Jan 14, 2012

Decisions, decisions: sex in a time of patriarchy

This post is a reply to my friend Natalie Dzerins's post on the F-Word which was in turn responding to an article by Hugo Schwyzer, in which she criticizes what she sees as an unseemly propensity of feminists to police women's sexuality by shaming certain sex acts. I was originally planning to comment on the website, but once I hit the 500 word count I thought it would be better to move it here. I encourage you to read both of the articles I'm responding to, they're both thought provoking and interesting.


I've been made very thoughtful by this post, and I wanted to give a good detailed response, which paradoxically means I'm going to start by changing the subject:

A while ago some friends & I were talking about the concepts of choice in the capitalist system. Essentially, the argument is that choice is one of the mechanism by which capitalism perpetuates itself, because by offering endless choices between different models of the same thing (cars, or corporate jobs, or coffee shops - any mode of engagement with capital) it distracts from the fact that there are no OPTIONS. Through the reification of choice, capitalism is able to disguise the hegemonic nature of its own constraints and trick even its critics into thinking that choosing to consume items that are "green" or "ethical" (to give just one example) somehow makes the act of consumption to be contra- or outside the system, when in fact it's still just an act of consumption and reinforces capital.

Patriarchy is intimately linked to capitalism in the modern era, and the smorgasbord of "acts" that human sexuality has been reduced to is very much patriarchy's way of partaking of the benefits of offering illusory choice while constraining meaningful options. The question I would want to ask instead is, why do we have a spectrum of sexuality at one end of which people of any gender find fulfilment and joy (important to note that I don't for a moment doubt that their fulfilment is authentic, or begrudge it) in degradation? Why, because patriarchy is a hegemony of domination founded on degrees and shades of degradation to maintain the status quo, of course! 

There is a view one can take (and many serious, thoughtful second wave thinkers took it) that all heterosexual sex under a patriarchy partakes in spite of itself in the spectrum of shades of degradation. The radical conclusion from that view - don't have heterosexual sex ever - leaves one in something of an unfulfilled quandary though, and is a continuing flaw at the heart of feminist thinking about sex. 

In the past 30 years, women trying to live feminist lives have largely rejected the burden of guilt that came with that approach (good) but at the cost of not meaningfully resolving the deep problems that patriarchal hierarchies pose for truly liberated sex (bad). We seem to have plumped for the buffet approach, and spend much energy on policing "good" choices vs "bad" choices, or, as here, defending the arguable-but-not-compelling view that any choice is a good choice because the act of choosing is liberating. Given that we saw that the act of choosing is actually an act of participation in the patriarchy, this is a problematic solution to the "heterosexual sex in a patriarchy" dilemma.

We have also, and you won't hear me say things like this very often, neglected men. Patriarchal discourse on male sexuality is particularly narrow, limiting and destructive - in some ways more so in our current cultural moment than that of female sexuality. It drives men to seek league table-like "victories" in quantitative fields such as number of partners, number of sex acts and - increasingly, as patriarchy has to up its game to compete with the assent of liberated female sexuality - the number of progressively more extreme acts that a man can impose in his partner in some kind of escalating arms race of degradation.

It is no coincidence that the hard core sex acts we ten to have these arguments around - ejaculation on the face (I dislike the sneakily euphemistic term "facial"), intense anal penetration, deep throating - are not "pleasurable" in a common sense understanding of the word. They all overcome some basic physical aversion: the gag reflex, the blinking reflex of protecting the face from projectile, or pain. Despite the authentic and real pleasure that overcoming these instincts may give to some - even many - people, the normalisation of boundary breach should be a problematic phenomenon for feminists.

Which is where Schwyzer comes in. While I find his analysis on this issue flawed, and his conclusion unconvincing, I was interested by the fact that he was grappling for a directionally different approach to interrogating heterosexual encounters: by reintegrating the psychological needs of men. Attempting to analyse sex from men's emotional point of view is a good an important way of reaching towards options of hetero (though I'd wager it has implications for LGBT) sexuality rather than simply choices from a menu of penetrative games. I think perhaps the main flaw in Schwyzer's argument is that he doesn't fully grasp the depth of what he's on the cusp of, and so misguidedly positions this re-examination in the framework of sex-act-choice. In other words, he should have started thinking about degradation in sex and made conclusions about ejaculation on the face, not the other way around.

I have no further conclusions to offer: all I can say is that it would be better for us to continue trying and stumbling in our search for a discourse of liberated sexuality for all genders, however disastrous the mistakes we make along the way, than stopping ourselves short at the gates of "choice".

It would be even better for us to not fall into the trap of equating a critical examination of sexual mores, and expression of strongly held conclusions about the feminist value of different options, to making law in Parliament, but that's a whole other essay.