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Talking Straight: Reclaiming Hopes for Women’s Sexual Liberation


[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published February, 1992.]

Feminist sex radicals (who in these times are almost always lesbians) have repeatedly challenged heterosexual feminists "to come out of the closet." We’re still waiting, they tell us, wearily, for you to discuss your sexuality, stop generalizing and get specific: "Is domination and subordination a clear-cut issue in heterosexual sex? Do heterosexual feminists have thoughts on SM? Has anyone sighted a butch-het woman and femme-het man together?" Silence, as usual, greeted their challenge.

It is a silence I have come to expect. Straight women have been on a bumpy ride for some considerable time. But in many ways it has been bumpiest for those closest to feminism. In recent years it has been feminist polemic, rather than male backlash, which has done most to confuse and discourage new thoughts on sexuality. Heterosexuality has been coupled consistently with male violence, and presented as both the cause and enactment of men’s power over women. How, we might well wonder, did a movement which came out of, and drew its initial strength and inspiration from, the assertive sex radicalism of the 1960s manage to produce so many who would end up so silent about their own sexuality? It is a concern which was not only central to the genesis of feminism, but remains central to the majority of women.

 

The first impediment was, of course, men. Men as they are, and as they are figured in the dominant ideals of masculinity which mold their behavior. "Masculinity" in Western culture means, at least in part, the sexual pursuit of women, expressed in a type of sexist brogadaccio which betrays both a fear of real intimacy and a horror of "weakness" or "effeminacy." Challenges to its presumptions can motivate men’s rage and violence–often towards women or gay men–through attempts to shore up a flagging sense of personal power. But it may also encourage rebellion against oppressive forms of male identity, albeit with still limited success.

 

The second restraint, holding back discussion of women’s erotic desires, came from within feminism. It was the attempt to identify authentically "female" bodily experiences. These were to serve as alternative images, to be contrasted with the "custom-made-woman" designed only to please and titillate men. But the search for some fully autonomous, self-directed sexuality (only to be found in masturbation) would lead some women to abandon, and others to say no more, and certainly to write no more, about their longings for the admiration, desire, and physical intimacy of men.

 

The many insecurities and uncertainties women feel about their bodies leaves little space between reclaiming sex and the setting of norms. For a while, it was only a small group of defiant lesbians who felt confident enough to question the utopianism and growing prescriptiveness in feminist accounts of a distinctively "womanly" desire for benign, sensual, egalitarian relationships. They spoke instead of the complexity, ambivalence, and unsettling elements of power and submission present in all desire–female as well as male.

 

The final impasse was thus the inescapable contrariness of sexual passion. Some level of confusion was inevitable in re-thinking women’s sexual agency, given the crucible of contradictions at the heart of sexual desire triggering emotions which make us feel both powerful and defenseless at the same moment. This was further complicated by a change in the political climate. All kinds of social anxieties are easily displaced onto sexuality, and the right knows just how to orchestrate hostility against sexual "permissiveness" as the cause of social "decay"–seen most recently in their virulent attacks on single mothers. Retreat from optimistic feminist hopes for women’s sexual liberation was always likely to accompany the defeat of broader attempts to build a more caring and equal society. And so in the 1980s it did.

 

Yet even as Catharine MacKinnon gains a popular readership for her own particular brand of sexually repressive feminist rhetoric, telling women that feeling good in sex with men is merely enjoying the seeds of victimhood, something is clearly awry. For feminism’s greatest influence came from its campaigns in the name of the sexual liberation she denounces. Demanding women’s control over their own bodies and seeking changes in their relationships with men brought more responsive and respectful gynecological provision and made it possible to identify and object to sexual harassment, redefine rape, and prioritize violence against women. "Part of my attraction to feminism involved the right to be a sexual person," one North American feminist ruefully recalls, "I’m not sure where that history got lost."

 

What is more, the current thrust of feminist criticism of heterosexuality is at odds with what most women are saying about their sex lives. No longer ahead, but out of step with many women’s dreams and desires, feminism in the 1980s became pessimistic or silent about straight sex just when women themselves were displaying much of its former enthusiasm for sexual (and social) independence. Reflecting a new liberal acceptance of women’s sexuality outside wedlock, marriage rates in most Western countries were declining, divorce rates rapidly rising, and many women were choosing to cohabit. Parenting was being postponed until careers were established and, overall, women were having fewer children by the 1980s than in the 1960s.

 

Married women, it seemed, were also receiving greater satisfaction from sex with their husbands. Morton Hunt’s survey of sexual behavior in the U.S. in the 1970s reported far greater variety and frequency of sexual activity compared with Alfred Kinsey’s a generation before: 90 percent of wives claimed to be happy with their sex lives, three-quarters were content with its frequency, with one-quarter wanting more. Blumstein and Schwartz reported much the same from their extensive survey of couples a decade later. Women and men were displaying similar sexual preferences, desiring frequent sexual activity, happiest when initiating or refusing sex equally as often, and–whether heterosexual, gay or lesbian–became discontented if sex was infrequent.

 

British surveys agree. They show women initiating more sexual contacts, and married women having more affairs, reflecting their heightened expectations and sense of sexual agency. Contrary to conservative hopes or feminist warnings, the most recent survey of sexual behavior (the one Margaret Thatcher tried to abort by withdrawing promised funding) concluded that sex is both far safer and less fraught for women today than ever before. The overwhelming majority use contraception during their first sexual intercourse, and three out of four women felt that it occurred at about the right time, for the right reasons.

 

There is thus a dramatic lack of fit between what one very visible group of feminists have been saying about women’s experience of sexual victimization, and what most women have been reporting about their experiences of sex, and its importance to them. Nevertheless, while the gap between women’s and men’s sex lives is narrowing, and marriages seem happier, this is probably only because of the high rates of divorce. One in two marriages in the U.S., and over one in three in Britain, were headed for divorce in the 1980s, the majority initiated by women unhappy with the "unliberated" behavior of their husbands, behavior which includes significant amounts of abuse against women and children.

 

When women’s frustrations do lead to separation or divorce, they are economically disadvantaged. A woman may be just a divorce away from poverty. Nevertheless, contrary to the backlash stories broadcasting the bleak situation of women after divorce as a warning to them to stay married, it is actually men who most fear and try to prevent marital break-ups–sometimes with more of the violence which provokes it. Teenage pregnancy (though far from the spiraling problem conservatives denounce) can leave young women and their children impoverished. Around a quarter of adolescent girls still complain of feeling pressurized into having sex with boys, and most report little physical pleasure from their early sexual experiences, finding it hard to talk about sex with their partners.

 

In fact, when Lillian Rubin set out to discover the impact of the sexual revolution in the U.S., she found that both men and women typically spoke of being "disappointed" with their first encounter with genital heterosexuality. But whereas men almost all saw it as an important achievement on the way to manhood (exposing the seeds for men’s frequent resort to sexual coerciveness), no woman saw it as definitive of womanhood. (Menstruation conventionally serves as the far more ambivalent marker of entry into womanhood). Women’s most frequent regret was feeling cheated of the "romantic fantasy" they had hoped to fulfill. Even so, most contemporary reports on teenage girls and their culture show them as much tougher and more in control of their lives than the previous generation.

 

More women are feeling satisfied in their sex lives with men. Yet they still suffer disproportionately from (and pervasively fear) sexual assault from men. How can we shift the sexual codes which encourage coerciveness from men, endorse compliance from women, and continue to serve as barriers to change? Only by re-thinking the very idea of heterosexuality.

 

At the heart of the problem is the way in which "masculinity" and "femininity" ties in with the cultural symbolism of the sex act: masculinity as activity, femininity as passivity. As lesbian theorist Judith Butler has recently argued, gender contrasts gain much of their meaning through this more basic image of heterosexuality. Yet it is one which obscures the diverse initiations and activities which actually take place between women and men. It is this symbolism which we need to keep on challenging if we are ever to turn around the idea that sex is something men do and women have done to them–with all its oppressive spin-offs, for both women and gay men.

 

The first way to do this is to talk more, not less, about heterosexual experiences and bodily contacts. For it is here that the presumed polarities of gender most often falter and blur. In contrast with the writing which suggests that we can never escape its "subordinating" meanings for women, there is actually little that is firmly fixed about these supposed oppositions. Sexual pleasure–taking us all the way back to the fears and longings of childhood attachments–is as much about letting go and losing control for men as it is for women. There is nothing inevitable about either the occurrence or the preferred form of heterosexual bonding. As any prostitute knows, straight men are both terrified of, yet passionately attracted to, powerlessness and loss of control.

 

Sexuality can be as much a place for male as for female vulnerability (though any physical coercion men face is almost always from other men). This is why men, more than women, often remain fearful of physical closeness, denying themselves the pleasures of passivity which, in the end, is what much of joyful sex is all about. Men, much like women, long for what they also fear and dread: the intense vulnerability which accompanies the embraces, enclosures, and penetrations of another–whether rhythmically stroked by fingers, tongues, lips, teeth, arms, or that most fragile of appendages, the penis. The distinction between inside and outside breaks down as fingers, lips, nose or tongue wander over, in and between the flesh of the other.

 

There are many "heterosexuality’s," and all sexuality’s, including lesbian and gay ones, are "hetero" in one way or another. There is diversity and "otherness" in same-sex encounters and relationships, and there are pluralities of cross-sex meetings. It is usually assumed that we consolidate our gender identity and endorse male dominance through sex–heterosex: "A man can become more male and a woman more female by coming together in the full rigors of the fuck," Norman Mailer crows. But do we? Sex is often the most troubling of all social encounters precisely because it so easily threatens rather than confirms gender polarity. The merest glimpse of the complexity of women’s and men’s actual activities suggests that straight sex may be no more affirmative of normative gender positions (and in that sense no less "perverse") than its gay and lesbian alternatives. In consensual sex, when bodies meet, the epiphany of that meeting–its threat and excitement–is precisely that all the great dichotomies (activity/passivity, subject/object, heterosexual/homosexual) slide away.

 

Indeed, some have suggested that men’s phallic swagger is not so much about denying power to women, although it certainly has that corollary, as the denial of the reality, the pleasure, and the assertive pull of men’s feelings of passivity and dependency. Yet surveys on health, happiness, and sexual patterns have been highlighting for some time now that, as a recent U.S. study puts it: "What most men really need is to develop their "feminine" side and become more focused on relationships, more emotionally expressive and more comfortable with being dependent."

 

Men’s dangerous anxieties over power ("manhood"), and for some the accompanying resort to sexual coerciveness, will only fade away with the passing of their general social dominance–which was always the motor of "phallic" symbolism. But within the diversity of heterosexual encounters and relationships, some are compulsive, oppressive, pathological, or disabling; others pleasurable, self-affirming, supportive, reciprocal, or empowering. Many move between the two. Taking note of the self-display and barely covert homoeroticism currently thriving (and selling commodities) as never before in images of men in the media, any insistence that male sexuality is simply predatory looks little more than a new way of affirming what it pretends to deplore.

 

I am not suggesting, however, that the struggle to break the codes linking active ("masculine") sexuality to cultural hierarchies of gender will ever be easy. Sex and gender hierarchies have survived despite their increasingly obvious contradictions. It is a trap to assume (with the Cosmopolitan-led, fashionably feminine layer of mass-culture) that we can ignore both the symbolic dimensions of language and the existing relations of power between women and men. In Cosmo and its ilk, women are presented as already the equal sexual partners of men, and told how to obtain and please their men, as if men were all seeking much the same advice.

 

Such rhetoric nonchalantly neglects the extent of men’s power over women, and its defensive facade of endemic misogyny: apparent from the merest scratch on the liberal surface of sexual equality. Who’s afraid of women’s independence? Of the single working woman? The single mother? The sexual female? Watch your local cinema for clues.

 

We must also take on board the mass-cultural images of women: especially romance fiction. We imbibe it from our mothers fantasies and daydreams and our own enjoyment of popular film or novels, where we see ourselves reflected only in the waiting female heroine. Many studies of young women’s sexual experiences point to the disabling aspect of this heritage. Defining sex in terms of love and romance is the main reason young women offer for allowing their male partner to dictate their sex lives. It also explains their frequent disappointment, even though the pervasive games with power in such narratives reveal some of the contradictions of "feminine" identifications.

 

Yet however powerful the iconography of sex and the conventions of romance, their effects are diverse. If the first trap for sexual radicals is to ignore the constraints of symbolic codes and social hierarchies, the second trap is to declare them fixed and immutable. In fact, they are chronically fragile and unstable, easy to subvert or parody–however equally easily recuperated. There have always been men who could consciously delight in being the object of a woman’s or a man’s desire; and who could see the penis as, merely, a penis. Just as there have always been women who are lusty, aggressive and sexually dominating, and everything in between. Many already suspect that it is precisely the icons of masculinity who can barely conceal the "woman," the "faggot," inside. The more rigid the sexual norms people feel they must affirm, the greater the threat of all those experiences they struggle to exclude.

 

As I have indicated, it is lesbians and gay men who have played the critical role in revealing the artifice of the gender and sexual oppositions constructing heterosexual norms. These norms not only provide repressive accounts of heterosexual experience. More destructively, they impose themselves on homosexual experience too, producing our lasting images of the "effeminate" male and "butch" lesbian. Today, "queer" activists turn traditional symbols on their head. Whether insisting that penetration is no more heterosexual than kissing, waving the lesbian "phallus," or asserting the power of passivity," they subvert the heterosexual norms which have tried to imprison them.

 

What I want to suggest is that straight women (and men) should also play a part in this subversion. Instead of guilt-tripping heterosexuals, we would do better to enlist them in the "queering" of traditional understandings of gender and sexuality, questioning all the ways in which women’s bodies have been coded as uniquely "passive," "receptive," or "vulnerable." But we must also look at male heterosexual desire (and how their bodies become "receptive" and "vulnerable") since the two are inextricably linked.

 

We all, and young people especially, need new sources of sex education, new erotic narratives which depict both women and men asserting or surrendering control in situations of mutual esteem, safety, and pleasure. Surveying the diversity of heterosexualities enables us to affirm those encounters which are based on trust and affection (however brief or long-lasting), and to wonder (because it is never easy) how best to strengthen women to handle those which are not.

 

There is still a long way to go in creating a radical sexual politics that includes heterosexuality. When Joan Nestle wrote her moving recollection, "My Mother Likes to Fuck," other women picketed the London magazine which published it. In it she had dared to protest: "Don’t scream penis at me, but help to change the world so no woman feels shame or fear because she likes to fuck." Quite so. Straight women, like gay men and lesbians, have everything to gain from asserting our non-coercive desire to fuck if, when, how, and as we choose.

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