Heterosexist Feminism and the Great Pubes DebateS

Today, I read yet another article on feminism and pubic hair. "How can I [wax my pubic hair off] and still call myself a feminist?" asks Caroline Rothstein (and countless others). Since this is clearly a debate that is not going to die, it's time for us to talk about way straightness permeates her essay, and the pubes debate at large.

Rothstein spends a good amount of her essay focusing on the experiences and opinions of her friend, Rachel. Rachel is a straight woman who herself partakes in pubic hair removal, yet believes that hair removal is patriarchal. She starts off by saying that "[we're] pretending that the culture isn't influencing how we think about body hair, and pretending that it's just a personal preference. For me, [that] is doing more harm to ourselves than good." She continues, stating that "to wax the vagina itself is a violence against women…Just one that we're tricked into doing and paying for ourselves."

Rachel's argument rests upon the premise that most of her choices do actually exist in a vacuum, uninfluenced by culture, and that there are simply some choices that are influenced by a single, monolithic cultural force ("patriarchy"). But there's nothing about claiming that you had agency in shaving your hair off that says that the choice was free of cultural influences. Many a pubes article author has denounced specific cultural forces (usually "patriarchy" and "porn") as an influence, but that's not the same thing as claiming that there were no cultural influences. Cultural influences includes not just patriarchy, but capitalism, the hipster beard renaissance, the infusion of new technologies like the internet and personal computers into our daily lives, racism, 1960s counterculture, otaku subculture, heterosexism, the aftermath of Watergate and the American public's loss of faith in government, ableism, Harry Potter erotica… There is an almost endless list of possible cultural influences.

The other premise that Rachel's argument rests upon the idea that being influenced by cultural factors makes that choice less valid. That's… an idea that some people believe. But it's not an idea that everyone believes. Postmodern thought has given us the idea that everything is influenced by a variety of external factors (culture/s, direct experience, etc.) and that nothing happens in a vacuum, but that doesn't make it any less valid. Within this framework, the bar for what constitutes agency can't be "it happened in a vacuum", because that puts agency outside of the realm of possibility.

Queer theory is built upon postmodern theory, whereas feminist theory is slowly integrating some postmodernist thought. Subsequently, there's generally an understanding in queer spaces: Sure, you wouldn't be attracted to bois with septum piercings if you didn't live in a society that had cheap hypodermic hollow needles and small metal half-loops with metal balls on the ends, but so what? Conversely, straight feminists tend to need to that spelled out for them, otherwise they infer that when I said "I chose this", I meant, "this happened free of outside influences."

Rachel sets up a dichotomy in which a bare mons is due to social construction, but growing out a full bush because fuck the patriarchy isn't. But, no one would claim a full bush as an empowering feminist act if they didn't live in a world in which pubic hair was tied up in a political fight over gender roles. Here, we get to why there's so much resistance, especially from queers, to the instruction that one "examine the circumstances in which you made that choice": because it is only directed at those who are deemed to be choosing wrong, and because awareness is only measured in terms of newfound conformity (either by growing your hair out, or endless and publicly admitting that you only do it because the patriarchy made you do it.) If you do neither, if you attribute your shorn mons to any origin other than "my boyfriend saw Neighborhood Slutwatch 7 and told me I was unfuckable if I didn't look like the girls in that video", you will be deemed unaware. Real awareness would be asking everyone, regardless of their pubic hair stylings (or lack thereof), to be aware of the various influences that went into their decision, including the ways that mainstream feminist thought and the idea that having no pubic hair makes you prepubescent played into this decision. But when this directive for awareness is only directed at a certain group, and with conformity as the measure of awareness, it functions as a passive-aggressive accusation of false consciousness.

Both gay and bisexual people get told quite a bit how we only think we're gay/bi because we are unaware of our brainwashing. If we just did a proper self-examination, we'd realize that we just want same-sex relations because we've been led down the path of temptation by Satan/taken in by the godless liberals/abused by our parents. This has led to a queer culture in which accusing others of false consciousness is seen as a serious faux pas. Similarly, demanding to hear someone else's reasons for their sexual preferences or their gender expression, and refusing to accept, "because, I like it this way, this feels authentic to me, and I can't explain it beyond that", tends to be seen as rude, at best. And make no mistake: preferences around pubes are very much tied up in sexual preferences and gender expression.

We also tend to have a collective memory of feminism's dark history with telling people to question their sexual desires and gender expression, and privileging certain choices over others. We're the ones who remember when straight women's libbers accused lesbians of having internalized patriarchy for wanting to have a (gay) sexuality, of making it so that straight women couldn't get away from "objectification" and "sexual predators." We're the ones who remember when women who claimed a lesbian identity (but did not seem to have any particular love for other women, so much as a hatred for men) declared lesbianism the best political choice, encouraged straight and bisexual women to be chaste, and accused anyone who continued to sleep with men of being patriarchal collaborators who literally slept with the enemy. We're the ones who remember those same women showing up to the Barnard Conference to scream at butches and femmes for replicating the gender system. So when straight feminists start asking for certain groups to "examine their desires", it sounds less than entirely innocent. And when Rachel says that waxing is "violence against women", a heteronormative framework that privileges men's violence against women and marginalizes abuse dynamics that don't follow traditional gender roles, it sounds suspiciously like asking queer women to shut up and base their lives on what she thinks will help straight women.

This doesn't mean that no one should talk about why they chose what they chose, or there can't be any analysis. But it needs to be much more inclusive, and based more on people volunteering their own stories (whatever they may be) than speaking for other people and telling them what their experiences have been. It needs to remember that there is a wide array of possible external influences on our choices, and which influences people encounter and how they react depends greatly on who they are. And it needs to remember that valuing privacy is not some evil conservative plot, it is how gay and bisexual people have won the right to have consensual sexual relations in their own homes without risking imprisonment. We've had that right on a constitutional level for all of a decade now. We can't afford to take it for granted.