The Problem with the Female “Empowerment” Movement

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My Body, by “model, actress, activist, entrepreneur, and writer” Emily Ratajkowski, has been an instant New York Times bestseller since it was released in early November. According to the publisher, My Body is a “profoundly personal exploration of feminism, sexuality, and power, of men’s treatment of women and women’s rationalizations for accepting that treatment.” It is also “nuanced, fierce, and incisive,” an important piece of feminist activist literature aimed to empower. Yet upon closer inspection, it does quite the opposite.

Ratajkowski, we are told, uses the “provocative display of her body as an unapologetic statement of feminist empowerment.” It’s certainly provocative, as I learned simply in reading several articles about her book on major news websites, some of which featured pictures of her that would best be described as near occasions of sexual temptation. Indeed, besides her 2020 essay for New York magazine, “Buying Myself Back,” which garnered over one million views within twenty-four hours, Ratajkowski is best known for appearing nude in a Robin Thicke music video a few years ago. (If you’re a man reading this and are tempted to Google any of this, do yourself a favor: say a Hail Mary, and ask your guardian angel to help you preserve your purity.)

Yet it was precisely in that video that we can perceive the problem with this so-called “empowerment.” According to one of the essays in Ratajkowski’s book, during the shoot for the now infamous music video, the womanizing Robin Thicke grabbed her breasts. After a long silence, the director, a female, warned: “Okay, well, no touching.” This, of course, is intended to elicit outrage in the reader, who sees a clear example of sexual harassment and female downplaying and accommodation of toxic masculinity. 

But is that the only lesson to be learned from such anecdotes? Ratajkowski is parading around nude on a film set with a celebrity she obviously should have known is a sex-hungry misogynist (the lyrics to his songs are, no surprise, scandalizing and immoral). And yet, according to the feminist narrative, only Thicke is the one making bad life choices and hurting others? Is there no acknowledgment of the sexual differences between men and women, including man’s natural tendency to be the initiator of romantic and sexual encounters, or the foolishness of playing with and provoking testosterone-driven sexual aggression? 

I suppose I get it, sort of. Many feminists feel empowered by using their bodies to acquire fame and fortune. They know that the male libido is a vulnerability that can be exploited to the tune of millions of dollars. The pandemic significantly accelerated the popularity of individual female “entrepreneurs” in the pornography industry, who, using their laptops and an internet connection, can do all kinds of shameless things from the safety and security of their homes—and make quite an impressive salary. 

There are, however, some disconcerting side effects. One is the simple fact that by participating in the sex economy, these women are treating their sexuality and the sexual act as intrinsically transactional. Just as you pay a plumber to fix your toilet or a grocer to sell you groceries, we can pay women to satisfy our sexual fantasies. How can this not make women cynical about sex, especially when their male clientele treat them like Thicke treated Ratajkowski? 

Alternatively, it would be easy to view these men with paternalistic (or, I suppose, maternalistic) disdain, given how infantile they have become in their subjection to the digital sexual market. In being given sexual and financial “power” over lonely, libidinous men, these women will come to see males not as strong and independent providers but weak and self-indulgent addicts lacking self-restraint. In participating in the male commodification of their bodies, they have counterintuitively gained power over men, which also forebodes females’ undoing. 

For the more that men are infantilized, the less capable they will be of actually loving and caring for women. What woman wants to marry and bear the children of a porn addict? What woman is looking for a man who views her solely through the prism of sexual desire and immediate gratification? In “elevating” themselves, women have helped men emasculate and destroy themselves.

Moreover, as an increasing amount of scientific data is demonstrating, many of these men are being seduced by increasingly more violent forms of pornography, increasing their own desire for more aggressive forms of sex. There is an obvious link between sexual harassment, predation, and assault and the pornography industry. Thus, the more women indulge these extreme forms of sexual behavior, the more they will reap the fruits of a violent sex culture.

Far from being the means toward self-actualization, female empowerment is its antithesis, as women lose the ability to have healthy and happy lives with men who view them as unique persons worthy of love. “The human body includes right from the beginning…the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift—and by means of this gift—fulfills the meaning of his being and existence,” declared St. John Paul II. But in the empowerment paradigm, sex loses the quality of self-gift and becomes transactional and driven by dynamics of power. Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone called for “a revolutionary in every bedroom” to “shake up the status quo” and “crack through the most basic structures of our society.”

Nevertheless, as what Scott Yenor calls the “rolling revolution” continues, women, rather than being fulfilled and ennobled, more clearly perceive their isolation. “I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself,” asserted radical-feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. This is an impoverished and inverted understanding of love, sex, and self-worth. 

It would appear that many critics of Ratajkowski perceive these problems, even if in an inchoate way. One Washington Post review called the book “myopic” and an example of the “limitations” of the human body. A review in The Atlantic labelled it a “fascinatingly solipsistic portrait of the tension between empowerment and objectification.” Indeed, this incoherence is most visible in the claim that in commodifying her body for the sake of wealth and social capital, Ratajkowski feels empowered…all while men abuse, mistreat, and even sexually assault her. 

The paradigm of female sexual empowerment ultimately fails because its anthropology fails. The female body’s purpose is not objectification for public consumption, just as the male libido is not intended for self-indulgence. Both are designed to exemplify true, self-giving love as a means of communicating not only divine love but the intrinsic worth of the human person. “The body should be controlled with honor because it is worthy of honor,” declared St. John Paul II.  The body, the Polish pope argued, is sacramental because it makes the invisible—namely, authentic, divinely-inspired love—visible. All Ratajkowski, the pornography industry, and sexual female empowerment can give us is the narcissistic, self-indulgent ego. 

[Photo: Emily Ratajkowski (Credit: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images)]

By

Casey Chalk is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press) and a senior contributor at The Federalist. He holds a Masters in Theology from Christendom College.

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