think of their bodies as sexual objects.” But then you brought up menstruation. Now obviously menstruation is connected with human reproduction and it is gender-specific, but I do not regard it as a sexualizing phenomenon at all (unless one is using “sex” in its older sense of denoting what we nowadays usually call “gender.”)

    The biggest leap in your views (and you repeat them just now) is that Roberts is not only involved in study, but also in active advocacy. That may or may not be the case, but it is not supported by the video that I quoted, by the editorial you quoted, or by the scientific papers I mentioned above. (It is perfectly possible to study a subject without advocating it; for example, not everyone who studies communist history is a communist; not everyone who studies European languages is of European descent; not everyone who studies ancient Judaism is Jewish.)

  12. January 26, 2012 1:39 pm

    Thanks for being patient, Theophrastus. But let me be clear:

    • I only brought up what Roberts wrote. She brought up menstration only to connect it with the title of her Program’s publication. She said, “the Monthly Rag, is itself something of a parody, if you note its title, which emphasizes the idea of women being ‘on the rag.’” What Roberts wrote, I believe, is very important; she’s not condemning but is rather praising the publication, its title, its play on menstration, and many other things about and within the publication. I’m not focusing on menstration as sexualization. I’m saying that Roberts is just fine with a flier that is used to promote what her Program’s students want to promote.
    • You wrongly say: “The biggest leap in your views (and you repeat them just now) is that Roberts is not only involved in study, but also in active advocacy.” I never said that, don’t hold the view you ascribe to me, and therefore my views cannot make this leap. My view is not that Roberts is an activist herself necessarily. But my view, rather, is that she certainly supports that her students promote activism and that they explore various ways of being a sexualized female by engaging their own agency in self representations.

      (As if it might clear things up for you, of course I know that it’s “perfectly possible to study a subject without advocating it.” Likewise, it’s perfectly possibly to study a subject and also to encourage one’s students to advocate it if one is not an advocate herself. For example, scholars of communism don’t need to be communists themselves to sympathize with communists or even to cheer them on. Not everyone who studies European languages is of Eurpean descent; and yet, students of European languages, as some of my students are, may encourage those others who are of European descent to identify as such and to embrace such a self identity. Not everyone is Jewish who studies ancient Judaism. Nonetheless, the student of ancient Judaism who is not Jewish may cheer on Jewish students of ancient Judaism and may, likewise, appreciate ancient Judaism as history of particular individuals who lived as Jewish people.) sigh

  13. January 26, 2012 2:40 pm

    No, I’m sorry, but you’ve taken inconsistent positions in this thread.

    You began by claiming that using “the conventional and common definition, at least some of what Roberts’s Program’s publication, the Monthly Rag, has promoted is pornography.” Further Roberts “praises” the publication.

    But now you agree with me that it is “perfectly possible to study a subject without advocating it.”

    So which is it? Is Roberts a scientist or a pornographer? Where is your evidence that she actively encourages her students to produce pornography? (In fact, where is your evidence that The Monthly Rag is pornographic using the conventional definition?)

    My view: (1) I do not agree that The Monthly Rag is pornography using the conventional definition. In particular, I do not find evidence of any intention to sexually excite. (If that was its intention, it is certainly a failure.) I believe it is possible to discuss sexuality in a non-pornographic way (even when the presentation is personal: e.g., The Vagina Monologues.)

    (2) I do not see any evidence that Roberts “praises” The Monthly Rag, as opposed to simply describing it.

    (3) You say “It’s perfectly possibl[e] to study a subject and also to encourage one’s students to advocate it.” (emphasis added) I don’t see how you jump from saying something is “possible” to concluding that must necessarily be so. In particular, it seems to me that this is an equally plausible alternative hypothesis: Roberts might believe in freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.

  14. January 26, 2012 3:43 pm

    Wow. Talk about “a long and rambling comment thread.” I’m only wanting to continue in hopes that we can clear up the differences in understanding between what you claim I say and what I’ve actually said. At some point, if we cannot agree about what I’m trying to say (that’s what you want, isn’t it?), then why bother?

    Try this: we agree that it is “perfectly possible to study a subject without advocating it.” And I also believe without inconsistency the following:

    * by “the conventional and common definition, at least some of what Roberts’s Program’s publication, the Monthly Rag, has promoted is pornography.” [This you don’t agree with.] Here’s my evidence: the flier promotes the works of someone who is self promoting porn, who is also identifying herself “as a Feminist Porn Activist.” [This you don’t agree with; and I can see your point and yet stand by my view.] Other evidence: the publication is promoting “The Bitch Manifesto” and “Packing” as means of feminist intent-to-excite and arguably-obscene expressions (i.e. uncrossing one’s legs in public display and simulating an erection for others to view); I think the parody of this publication (i.e., The Monthly Bag went too far but was trying to emphasize, wrongly, an ostensible contradiction between a woman’s choice to be sexual and judgment, by men, that this qualifies as porn according to your common definition. [This you don’t agree with.]

    * Roberts “praises” the publication. [This you don’t agree with. You don’t see Roberts’ 1. calling the flier “our program’s bathroom publication” or 2. her noting its intent a. to “parody” and b. to give information in a “playful” way and c. to discuss a “taboo subject” and d. to touch on the “history” of feminist language acts and e. to bust up gynophobic myths as being praise. You judge Roberts as merely describing. So, we disagree.]

    * Now, your point (3). You “don’t see how” I “jump from something” to something else, because I’m not actually doing that. You’re misreading my statement (despite the emphasis, which I’m okay with) but then, strangely, assigning to me a conclusion I don’t hold. And of course I also believe that Roberts values free speech and inquiry. Now, that’s a red herring, or two such fish.

    There’s no contradiction between (a) studying pornography (while still not being a porn activist) and (b) encouraging female students to express themselves, to have their own agency, even if these students follow the bitch manifesto or decide that packing is an acceptable means of being a person or get a crowd out to hear a porn activist and consider porn activism also for themselves. [This I don’t know if agree with. I hope you don’t have more of a problem assigning meanings and intentions to my words than you do following what I understand, even if you disagree with that. Again, if we just keep going on like this, then why bother?]

  15. January 26, 2012 4:05 pm

    I am quite sure that Sprinkle’s lecture was not “pornography.” I imagine it discussed pornography. Promoting a discussion of pornography is not the same as promoting pornography. In fact, I would imagine that the program used the lecture as a chance to promote critical thinking.

    Let me give an example: I have at various times required students to read Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s Bell Curve, which argues that there are genetic racial differences in IQ. I did not require students to read it because I agreed with Herrnstein and Murray’s thesis (for the record: I think Herrnstein and Murray commit one fallacy after the other). Neither am I creating a cell of white supremacists. Rather, I required them to read it to promote their skills in critical thinking.

    I think The Smurfs is a “playful” comic strip (turned media empire), and I think that most people would agree with that adjective. At the same time, I do not promote The Smurfs. In fact, I find it insipid. Your leap is in asserting that calling something “playful” means that one is “promoting” it. (All play and no work makes Jill an underachieving girl.)

    I still have not found your evidence that Roberts “supports that her students promote activism.” (If you had used a more neutral word such as “tolerates” or “permits” rather than “supports,” then I would not challenge you so directly.) For example, where are the messages of encouragement we would expect from a supporter for their activism?

    If this thread is rambling, then I think you need to accept partial responsibility for that. The point of my post was a discussion of popular media’s sexualization of girls. You’ve avoided that topic, instead focusing, from your very first comment, on a text flyer from (presumably adult) students at Tomi-Ann Roberts’s college. This is the “guilt by association” issue I mention above.

  16. January 26, 2012 5:02 pm

    (If you had used a more neutral word such as “tolerates” or “permits” rather than “supports,” then I would not challenge you so directly.)

    I have no problem hedging more carefully with these words you suggest.

    If this thread is rambling, then I think you need to accept partial responsibility for that.

    Well, of course. I’m glad you moved your comment from the other post to make that comment into a post all its own. Nonetheless, I think the most astute comment, among all of my ramblings so far, and maybe indicative of why you and I have gone on and on in disagreement about what Roberts thinks is porn, is this point that Suzanne made:

    “Pornography seems to be largely defined by men. They can hardly expect women to hold to the same definition, as if what men think is some universal rule.”

  17. January 26, 2012 8:13 pm

    The Romance Writers of America (a group I had not heard of before doing a Google search) claims that romance novels was the largest share of the American book market in 2010, with 13.4 percent of the market. That is about twice the market share of mystery books, for example. (However, RWA’s statistics are vague and incomplete.)

    If one makes the plausible assumptions that (1) romance fiction is mostly marketed to women, and (2) that a fair amount of romance fiction contains bedroom scenes, we can see that female market for adult materials is quite large.

  18. March 5, 2012 5:57 pm

    Yes, I was a stripper. And yes, I am and was a feminist. I am allowed to make mistakes or change my mind – or not.

    I am allowed to be who I choose to be–a feminist (ex) stripper.

    — Sheila Hageman, Author, poet, and mom of three, who’s blogged for the Huffington Post, “Why Stripping Can Be A Feminist Act.”

  19. March 5, 2012 8:19 pm

    Really. Let me get this straight. On the basis of one woman’s testimony, you are willing to claim that stripping = feminism?

    By this sort of logic, Hageman should also favor repeal of statutory rape laws since some feminists argue that childhood sex is empowering to women (this is, in fact, an argument made in a work you cited above, The Vagina Monologues.)

    A more serious problem is that you apparently discount the possibility of self-delusion and the human impulse towards justifying actions after-the-fact. I don’t think one needs an advanced degree in psychology to see Hageman’s words positively eek of rationalization. Hannah Arendt showed that this self-justification impulse is positively overwhelming — see her study of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

    Hageman desperately needs to distinguish between self-justification and legitimate acts. Hageman admits that she her primary motivation for her acts was not feminism but money:

    I was focused on earning money, having fun and expressing myself. On good days I had respect for what I was doing and treated my work as an art form. Of course, there were also those days where I became just body parts, overwhelmed by men who seemed intent on belittling me as an object merely existing for their pleasure.[…]

    I will admit that when I quit stripping, I felt guilty for how I had damaged my own self-image and how I had perhaps been disrespectful of other women by dancing nude.[…]

    I did experience a whole host of issues related to my time as a stripper.

    (emphasis added)

    Hageman’s argument here is exactly analogous to the heroin addict — the addict admits she is “damaging” herself but claims it is OK anyway because it was her own choice to damage herself. Outside of a radical libertarianism, that sort of argument cannot hold water.

    Hageman explicitly declares that “feminism” does not mean equality of men and women but rather “making conscious choices.” That is explains her essay in full: she does not feel feminism has anything to do with equality but rather with “making conscious choices.” This is a very low threshold, and I believe that virtually every awake human makes conscious choices. I cannot think of anyone who is not a feminist by this standard. Even a slave makes conscious choices.

    Further, I question your choice of material in what is obviously an advertisement for her books (which, in their very titles and breathless descriptions, promise to titillate with salacious material and descriptions). I further question the designation of “author” for someone who is self-published.

    Consider the following thought experiment: suppose we repealed the Thirteenth amendment and restored the legality of involuntary servitude. Why could Hageman not write the same essay — almost word for word — justifying her decision to become an indentured servant?

    How far does this go:

    * Are those who oppose indentured servitude, by definition, anti-feminist?

    * Are those who oppose “consenting” statutory rape, by definition, anti-feminist?

    * Are those who oppose “voluntary” child prostitution, by definition, anti-feminist?

    If so, then I am an anti-feminist. I do not think it is unreasonable or evidence of a nanny state to oppose involuntary servitude, statutory rape, and child prostitution. Further, I would continue to oppose them even in those jurisdictions where they might be legal. It is not a question of “legal” or “illegal” as Hageman seems to feel it is. It is question of human rights.

    Now Hageman is silent on the topic of what else she did to raise money — she admits to stripping, but is silent on the question of whether she prostituted her body during that time (which presumably is illegal in Britain). I have read estimates that up to 90% of strippers are also prostitutes. I cannot speak to the accuracy of that number, but suppose for the moment that statistic is true. Would that change your opinion of whether stripping was an act of feminism or not?

    Should you wish to read the writings of sex workers on feminism, I would suggest a better place to start would be the memoir of Melissa Febos, who also earned her living as a sex worker while earning an MFA — although Febos is clearly a much better writer and also managed to actually have her book published by a real publishing house. Febos said:

    In the beginning, it did feel pretty powerful to act out those roles, but after a little while it wasn’t my fantasy in most cases. In a lot of ways, [enacting the scenarios] felt more humiliating to me than it did to them.

    Febos shows more self-awareness, less rationalization, and her words have the ring of truth about them.

  20. March 5, 2012 9:56 pm

    At the risk of overstating my case, let me give two more examples:

    (1) In the second and third paragraph of her advertisement/essay, Hageman compares herself to an ex-alcoholic. This is an interesting comparison. Indeed, as Monty Python reminds us, many of our most creative intellectuals suffered from this vice:

    Immanuel Kant was a real p***ant
    who was very rarely stable.
    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy b***er
    who could think you under the table.
    David Hume could out consume
    Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,
    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
    ’bout the raisin’ of the wrist.
    Socrates himself was permanently pissed.

    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
    after half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
    Plato, they say, could stick it away,
    ‘alf a crate of whiskey every day!
    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
    and Hobbes was fond of his Dram.
    And Rene Descartes was a drunken f**t:
    “I drink, therefore I am.”

    Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed;
    A lovely little thinker, but a b***er when he’s p***ed.

    Now, of course, Monty Python exercises considerable poetic license here (although there is some truth to a few of these allegations); but my point is that the idea of the boozy thinker is well enough known to have become a stereotype of sorts.

    So, why does Hageman seem to condemn alcoholism while celebrating stripping? Alcoholism is, if anything, more legal than stripping. (While it may be generally illegal to be intoxicated in public or while behind the wheel, it is perfectly legal to be an alcoholic in one’s own home in most places in the US.) Both alcohol and stripping “damage [one’s] own self-image” (redundancy in the original); alcohol poses risks to the liver while sexual licentiousness increases the risks of STDs. Both can be the result of “making conscious choices.” (I know of no one forced to become an alcoholic, although I have heard allegations of white slavery among strippers and sex workers.)

    Interestingly, “feminism” was on both sides of the alcoholism issue. Temperance was arguably the defining issue of first-wave feminism (faster than you can say “Women’s Christian Temperance Union”). Later, Pauline Sabin and her “Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform” was viewed as the spearhead of the anti-Prohibition movement, earning more women members than the WCTU (and making Sabin one of the few women to appear on the cover of Time magazine).

    (2) Consider Rush Limbaugh’s insults against Sandra Fluke — calling her a “sl**” and “round-heeled,” because she used birth-control. Why did Limbaugh do this? Limbaugh might say that he did this because “I was focused on earning money, having fun and expressing myself.” Of course, he has “perhaps been disrespectful of […] women.” And, in addition, Limbaugh is an “author.”

    Thus, can we call him, after the model of Hageman’s self-description, a “feminist”? That would be a true reductio ad absurdum. I would say that neither Limbaugh nor Fluke is a friend of feminists.

  21. March 6, 2012 5:55 pm

    At the risk of overstating my case,

    I sympathize with your need to build and to so passionately make your own case here. Neither you nor I are strippers or ex-strippers. Nor have we be subjected to the pervasive objectification of our bodies as sexed things. We might understand what Mary Pipher refers to in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls as she discusses what Margaret Mead noticed “in cultures all over the world,” that is how girls and women are generally considered by boys and men and thus even by girls and women sometimes as “beautiful objects occupied primarily with caring for others.” But can we really understand?

    So I’m also glad that you brought up first-wave feminists. This reminds us how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her colleagues at the Senaca Falls conference of 1848 were initially reluctant to allow men to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. In another place, Cady Stanton said, “Man cannot speak for her.” That’s important when men talk about whether a woman might have agency over how she expresses herself. I’m glad you also brought up, in your earlier comment, the agency of Melissa Febos. I wonder if she’d appreciate the case you have to risk overstating or if she’d more appreciate what Sheila Hageman has had to do and has had to say with the means available to her in her body sexed female.

  22. March 6, 2012 6:44 pm

    “That’s important when men talk about whether a woman might have agency over how she expresses herself.”

    Certainly, if Hageman’s sole outlet for expression is stripping, then one might point to a paucity of imagination. (Do you feel that Hageman speaks for women [in a way that men cannot]? I think that she merely speaks for Hageman — that she is not defending feminism, but Hageman-ism.)

    One might even excuse Hageman’s essay if she expressed the slightest degree of irony; alas, even that seems beyond her.

  23. March 7, 2012 10:43 am

    she is not defending feminism, but Hageman-ism

    I don’t have any problem with Hageman’s feminism or with her self-identity as a feminist. She writes:

    The literal definition of feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes and the movement organised around this. But we all know that feminism is about something more and is open to interpretation. Feminism is about women having real identities of their own, rather than living as man-made beings.

    In fact, Hageman is recognizing the necessary subjectivities inherent in feminisms. There’s room in what she writes not only for what she repeats as “literal … feminism” but also for how she really identifies herself, with various identities. Yes, she’s speaking for herself. Why isn’t that feminism?

    (And I think it’s just silly to talk about “defending feminism.” If defending women’s right to equality is feministic, then why on earth would one need to defend the defense? Absurdly, we might talk also of “Hageman’s problem of not defending the defense of the defense of the defense of women. No, see. She’s only defending herself. Therefore she fails. I, a man, rest my case.”)

  24. March 7, 2012 11:59 am

    Attacking me for being male is, quite literally, an ad hominem attack.

    Hageman (who is no Camille Paglia!) argues that she was a feminist because she made a conscious choice. Her analytical depth stops there; she does not critique a system where she needed money (“I was focused on earning money”) and so she was induced to strip. She was hired by a man for a male owned club with a male clientele, and her work was to “bec[o]me just body parts, overwhelmed by men who seemed intent on belittling me as an object merely existing for their pleasure.” For her to validate this status quo as a feminist state of affairs is the Stockholm Syndrome: a system that objectifies women is feminist. The female Uncle Tom! The battered woman has no basis to file a complaint, because, as she cheerfully admits to the police officer, she had it coming.

    Your final paragraph sets up a straw woman argument. First, you quote Hageman as saying “The literal definition of feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” but then you do the old switcheroo and plop in a definition that feminism = defending the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Now that you’ve defined feminism as defending feminism you unroll the recursive implications of the definition, call my position absurd, pull the rabbit out your hat, and take a bow. Quite a nice trick, but it begs the question.

  25. March 7, 2012 12:36 pm

    Thanks for noticing the markedness in the normally unmarked phrase, “man.” But, no, I’m not attacking you or me for being male. I am playing with the English language.

    And you misunderstand something else, Theophrastus. I’ve actually refused to define feminism as defending feminism. Please know that I’m not aiming at your position per se but at what all of us tend to do rather quickly with our language: we use it to set up abstract categories (what some postmodernists attacked as “constructs” — ironically their own construct) that have little connection with where these metaphors started from in the first place. I see Hageman as trying to do, with some success, what Hélène Cixous, albeit in French, advised: to attempt to engage in écriture féminine.” In other words (and how do we escape our words?): start (and perhaps also end) with the body sexed female.

  26. March 7, 2012 1:00 pm

    So here’s the thing: by my count, Hageman uses the word “feminist” twelve times and the word “feminism” four times in her 948 word essay. It is a central theme of the post (which is even bears the labels “feminism,” “feminist,” and “feminists.”)

    I searched Hageman’s self-published memoir using Amazon “Look Inside” and it seems that she uses “feminism” once and “feminist” twice in her 282 page book.

    Assuming the Amazon count is accurate, what a remarkable change in perspective: from barely mentioning the term in her book to obsessing over it in her essay. Do you think it would be fair to term her behavior (then and now) as pandering?

  27. March 7, 2012 1:10 pm

    Word counts, I do agree, especially in this case, are significant in discovering the meaningful perspective(s) of an author. Wouldn’t you agree that Hageman is saying something new in her essay, and is perhaps for the first time with the Huffington Post readership in mind, saying “Why Stripping Can Be A Feminist Act”? It’s almost as if she’s understood Aristotle, who emphasizes the importance not only of logos, pathos, and ethos, but also of these aspects of the rhetorical event with respect to the particular audience one is talking to. I don’t think Aristotle called good rhetoric pandering, and I don’t think Hageman is pandering.

  28. March 7, 2012 1:33 pm

    Well, that is a difference of opinion between us. You see Hageman as making a sincere rhetorical point, while I see her as trying to hawk books (the latter is fairly common on the Huffington Post.) We agree that she seemed to write her post with the Huffington Post readership in mind; but perhaps disagree as to ultimate objective. Hageman writes “I was focused on earning money,” and I think she still is focused on that today.

  29. March 7, 2012 1:58 pm

    Hageman writes “I was focused on earning money,” and I think she still is focused on that today.

    🙂 Well, yes, I think we may have a difference of opinion. Hageman is talking about her choices and her life changes. I don’t think she’s using feminism to try to focus on selling her books but do see she’s writing generally, as she seems to characterize it to this Huffington Post reader, as also an act of feminism. She has to know that that might also help her book sales. Didn’t Aristotle in his Rhetoric also say something about employing one’s available means?

  30. March 7, 2012 2:35 pm

    You are reading editorial comment; I am reading an infomercial.

    Notice that her other self-published book, The Pole Position, is a guide to breaking into the lucrative world of stripping.

    And what benefits a career in stripping offers! Here is what Hageman says on p. 259 of her memoir Stripping Down:

    The Hideaway still exists. A strip club website has reviews; the comments are mostly about how run-down the club is, just as I remember it. They even have lap dances now. The comments mention that customers can get something called a Billy Joel, which I gather is code for [….]

    Was it like this when I danced? […] Were most strippers prostitutes? […] My G-d, was I, am I, that naive?

    Yes, Hageman has the right to express her opinions. And so does Xavier Hollander, “The Happy Hooker.” I fail to see why either should be a model for girls, and I think in the end, Tami-Ann Roberts’s critique (remember — the subject of this post!) is correct.

  31. March 7, 2012 2:42 pm

    By the way, I would like to remark on the irony of your posting this line of pro-stripper comments on Purim eve. The Megilla begins, of course (Esther 1:11-12) with King Ahasuerus demanding that Queen Vashti appear before his friends wearing [only] her royal crown “to show the people and the princes her beauty, for she was of comely appearance.” Vashti refuses — as a matter of dignity. This leads to her dethronement [death].

    (The words in braces are implied but not stated by the text, and are made explicit in midrash — see Rashi to Esther, for example.)

  32. March 7, 2012 3:02 pm

    Thanks for the reminder, but I believe you know that I’m aware of Roberts’ views, all of them. I don’t remember reading anything by Hollander in Huffington Post about (her) feminism.

    And I see that I’m not the only one posting right here on these topics today. Since you mention Purim and Vashti in Esther, it might be good also to hear a feminist perspective, even a Jewish Orthodox Feminist perspective. Here’s the conclusion of Wendy Amsellem’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces: An Exploration of Esther and Vashti.”

    Of course, we do not actually know why Vashti refused to appear before the King. It could have been out of modesty as the midrash in Esther Rabbah suggests. Or as Talmud Bavli Megillah describes, she may simply have been unhappy with her appearance that day (a sudden case of leprosy according to Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina or the surprise sprouting of a tail according to a beraita). Perhaps she was being capricious. Perhaps she was a proto-feminist fighting for a sense of independent integrity. In any event, Vashti’s disobedience brings her career to an abrupt end and her fate is quite deliberately meant to serve as an object lesson to women everywhere.

    As Esther marshals her strength to save her nation, she must revisit the experiences of her shunned predecessor and learn from them. Esther is more calculated, more subtle, (more divinely inspired) and ultimately far more successful than Vashti. Yet, in order to triumph, Esther must confront the image of Vashti and incorporate (or perhaps discover) the attributes of Vashti in herself.

    As Orthodox feminists, we are constantly confronted with taboo images of dangerous women from whom we are told to distance ourselves. A is too radical, B has gone too far, C has made too many enemies. We struggle to draw our borders, to be open and yet traditional, free and yet constrained within halacha. Purim is a holiday in which we explore and challenge our boundaries. We dress up as other people. Some of us drink to the point where differences become blurred. In the spirit of this holiday and following the legacy of our ancestor Esther, I encourage us to reexamine whom we emulate and from whom we shy away. We may discover as Esther did that we are not so different from those whom we fear and that the most important lessons can be learned from the unlikeliest of teachers.

    And in the same issue of the JOFA [Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance] Journal, the 2003 issue on Purim, there are additional perspectives on Vashti and Esther as well. (Amsellem’s article starts on page 7 –

  33. March 7, 2012 3:46 pm

    I don’t remember reading anything by Hollander in Huffington Post about (her) feminism.

    A google search reveals, for example, this:


    Regarding Amsellem — I would have to agree with her. Both Vashti and Esther have to struggle with a socio-economic system that encourages women to portray themselves primarily as sexual beings, for a king who seems to hold (week long or longer) parties all the time; has a large harem; and requires his concubines to be “trained” for twelve months.

    Ansellem has some more pointed comments about

    By contrast, Esther is presented at first as the perfect foil to Vashti. Whereas Vashti was willful and independent, Esther is passive and submissive. The reflexive use of the Hebrew word “LaKaKH” is constantly applied to her. She is “taken” in by Mordechai as a foster daughter, “taken” to the king’s harem, and “taken” before the king. She does not reveal her identity at the palace, “for Mordechai had commanded her not to tell.” She requests nothing at the harem, only accepting whatever Hagai, the king’s eunuch, chooses to give her. Even after she is crowned queen, we are told that Esther continues to obey the commands of Mordechai as she had done under his care. It is no surprise that Achashverosh loves Esther. She is the model of docility, an exact antidote to Vashti.

    Within this framework, Esther represents growth and strength; she could recognize the flaws in the system (which ultimately would result in a genocidal threat to her people) and focus her goals on changing the system (ultimately resulting in the enlightened Mordecai being named viceroy and her being named queen.) The amazing thing about the story is that this step was optional — Esther had the opportunity to remain passive and accept the status quo — “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place.” (4:14)

    This sort of evolution and growth is celebrated by the story. Even Camille Paglia argues for subverting the status quo within Paglia’s libertarian and sexualized philosophy. Hageman simply goes along with the flow, hawks her books on how to become a stripper, and is surprised to find out that men expect Billy Joels.


    Except for the “Esther/Vashti” flags, I could not find the additional perspectives on Vashti in the JOFA Journal you mentioned. I’m not sure what you are getting at with the additional perspectives remark.

  34. March 7, 2012 5:47 pm

    Hageman nowhere claims to have Esther’s choices or agencies as you infer them from your reading of Amsellem’s reading of Esther. But Amsellem’s points, which reinforce Hageman’s agency and self identity, include the fact that “She takes matters into her own hands.”

    Glad you were able at least to search for something “by Hollander in Huffington Post about (her) feminism.”

    And, yes, the additional perspectives in the JOFA Journal that you actually did find are the various artists’ different portraits of the women in the flags.

  35. March 7, 2012 6:52 pm

    Anything you can do I can do meta …

    … and thus ..

    By the standards of blog etiquette (as primitive as they are), I feel somewhat compelled to reply to comments in a thread I started. Your comment yesterday was a little bit like a mini-blog-post unto itself, so you may feel the same way. If that is the case, then this thread will only never end. Under that assumption, let me pose the following serious question to you:

    Now, I am keenly aware that you are interested in women’s voices. I have to wonder what it is about Hageman that attracts you? There are certainly voices on the other side, voices like Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Tomi-Ann Roberts, Robin Morgan, Dorchen Leidholt, Diana Russell, Alice Schwarzer, etc.

    Clearly Hageman does not bring elegant prose or nuanced thought to her work. A glance at her “Stripper Mom” blog, with its posts about breast milk ice cream and her ambivalence over South African brothels that engage in sex trafficking (“I suppose as long as exotic dancing offers women the opportunity to make quick cash when there are no other jobs available, we’re going to have women willing to strip”) does not reveal an especially subtle or deep mind.

    I cannot detect any new ideas on Hageman’s blog; it seems that we’ve heard it all before, ad nasuem, from Paglia and Betty Dodson and Gayle Rubin and Kathy Acker and such.

    So what new ideas do you hear in Hageman’s words?

  36. March 7, 2012 9:26 pm

    If you trace it back, the thread you started began with this post (above) which linked back to my post (Yes, Dr. Summers, There is a Virginia) that linked back to your post (Is Aristotle dead?) that linked back to my post:

    Interpretive Spins in the Ψαλμοὶ: part ii, Music of Hades

    I’d say, whatever the blog etiquette, that’s quite a meandering conversation. I’ve learned lots and could always say more. As you know, I’m personally interested in the problems of sexism, misogyny, and gynephobia and how feminisms and egalitarianisms work to eradicate and to overcome the difficulties. Blogging sometimes, sometimes, helps. And there are other reasons to blog, for me. Let me just assure you that there are Hagemans in my real life who I respect very much. In the recovery of women’s place in our societies in the West, I think respect is due and that as much as I think I already know, there’s much, if with patience, I might yet learn.

  37. March 7, 2012 9:54 pm

    I cannot say Hageman represents an instance of what Tomi-Ann Roberts points to as negative influence. Hageman is obscure (although, perhaps, this thread has made her a bit more famous — if anyone beside you and me ever reads it.) She is hardly a cultural influence.

    But I do think the pressure on girls is tremendous. One example that matters to me: Why are there so many boy nerds and so few girl nerds? I would hypothesize that being a nerd is socially acceptable for boys (sure — it may not be the most popular path — but it is a recognized path and in the age of Marc Zuckenberg, even an admired path in some ways).

    The rare story about a successful young woman nerd is almost always prefixed by pointing out how attractive she is — or how sexy she is — or how she is also a successful mother — or how caring she is, etc — the Marissa Meyers and Sheryl Sandbergs and Danica McKellars, etc. Even Hillary Clinton — arguably the only serious female US presidential candidate, felt the need to show some skin during the campaign (look at her neckline before and after the campaign.) And then, of course, there is Sarah Palin. (I hardly need point out there is no problem with a male nerd being ugly, single, a jerk, etc. In fact, this is arguably exactly the image of the most famous nerd of recent years: Bill Gates — before his marriage, at least.)

    Hageman is not the cause of the problem but a victim of this problem and she shows this in spades — she admits she has severe body-image issues (even now) and she further admits that was one of her motivations for her choice.

    Of course, there are women who succeed despite the obstacles — and manage to be successful without worrying about how they look — but I conjecture that the path is harder for girls than for boys, and it is harder in the 2010s than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

  38. March 8, 2012 7:01 am

    I cannot disagree with you, Theophrastus. Thank you for this comment, for the important observations you make here!


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