In an earlier post on pro-feminism, I made a slightly offhand allusion, picked up on by some careful readers, to something which does the rounds among feminist groups but is rarely spoken of openly, when I suggested that men who identified as “feminists” were often perceived as creepy sexual predators. Now, before all the potential pro-fems get their boxers in a twist, I’m not accusing all men who identify as “feminists” as such, but sexuality and heterosexual relations is a massive element of feminist theory, and it is widely recognised a site where the political becomes deeply personal. Very few women, including those who identify as lesbians, have no experience of sexual relations with men of one form or another, and very few have experiences which are universally positive. The eyes, laws and codes of patriarchy oversee every encounter: ever watchful, ever judgemental, ever enculturing. It is within this framework that sexual relations between men and women take place.
In the 1970s and 80s, “sex-negative” feminism had a strong hold. Within some strains of radical feminist thought, penetrative intercourse (PIV) was seen as the expression of male domination – the means by which men subjugated women and ensured their domination. In battling this, some promoted a stance of political lesbianism – an active choice to have sexual relations only with other women as a means by which to avoid domination; others suggested an avoidance of PIV, seeking to redefine “sex” in a broader manner encompassing what is usually seen as “foreplay” as an alternative to penetration while the “sex strike”, a tactic first used in ancient Greece was promoted as a means by which to control the collective behaviour of men.
By the turn of the century, this tradition was on the wane. A “sex-positive” feminism had been born.
Concerned by the rather prudish element which it was perceived that “sex-negative” feminism promoted, policing women’s sexual behaviour, dress and relations, sex-positive feminists sought to liberate female sexuality. The sex-industry – the nemisis of the sex-negative feminists was re-evaluated, sometimes within a discourse of liberation, with some sex-positive feminists promoting “feminist” pornography and prostitution as a means by which women could achieve sexual and economic independence. BDSM proved to be a particular flashpoint. Many political lesbians seeking a retreat from the differentials of power they believed were inherent in heterosexual relations were horrified at the BDSM practices which occurred within lesbian communities, while “natural lesbians” rebelled seeing their sexuality being dictated to by (what were ultimately) straight women.
The sex-positive/sex-negative dialogue is still going on within feminism. In my opinion it is unproductive, they should be considered contextual challenges rather than entrenched positions, but the overwhelming rejection of male “feminists” of a sex-negative approach skews the dialogue. It is practically inconceivable that a male “feminist” would make such as powerful a statement on fellatio as Twisty’s
“no woman, since the dawn of the patriarchal co-option of human sexuality, has ever actually enjoyed this submissive sexbot drudgery”
What is classed as “sex negativism” is really a challenge to compulsory heterosexuality, sexual submission and the primacy of PIV as the end goal of sexual relations. These are all discourses which sexually benefit males to the detriment of females. When Adrienne Rich wrote her famous manifesto she addressed it to women – encouraging them to explore a lesbian existance as an alternative to heteronormativity. But patriarchy colonises all things, and lesbian practices have been fetishised as a performative sexuality, designed to titillate males. When men encourage their sexual partners to explore lesbian relationships it tends to be less within the context of Rich than within the context of Loaded.
More seriously a male sex-positive “feminist”, who interprets porn, prostitution and BDSM as politically liberatory practices, brings that with him to interpersonal heterosexual sexual relations. Here the personal and the political get all bound up together, and pressure comes to bear. The sexual power socially accorded to males is augmented by the radical power politically accorded to a feminist discourse. In such relationships women can be told that they are insufficiently “liberated” because they refuse to watch porn and that their feminism is “old-fashioned” because they get no sexual pleasure from experiencing or causing pain. In such scenarios the traditional pressure that women feel to submit to men is strengthened by a desire to be seen as “good” feminist, particularly where the male “feminist” has a degree of visibility or respect within the political community.
Both sex-positive feminism and sex-negative feminism have their uses in challenging the patriarchal power structure that oversees individual sexual interactions, but both can be abused. And when creepy sexual predators start hiding their natures behind feminist discourses, individual women can find themselves at a double disadvantage – with both the patriarchy and arguments designed to liberate them from the patriarchy used to subjugate them. Arguments along the lines of “Hey, baby, I’m a feminist too, wanna watch “Dungeon Lesbo Chicks”?” dont really advance the liberation of women one iota.
My position remains, that while not all male “feminists” are creepy sexual predators, calling yourself a feminist while in desirous possession of a penis facilitates those who are, pro-feminists are however very welcome.