I ended The Ethical Prude by saying:
Under patriarchy, sex is power, power is sexy, and sex is compulsory. That is to say, the sex act is attractive in a way that is conditioned by its qualities of power and violence… sex is not above criticism. Not bad sex, not sex gone wrong, not the sex that other people have. Our sex.
If sex is a thing we do, the way it’s organised is a sexuality. This series of articles is an attempt to answer the question: if sexuality under patriarchy is such a mess, what might “less of a mess” look like, and how do we get there from here?
It’s going to talk about some painful subjects, so please take care of yourself when reading. If you want to avoid this series, that’s OK. Otherwise, here are the things I’m going to cover which might be difficult for some people, so that you’re prepared: rape, pornography and BDSM.
I’ve tried to use a more conversational tone in this series than in some of my previous articles, and make it less academic, but at its heart this work is still built around the ideas of many feminists who’ve worked on this subject before me. I owe a special debt to Evangelia Papadaki for her work, Feminist Perspectives on Objectification, itself summarising Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton, which has largely structured my section on objectification. Other key authors whose work has helped in creating this series include: Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond. But you don’t have to have studied these authors to read this series, and anything I reference will be included as a quote.
Those who know that I’m transsexual or who are trans* yourselves might be concerned at seeing those last three names. I think that Daly, Jeffreys and Raymond have had and written about some valuable ideas. They have also done some things to trans* people which have caused us massive damage and pain. I’m aware of the issues involved with giving credibility to writers who’ve done harmful things, but I’ve also learnt a lot from them, and there are few alternative sources. However, I don’t endorse their ideas on transsexuality or consent to be used as a token transsexual in discussions of their legitimacy.
This project is dedicated, in love and gratitude, to a woman whose Moving I hope takes her where she needs to be.
I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
This table of contents isn’t meant to be the main way of navigating through the series. It’s a long piece and doesn’t have to be read sequentially and certainly not all in one go. Instead I encourage readers to use the many links in the articles to travel around and make your own way through the material, referring back to the table of contents if you feel you’ve lost your place.
Since I’m publishing the article in parts, some of the links won’t be active until the relevant part is up. If you’d rather read it as a whole, you’ll need to wait until the eighth part is published, at which point all the links should be available. If a link seems like it should work and doesn’t, please let me know.
- Naming Instrumental Sexuality
- Introducing Feminist Desire
- The Prudes’ Progress: Re-membering Feminist Desire
- The First Progression: Consciousness Raising
- The Second Progression: Loving Our Selves
- The Third Progression: Loving Other Women’s Selves
- The Fourth Progression: Subjectification
- The Fifth Progression: Falling Out Of Love With Dominance
- The Sixth Progression: Undoing Fetishes
- The Seventh Progression: Creating Places of Safety
- The Eighth Progression: Kindling Feminist Desire
- In Conclusion
- Appendix: A Bibliography of Feminist Desire: (Dis-covering Women’s Words)
Naming Instrumental Sexuality
Radical feminists spend a lot of time dealing with concepts which hide themselves in plain view. This can cause trouble when we try to name and speak about them. At one point I intended to simply use the words “sex” and “sexuality” to refer to the problems I want to solve in this series, to emphasise the width of the criticism. But I’m concerned that this might make it difficult for some people to hear the points I’m making, and it certainly makes it very easy to take quotes out of context, something I’m sure every radical feminist is tired of.
In the end, I settled on the phrase, “instrumental sexuality” because it captures my main point of criticism: a sexuality of the sexual use of human beings as instruments toward a purpose. The risk of naming the problem like this is that people can simply define themselves out of it, in a way which isn’t possible with the unmodified words “sex” and “sexuality”. But I’m not writing to a few people on the fringe who’ve ended up with a damaged sex life. I’m writing to all of us, because we probably all learnt our sexuality within a system which hates women, glorifies whiteness and fetishises domination. It would be weird if we hadn’t ended up a bit messed up:
We have been nurtured in a sick, abnormal society, and we should be about the process of reclaiming ourselves as well as the terms of that society. This is complex. I speak not about condemnation but about recognizing what is happening and questioning what it means. I’m not willing to regiment anyone’s life, but if we are to scrutinize our human relationships, we must be willing to scrutinize all aspects of those relationships. The subject of revolution is ourselves, is our lives.
Audre Lorde in conversation with Susan Leigh Star as published in A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (Firebrand Books, 1988)
The “sick, abnormal society” Lorde describes isn’t global; Lorde’s speaking particularly about European/North American society, and so am I. This doesn’t mean that instrumental sexuality isn’t a problem in other societies – as we hear from sisters around the world, clearly it is – but this series is about the particular forms it takes in European/North American societies.
Instrumental sexuality, then, is the name this series uses for what’s normally just called “sexuality”. In The Ethical Prude, I argued that it’s “not nice” and suggested some principles of a “sex-negative” feminism, which in the language of this series would be an instrumental-sexuality-negative feminism. This series largely avoids revisiting the same territory, and I’ll take as a basis of my argument here that “instrumental sexuality is not nice”. Instrumental sexuality is defined here as an ideology which:
Treats domination and differences of power, including but not limited to the differences in power between women and men within a patriarchy, as erotic
Is based on the concept of ‘active’ (subject) and ‘passive’ (object) roles (I prefer ‘object’ to ‘passive’ because this role can also be about acting precisely as desired/instructed, i.e. more like a tool or machine, also forms of object)…
… and involves the idea of the subject ‘getting something’ from the object, i.e. is a “doer/done-to” model
Relies on oppressions which create and maintain those differences of power
Is dependent on and interwoven with institutions and social forces which promote it as desirable for the object as well as the subject
Because of that interweaving, also has woven into it behaviours (including sexual behaviours) which don’t only eroticise the power difference but create and maintain it
Exists on a clear continuum with ideologies supporting sexual violence and rape
To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse.
In order to be utilized, our erotic feelings must be recognized. The need for sharing deep feeling is a human need. But within the european-american tradition, this need is satisfied by certain proscribed erotic comings-together. These occasions are almost always characterized by a simultaneous looking away, a pretense of calling them something else, whether a religion, a fit, mob violence, or even playing doctor. And this misnaming of the need and the deed give rise to that distortion which results in pornography and obscenity – the abuse of feeling.
When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connection with our similarities and our differences.
When Lorde writes that “use without consent of the used is abuse”, I want to note that instrumental sexuality exists in a world which uses everything it can to get “consent”. When “no” meant “no”, they didn’t give women a chance to say “no”. When only “yes” meant “yes”, they tried to make women say “yes”. When only “enthusiastic consent” meant “yes”, they did everything in their power to make women give that “yes” enthusiastically. “Consent is sexy” + the law of compulsory sexiness for women = compulsory “consent”. And as always, the test of women’s true power is in what happens if we don’t do what they want, not how they praise us when we do.
(I’ve called out the treatment of consent for women here because the treatment of women shows clearly what a power bloc can do when it addresses itself to compromising consensuality, not because I mean to suggest that it’s only women’s consent which is pressured.)
I’ve had a lot of conversations about objectification, and I’ve seen more, so I know some of the ways that they can go. So I’m going to start out by making it clear what I’m not talking about, to try and avoid any confusion.
I’m not talking about objectification as a thing that only happens between two people, where one of them looks at or thinks about the other one and focuses on particular things about them. That’s part of objectification, and an important part, but I think it’s only one part of a wider system and more of an effect than a cause. Objectification requires power, and power is systemic. Otherwise, it’s possible to misrepresent objectification as something “we all do”, but:
Since sexuality is socially constructed it is possible to train women to objectify. [But] it would not be possible for women to effectively objectify men since the attraction of men in [the institution of] heterosexuality is precisely their power and ruling class status… A generalised objectification of men by women would not be possible unless women had power over men as a class. Objectification is a part of ruling class sexuality. In an egalitarian society objectification would not exist because no class or group would be seen as dispensable and inferior.
Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: A feminist perspective on the lesbian sexual revolution (Spinifex Press, 1993), p37
In Feminist Perspectives on Objectification, Evangelia Papadaki summarises work by the philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton on objectification which identifies ten factors. Nussbaum and Langton were are working as philosophers who were trying to define objectification. Their structure is useful to us, but in this case we’re interested in how the factors work, so that we can work out what to do about them. So I’ve rewritten the summaries below in terms of how they are done:
Instrumentality: coercing or conditioning a woman to act as a tool for men’s purposes
Denial of autonomy: taking away a woman’s autonomy and self-determination
Inertness: restricting a woman’s agency and activity
Fungibility: objectifying a woman (the rest of these activities) in such a way that they become interchangeable with other objectified women
Violability: violating a woman’s boundary-integrity and enabling boundary violation
Ownership: two completely separate issues here (though not quite treated as separate in Nussbaum’s paper); most importantly, human slavery is widespread in trafficking and other forms; also, and incomparably with human slavery, many women are treated as if men have authority over them
Denial of subjectivity: not taking into account a person’s experiences and feelings, and treatment which suppresses, denies or makes them doubt their experiences and feelings
Reduction to body: conditioning which restrains a person’s consciousness to their body or body parts
Reduction to appearance: treating a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses, as well as conditioning which makes people judge themselves primarily on their appearance
Silencing: removing or suppressing a person’s capacity to speak, creating a context such that their speech is systematically misinterpreted/misunderstood/non-valued or conditioning them to think their speech isn’t worthwhile
(The first seven are Nussbaum’s, the last three Langton’s.)
As discussed later, objectification is a reality-shaping process which creates the world according to how white-supremacist patriarchy imagines the world. Any individual white man wields a small part of this power and benefits from a large part, but in general it’s being done by systems and to classes, not just person-to-person. Objectification makes us what we need to be in order for instrumental sexuality to run smoothly on our bodies, and I’ll discuss it much more detail in the fourth Progression: Subjectification.
Feminists have long criticised men’s pornography because it objectifies women, i.e. turns women into objects for men to consume. Men are taught that women are simply objects on whom they can act out their fantasies. Men can objectify women because women are the subordinate class and exist in the conditions of subordination which render them the victims of pornography and prostitution, rape and sexual abuse. In the act of objectification members of the oppressor class are able to remove the elements of common humanity which might enable them to identify with their victim. Such is the process involved in war when recruits are trained to objectify their enemy so that they can kill them, a process used for the war in Vietnam. Male sexuality is organised around objectification. Objectifying sexual desire exists in the head and the imagination. Men fantasise what they would like to do and who to and can go out looking for a suitable object.
Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: A feminist perspective on the lesbian sexual revolution (Spinifex Press, 1993), p54
In Gyn/Ecology, Mary Daly uses the language of necrophilia to talk about fetishes. For Daly, a fetish is a sexual connection to a thing which is unable to relate back. So, it can be towards an inanimate entity/concept such as a boot or a smell. Or it can be towards a body part, context-free without a human being present. How many women have had the experience of men carrying out a conversation seemingly directly with their breasts, or of seeing seemingly disembodied genitalia, breasts or buttocks displayed in pornography or media?
Or, and this is where I found Daly’s analysis most striking, it can be a sexual relation with a person who does not have the power to relate back as an equal. And the power of the “sexiness” of that fetish can be based on that lack of power to reciprocate. This is a kind of sexual attraction based on the way that processes of objectification can reduce a person (a woman)’s agency so that we can be related to in a way more closely resembling an object/a non-living thing, a process which requires the (largely figurative, sometimes literal) death of ourSelves.
Recent research by Sarah J. Gervais, Jill Allen, Sophie Campomizzi et al. on ways of perceiving sexualised bodies was based on the established theory that there are two ways of perceiving: configural, “which depends on perceiving relations and configurations among the constitutive parts of a stimulus [and] is related to person recognition” and analytic, “which is involved in object recognition [and] does not take into account spatial relations among the stimulus parts”. By using a testing method which disrupts configural but not analytic perception, they were able to show that sexualised images of white cissexual women were recognised as objects and sexualised images of white cissexual men as persons:
At a basic cognitive level, sexualized [white cissexual] men were perceived as persons, whereas sexualized [white cissexual] women were perceived as objects… our findings showed no differences related to participant gender, which suggests that cultural beliefs that [white cissexual] women are sex objects are shared by both men and women at a basic cognitive level.
Sarah J. Gervais, Jill Allen, Sophie Campomizzi et al., Integrating Sexual Objectification With Object Versus Person Recognition: The Sexualized-Body-Inversion Hypothesis (Psychological Science 23, 2012), p469-471
There are three things we can draw from this. The first, which most women won’t need a research project to tell us, is that white cissexual women (though it’s not just white cissexual women) are often looked at like things, not people (a result I touched on very briefly way back in this post about the same research). The second is that both women and men were found to use this way of looking at white cissexual women – this sharing of the dominant point of view is something I’ll discuss later. And the third is that the way of perceiving white cissexual women (and one which may extend along other axes of perception touched by systems of domination) is one that “does not take into account spatial relations among the stimulus parts”, in other words, it looks at us like a collection of bits, not a whole.
Seen this way, normative attraction to women seems more like a fetish for femininity. Attraction is described as being to women’s bodies, but it is actually to an abstract category of “femininity” which wraps up objectified, conceptually amputated body parts, imagined traits and traits actually possessed but only because they were enforced by sex role education.
Fetishisation is a kind of dismemberment, the body part (or concept-part) severed from the whole and floating in space where it can act as a desire object without any need for that messy context which comes with having the rest of a human being attached to it. An objectified woman seen through pornovision, as opposed to wimminsight, see later for both terms, is a bag of fetishised body parts, temporarily animate. Far too much effort to see the whole woman:
There’s way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it. I…. I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, red-head…
Spoken by Cypher in The Matrix, Dir. Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski (Warner Brothers, 1999)
This way of perceiving is obviously something which happens at a very deep level. I’d describe a fetish as the hardened form of objectification. A fetish is when objectification has reached right back into the hindbrain and twisted, creating a sexual knot. Because it’s created by objectification and because objectification is a mechanism of sexism, classism, racism and other forms of domination, the knot isn’t politically “neutral”, and I’ll talk later about some ways in which fetishes might be undone.
In the next part of this series, I want to introduce a different kind of way of relating altogether.