“But obviously I love it”: Feminism’s problem with sex and lived experience

This post is brought to you by sex. Lots and lots of sex, which I may or may not have had in the past and/or be having right now. The precise nature of said sex shall remain undefined. Suffice it to say that it’s as rude – or not rude – as you want it to be. The point is, I’ve fucked my way to credibility – or have I?

It has come to my attention that in most discussions of porn, sex work and objectification, there’s immense pressure placed on feminists to demonstrate they have the lived experience required to take part. It’s not enough that to have grown up in a patriarchal culture, nor to have felt the daily impact of being reduced to passive flesh. You’re obliged to show your bits. After all, if you don’t do that, how can anyone tell whether you’re not just some sex-fearing neurotic? Disliking sex is not the same as, say, not liking sugar in your tea; it’s become a form of bigotry and thus, as a bigot, you’re not allowed an abstract opinion on how objectification affects womankind. Indeed, even if you’re fond of most things sex-wise, it’s probably best to express unbridled enthusiasm for anything at all that you find problematic, otherwise you may not be permitted to find it problematic in the first place. Does that make sense?

At this juncture I’d like to stress that it’s not the case that I don’t like sex (see first paragraph). I’m just, you know, pointing this out, for a friend, although naturally I find myself in the same double-bind as every other feminist who broaches this topic. Disclose past sexual encounters in all their scope and variation and you’re confirming that disclosure matters; only those who (a) spill forth and (b) present the correct narrative (the one leading to the “right” answer) shall have a place at the table. Don’t disclose anything and you will be deemed not to have anything to disclose. Either way you’re fucked (or not fucked, since even if you have fucked, everyone will decide that you haven’t. Not that this matters, except in this case it apparently does).

You will find similar double-binds in other areas of feminism (this is because patriarchy is shit). Take appearance, for instance. It is occasionally argued that the only reason feminists object to women being judged on looks is because they themselves are ugly (men’s rights extremists even have a word for such feminists: “fuglies,” they call them. Hilarious!). Of course, you can say “but feminists aren’t all ugly” – which is true – but the moment you do, there you are, back judging women on how they look and even conceding that appearance could, theoretically, influence political positioning. Unfortunately, the alternative to this – saying “feminists don’t care” – will only bring the retort “well, they would say that, being ugly.” So you’re left with “they’re not all ugly, not that that matters, except obviously it does, only it doesn’t for the ugly ones, who come to their position completely independently of the stupid value system which I’ve just been obliged to accept…”  And then the cognitive dissonance kills you.

With debates relating to sexual experience, however, I find it even worse. This is, quite possibly, linked to something deep and disturbing in my past (or is it?). Sex is understood to be very special. It’s meant to exist outside of feminism. It’s consent that’s always seen as the problem – and consent is viewed as something separate, with the context of sex itself having nothing to do with it. If men get off on imaginary narratives of woman-hating, so the story goes, it’s fine to reproduce them for mass consumption because such recreational validation will be unrelated to the woman-hating that goes on in real life. If an idea makes you come, it can do no harm.

It’s interesting that many liberal feminists will be on a constant look-out for dog whistle prejudice, but they will stop short at calling out anything that could get in the way of the male orgasm, no matter how glaringly obvious the hate. To attack something sex-related might suggest one has a problem with sex. You risk being seen as damaged or not properly functional. Your perceived lack of sexual experience will be read as political conservatism, and soon your alleged sex-phobia will become whorephobia, homophobia and biphobia (but never, of course, lesophobia; sexual experience which doesn’t involve cocks doesn’t count. Funny, that). The pressure to say “but I bloody love sex!” and recount one edgy encounter after another becomes incredible. Of course, you should be free to recount whatever you like without judgment; but even saying you don’t want to play this game will be read as a blanket condemnation of sexual openness (rather than a reasoned objection to the patriarchal rules on how sexual openness must be deployed).

The whole thing is immensely regressive. Whatever you do, however you do it, you won’t be able to discuss objectification without people evaluating your opinion on the basis of your known sexual history. And you will be aware of this, so you’ll have to make decisions on how to present your views which may run contrary to the very principles you are outlining. And at the end of the day, you will know that it comes down to this: can you demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that you’d still hold these views if you were a good fuck? And, for that matter, are you? Care to show it?

Anyhow, I’ve said enough. Back to having loads of sex. Or not having it. Whichever makes me into the woman I need to be for the argument I’m trying to express.


8 thoughts on ““But obviously I love it”: Feminism’s problem with sex and lived experience

  1. So funny, thank you for coming out of semi-retirement and writing this. Knew you wouldn’t stay away for long. If it’s any consolation (which it probably won’t be) when one’s libido packs up and leaves it can be the most blessed relief.

    Kingsley Amis said something about it being like being released from having been chained to a mad dog. Perhaps not the best analogy for female desire but, by God, you don’t half feel liberated. Oddly enough, my feminism seems less urgent too; as though much of it was forged as an rather ‘ballsy’ oppositional identity just so the men in my life knew what they were ‘up against’. My feminism was clearly linked to being sexually predatory and aggressive but from my present vantage point it all seems rather desperate.

    That’s not to say I’ve abandoned feminism, far from it. But the preoccupations of the flesh do rather cancel out the inevitability of old age, disability and ill health and keep much feminism in the realm of a youth and body obsessed culture that is a mirror image of capitalist patriarchy itself.

    1. A lot of food for thought in this post and in this reply. About 6 years ago my libido died due to a combination of MS and the drugs I’m taking for it. And like you, I found this utterly liberating. Interestingly, though, it’s made my feminism much more urgent as though the mist had lifted and I can see misogyny much more clearly. Maybe being a spectator allows me to see the game more clearly than the players sometimes.
      This is where I’m caught in a bind, though:
      Me: I’m asexual
      Blokes and funfems: No you’re not; you’re fugly; you just need a good shag
      Me: I think Pornography and prostitution are an expression of male power
      Blokes and funfems: you don’t have sex so you can’t have an opinion

      As a feminist woman , one will never be qualified to speak about sex in the eyes of men and their handmaidens because the reflection we hold up to them is too unpalatable for them to handle. They then have to find reasons to exclude us from the discourse.

      So thanks again, glosswatch and Susanna

      1. Thank you Lesley. We have much in common and you made me think about whether I really meant that my feminism is less ‘urgent’: I think I used the wrong word and the vantage point of clarity that our position outside of ‘desire’ brings has much to recommend it in spite of what we might feel we’ve lost along the way. I wish you well.

  2. As you rightly point out this is all about heteronormative sexual experience. Sex with women just confirms your inexperience/man-hating qualities/that your sex isn’t quite real.

    Getting past the male orgasm seems to be hugely difficult. Lesbophobia is alive and kicking in feminism.

  3. This was really interesting, thank you! It’s rare to find something that’s not just rehashing stuff I’ve heard so many times before. Will share about a bit.

  4. It’s especially galling to have to big up sex all the time when you suspect that actually patriarchy has probably spoilt it for you just a little bit…Thank you for putting this so well!

  5. Reflecting on the critical response to ‘Intercourse’, Andrea Dworkin noted that, for a woman writer, the only acceptable attitude to have towards sex (implicitly understood to be het sex) was, ‘Yes, more’. As you note, any political analysis of sex is forbidden to women, and taken only as a sign of a woman’s personal inadequacy or insecurities. How convenient that this one area of human existence, which is so intimately tied to women’s oppression, should be declared off-limits for women to critically analyse!

    “In general women get to say yea or nay to intercourse, which is taken to be a synonym for sex, echt sex. In this reductive brave new world, women like sex or we do not. We are loyal to sex or we are not. The range of emotions and ideas expressed by Tolstoy et al. is literally forbidden to contemporary women. Remorse, sadness, despair, alienation, obsession, fear, greed, hate – all of which men, especially male artists, express – are simple no votes for women. Compliance means yes; a simplistic rah-rah means yes; affirming the implicit right of men to get laid regardless of the consequences to women is a yes. Reacting against force or exploitation means no; affirming pornography and prostitution means yes. I like it is the standard for citizenship, and I want it pretty much exhausts the First Amendment’s meaning for women. Critical thought or deep feeling puts one into the Puritan camp, that hallucinated place of exile where women with complaints are dumped, after which we can be abandoned. Why – socially speaking – feed a woman you can’t fuck? Why fuck a woman who might ask questions let alone have a complex emotional life or a political idea? I refuse to tolerate this loyalty-oath approach to women and intercourse or women and sexuality or, more to the point, women and men.”

    Andrea Dworkin, preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse.

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