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:


featherhouse said...

blimey, just read the original article - pretty brainless, unlike your very thoughtful response. Thanks Sian


Hah ha what a load of rubbish - this article is nothing more than a rehash of male supremacist lies posing as 'science.'

Not too long ago men were viewed as the 'passive sex' because it was women who were demonised as being sexually voracious but when the enlightenment occurred slowly but surely male sexuality was redefined as claiming men are naturally biologically sexually aggressive and women are naturally sexually passive.

Once again women were demonised - either we were sexually dangerous voracious women or else we were sexually passive and submissive.

So real question to be asked is who benefits? Which system is being maintained by these lies? Why it is the male supremacist one of course - the one which claims men are naturally sexually aggressive/naturally sexually dominate and that women are naturally sexually passive and submissive.

Strange how this conforms exactly with male domination over women which by the way is not and never was - natural but a social construction and very successful it has been.

Read Sheila Jeffreys' book The Spinster and Her Enemies for a herstory of radical feminists who challenged and continue to challenge the lie that men are naturally sexually aggressive aka naturally sexually violent whereas women are supposedly passive.

Feminism is the radical belief that women must be accorded the right of self-definition rather than men claiming to be the default truth tellers. Women must be accorded the right of sexual autonomy not male sexual oppression.

By the way men can be trained to view anything as sexually exciting even a pair old wellington boots were viewed as sexually interesting to male subjects. This study was conducted to see if men could be trained to view anything as 'sexual' and the answer was a resounding yes. So much for men supposedly being driven by their biological sex drive.

Elly said...

Oh looks like that went through. Damn it was a good comment!

Basically I said as I have written in my post on my blog 'Equality My Ass' at I think women striving for 'equality' in all walks of life, equality with men, does affect their sex lives with men.

I think the struggle for power does not end when women take their clothes off.

I have problems buying the version of their sexuality that feminist 'submissive' women put across that they can be a 'tiger in the boardroom' and a kitten in the bedroom. It just does not wash with me.

If they can good luck to them but as someone who identifies as submissive, and has had quite a lot of shit about this, from FEMINISTS, I don't quite believe them.

sian and crooked rib said...

But this article was about saying that women are naturally sexually submissive and that feminism means women don't enjoy sex any more. Which is bullshit.

Elly said...

It is bullshit in itself. But it raises some interesting questions that I don't think feminism answers.

It's up to us how we respond to bullshit written about gender. The main feminist response tends to often be: 'that's bullshit!' end of discussion.

I am more interested in unpicking the issues that arise, both from the 'bullshit' of psychology/neuroscience, and from what I consider often to be the 'bullshit' of feminism.

You also have access to my 'bullshit' on gender, and the feminist response to that is normally 'bullshit' too.

But I prefer to have a conversation!

sian and crooked rib said...

that's why i wrote about it. to have a conversation about why we try and define and narrow human sexuality and ask why feminism is being blamed when it would be more interesting to look at how different pressures on women to by only and always sexual, according to a narrow definition of sexiness, may be having an effect on women's ability to experience or embody sexual pleasure. Why do young women have silent bodies? why do young women not understand consent? why are young women cutting up their labia to be 'sexy' even if it means they can't experience sexual pleasure as a result? why are young women seeing sex as a performance rather than something you engage in for desire, fun, excitement, arousal. How did this guy 'discover' that most women in the USA have unsatisfactory sex lives? More or less unsatisfactory than when? how does he justify his theory that feminism - which aimed to liberate women's sexuality, that spoke frankly about orgasms and the clitoris and masturbation and pleasure - is bad for women's sex lives. His argument is bullshit. the discussion and questions it generates is interesting.

Elly said...

one of the questions it has generated for me is how can women take on submissive roles in sex with men, and also take on 'equal' roles in relationships with men. I don't have an answer as I have never been in an 'equal' relationship with a man. And when feminists say they are, they never explain the details they just say they are!

McDuff said...


You identify as a sexual submissive. You're also a very loud and dominant person in any given conversation. Only somebody who was completely unaware of the diversity of sexual expression would be surprised by this - it certainly doesn't strike me as being in any way contradictory.

I don't understand how "feminism isn't answering these questions" because I'm not sure what questions you're asking. You just seem to be implying that sexual behaviour should define all other behaviour and that women aren't allowed to be complex and multifaceted without also being slightly sad about it.

What exactly is the actual problem with being a sexual submissive and socially aggressive? You don't seem to have any problem being both.

Anecdotally, feminism is great for people's sex life. What causes problems is people getting all up in our grilles about not having the right kind of sex.

sian and crooked rib said...

McDuff i completely agree. It doesn't make sense to me to say that we are not multi-faceted characters who can have many moods, likes, dislikes, preferences; that our sex lives do not always govern our characters (if Elly you feel it does yours, that's fine, but that is your identity and your self). As you say, the real problem (to me) is when people tell us how we should be sexual; from this scientist telling us women should be submissive, to religious people telling gay people they should not have relationships with 'genital contact', to the issues we had with some second wave feminists telling women they shouldn't have BDSM relationships. So long as the sex you're having is consensual and you want to be having it, then lets celebrate the diversity of human sexuality! And for me, part of feminism is about doing that.

Elly said...

how do you know I am loud and dominant McDuff you have never met me?

Even online I beg to differ.

But here we go again. I am open about my sexuality so it gets used as an example. Can't anyone else bring themselves to talk about their own sexuality? I am frankly bored of reading about mine from other people who use it to make points about my arguments without any disclosure about their own lives.

annifrangipani said...

I can't quite follow the conversation, but I'm taking away from this is that a lot of people are assuming that submissiveness or dominance is fixed, and that women are submissive and men are dominant. I think there is a great deal of fluidity of dominance/submissiveness in a person, depending on different factors. So one day a person might be dominant, another submissive, another, something in between. It's a spectrum, and part of the patriarchal deal is telling us that we have to fit in to our gendered boxes. Feminism is about dismissing those boxes and encouraging trust and respect between partners to fully explore their sexuality.

On a wider note, feminism isn't about saying that women should be a "tiger" in the boardroom. More that the boardroom should be a place that women have access to, on an equal footing with men, and that every person in the room has the right to speak and be taken seriously, whether they are female, male, man, woman, Black, Disabled, Gay, straight. EQUALITY.

Elly said...

you write in very abstract terms anni. I find that actual relationships are more difficult than you make out. And I do not believe that feminists have more 'equal' relationships with men than other people. If so, I'd like to hear more about how they work before feminists make generalised judgements about what being 'submissive' or 'dominant' means.

Sian- my comment on Charlie Glickman's piece wasn't about your post specifically it was me summing up how I have read all the feminist responses to this 'research'. I linked to yours as I thought yours was one of the few worth reading!

sian and crooked rib said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sian and crooked rib said...

I didn't think your comment on Charlies blog ws referring to me?

Elly said...

just clarifying in case you did! I posted your blogpost on a couple of sites as was trying to open the conversation out a bit.

annifrangipani said...

Elly: You said this: "I have problems buying the version of their sexuality that feminist 'submissive' women put across that they can be a 'tiger in the boardroom' and a kitten in the bedroom. It just does not wash with me."

My comment was in response to this. I'd hope that we all have the opportunities to behave as kittens and tigers in all situations when it suits us best. I don't see how sexuality impacts on behaviour in the workplace. It would be quite inappropriate if it did.

Elly said...

'I don't see how sexuality impacts on behaviour in the workplace. It would be quite inappropriate if it did.'

what if you worked in the pornography industry, the service industry, sex work, stripping, acting, cinema, dance, fashion, music...?

annifrangipani said...

Elly, I think you need another go to respond to my point. I'm sure someone with your high level qualifications can do better than that.

Helen Adiba said...

Elly, since you identify as submissive and consider that sexual power dynamics and non-sexual power dynamics are linked, how do you think your preference for submissiveness affects your non-sexual time?

I don't identify as purely one or the other, and enjoy both dominant and submissive sexual behaviour. I struggle to understand how so many people can identify so strongly with either dom or sub, as if to say they are 100% dom or 100% sub.

Maybe I am just misunderstanding the terminology then, perhaps when you say you identify as submissive you don't mean 100%?

If I was asked to quantify it (difficult but I'll try), then about 60% of my sexual activity involves me being submissive, 40% dominant (would be higher if the men I dated were smaller so I could manipulate their bodies more easily, with consent of course). ;) For me, the variation itself gives me a lot of pleasure. I am not "naturally" submissive as the Psychology Today article would have you believe but instead a more complex mixture of behaviours, as I expect most people are.

But I don't see submissiveness in my day to day life. I also don't see how my dominant sexual side comes through in day to day life either. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Or were you suggesting that there is a link between people with self esteem and confidence issues and being submissive?

I admit I am confused by your posts here so could you clarify? I'm very interested in this topic as I've only just recently started actively exploring my sexuality and find it fascinating how politically charged getting naked and sweaty can be.


Sian I enjoyed this post, thanks for writing it.

Elly said...

Hi Helen I will write a post on this on my own blog where I will explore the issue in more depth.

I am not wild about the tone of people's responses to me here so don't want to talk about my sexuality in any depth in an environment where I don't feel comfortable.

Please come and say hi on my blog and I will post a link to my post here as well if that is ok.



annifrangipani said...

Elly, you might be interested in this quote from Flavia Cacace, a professional dancer: " They’re aren’t many professions like ours, but as a professional, physical closeness isn’t an issue,’ says Flavia. ‘We’re focusing on technique and musicality not sex. It’s the same for most actors.’

I'm sure you'll be able to riposte with plenty of posts about how doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, call centre staff, scientists, community workers, driving instructors, music teachers, boiler repair people and gas fitters need to employ their sexuality at work.

(Sorry Sian for the Daily Mail link)

Elly said...

yes I will ani. There is a marvellous book called 'The Managed Heart' by Arlie Hothschild how people, especially women are expected to employ their sexuality in their daily work.

It is a key text in feminist studies of gender and work.

Also Lisa Adkins has written on how 'sex' is used in the workplace as part of cultural capital. She is another well known feminist/gender writer on gender and work.

But hey, you've got the Daily Mail. You must be right!

Helen Adiba said...


That's absolutely fine.

I started reading your blog before I commented to try and get some understanding of your position - it's great, so much meat in it to bite into! Although I can see we won't agree on all topics, it's always nice to discuss things with people with viewpoints different to your own.


annifrangipani said...

Well, Elly, if you'd mentioned these excellent books in the first place, instead of making the comments you did, we'd have finished this conversation before, wouldn't we? Why didn't you mention these books in your very first comments on this topic? I find that quite strange.

Helen Adiba said...

I've found a nice webpage that should be read alongside that Psychology Today article!

Elly said...

because anni I didnt think of their relevance to the discussion till you mentioned it being 'inappropriate' to express sexuality at work. I kind of assumed as feminists people here knew that sex/uality is expressed in working relationships/power dynamics.

annifrangipani said...

You said "I kind of assumed as feminists people here knew that sex/uality is expressed in working relationships/power dynamics."

I've rather got the impression from you that you think that feminists know very little about anything. Did you not recently advocate that all feminists have anal sex for some reason or another? I would have thought if you felt it necessary to instruct us in something as basic as how to have sex, you'd appreciate that we couldn't possibly have the knowledge about workplace sexuality and related issues. You're the one with the PhD after all.

sian and crooked rib said...

Sorry to wade in, but I think elly's post was that feminists should try anal sex as a way of giving up power rather than saying all feminists have anal sex. Which was interesting in what it implies or suggests about power dynamics around penetrative sex. As charlie glickman said in his post, how did the scientists know that rats felt that pose submissive? Were they projecting their own views about power and penetration onto the rats' behavior to get the conclusion they wanted?

sian and crooked rib said...

Helen, thanks for the link will check it out :-)

sian and crooked rib said...

I haven't read the hothschild book but it looks interesting. But I think there is a difference between saying that women and men are expected to use their sexuality at work, and whether ppl feel appropriate or comfortable using their sexuality at work, and what that means for how women and men are seen or viewed or respected in the workplace. It's complex.

Elly said...

Sian my post on anal sex was kind of tongue in cheek. Or tongue in arse.

I do believe that receiving anal is a good idea for everyone, and I also believe it is difficult to receive anal in a 'dominant' manner. But my belief is not a scientific theory and I am not claiming objectivity and it is not based on studying rats, but on actually taking it up the arse.


Elly said...

as for sexuality at work, we have bodies we can't leave them at home. we use our sexualities at work, home, socially.

The Managed Heart is an excellent book.

sian and crooked rib said...

I just think there is an interesting debate or conversation to be had about whether penetration is always dominant, as has been argued by ppl on,all sides of the sexual politics spectrum, or whether there are alternative ways to experience penetrative sex/sexuality. I never meant to disrespect how you feel about or experience your sexuality, sorry if that's how it came across. Feel the whole issue with the initial piece was that it was trying to define and control how women experience or embody their sexuality, and as the Charlie glickman piece said, as did feministing, it feels like the researchers projected their own beliefs onto their research. It's just made me think a lot about the diversity and various reactions/feelings/beliefs about sexuality.