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.


  1. I do agree with you here Marina. I'm going to set out my position on this here in a way I was unable to do posting under my own name at the F word (hello, future employers!) - but please bear in mind I'm not accusing you of thinking in this manner, I'm just illustrating the pitfalls of judging the whole totality of human sexuality in simple terms. (Warning - this may get graphic)

    My problem with the feminist discourse surrounding BDSM/degredation is that most people seem to boil it down to 'some women like [X], {X} happens in pornography, therefore women liking {X} is a result of pornography/patriarchy/etc.'. And I don't think this is true for all cases - it certainly isn't for me.

    *INAPPROPRIATE PERSONAL DETAILS KLAXON* I went to an all-girls school as a teenager and never paid attention to the phenomenon of pornography until around the age of 16, when I saw some with my boyfriend at the time - which didn't involve penetrative sex - it was the pornographic presentation of an innocent act which he had a fetish for (and there seemed to be a large market for).

    Now, this story has two illustrative purposes:

    1. Despite not being 'exposed' to ideas of hardcore/degrading sex through pornography or being exposed to it by men I have been in sexual relationships with, since I began exploring thoughts about my sexuality aged around 12/13. I have always been interested in it. I only began putting these ideas into practice in the past year after meeting someone I trust and it being on my suggestion. Also, they're reciprocal.

    2. The exposure I did have to pornography (and recreating the same) from a previous relationship didn't 'brainwash' me into liking it or 'choosing' it in order to 'please' men.

    So, to conclude, trying to generalise about 'why' people like things is.... really fucking hard when we have the whole human experience (and there's 7bn of us here just now) to try to encompass. (Also, as I disagree with the idea that all heterosexual female sexuality is a reaction to male sexuality and being brainwashed by the patriarchy, I disagree with the notion that all men are brainwashed into seeking a league table of degradation. They do exist, but there's a LOT of men who don't feel this way too)

    I agree with the statement that: "Some degrading acts when shown as 'normal' in pornography may lead to them being normalised and more commonly practiced". However, it does not follow from this that "Any degrading act is bad" - especially when practiced with proper 'good consent', very clear boundaries, and a partner who has a clear understanding that bedroom =/= real life interactions.

    I'm not sure what I'm really trying to say here other than human sexuality is a big massive thing, we're still not sure how it actually works (it's been one of The Big Questions since the birth of psychology) and while, yes, it is problematic to reduce everything to either good/bad or 'the empowering cupcake of choice', we have a hell of a way to go before we can find an unfettered-by-patriarchy-and-other-surroundings expression of sexuality, and the best way to go about that is to promote communication between sex partners, destigmatise female sexuality and keep educating people to talk about GOOD consent.

  2. Forty Shades,
    I think you undermine your assertion that your desire to engage in certain sexual acts is "certainly not" the result of the patriarchal hegemony, by subsequently drawing attention to how complex the social psychology of sexual desire is. Surely, as someone who clearly appreciates said complexity, you realize that the patriarchal hegemony may have structured your sexual desires in more subtle ways than via porn or boyfriends. If there's one thing that my study of social psychology has taught me, it's that humans always underestimate the extent to which our thoughts, desires, etc are determined by our environments, such that it is unlikely to be as simple as "I hadn't seen porn and hadn't been exposed to it by a boyfriend".

  3. This issue is one I think about a lot. As a woman who has enjoyed "degrading" sexual acts with both male and female lovers, I have much to say about it.

    I think that the majority of discourse on this issue is missing a crucial perspective: do the origins of an act dictate how we feel about that act? My reasons for enjoying the bedroom activities I do are complex and I know that they range from Daddy issues to sisterly rivalry, that they are in some ways re-imaginings of real trauma I experienced or ways for me to explore the problematic relationship I have with pain as an ex self-harmer. As a woman with borderline personality disorder, I have self-destructive impulses, I am driven by complex emotional factors to seek out and cause pain, to revel in and relinquish power. The games played out in the bedroom of the BDSM-enthusiast are games I once played in my daily life, to the detriment of myself and my loved ones. Now, I am on the road to recovery. I will always have BPD and always be a survivor of trauma, but I have worked hard to keep myself safe and well for a few years now. Part of this has been trading the razor blade for cat-o'-nine-tails. In the bedroom, with lovers that care for me, I have been able to address my self-destructive needs in a safe way.

    I know that not every woman has a serious mental illness but many will have similar past experiences. We did not grow up in a vacuum. We are products of this world, for better and for worse. For example, I wear make up every day and, of course I am aware that I do this because the patriarchy deems the female face inadequate without it etc etc, but my relationship with it goes beyond that. I express myself through the colours I choose, the style of it. I don't wear make up because I have to, I like it, it's part of who I am. The origins of the practice might be negative but that does not make it inherently negative in itself.

  4. Anonymous 1: Yes, possibly. But what everyone seems to miss is that this is not necessarily a bad thing. If I, or whoever, are legitimately enjoying themselves, then what is everyone's damn problem? I don't spend my life psychoanalysing why someone might want lights off/under the covers missionary sex, I don't see why it's everyone's business just because I want to do something else.

    Anonymous 2: I agree. Something is only inherently bad if you're hurting yourself doing it to meet other people's expectations of others.

  5. FSoG, I guess what I don't see in your argument is any evidence for "everyone" thinking that *any* particular act is "good" or "bad". Perhaps i would be easier for me to se what you mean if you could point me to an example?

    Acknowledging the complexity of something and the fact that it has problematic origins =/= judging individuals for enjoying it. The confusion around this remind me, more than anything, of that brilliant post that was doing the rounds a few days (weeks?) ago on Twitter: "how to be a fan of problematic things". There's a clear demarcation line between e.g. claiming make-up is a patriarchal construct born out of a need o keep women feeling inadequate and announcing that dolly Parton is a poor deluded little victim of patriarchy who just doesn't know better. It doesn't follow - and while I *fully* empathise with the defensiveness that comes from reading critiques of something problematic I personally engage in (you should hear me on the topic of May/December romances and "daddy issues"!!), it's an impulse I try to stamp on just as hard as the impulse to judge others.

    tl;dr: as Amanda Marcote would say, if it's not about you, it's not about you. =) xx

  6. OK, the problem I had was with comments such as this from the Tiger Beatdown post about Schwyzer:

    "I honestly fail to see why the (apparent) “fact” that men feel “clean” when they come on a woman’s face must invalidate the (rather well established) fact that women feel degraded.

    I mean, if I have a dog turn in my hand and I throw it to someone, my hand is now clean (yay!) but the person I threw it at isn’t.

    Is this what passes for rational thinking?

    I agree with sossajes. At the core of the “pr0n debate” is trying to remove men and their penises from the centre stage of all human sexuality. We must stop validating this delusion that what happens to men’s penises is oh-so-important and that women really-trully-absolutely-positively like whatever men want to do to them.

    It’s like trying to satisfy a child asking for candy by giving them candy. It-doesn’t-work. Because the problem is that they are demanding something else under the label “candy”. In the case of men is female approval. And no amount of conforming to pr0nographic acts will ever satisfy men’s need for approval.

    You know why? Because deep down, men don’t approve of themselves. End of."

    1. End of what?The story has barely started.Women have not yet realised that to undo five thousand years of patriarchal conditioning some serious brain work is called for.So women feminists are having a fine time rebel-rousing.So fine a time,they cannot get enough of it.Almost every bit of women feminist /socialist writing I get to read bespeaks clearly of a default position.People get sucked into activism by clever fomenters or genuine people who have not thought things through.Women feminists and pretty well all socialists think they can change society without having to think about how it works.(Jacob J.)

  7. Interesting discussion. The question of what the feminist position on sex should be is an old one, but it continues to defy easy answers.

    OK, there is an easy answer: as long as everyone involved has given their full consent and is enjoying themselves, go for it! And to a great extent I agree with that. But I don't think it can be the end of the argument. Even if sex acts are practiced privately, they're still part of the world and subject to the same influences as everything else, so they're a legitimate subject of feminist criticism.

    Here's my own experience: I'm a feminist man, but I have a taste for BDSM. I don't consider that a bad thing, and for the most part I'm not troubled by it. But my feminist side means I can't help but think, every now and then, when looking at an image of a woman (or man) being sexually degraded: is this problematic? And no matter how much I reassure myself that as long as everyone involved is consenting, it's OK, I can't stop occasionally questioning myself.

    As I said, I don't think there are any easy answers. But that doesn't mean we should avoid asking the questions.

  8. Forty Shades, this is Anonymous1. Thanks for the reply. The assumption underlying (some) feminists' need to challenge the desirability of women engaging in certain sexual acts (even if they might legimitately enjoy them) is that patriarchy must be challenged wherever it exists. The stronger, more practical version of this is that "feminists will never destroy patriarchy until they successfully challenge it in every facet of life". This is why some feminists are willing to ask, simply: "does the performance of an act subvert or reinforce patriarchy?" And decry that act if the answer is "reinforce", even if all parties to the act are having a great time. Now you might want to say "let's ask this question about everything except what goes on in the bedroom", but then the onus is on you to convincingly argue that what happens in the bedroom is somehow special, and given the socially-constructed nature of sex (see Butler, Foucault, etc), I think you'd be on shaky ground. As I see it, if patriarchy inevitably enters our bedrooms, why shouldn't feminism?

  9. If you want to challenge Patriarchy,you have to know how it works,otherwise you keep going round in circles.Which is exactly what serieus women feminists are doing.By 'serious' I mean those well-meaning but politically naive people who don't realise that feminism,like environmentalism and other isms,are used as a front for people to get ahead within Patriarchy.Women who have been hurt seem to think that only women get hurt by the system.They react by becoming radicalised Lefties,Lesbian or Feminist,or any or all of these.Then they never stop reacting.They get stuck in this mode.Women feminists still rage against the system as mendicants/supplicants.If they start thinking for themselves they soon join the patriarchal gravy train.About this particular discussion;Few people who profess to be against the old paradigm wish to take on board knowledge which would allow them to be effective agents on their own vis-a-vis that system.Even the most die-hard radical female feminist is running on patriarchal hardware,steering programs and software.Despite all the books necessary for self-knowledge having been around for several hundred years,and widely available for,say,thirty years,few people who do the old system down will self-educate.They keep running unquestioned the old programs.So they get no further,and every challenge addressed to Patriarchy is delivered and structured on the patriarchal field.So you teach the field where it is missing a trick or two,which gets fixed.As you are attacking Patriarchy on its terms,you are making it stronger,even as it is dying,and yourself more,rather than less dependent.Time and again women have been told about the old Jesuitian adage,"Give me a child until it is six,and he(she) is mine for life".Female emancipation politics is more than a hundred years old.Do you think mothers have been taking notice?A few,but considering how many women reckon to be feminist,the notion has not sunk in at all.You don't know what makes people/society/men/women tick.That is the long and the short of it.I'm a sixty year male,self-opinionated.I don't need all of my right hand's fingers to count the women I've met who were even remotely interested finding out how it works.Would it be fair to say that women want to complain and continue to be dependent on Patriarchy,rather than formulate an alternative which could work for society at large?Sex has always been the crux of the matter.That's why authorities since the year dot have been in the business of messing people up from day one.If you're serious,stop using sex as a soporific,or an endless diversion.(Jacob Jonker).

  10. "You don't know what makes people/society/men/women tick."

    Enlighten me.

  11. Here we go again.You're supposed to find out for yourself,rather then yet again be informed by someone with ulterior motives.However,you could try following a discussion on bhanupadmo.com (from about early Jan. onwards).Of course,I am assuming you are a female feminist/environmentalist/humanist/human rightist/new paradigm thinker,etc.So what makes people tick?Mostly programming-Apart from the genes,memes,instinct,upbringing and the usual,it's the constant re-programming through the psycho-social and socio-political and commercial-political environment in which people move.It's all old hat,yet people who would be reformers do not take it into account.They don't want to change themselves and their lifestyle to change society.And especially if you're a parent,find out what the Jesuits(and those who went before them)have known for thousands of years.
    Are you unlike all the others?It's possible.Do you understand Lao Tzu,Tibetan Buddhist Tantra,if only the Right hand path,the influence of religion on people's thinking-meta-psychological programming,esoteric knowledge used for political purposes,the political role of religion from day one,the role of religion and ideology in politics,the influence of the spirit whether people believe in things spriritual or no,quantum physics/philosophy,'The Vibrating Universe'(N.C.Panda),..If not,that would keep you going for a few years.
    (Jacob Jonker).

  12. In other words, you don't know either; you just like to make yourself feel smart by regurgitating reading lists at people instead of having a conversation with them. Bye bye.

  13. Found some reading for you,Marina.

    “The Vibrating Universe”, by N.C.Panda.
    “The Quantum Brain”, by Jeffrey Satinover.
    “The Creative Cosmos”, by Ervin Laszlo.
    “The Anglo-Saxons:the verdict of history”, by Paul Hill.
    “Nature versus Nurture”, by Matt Ridley.
    “The Field”, by Lynne McTaggart.
    “Buddhism as Philosophy,an intro”, by Mark Siderits.
    “The Trouble with Physics”, by Lee Smolin.
    “Democracy,Crisis and Renewal”, by Paul Ginsborg.
    “Essential Tibetan Buddhism”, Robert A.F.Thurman.
    “What Darwin Got Wrong”, by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.
    “The Upanishads”.
    “The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”.
    ”The Dice Game of Shiva”, by Richard Smoley.
    and J.Krishnamurti’s biography.Happy reading.

  14. It comes back to ownership and control. Who is in control/has ownership of the sex industry? Men. It is all aimed at men, it is a man's world. Perhaps the individual women who work in it control their own bodies etc, but as a whole it is a male-dominated male owned industry and affects women negatively. On the other hand, burlesque for example, is often just as graphic and fetishistic, but it is not owned by men, it is therefore not detrimental to women as a whole, it is something that can be equally enjoyed by all without the degradation of women, despite having themes as often as not of BSM etc.
    Likewise compare the underwear football league (men owned) to roller derbys (sexy but not owned by men).
    That is the clear line I can see demarcating sexism in sex. And so, same goes in private, if you are in control of what you wish to be involved in, from a basis of equality, a shared pleasure between you and your partner, it is a beautiful thing, regardless of whether that pleasure may or may not involved submissive acts.

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