Whenever I tell someone the concept behind the play I’m currently acting in, they look thunderstruck.
A group of teenage girls start a game. They are competing for points. They get points by having sex. The more risky the act (a threesome, an older man) the more points; the more mundane (a kiss), the fewer.
This is the premise for The ’94 Club, and it’s inspired by real events. Shocking, I know.
And yet one of the characters in the play claims that the game is “empowering.” She says: “We all know guys talk about sex like a competition anyway, so why can’t we? The only difference is we can organize ourselves. We’re in control.”
So what is it about this scenario that makes people so uncomfortable? Sure, the girls are underage, but for argument’s sake let’s put that aside for now. If they are actively choosing to do these things, isn’t that sexual empowerment and not sexual objectification? Two different people who look at the situation could call it either of these things, so what’s the difference?
I talked to about a dozen friends and family about this, and the most comprehensive answer I encountered is that it depends who has the power. If a woman is in control and giving her informed consent, it’s empowerment. If she is not in control and does not really understand the implications of what she is agreeing to, that’s objectification. To a certain degree I agree with this. But the more I think about it, the more the lines blur between autonomous consent and social expectations. How much of what we do as sexual beings is dictated by what society around us expects us to do? How much direction is given implicitly, leading young women to believe that what they are doing is a choice, when actually the path has been laid out for them before they were even born?
Genuine choice is not the same as the illusion of choice.
Genuine choice is not the same as the illusion of choice. And the girls in The ’94 Club seem to only have the illusion.
When I brought up this point of choice with my aunt (who also happens to be feminist lawyer Linda Silver Dranoff), she responded that modern-day birth control presents an illusion of choice as well. Before the birth control pill was approved in 1961, women had much less control over pregnancy, which meant there was a much stricter set of social rules around sex. I learned that, according to our criminal law, contraception and abortions were illegal until 1969. Read that sentence again. Women were criminals for having a hand in their own reproduction.
But the freedom that came with the birth control pill introduced a much subtler mythology: that women had complete control over their sexuality. As if the pill itself could banish all social pressure, centuries of patriarchal groundwork, and male-dictated images of female sexuality fed to us—from ancient Greek sculpture to tabloid magazines. Women got the power to choose whether or not to get pregnant, but the pill did not block out everything already taught. It seems to me that we’re still recovering from the antiquated archetypes of the virgin and the whore. And these archetypes have gotten mixed up with the term “empowered feminist” in detrimental ways.
In March, I saw the film Becoming Burlesque at the Canadian Film Festival. When asked “What makes you any different than a stripper,” one of the dancers responded that burlesque was about her own fantasies, not the audience’s. She imposes her fantasies on others, whereas she said a stripper is a conduit for someone else’s pleasure. This has been resounding in my head ever since. Speaking to burlesque performer Azura Maneater, I learned that burlesque dancers perform because it empowers them. They see it as a celebration of body positivity, sexuality, and confidence. It is their choice. And yet many people watch burlesque and call the dancers whores. Azura points out that you can never control how other people are going to see you. You can only control yourself.
Similarly, in The ’94 Club, when it gets out that the girls are “sleeping around” and all the other teenagers are talking about it, one of the characters says: “That’s what we do here. We have nothing better to talk about… There are a lot of things that people think are wrong but that doesn’t mean they all are, does it?” Which is true. We all have different opinions, especially where intimacy and sex are involved. But when I really get down to it, what bothers me the most about the situation in The ’94 Club is that these young girls created a system for themselves in which they were rewarded for giving other people (men) pleasure. They didn’t get points for their own orgasm, for their own enjoyment, or for fulfilling their own fantasies. They didn’t have the same adult ownership as, say, the burlesque dancers. They got points for doing things for other people. This is sad. It seems this is one of the many examples of a greater issue: in an effort to gain power in what is still a patriarchal world, women self-oppress without realizing they’re doing it.
The roots of female oppression run deep in our society.
Someone once told me a woman asks for what she wants. Until she does, she’s still a girl. But in our society it’s difficult to tell the difference between what we truly want and what has just been fed to us. And we must not forget that for many of us sex has emotional significance, whether we acknowledge it or not. This cannot be discounted simply because it may be a purely physical act for someone else.
The ’94 Club makes me wonder how many women feel they have an obligation to others rather than to themselves. Unfortunately, I’d guess almost all, especially as teenagers. I have to admit I did when I was one. And the worst part is I didn’t even realize I was functioning in that way. I saw myself as an empowered feminist. And I was, in some respects. But the roots of female oppression run deep in our society, and I didn’t realize I was focused on fulfilling fantasies belonging to everyone but myself.
This realization scares me. It makes me wonder how many times I’ve continued to do so as an adult. It can be hard to determine who is in control in our society, when the focus on a man’s pleasure and opinion in the media—and therefore in our day-to-day lives—is so subtle, so engrained, we barely notice it. But it is there.
So what’s to be done? How do we create a society where our daughters can truly make choices for themselves? I think the first step involves really paying attention to why we do what we do, and asking ourselves more questions. How often do I choose my words because I know they are what someone else wants to hear? How often do I convince myself that what someone else wants is what I want in order to justify doing it?
I think women need to explore and understand what we are doing for ourselves versus what we are doing to satisfy others. Once we can tell the difference, and can then make informed choices accordingly, we can start to free ourselves from others’ objectification.