Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Is feminism bad for your sex life

This blog post originally appeared on The Fresh Outlook:

Feminism has taken rather a bashing these last few weeks. Hot on the heels of David Willetts blaming feminism for the lack of social mobility for working class men, came an article in Psychology Today, entitled 'Why feminism is the anti-viagra'.

Apparently, studies in lab rats have shown that female rats are, as a general rule, sexually submissive. According to Psychology Today, “most women” have submissive sexual fantasies, and they have linked the two to come up with the extraordinary conclusion that women are “naturally sexually submissive”, and that feminism contradicts this.

The whole article is filled with huge assumptions and generalisations about (straight, cis) women's sexuality, including the idea that all women want a dominant man, such as the ones found in period bodice rippers, whilst men are aroused by being dominant, as portrayed in 'sleep' and 'exploitation porn'.

Psychology Today argue:

“Men are aroused by being dominant and by submissive women; women are aroused by being submissive and by dominant men. In the bedroom, inequality beats equality.”

The article then goes on to explain that there are some exceptions to the rule (we surely don't need science to tell us that?) before coming to this startling conclusion:

“Negotiating sexual politics has always been difficult, but paradoxically the laudable and necessary victories of gender equality activism might make it even more challenging. We're all figuring out how to live in the first society in human history where women have such power, independence, and clout. But just as democracy has no effect on our basic taste preferences for sugar and fat, democracy doesn't affect our basic sexual preferences for domination and submission.”

I have a few issues with this article, as you may suspect. Firstly, its conclusion is ahistorical and shows that the whole piece has been written from a Western, patriarchal perspective. Look far enough back in history, and across the globe, and you will find that there have been societies and communities that revere and respect women, matriarchal societies that have been forgotten via revisionist history. Secondly, women don't have that much power and clout, neither in the developed or developing world. If we did, there'd be more than four women in the UK cabinet, and 1 in 3 women across the world wouldn't experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.

A further issue is that women aren't rats. I know it sounds like stating the obvious, and of course it is useful to observe mammals' behaviour and compare them to human patterns. And whilst we could argue that the purpose of both humans and rats is to procreate, the comparison to women's sexuality and rats' sexuality ignores all the differences in the way we raise families, live in communities, communicate and have power structures. Surely the huge, beautiful and fascinating variety of human sexuality, whether you're a man or a woman, gay or straight, cis or trans, asexual or bisexual or polysexual is too complex and exciting to be defined as men like to dominate, and women like to submit?

And what has all this to do with feminism anyway? The article seems to posit the idea that because women now have “equality” with men outside the bedroom, they are not sexually satisfied in the bedroom because they have trouble conforming to their “natural submissive role”. Not only is this silly for all the reasons listed above, and ignores the fact that you can be assertive in the board room/street/home etc and submissive in the bedroom if you want to be, but feminism has for many, many years sought to recognise, celebrate and encourage women's sexuality and women's sexual pleasure.

From The Women's Room to Small Changes, many novels of the second wave detail the frustration women felt about their sex lives; from accusations of being frigid, to having husbands who approved of their lack of orgasm. Feminism railed against this. It fought for women's right to have mutually consensual and pleasurable sex. It fought for women's pleasure to be recognised as real. Books like 'Our bodies our selves' and writers/activists like Betty Dodson celebrated and educated about women's capacity for sexual pleasure, and feminists everywhere encouraged women to embrace their sexual selves. Feminism fought for women to have bodily autonomy, advocating and getting the (sort of) legalisation of abortion in the UK, and feminism has long flied the flag for contraception and sex education. Of course there were issues: For example, some feminists felt that the way some other feminists expressed their sexuality was 'un-feminist' and this led to some of the more serious breakdowns in the second wave movement, particularly in the USA. But for a lot of women, the personal was the political and sex was part of it.

I believe that things have moved on since those rows, and these days, feminism still advocates a woman's and man's right to have mutually pleasurable and consensual sex. It argues against damaging media stereotypes that offer narrow definitions of what it means to be 'sexy' and instead aims to educate and empower young women about their sexuality. It still fights against the medicalisation of women's so-called 'sexual dysfunction' and encourages women to explore their bodies and their sexualities, as they want to.

So, I say to the writers of Psychology Today: are you sure? Are you sure it is feminism that is the problem? Are you sure you want to argue using these big sweeping generalisations? Or instead could it be that body image pressures, the influence of media imagery and the troubling need to be only and always sexual, according to a narrow definition of what it means to be “sexy”, could be part of the problem?

Because, as many a feminist has famously said, feminism is great for your sex life, however you want your sex life to be.

The Psychology Today article can be found at:

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