Sunday, 16 March 2008


There has been a lot of discussion on various blogs recently about the relationship between sex and feminism, and especially whether to be a feminist you need to be anti-porn. There seems to be considerable difficulty reconciling the place of sex in modern society. Foucault argued that sex became pathology in the nineteenth century, moving from a physical act that had little more social relevance than defecating to a defining part of our persons. As Twisty has recently very aptly put it:
Until you factor in patriarchy and its wacko concepts of property and gender, sex is just a thing, like eating a couple of Cheez-Its, or going to the movies.
More recently historians challenged Foucault’s timeline, arguing that sex had was a central part of people’s identities at various points in history for as far back as there is historical record. Yet, what most historians recognise is that what sex meant and how it related to people’s identities is very historically specific and there is no over-arching or ‘natural’ role for sex in people’s lives. At various points in history, women have been the sexually-aggressive sex; the chaste and pure sex; the frigid sex and the embodiment of sex. Men have not always sought after sex, but often rather reluctantly fulfilled the demands of their insatiable wives. They have also been the insatiable sex, whose ‘natural’ drives have been used to explain away a myriad of sins. The moral of the story is that sex takes its meaning from its social context, not the other way around.

In Western culture today, the place of sex and its relationship with identity is a product of eighteenth century enlightenment ideals, the discovery of the two-sex model of the body (where men and women are understood as different sexes rather than variations of a single sex), and Christian heritage. In the eighteenth century, there was a cultural shift where women moved from being sexually aggressive to passive and chaste, while men became associated with strength, power and virility. This was supported by natural philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, medical minds and the Church. During this shift, the act of sex was transformed into a symbol of male possession of women. Man’s ability to enact sex on women signified their social characteristics of power and authority, while women became little more than passive receptors of the male penis. Men became inherently brutal, while women became vulnerable. This understanding of sex and gender became naturalised in the nineteenth century as Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ idealised physical strength as the basis of power and Freud created theories of the psyche to explain why sex meant what it did.

In the late twentieth century, feminists, recognising that sex was the symbolic manifestation of male power and realising that there was absolutely nothing natural about this model of the body, attempted to challenge this through ‘liberating’ sex. They wanted to create a new model of sex that allowed women to break out of a mould that depicted them as passive receptors and glorified the ideal of male sexual virility. They understood that this understanding of sex was inherently problematic and stifling to women and men. Yet, while they managed to remove some of the restrictions on having sex, they failed to achieve a major reinterpretation of the body and gender that underpinned this model of sex. The result is that feminists today have conflicting legacies on the meaning of sex and this has led to a divide between anti-porn and pro-porn feminists. Yet, this division is inherently problematic. As Dr Crazy comments:
In part, I think my difficulty with the [sex-positive] label stems from the fact that it preserves a virgin/whore binary. Either one is anti-porn or one is sex-positive. How is that any different from being a prude or being a slut?
As long as we live in patriarchal culture, all sexual relationships, whether paid or unpaid, on or off-camera, consensual or otherwise, are given meaning by a world-view where sex is the symbolic manifestation of male power. Being pro or anti-porn does not make you a better feminist, because, as long as sex holds the connotations that it currently does, there is no feminist-friendly sex. (And that applies to the lesbian-separatists too, because, under patriarchy, all forms of sex are given meaning by their relationship with ‘normal’, hetero-sex).

The challenge to feminists is to change the meaning of sex. To change the meaning of sex, we need to change what it means to be male and female. The first step in that change is recognising that what it means to be male and female is historically and culturally specific and that sex and sexual urges are NOT natural.


Anonymous said...

How, exactly, do you propose to solve this overwhelming and overarching problem of "patriarchy?"

To hear you folks tell it, patriarchy is the root of all evil, and we cannot define sex, even rationally consensual sex in its absence. How do you propose to solve that "problem?"

Feminist Avatar said...

Get rid of patriarchy.

Anonymous said...

let's get dismantling, eh?