Sex in Pieces

by Tom Syverson

A conventional feminist understanding of the male appetite delineates a subject-object relationship: objectification is the process by which the female body is rendered inert by a violent, imperious male gaze. That’s all well established in feminist theory and elsewhere, but certain horror films suggest a more complicated picture. These films make up the small but pronounced subgenre of dismemberment horror. They provide disturbingly literal metaphors for a particular feminist understanding of sexual objectification as a process of bodily fragmentation. According to this view, men don’t see the female body as an integrated sexual object but rather a composite construct; the female body is assembled in the male imaginary using sub-objects of independent sexual significance. The logic of male desire operates according to an erotic mapping of the female body, forming an anatomical catalogue used to separate a woman’s subject from the sum of her body parts. In this sense, objectification occurs in two stages: first, to split the feminine subject from her body, and then to split the body from itself.

We see this not only in male-female relationships but also in the way men relate to each other. Men differentiate themselves in homosocial discourse by identifying variously as breast men, leg men, ass men. Dynamics of race and class intersect with these choices because heteronormative male relationships are always mediated by a third term—in most cases a woman—and thus for men the specificity of desire helps constitute and sustain group identity. This is why the normative horizon of conceivable male pleasure takes the form of a crude anatomy chart: blowjob, handjob, titjob, footjob. In short, male heteronormativity consists of breaking women into pieces.

Some of the more morbid minds of feminist theory have drawn special attention to this tendency. In Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Catherine McKinnon noted that the male “fixation on dismembered body parts (the breast man, the leg man) evokes fetishism; idolization of vapidity, necrophilia.” (pp.110) In Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin wrote of the “paring down of a whole person to vagina and womb and then to a dismembered obscenity.” (pp.16) Perhaps most classically, Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat drew a direct connection between misogyny and the animal slaughterhouse: “women raped, butchered, and eaten...are linked by an overlap of cultural images of sexual violence against women and the fragmentation and dismemberment of nature and the body in Western culture.” (pp.65-66) Adams argues that in western patriarchy, animals and women become “overlapping absent referents” through butchering and erotic fragmentation. It’s through this disintegration of the whole that patriarchy objectifies and devours women and animals, such that they become overlapping metaphors for each other’s degradation: concurrently yet very separately, patriarchal capitalism rapes mother earth as it lowers rape victims to meat. Adams reads the pervasive imagery of dismemberment in western culture, from Greek mythology to contemporary magazine advertisements, identifying a striking “paradigm of metaphorical sexual butchering...[that] is a basic component of male pornographic sexuality.” (Adams 88) The epitome of this metaphor appeared on the June 1978 cover of Hustler magazine, which showed a nude woman’s body passing through a meat grinder.

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Tom Syverson

Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @syvology.