by Jane Freedman, pub. Open University Press, Buckingham - Philadelphia, 2001.
OUP email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jane Freedman is a lecturer in French and European politics at the University of Southampton. Her research focuses on gender and politics in Europe. Her previous publications include Femmes Politiques: Mythes et Symboles (1997) and Identities in France (2000).
…. Catharine MacKinnon …. Maintains:
Sexuality, then, is a form of power. Gender, as socially constructed embodies it, not the reverse. Women and men are divided by gender, made into the sexes as we know them, by the social requirements of heterosexuality, which institutionalises male sexual dominance and female sexual submission. It this is true, sexuality is the linchpin of gender inequality. - MacKinnon, C. (1982) Feminism, Marxism, method and the state: an agenda for theory, Signs, 7(3): 530-45.
This is a powerful argument, but is one that has been criticized for dismissing the importance of other articulations of male power not primarily through sexuality (Walby 1990). Whether sexuality is viewed as the primary form of oppression of women or as one form of oppression among others, it is, however, agreed by many feminists that women need far greater control over their own bodies and their sexuality. In this chapter we will explore some of the debates in feminism over issues such as heterosexuality, pornography, rape and reproduction.
Heterosexuality and lesbianism
Stemming from the argument (as made by MacKinnon above) that sexuality is central to men’s domination of women comes a feminist questioning of heterosexuality. Feminists have questioned the belief that heterosexuality is a naturally occurring practice or a matter of individual choice and have argued that in fact heterosexual relations are part of a socially constructed system of domination. For some feminists, heterosexuality itself is not incompatible with feminism and women’s liberation, but there must be considerable transformations in the ways in which heterosexuality is constructed before it becomes acceptable. For others, the ways in which heterosexuality involves men’s domination of women implies that the only true liberation for women will come through an abandonment of heterosexuality and an adoption instead of lesbianism.
One of the ways in which men control women through heterosexual relations is through a definition of ‘normal’ female sexuality. Part of this definition, which Anne Koedt (1972) sets out to demolish, is that of the female vaginal orgasm. Koedt argues that the vaginal orgasm is in fact a myth designed to reinforce male power over women. Although women who fail to have vaginal orgasms have been labelled as frigid by men, in fact the vagina is not a highly sensitive area and it is the clitoris that is central to female sexual sensitivity and pleasure. All orgasms are in reality extensions of sensations from the clitoris and not from the vagina. The myth of the vaginal orgasm has been maintained by men, however, because the best stimulant for the penis is the woman’s vagina. Men refuse to see women as total, separate human beings and define them instead in terms of how they benefit men’s lives. In terms of sexuality this means that women are not seen as individuals who want ro and should share equally in the sex act; they are not seen as people with their own desires. The sexual desires of men are all that is considered important. Furthermore, men fear that they will become sexually expendable if the clitoris is substituted for the vagina as the centre of women’s sexual pleasure, and that the institution of heterosexuality itself will be threatened. Koedt argues that women must redefine their sexuality, discarding the idea of sex which has been defined as the norm by men and creating new ways of discovering mutual sexual enjoyment.
Although some feminists believe that sexual relations between men and women can be redefined to result in mutual sexual enjoyment, for others heterosexuality can never be compatible with women’s liberty and true sexual pleasure. This latter group of feminists has argued that one cannot be a true feminist without being a lesbian, as ‘the very essence, definition and nature of heterosexuality is men first’ (Bunch 1986: 131). Lesbianism, in some definitions, may not always involve sexual relationships with women, but just withdrawal from sexual relationships with men. For example, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group stated that it believed that all feminists could and should be ‘political lesbians’, by which they meant ‘a woman-identified woman does not fuck men. Ir does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women’ (Onlywomen 1981: 5). The women of the Leeds group argued that the heterosexual couple was the basis of male supremacy and that any woman who slept with a man was collaborating with the enemy. Sexual choice is thus identified as a political act, a decision whether to collaborate in the continuation of male domination or to adopt a stand against it. Sexual preference is not seen as in any way ‘natural’. The view that lesbianism is a political choice against male domination and that it does not necessarily involve sexual relations with a woman but merely withdrawal from heterosexuality has, however, been criticized for taking away the positive aspect of the sexual choice to be a lesbian and replacing it with a negative political one. Feminists have thus been drawn into a debate about how lesbianism should be defined – narrowly as a sexual relationship between two women, or more widely.
Adrienne Rich (1980, 1986) is one of those to argue against a narrow, primarily sexual definition of lesbianism, and instead she talks about a ‘lesbian continuum’. Within this continuum she includes not only sexual acts but a whole range of ‘woman-identified’ experience:
I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range – through each woman’s life and throughout history – of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support …. We begin to grasp the breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of ‘lesbianism’. – Rich A, “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence”, Signs, 5(4): 631-60.