Notes on Sexual Liberation, Part 2

2.1 Family Life Experience, Marital Role Expectations, and Sexual Repression

As children learn the norms of the family and society, sexuality is typically symbolized in terms of marriage and romance. Girls play house, with boys usually showing little interest, though boys can possess a strong fantasy life regarding marriage and girlfriends from a very young age. My own memories of fantasizing about marriage go far back into my childhood. In therapy in later life I learned that a key determinant on my expectations for my marriage was how my mother treated my father. I was deeply troubled at how my father verbally abused her and also anxious about the ways I felt she sometimes antagonized him. As a victim of his verbal and physical abuse, I now know that he was the abuser and my anxiety and subconscious "blaming" her for some of his lashing out was an immature, if understandable, response.

In spite of the abuse, my mother was capable of extreme affection for my father. This loving, ego-stroking behavior I came to view as true love and came into marriage expecting it to be given to me. As I had rejected my father’s abusive treatment of my mother, I had no real alternate model for how to treat my spouse. My abusive childhood led me a serious depressive condition for most of my twenties and thwarted my ability to be the kind of loving husband that I desired to become.

In another era, such expectations of loving marriage were less pronounced. Marriage was largely an economic arrangement for families to hand off the expensive and less profitable girls to men who desired their sexual and childbearing potentials. In that earlier non-romantic system, happiness and love were considered secondary. Sex was a means for relieving male lust and procreation. Women were discouraged from pursuing sexual pleasure directly.

Is the modern romantic marriage an advance on the procreative economic practices of the past? Is the postmodern emergence of prolonged singleness and short-term sexual relationships an advance over both of those regimes? What about the rise of pornography and its reimagining of sexual pleasure and function as a purely recreational pursuit? Will monogamy go the way of marriage for procreation?

2.2 Feminism’s Challenge to Male Sexuality

Feminism arose initially in the 1800s as an outgrowth of the middle-class’s granting of educational opportunity to women. Women with higher education were less resigned to accepting the systematic denial of human and civil rights accorded to men. Two typical tendencies emerged early on within feminism, which later came to be called liberal and cultural. Liberal feminism focused on gaining public acceptance of women’s rights and encouraging women to pursue acheivements within the existing public domains where men had held dominance. Cultural feminism argued that women were possessors of distinct values and characteristics that men lacked and that rather than struggle for public acheivements in a male-dominated system, women should work outside that system to expand the power and influence of women’s superior cultural practices. The latter perspective gave rise to movements such as anti-war and Prohibition as distinctly woman-centered changes to society. The former perspective gave rise to suffrage advocacy, and family planning.

In the 1960s, this basic divide emerged again with women both demanding inclusion in male domains and rejecting much of the norms of male-dominated society. Feminism has always carried within it tensions between viewing male privileges as something to be desired and to be rejected. This ambivalence extends quite profoundly to feminist attitudes towards male sexuality. In the 1960s many women went along with the sexual revolution and discarded classic taboos on non-marital sex and lesbianism. Others rejected the sexual revolution as merely the latest attempt by men to reduce women to sexual objects. Since most men were more interested in sex than in procreation, the sexual revolution did lead to a substantive weakening of women’s traditional prerogatives as potential mothers. Cultural feminist responses were predicated on the moral supremacy of maternal values and perspectives. Mothering was reimagined as a domain for opposing masculine privilege. Liberal feminism was more accepting of the new freedoms of the sexual revolution and premarital sex became the social norm.

The decoupling of sexuality from reproduction was the fundamental divide that ended the era of procreative and economic marriage. Birth control and family planning dramatically reduced pregnancy risks and made it necessary to reexamine the function of sexuality in contemporary society. Cultural feminism’s valorization of maternal values isn’t simply a nostalgic dream, however. There is something fundamentally important to be learned about an alternative social value-system from women’s unique experiences under male domination. Liberal feminism’s comfortable embrace of individualism seems to ignore many fundamental problems with our political, and economic systems.

Male sexuality has persistently depersonalized and objectified women and it is no wonder the abolition of pornography has become a rallying cry of cultural feminism. However, cultural feminism plays into the hands of the right-wing efforts to return women to subservience to family values. Our society is moving away rather rapidly from the sort of maternal utopia imagined by feminism as well as from the sexual repression of the right. Sexual liberation and continuing exploration of sex beyond procreation and marriage seem to be persistent trends. The continuing rise of women’s presence in culture in occupations and roles once denied them continues as well. Despite the cultural feminist claim that pornography and sexual objectification are incompatible with women’s advancement, more women are in more powerful positions than ever in human history in traditionally male domains. The facts strongly indicate that the seemingly simple equation of male sexual objectication of women with decreased power for women is fundamentally wrong.

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