Shira Tarrant, "Unconventional Feminist," Takes On the Politics Of Porn

Shira Tarrant is an associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, who has written extensively about the male role in the gender justice movement, the power of personal style, and the need to foster an open dialogue about sex and the sex industry, particularly among millennials. PolicyMic recently interviewed her about her endeavors and work; here's what she shared with us.

Allison LaFave: In your book Men and Feminism, you define feminism as “a movement for ending all forms of oppression, including gender-based oppression.” Can you elaborate on this?

Shira Tarrant: My definition emphasizes politics and political action. Women and gender are still at the center, but feminism is not only about women, and feminism is not something that only women do. It encompasses a variety of intersectional issues.

ALF: You self-identify as an “unconventional feminist.” What do you think makes you unconventional?

ST: I devote a lot of my research to men, masculinity, and how we can bring men on board with the gender justice movement. My political positions may also set me apart within the field. For instance, I don’t have a knee-jerk moral reaction against pornography. I’d rather create space for conversation than make blanket statements about the sex industry. Also, I don’t think people look at me and think, “She is a feminist” (because, let’s face it — there are still a lot of strange stereotypes about what a feminist looks like).

ALF: What initially attracted you to gender/feminist research and advocacy? And what has kept you in the field?

ST: Growing up, I was always aware of the women’s movement. I also knew that I wanted to help other people; I just wasn’t sure how. 

In college and graduate school, I began focusing in on women and gender issues, because I saw such a profound need.

After years in the field, I finally feel like I have a voice. Still, there are definitely days when I find myself thinking, “What am I doing? Are we really still talking about these same issues? I want to be a yoga teacher … ”

ALF: When did you realize that you could turn your passion for women and gender issues into a career? 

ST: I’ve always been intellectually and politically drawn to women and gender work. As an undergraduate, I majored in political science and focused on American Legal Studies. I was particularly interested in how the law treats women. Later, as a graduate student in political science, I was able to delve more deeply into women and gender issues and their place in our current political landscape. I was never sure that I would be a professor or an author simply because these are both tough fields to break into, but I knew how to work, and I knew that I could always focus on gender politics in some way and go back to waiting tables, if I had to.

I don’t feel lucky per se, because — especially as a single mom — I had to work really, really hard to become an author and a professor. But I do feel very fortunate.

ALF: What is your biggest pet peeve re: people’s questions or reactions to your work? What have been your greatest obstacles in academia?

ST: On my crankier days, I have a lot of pet peeves. Occasionally people within my field will question the relevance of my pop culture work. And there will always be those who want to impose their definition of “feminism” on me. But not everyone reads the American Political Science Review or even votes! TV and music inform us as a culture, so I think it’s important to get away from a strictly academic perspective.

ALF: What advice do you have for young people interested in turning their passion for social justice issues into a career?

ST: Young people should think strategically about how they can have the biggest impact without burning out. Many of my students have tentative plans to work with feminist organizations, but I like to remind them that they can take politics into any workplace. And, if they end up on a different career path — something that is not explicitly social justice work — being able to write a check to organizations that are working on the issues they care about is still incredibly helpful to the movement. In fact, I tell them to go for the money! For too long, the Left and women have undervalued themselves in the workforce. There’s no glory in not getting an advance on a book deal or in neglecting to speak up for better pay. Fair pay is not inconsistent with the politics of the Left.

ALF: What do you think are the biggest issues facing women today? And what should men be doing to level the field?

ST: First, we need to end the misconception that women are worth less than men in the workforce. The pay gap is a political maneuver that needs to be remedied.

Second, women are still pulling double duty at work and at home. The fight for equality in the workplace is shortsighted if men aren’t doing equal domestic work.

Third, we need to address the relentless hypersexualization of women and girls. This is a thorny issue, because women are entitled to be expressive sexually, but on our own terms. We deserve expanded options!

ALF: What are you working on now? 

ST: Right now I’m co-editing a collection of informed essays called New Views on Pornography. It’s hard to be neutral when discussing porn, but these essays are primarily data-driven, not ideological. I’m also working on a book about current sexual politics and how we can be sexy in a sexist society. 

Recently, I’ve been baffled by all of the attention devoted to “sexting” and the so-called “hook-up culture” on college campuses. College students are adults, and teenagers have been passing racy love notes for centuries. Can we please just go about our lives without all of this moral panic from the Left and the Right? 

I’d rather help young people understand sexism and teach them to be safer about sex, in general. I’d also really love it if future studies placed more attention on men. Why are women still seen as the sexual gatekeepers? What about the boys?!

ALF: In your article “Pornography 101: Why College Kids Need Porn Literacy Training,” you suggest that “just say no” is not a realistic approach to porn in America (or around the world) and that we should foster an open dialogue about sex/porn. What do you think should be the focal point of this dialogue?

ST: I’d like to have a conversation about boundaries — what people like or don’t like, desire, passion, etc. And media and literature should be a part of these educational conversations. For example, sexual imagery affects both genders. Photoshop and porn actively shape men’s expectations of women’s bodies and behavior. 

The “just say no” approach is flawed in that contributes to sweeping generalizations about sex and the sex industry. Mainstream porn is similar to Disney movies in that it presents a flawed portrayal of the sexes. Yet, people watch porn and Disney and probably won’t stop any time soon. Instead of shutting down the conversation by labeling all porn “degrading,” we should be creating a safe space for people to discuss what is problematic about particular trends within the industry.

ALF: You speak at a number of college and university campuses. Do you notice any major differences in how men and women talk about sex?

ST: For starters, more women are showing up — to women and gender studies classes and, by extension, to department events. The few men who come have a tendency to either 1) squirm or 2) speak up with a sense of bravado, which I attribute to the socialization of both sexes. I’d like to see athletic departments and business and marketing professors team up with WGS to unpack some of the major women and gender issues in pop culture and on our college campuses.

ALF: How do women and gender issues intersect with other social justice issues (e.g. class inequality, racism, etc). Do you think new alliances can and should be forged among academics/activists in these fields, and are there any groups doing this already?

ST: VoiceMale magazine has been examining masculinity issues from a feminist perspective for years, and they deserve more attention for the great work they have been doing.

Also, Chris Crass recently released a book called Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, which does a great job of explaining how white people can and should be involved with anti-racist organizing in feminist and economic justice movements.

ALF: You earned a PhD in political science. Do you think women in our society have a strong (enough?) voice in our current political landscape, or do you think our voices are fragmented by other issues? 

ST: I don’t think women have a strong enough position, and we certainly don’t have a critical mass of leaders. But we need to stop essentializing women. A woman’s ovaries don’t make her a good or a bad leader. Professional men aren’t expected to speak for all men in their industry, much less all men in general. Who wants to be scrutinized like that? Or constantly subjected to an onslaught of public criticism?

ALF: Recently, it seems like there has been a ton of airtime devoted to men losing their high ground (The End of Men, Hanna Rosin) and women working to claim an equal place at the table (Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg). I’d love to hear your insights on these societal conversations.

ST: Regarding The End of Men, men aren’t over. There’s still a major disparity in gender pay and position. In reality, we’re dealing with a class issue in that working-class men are disproportionately being underemployed and laid off. Sure, more women are going to college, but that’s because they still need to work more to earn less.

I like a lot of what Sheryl Sandberg said in Lean In. I understand people’s critiques of her privilege, but at least she’s using it in a good way. I wish more people were talking about Gloria Feldt’s book No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, which I think is more explicitly feminist. Feldt was the former president of Planned Parenthood, so she’s learned firsthand that leaders (particularly female leaders) will always be criticized. She advises women to embrace controversy and move on with their lives, which I love.

ALF: What are you most concerned (or excited!) about right now (research, advocacy, grassroots movements) re: women, gender, and sex?

ST: It’s not explicitly about women and gender, but I’m definitely concerned about massive state surveillance. When people are worried about their basic civil liberties, porn becomes a luxury topic. And I’m saddened and amazed by the fact that my students have never grown up with a strong sense of privacy.

On the other hand, I’m super excited to be working with current and former students on a panel for CatalystCon in September. Students will be discussing what kind of sexual education they received about sexual politics from their respective universities — what went right or wrong, and what kind of information they wish they’d been given.