On Political Lesbianism and the Cotton Ceiling
12 Monday Nov 2012
cissexism, compulsory heterosexuality, cotton ceiling, feminism, gynophilia, lesbian, lesbian identity, lesbianism, political lesbianism, sexuality, third wave feminism, trans*, Transgender, transmisogyny
I was recently described by a man of my acquaintance as having “lesbian thinking” – I think he meant feminist. While lesbian is often thrown out as an insult to women who are not sexually attractive, or sexually available to men, the conflation of lesbian and feminist is all too common and not only among men; while with the increasing visibility of transwomen within feminist communities the “cotton ceiling” debate has arisen around how cis-sexism plays out within a lesbian identity, both the politicisation of womens’ sexual choices.
There has been some interesting debate around the blogosphere recently about the nature of lesbianism and in particular political lesbianism. As a heterosexual identified woman I have little knowledge of lesbian experience, however having been around the feminist community for over 20 years, it is impossible not to encounter the political lesbian ideology, particularly within Radical Feminist circles. Originating from Adrienne Rich’s classic “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existance” and developed into a call for action in “Love your enemy“, a political lesbian is someone who has actively chosen to be woman identified and refuses sexual relationships with men, regardless of whether the choose to be sexually active with women or choose celibacy as an alternative.
As a young feminist in the 80s, political lesbianism was very much in vogue. I was actively encouraged to explore sexual relationships with women by other women within the feminist community.
This encouragement had a strange quality. For it was not their own desire which was leading them to encourage me to explore my sexual practices, subtly implying that I could not be a “proper” feminist if I still continued to sleep with men, or at the very least did not explore sexual relationships with women yet it felt to me to be coercive – that I was being shamed for my sexuality. At the same time it had none of the predatory overtones that were usually involved in encouragement to explore sexual practices or shaming for refusal, that accompanied heterosexual practices where there was usually a vested interest in that encouraging or shaming which was associated with their own personal desire, and the wish to make me compliant with their own sexual interests. On the contrary, although it felt collectively coercive, it felt so more in a “groupthink” kind of manner, that they wished my sexuality to conform to their political ideology, rather than to conform to their sexual interests. Unlike in heterosexual relationships, where youth and inexperience were valued, within the lesbian community of the time, experience and wisdom were far more sexually attractive especially for those who had adopted lesbianism through political motivation.
Heterosexual women within the community were seen by some as those who were duped by the patriarchy, and whom, given enough encouragement and education, would eventually embrace lesbianism as an integral part of their politics, however a special vitrol was reserved for women who openly identified as bisexual, who were seen as traitors, embracing a lesbian identity at points, yet returning to sleep with the enemy at others. I also witnessed heterosexual women enter into short-lasting erotic relationships with women, following this encouragement to explore their sexuality before returning to the heterosexual sphere, leaving hurt lovers and a fractured community in their wake. Quite often they left the feminist community soon afterwards – for lets face it – everybody hates a tourist.
Although I have felt sexual attraction to women at points, barring some young teenage experimentation, well before I knew of what lesbian really meant or the political implications of such a choice, I remained resolutely heterosexual. My choice was not only informed by my sexuality – I am fairly certain that had I embraced a lesbian identity I would have eventually found a suitable girlfriend, had a couple of cats and settled down into the cosy bliss of political sexuality – but also because I valued my female friendships. Watching the sexual intrigue and jealously which went on among my lesbian identified sisters, which introduced an additional dimension into interpersonal relationships, which, as a heterosexual identified woman, I was exempted from. To some extent my decision to remain heterosexual was as political a choice as those who embraced a lesbian identity.
For me, the feminist community was a political arena where I could operate without concern about romantic or erotic liasions, where I felt valued because of my activism, intellect and character rather than my sexual attractiveness to other people. It is interesting to note the ideas of “Whittig” who claimed that by assuming a lesbian identity, one transcended the category of “woman” – as part of the definition of “woman” was “that which is fucked by men”, yet the lesbians I met were fiercely woman identified, and very protective of women-only spaces. Although my gendering of woman gave me acceptance into the community, my heterosexual identity gave me a neutered gender within it, as someone which those who were sexually attracted to women rejected, within the community I became a “non-woman”.
This issue has been revisited recently on with several posts exploring lesbian identity within the feminist community, as well as similarities in political choices of sexual partners in the “Cotton Ceiling” debate. Revolutionary Combustion notes the difference between lesbianism as an erotic sexuality, with a political decision not to sleep with men. Although both may look the same to the patriarchy – as women who are unavailable for fucking and – by implication, if not in practice – reproductive activities, they are radically different. And that political lesbianism actually appropriates the patriarchal notions of what a woman is for, and identifies any who do not conform to that purpose as lesbian – in doing so, rather than expanding lesbian experience, it negates it and denies the powerful desire and eroticism which lesbians feel towards other women. A Wreath on her Grave expresses a contrary viewpoint, takes issue with the foregrounding of sexual desire in the definition of “lesbian” and the depoliticisation of the embracing of a lesbian identity, noting that within a society where women are expected to conform to a heterosexual norm, yet can be sexual with anyone, the choice to become lesbian is a political choice. Although desire may be a motivator for such a choice, regardless of its motivations, the choice is always political.
It is worth considering the debates over political lesbianism in exploring the recent discussions which have emerged ofer “the cotton ceiling”. This is was coined by Drew Devereaux, whose definition is paraphrased by Natalie Reed as
…the tendency within feminist and queer women’s spaces for trans women to be, whilenominally accepted as women and supported in their pursuit for rights and equality, regarded and treated as essentially de-sexed, unfuckable, and sometimes a bit repulsive, with this becoming highly politicized in regards to its implications for things like what a lesbian sexuality really means, how much of sexuality is “orientation” and something we can’t be held accountable for and how much is mediated by our perceptions, how sexuality can reveal that biases and lack of respecting gender identity continue to exist on visceral levels despite being intellectually (or superficially) rejected, etc.
The “cotton” here refers to underwear, implying sexuality, and is contrasted with the “glass ceiling” – a term popularised in the 80s to refer to the barriers that women faced in attaining senior positions within organisations. The juxtaposition here makes me a little uncomfortable, as some feminists have pointed out the long term and established references to “smashing the glass ceiling” once transferred become icky and rapey, but regardless of the poor choice of term, there is a clearly an issue here which is impacting on the lives of gynophilic transwomen. The majority of opposition to the substantive notion of the cotton ceiling, and the idea that lesbians should challenge themselves to consider transwomen as sexual partners by exploring their cis privilage and how that relates to other forms of privilage which tend to exclude some identities from being considered as sexual partners, comes from radical feminists. The opposite of fetishisation – something which both lesbians and transwomen experience from men, this is seen as an unacceptable form of cissexism.
The call to political lesbianism and to consider transwomen as potential sexual partners can be contrasted. Both challenge women to reconsider their choices of sexual partners from a political viewpoint. The call to heterosexual identified women in “Love your enemy” was not only to consider sexual relationships with women, but also to reject sexual relationships with men. The call from trans-activists to lesbian identified women is explictly to consider sexual relationships with transwomen – there is no suggestion that a celibate lesbianism may be a suitable non-transphobic political choice. In political lesbianism, the political objective is to overcome male power which is manifested in heteronormative society, both socially and individually overcoming subordinate status. In cotton ceiling theory, the political objective is to overcome transphobia by accepting gynophilic transwomen’s gender and sexual preference. Although it is stated – quite strongly in this piece – that anyone who holds transphobic views are not sexually attractive to transwomen, but the implication is that women who accept that gender identity is self-defined should make no distinction between ciswomen and transwomen in consideration of a sexual partner.
Adrienne Rich’s original article quoted Kathleen Gough’s list of ways in which men assert power over women, these the first two specifically relate to sexual activity: to deny women [their own] sexuality and to force [male sexuality] upon them, it worth considering how these play out within political lesbian and cotton ceiling discourses.
Within political lesbianism, it embraces the existence of male power to encourage women to reject men as sexual partners – effectively it co-opts existing patriarchal power to instruct women on what they must do to overcome it, in that it denies androphilic women their sexuality, demanding that they must reject their natural sexual inclinations. Within the cotton ceiling debate, it utilises transactivist gender theory to demand that gynophilic women may not consider only cis-women as potential sexual partners. Both these discourses seek to control and assert power over individual women’s sexuality through political narrative – the first references to male privilege the second through references to cis-privilage. The difference between the two however is that political lesbianism encourages women to consider other women as sexual partners from a position of their own subordination and holds the promise of liberation from that subordinate position; cotton ceiling theory however encourages women to consider transwomen as sexual partners from a position of dominance as a means of enabling the liberation of others.
Within political lesbianism there is no forcing of male sexuality on women within the narrative. Within the cotton ceiling debate, there is a demand that women accept male anatomical features – most notably a penis – as an acceptable part of a woman’s anatomy, and here is where it gets considerably problematic, for penises – like it or not – have considerable symbolic and cultural implications not to mention reproductive purposes and as also that many women have embraced a lesbian sexuality in order to avoid reproductive labour and the need to take precautions against it.
The main concern of those addressing the cotton ceiling issue is that gynophilic transwomen are considered as “de-sexed and unfuckable” by lesbians which is considered to imply their unacknowledged cis-sexism, which is rather ironically the position that I was put in – as a heterosexual identified woman within many feminist groups. If we acknowledge that regardless of natural sexual orientation, the choice of who to be sexual with is a political one, respecting the desire of those who chose only to be sexual with any particular grouping is to be respected, the question then has to be asked, why is gynophilia far more common among transwomen than among ciswomen.
Two possible explanations spring out – either that transwomen have not experienced the compulsory heterosexuality that ciswomen learn to internalise when they grow up as a girl, encouraged instead to view women as potential erotic and romantic partners, or secondly that the objectification that all women are subjected to, goes into overdrive when it comes to transwomen who are horrifically fetishised both in porn and in mainstream representations, leading them to reject male sexuality for the same reasons as political lesbians. It makes far more sense then for transfeminists to work to overcome the compulsory heterosexuality that limits women’s sexual choices and make erotic relationships with women a genuine choice as well as working to overcome the male fetishisation of them as “exotic” women rather than engage in encouraging other women to consider sexual relationships with them.
Transmisogyny is very real, getting blown out by someone you fancy hurts whatever their reasons for sexually rejecting you, but its not going to kill you.