This is the second part in an eight-part series of articles, The Prudes’ Progress, about non-objectifying, woman-identified sexuality based on ideas of equality and whole-personhood, in the tradition of lesbian feminism. For the first article in the series, which includes a table of contents, please click here. The articles don’t have to be read in order and contain many backwards and forwards links so you can follow them in whatever way is most useful for you, although forward links won’t work until the relevant article is available.
Introducing Feminist Desire
I’d like to make a case for cultivating, in ourselves, in our relationships and in our communities, something I’m going to call feminist desire. I define feminist desire as non-hierarchical desire: a desire which flows over a joyful emotional and/or sexual connection, which draws its meaning from equality, not from power.
A sexuality of feminist desire, then, is a sexuality which is open to joyful sexual connections which draw their meaning from equality. And a relationship based on feminist desire can only exist between two people who’ve cultivated that sexuality (so that we’re open to feminist desire) and who don’t hold significant power over each other (so that feminist desire can flourish). Rather than a doer/done-to model, it’s a be-ing/be-ing model. “Our turn, our turn” instead of “my turn, your turn”.
I’m not the first person to talk about an alternative to instrumental sexuality. Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond describe instrumental sexuality as “heterosexual desire”, Jeffreys writing that it is “eroticised power difference”. Like instrumental sexuality, this is about something socially constructed, not innate; Jeffreys continues, “Heterosexual desire originates in the power relationship betwen men and women, but it can also be experienced in same sex relationships”, and goes on to contrast it against homosexual desire:
The opposite of heterosexual desire is the eroticising of sameness, a sameness of power, equality, and mutuality. It is homosexual desire.
Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution (The Women’s Press, 1993), heterosexual desire p299, homosexual desire p301
Mary Daly talks about a quality she calls biophilia, the love of life, which in our case we can apply to the love of living people, not fetishised sex objects. I’d love to include a quote here but it’s difficult to pull one thread loose from Daly’s Weave of words; instead I’ll direct the interested reader to the section The Shrinking of Female Be-ing from Gyn/Ecology, specifically pages 233-236 (The Women’s Press, 1979), and if anyone has a better reference, please let me know.
Audre Lorde uses the term “the erotic”, which she compares to “the pornographic”; I think (I don’t want to state absolutely, as I don’t want to be the white woman who authoritatively ‘interprets’ the work of a Black woman) her terms map onto my use of “feminist desire” and “instrumental sexuality” when she writes that:
The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Uses of the Erotic (Quality Paperback Book Club collected edition, 1993), p54
(Note: I hope that Lorde’s using “psychotic” here in the sense that its use by men as a misnaming of the erotic is meant to be a disablist slur, rather than using it in a disablist way herself to refer to something “bad” or “deranged”. If not, I’m sorry for including a quote which validates disablism, and I’ll edit it on request.)
And Andrea Dworkin uses the term “androgynous fucking”:
By redefining human sexuality, or by defining it correctly, we can transform human relationship and the institutions which seek to control that relationship. Sex as the power dynamic between men and women, its primary form sadomasochism, is what we know now. Sex as community between humans, our shared humanity, is the world we must build… Specifically, androgynous [meaning: "a model which does not use polar role definitions, where the definitions are not, implicitly or explicitly, male = good, female = bad, man = human, woman = other"] fucking requires the destruction of all conventional role-playing, of genital sexuality as the primary focus and value, of couple formations, and of the personality structures dominant-active (“male”) and submissive-passive (“female”).
Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (Plume, 1974), p183-185, androgyny definition p153
(That said, I share Mary Daly’s discomfort with the word “androgynous”, agreeing with her note in the preface to Gyn/Ecology that it sounds something like “John Travolta and Farrah Fawcett-Majors scotch-taped together”. This is a cultural reference to two American film stars popular in the 1970s, who – in a meaning probably unintended on Daly’s part – are both white, but this might be telling about which racially gendered roles, when combined, are thought to constitute “completion”. And more recently “androgynous” has been overused to refer to slightly masculine-coded presentation among people assigned female at birth, making it another kind of problematic.)
And so feminist desire, which is what I think Lorde calls the erotic, is also biophilic (Daly) because it isn’t a sexuality in which a person (subject) relates to their inert, objectified image of another person but one in which two living people relate to each other and take joy in their living qualities. It’s a homosexual desire (Raymond, Jeffreys) because it’s a joy in equality, not in (power) difference, and it’s androgynous (Dworkin) in that it doesn’t draw its energy from a distance between opposite definitions.
I think we’re all talking about something similar, and the different routes by which other women have reached it and the different ways we describe and emphasise its many faces are confirmation and comfort to me that we’ve discovered something meaningful.
The Prudes’ Progress: Re-membering Feminist Desire
How can we cultivate in ourselves a sexuality of feminist desire and connect with others who are doing the same?
I can only even begin to answer this question for women who love women. I don’t necessarily think it’s impossible for anyone else, but I find it difficult to imagine and I wouldn’t know where to start. Because patriarchy is a big deal (these five words are, for me, the essence of radical feminist thought), I don’t believe you can just exchange the words “women” and “men” within a feminist work, because that “big deal” puts women and men in such different positions.
Readers… will probably be wondering whether homosexual desire can fit into an opposite-sex relationship. In a society which was not founded upon the subordination of women there would be no reason why it should not. But we do not live in such a society. We live in a society organised around heterosexual desire, around otherness and power difference. It is difficult to imagine what shape a woman’s desire for a man would take in the absence of eroticised power difference since it is precisely this which provides the excitement of heterosexuality today.
Heterosexuality is the institution through which male-supremacist society is organised and as such it must cease to function. It is difficult to imagine at this point what shape any relationship between different sexes would take when such a relationship was a free choice, when it was not privileged in any way over same-sex relationships and when it played no part in organising women’s oppression and male power. In such a situation, when heterosexuality was no longer an institution, we cannot yet be sure what women would choose.
Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution (The Women’s Press, 1996), p316
At the same time, I acknowledge bell hooks’ warning that:
It is important for women, especially those who are heterosexual, to know that they can make a radical political commitment to feminist struggle even though they are sexually involved with men (many of us know from experience that political choice will undoubtedly alter the nature of individual relationships). All women need to know that they can be politically committed to feminism regardless of their sexual preference. They need to know that the goal of feminist movement is not to establish codes for a “politically correct” sexuality.
bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center (South End Press, 1984), p152
Of the many different works I could have attempted to create, I’ve attempted this one, which is about women loving women. Other articles about different forms of feminist desire will necessarily have different content and follow a different path. If you can imagine them I encourage you to write them. My feeling is that feminist desire is difficult, and gendered power imbalances make it a lot more difficult, because instrumental sexuality is designed to run on those imbalances. And so if feminist desire is possible between a woman and her male partner, it’ll probably be because of the ways in which he’s exceptional (after all, a feminist woman picked him), and exceptions are difficult to cover in a general piece like this.
I’ve also just chosen to skip some major issues entirely. For example, I’ve chosen not to engage with the difficult issues of the masculine phallus, with eroticised degradation of women, with how society contextualises sexual relationships it sees as being between women and men and with the function of male privilege in sexual relationships. These issues require explicit treatment of a kind not given here, and are probably best addressed by a woman who has sexual relations with men.
If you’re not a woman who loves (or wants to love, or feels you could love) women, you’re welcome to keep reading and see if any of this is useful to you, but please understand that I’m not trying to speak directly to you. For any men, I recommend reading John Stoltenberg’s Refusing To Be A Man before continuing with this series, and even then remembering that you’re a guest on women’s land, and we’re not obliged to speak your language. For people who identify with other/no genders, note that I’ve used the word “woman” to refer to people in the political situations of women in a patriarchy. How much the points I make using that word apply to you will be based on your political situation. There’s an article to write which centres the situations of trans* people, rather than the overlapping category of “women”, but this isn’t it. Nonetheless you’ll find some trans* perspectives here.
Similarly, I’m writing primarily about possibilities of feminist desire between women who don’t hold other forms of significant power over each other such as white privilege. With all these issues, even with male privilege, I don’t think it’s impossible to get past some situations of unequal power, with awareness and hard work. But every difference of power makes it more difficult and it’s difficult enough already. For a work of this size, it wasn’t possible to include more. The only other power difference I’m personally qualified to write about is the transsexual/cissexual dynamic, and at the moment I don’t feel comfortable putting that down to words.
I don’t think that the existence of power differences means that feminist desire is an unhelpful goal, although it may not be every woman’s first goal or even a reachable goal for all women. I think that, where being stuck at the bottom of a well of power makes feminist desire unreachable, this is one of the injustices that should be laid at the feet of that power. In order to speak about it as an injustice we have to be able name it and point exactly at what we’re being prevented from doing. In the meantime, I can offer this article about possibilities (and impossibilities) of consensuality over power relations.
Nonetheless issues of structural oppression do feature heavily. As I describe the Prudes’ Progress I also describe some barriers to progress. Many of them are built upon of structural inequality and can’t necessarily be overcome by individuals. Our wish to move closer to feminist desire should be constantly making us aware of the need for collective struggle against structural oppression – the two can’t and shouldn’t be separated.
Before starting this series proper I want to say a few words about the title. Obviously I’ve re-used the word ‘Prude’ from The Ethical Prude, but my idea of the Prude has moved on a little since writing that article, as I’ll describe later.
‘Prude’ might not be a word which everywoman can easily identify with. An attack against women who say “no”, it can trigger implanted associations and fears. But turning away from instrumental sexuality is a massive act of no-saying, and sadly, we should probably get used to the word. Alone, that can be difficult. But fortunately, this Progress is for Prudes, plural, who are looking to travel. This is about bringing our politics and our desire into alignment so they can both empower each other, and doing that collectively. That said, if “Prude” doesn’t work for you, you’re still very welcome here.
The subtitle, “Re-membering Feminist Desire” suggests a process which reverses the dismemberment of objectification and fetishes, a putting-back-together of our bodies. Feminist desire, itself, is a process of re-membering. But this is also an attempt to recollect (re-collect) feminist politics of the last 40-odd years for a more integrated approach to the erotic, and so I’ve structured it extensively around quotes from a variety of feminist writers, with links to their work in the bibliography at the end.
At first I wanted to call this an article about feminist desire. I threw that idea out as soon as it became clear that there was more to say about getting there than about what ‘there’ actually looked like. Then I tried the idea of a “journey”, but journey suggests a beginning, a middle and an end. What I want to describe is a kind of ‘progress’, in the sense of movement in a positive direction.
Progress also sounds refreshingly non-linear. If you ask someone, “How are you getting on with your project?” and they answer, “Oh, well, making progress…” then you know not to ask exactly where they are. I suspect that very few women will take the exact path I’ve taken and precisely follow the steps laid out here. The image in my head while writing this series was of a set of stories told about a progress through difficult ground which mention landmarks, wrong turns and shortcuts. This account is re-membered from those stories.
I’ve separated the series itself into eight Progressions, each of which aims to move us away from instrumental sexuality and toward feminist desire. But the Progress itself is circlewise. That is, while I’ve attempted to frame it so that each Progression flows into and enables the next, in reality they aren’t completely distinct and it may be useful to stay for a long time within one Progression, then read back, and only then jump to the next-but-one. Each time you feel you’re not moving forward I encourage you to try other kinds of movement and circle around to other Progressions. I’ve added hyperlinks throughout which link forward and back to encourage this kind of navigation.
Mary Daly, who uses the word Spinning, defines the process better when she describes it as:
“Journeying centerward… Self-centering movement in all directions. It erases implanted pseudodichotomies between the Self and ‘other’ reality, while it unmasks the unreality of both ‘self’ and ‘world’ as these are portrayed, betrayed, in the language of the fathers’ foreground… [it] is not navel-gazing. It is be-ing in the world. The foreground fathers offer dual decoys labeled ‘thought’ and ‘action,’ which distract from the reality both of deep knowing and of external action. There is no authentic separation possible.”
Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (The Women’s Press, 1979), p6
Where it’s felt appropriate, I’ve used, like Mary Daly, somewhat poetic language. This isn’t to be cryptic or elitist, but more because it’s felt like the only way to correctly express the ideas. Audre Lorde had this to say about poetry, action and ideas:
As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but a disciplined attention to the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Poetry Is Not a Luxury (Quality Paperback Book Club collected edition, 1993), p37-38
I’m very passionate about some of these subjects, and I’ll move in and out of tones like “we must do this!” and “this is one option”. But really, these Progressions aren’t the only route toward feminist desire, and feminist desire as described here isn’t the only ethical feminist alternative to instrumental sexuality. These Progressions might not even be the most effective way for some or even many women to journey toward feminist desire. Women who already know the shape of instrumental sexuality in their own lives may already know where to begin grappling with it, or may already be well-engaged in the process. I suggest those women use these Progressions as a resource, an inspiration or an expression of solidarity.
But for others, instrumental sexuality is the “invisible norm”, seemingly everywhere and nowhere, impossible to confront. Taken together, I think these Progressions create a substantial challenge to instrumental sexuality. I think they do enough to deconstruct and contradict it, and are validated from enough different standpoints, that most women who choose to follow them will have a significant collision with the institution of instrumental sexuality. For those women, I hope these Progressions can be a recipe or incantation which has a good chance of making visible some of the structure supporting instrumental sexuality in their own lives. Enough so that the rest of it can be pulled into a fight, a fight set up on women’s own ground in such a way that it may be possible to win.
In fact, the metaphor of a Progress might suggest setting out over green grass under blue skies; but some of us may be travelling underwater, through a medium where every movement is effort, we can barely see where we’re going, and every time we leave a safe bubble of air we’re afraid we might not find somewhere to breathe again. For some women progress may feel like this. For many women it may feel like this sometimes. Before we start talking about specific barriers to Progress we have to remember that in the State of Emergency some women are always at crisis-point.
Any challenge to institutions which are deeply interwoven with our lives can be experienced as painful by women, and can also be used as a tool of oppression in itself. The same applies to any attempt to outline alternative possibilities; women are well-equipped to blame ourselves for not realising them, and those who pick up the ideas but not their spirit are very capable of using them to police other women for our behaviour and create new hierarchies based on who is and isn’t “right on”.
So this isn’t the industrial/colonial idea of “progress”, in which a State unfolds its power in a way that creates and reinforces the marginalisation of the people it claims are “benefiting”, grinding them up like a factory machine. The State here is the State of Domination and our Progress is gentle but purposeful in/exploration, looking for paths over/under/around which could lead us out of these “cities and created culture… sustained by a particularly urban technology”.
So here are some words from the author: If anybody is using this work to make you feel bad, you are automatically right and they are automatically wrong. Feel free to quote me at them. This includes if you are using this to make yourself feel bad, though in that case it might take some figuring out which one of you is right. This is a resource for women who already feel bad about instrumental sexuality and are looking for possibilities that might feel better.
Of course, women’s feelings of “good” and “bad” aren’t magical and we can feel good about things that hurt us and bad about things that would be healthy. As individuals it can be difficult to find our way out of the maze in which bad is good is bad. A personal sense that something feels bad is an important feminist tool, but feminists have long had more tools than that, and possibly the most important is collective understanding of our situation, the subject of the first Progression, which follows the FAQ.
FAQ stands for Frequently Asked Questions, but here the ‘A’ could also stand for Anticipated. Because lesbian feminists (and others!) have been writing about non-hierarchical desire for so long, I’m already familiar with some responses to the idea of feminist desire. Perhaps the most common question is, “How do I do it?!”, from women excitedly catching their first glimpse of a golden pathway leading out of the State of Domination. I hear you, sisters; that’s what this whole series is about. But there are also likely to be some common questions, which I’ll try to answer briefly beforehand.
What you’re talking about doesn’t sound like sex at all!
I agree. If ‘sex’ is what’s normally thought of as sex in a patriarchy, and if ‘sexy’ is what’s normally considered sexual in a patriarchy, then this doesn’t sound like it, because it isn’t. Patriarchy has the power to control the definition of what’s considered ‘sex’ and we should expect it to have used that power.
It should be taken for granted that [sex] must be pleasurable to both parties, always: which means it must never be institutionalized by law or culture. And if it is a basic “drive” felt by both men and women, there is no need to institutionalize it to ensure its survival.
What we “see” when we look inside may correspond very poorly with reality. We’re saturated with a particular story about what’s inside. Moreover, we’ve been saturated with this all our lives, and it has conditioned us and made us what we are. We feel that we need sex, but the issue is very confused. What is it we really need? Is it orgasms? Intercourse? Intimacy with another human being? Stroking? Companionship? Human kindness? And do we “need” it physically or psychologically?
Dana Densmore, Independence from the Sexual Revolution, published in Radical Feminism (Quadrangle, 1973)
You’re just trying to desexualise lesbianism!
This series talks a lot about woman-loving, and I’m trying to de-something-ise woman-loving for women, yes. And also re-something-ise it. Those somethings aren’t ‘sex’, though. I believe that something has been coded into sexual norms which shouldn’t be there, and some possibilities have been excluded which should be available. If they were available, I believe many women would choose them.
What is there, and shouldn’t be, is the idea that in order to be by definition properly “sexual”, women who love women have to learn or continue to eroticise power differences, so that those who don’t can feel like heretics, as Sheila Jeffreys notes in The Lesbian Heresy:
Once lesbian feminists were able to take pride in their status as heretics in relation to the values of the heteropatriarchy. Now lesbian feminism is a heresy to many lesbians who seem to wish to assimilate themselves seamlessly into the values of the heteropatriarchy.
Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: A feminist perspective on the lesbian sexual revolution (Spinifex Press, 1993), p150
Even those who don’t have a problem with eroticising power differences (though I’m not one of them) must agree that this shouldn’t be compulsory for anybody.
The possibility that’s missing is the chance to develop a sexuality of feminist desire, to name and voice that sexuality, to reach out to others who are developing it and who want to relate in that way, and to build community bonds on the grounds of feminist desire. Those who try to do this are even called anti-lesbian in what Mary Daly would describe as a classic reversal: the description of something as the opposite of what it really is in order to maintain a harmful status quo and place those working to change it onto the defensive. Feminist desire is deeply pro-women-who-love-women. As Sheila Jeffreys writes regarding the lesbian aspect of feminist desire’s herstory:
We must remember that homosexual desire [defined by Jeffreys as desire between women not based on eroticised power difference] will not be recognised as ‘sex’. We do not even possess suitable words to describe it. The course of eroticising equality and mutuality has received no prizes from male supremacy or its agents but it is time we shared our wisdom and experience, learned from feminists and lesbians in our history and became proud of what distinguishes lesbian experience from male-supremacist culture.
Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution (The Women’s Press, 1993), p315
What about bisexual women?
I want this series to be for all women who love women. Where possible I’ve aimed to use inclusive language but many of the authors I quote use language like “lesbian”, “Lesbian” and “heterosexual (woman)” in an ambiguous way or in a way which clearly erases women of other sexualities. It’s been difficult to quote in a way which entirely solves this problem but where possible I’ve clarified the author’s meaning and/or added “[sic]” where their use of “lesbian” creates an error in their text.
When writing in my own words I try to use phrases like, “women who love women”, “women who exclusively love women”, “women who love men”, “women who exclusively love men”, “bisexual women” and “women who choose to exclusively relate to women” to communicate more precise meanings, but I’m aware that even these phrases aren’t perfect (for example, the phrase “women who exclusively love women” does an inadequate job of describing women who consider themselves lesbian but occasionally romantically or sexually relate to men).
The word “heterosexuality” is also used by some quoted authors, most notably Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond, to describe an institution (something well-established which organises/influences), not a sexuality. Whether or not bisexual women’s attraction to men is also organised through the same institution (in which case “heterosexuality” may be a misleading name for it), and/or whether bisexuality is an organising institution of its own is a question I trust bisexual radical feminist theorists to answer.
Bisexual theorists such as Shiri Eisner have clearly shown that, as well as facing similar issues to other women, women occupying the position of “bisexual” face some unique pressures compared with women occupying other sexual positions. As far as the similar issues go, I hope and expect that the discussion here of the instutition of heterosexuality is also relevant for bisexual women, and I’ve also tackled some bisexual-specific issues where relevant via the words of bisexual woman writers.
You don’t get to tell me what to do or what my sexuality should be!
Since I wrote The Ethical Prude, the most common question I’ve been asked – and I’ve also asked it myself – is, if sexual norms are so broken, where do we go instead? This is one attempt to answer that question. If you’re not asking the question, I’m not speaking directly to you, although you’re very welcome to listen and make up your own mind.
This process shouldn’t and can’t be forced. There are too many people telling women what we should do. And as a sexuality that’s against all forms of forcing, feminist desire can’t be built with the master’s tools of coercion. This is raw material for women who are already searching, with as much structure as they’d like to take on. Each woman reading this will need to personally authenticate every step rather than taking it on my or anyone else’s authority. This process can only be Self-motivated.
Feminist desire sounds just like vanilla. It’s BDSMers who are oppressed, not vanillas!
For those who haven’t encountered it, “vanilla” is a term used in BDSM communities meaning “non-BDSM-practitioners”, or sometimes, “those without an innately BDSM sexuality”, depending on whether BDSM is considered a practice or a sexuality.
I know that people who openly and unapologetically describe themselves as BDSMers do face some negative consequences for it, because I’ve seen it happen. Personally, I think this is because they’re speaking honestly about one of the Great Lies by admitting that almost everybody is eroticising dominance in their sex lives. This is meant to go unspoken and there are social punishments for voicing it. Society manages the eroticisation of dominance by condemning it in public and condoning it in private, like with many aspects of oppression. It’s done by “those bad people over there”. By standing up, BDSMers become “those bad people”.
But feminist desire isn’t vanilla, the implicit complement to BDSM. If BDSM is aware of the trend to eroticise dominance in society, then it’s leaning in to that trend (in the case of the not-small-but-still-a-minority of people who consider themselves both BDSMers and feminists, that can even be with feminist intent), where “vanilla” defines the trend and feminist desire is leaning hard away. As Sandy Covahey wrote in “Off Our Backs” (Aug-Sept. 1993), “I have occasionally joked with close friends that if there is an opposite to a sado-masochist, then I may be it. That statement may seem dualistic and simplistic, but there is a certain amount of truth to it.”
I think that people who read the full series will see that feminist desire is not accepted by the main(male)stream and is something different to the way that BDSMers theorise “vanilla”.
You’re just in bed with the right wing
This is an old misogynist argument against radical feminists. It’s had enough airtime elsewhere, so I recommend reading one of the many responses out there, such as Catharine MacKinnon’s introductory essay to In Harm’s Way, “The Roar on the Other Side of Silence” (from p10 and onwards). MacKinnon focuses on how this argument has been used against anti-pornography feminists, which is where it seems to have originated, but I think her response is broadly applicable.
That’s it for the second part of this series. The third part will begin with the first three Progressions of the Prudes’ Progress.