The Prudes’ Progress: Re-membering Feminist Desire, Part VI – Breaking Old Patterns, Cultivating Freedom

This is the sixth 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.

The Fifth Progression: Falling Out Of Love With Dominance

During the previous Progressions we’ve raised our feminist consciousness, prioritised the practice of love towards our Selves and other women, and tracked paths around the various barriers to becoming sexual and social subjects, in other words, more fully Realised human beings. We’re now ready to look at a core part of what makes up identity and our sexual identity in the State of Domination: the love of dominance.

Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others. We are taught that this will to dominate is more biologically hardwired in males than in females. In actuality, dominator culture teaches us that we are all natural-born killers but that males are more able to realize the predator role. In the dominator model the pursuit of external power, the ability to manipulate and control others, is what matters most. When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.

bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (Atria Books, 2004) p115

The form this takes in the world of sex and sexuality is that we are expected to get off on it. The existing system is a system of the love of dominance, in which sexual subjecthood is defined by an instrumental sexuality which takes advantage of processes of objectification in which the sexual subject uses and dominates those they are more powerful than.

At this point there is an immediate wrong turning we should be careful to avoid: that of looking for equality under the existing system. It is impossible by definition for all the dominated to simply join the dominators, because the logic of the system requires that someone remain in the position of sexual object, as Catharine MacKinnon writes:

The feminist question is not whether you, as an individual woman, can escape women’s place, but whether it is socially necessary that there will always be somebody in the position you, however temporarily, escaped from and that someone will be a woman. You can’t claim to speak for 53 percent of the population and support changes for a few.

Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Harvard University Press, 1987), p31

This is a Progress for people who don’t want a conflict of interest when it comes to the powerful systems which maintain dominance, who feel like it’s bad for us but who perhaps can’t quite seem to give it up. In other words, this is like a break-up: what we want to do is to fall out of love with dominance and instrumental sexuality and their sexual hold on us. It can also be like a break-up because it can feel like loss, and that makes it complicated.

While domination is sexy, there will always be a vested interest in maintaining the systems of white supremacy, class exploitation, woman-hating, rape culture and objectification, because these are the vast machines which keep the whole show running behind the scenes. To love domination, even wistfully, even ironically, is to have a conflict of interest when it comes to taking those systems apart, because those systems of domination drive the cultural imagination on which domination play thrives and ending them would pull the plug on what energises that play.

The barrier within this Progression, then, will be familiar to anyone who’s ever thought about breaking up with someone bad for them, who’s wondered if life might be better without them but is put off by how huge a task it seems to be to make the break. The barrier is that it gets tougher before it gets easier, and that for a while after you’ve announced the intention to fall out of love with instrumental sexuality, you wonder if you’ll ever find anything to take its place.

For some women, of course, it won’t be a matter of “breaking up” as much as “giving up”. Not everyone has had the chance to try out a relationship of dominance, even the everyday casual dominance of many non-BDSM-identified sexual relationships. The urge and love of dominance may be there, waiting for an opportunity, but perhaps it’s never been actualised. Who knows if it’s harder or easier to walk away from dominance in this situation? But it may make it difficult in its own way to take the word of a blogger on the internet about it.

For all of us, I think it boils down to this: it’s tempting to think we can have everything, and mainstream culture encourages us. We want to “ironically”, “subversively” or tentatively enjoy or pursue instrumental sexuality while still being free to explore other sexualities. Sexuality is meant to be like clothes, we’re told that we can put on and take off enjoyment of different things at will. A guy claims he can enjoy pornographic degradation of women in the afternoon, and be loving and gentle towards his woman partner in the evening (for the truth of that, you could read these potentially triggering statements from porn users themselves: part one, part two).

I don’t think that’s true. I’ve argued before that sexuality is learnt from the culture around us and can be changed, but it’s more like the way a garden can change over time than a change of clothes. Sexuality is something we cultivate, and feminist desire is sexual permaculture – or Gyn/Ecology, to use Mary Daly’s definition: “In contrast to… fixation and dismemberment, Gyn/Ecology affirms that everything is connected.”

We’ve already looked at the connections between ours and others’ Selves, and at dismantling some of the political processes which support instrumental sexuality; the next step is to stop practising instrumental sexuality in order to create a space for something else to grow. “Practice” can mean a thing we do, but “practise” can also mean a thing we repeat and rehearse in order to ingrain, as in “practise makes perfect”. Progressing involves falling out of practise with the love of dominance.

We must work towards the construction of homosexual desire and practice as a most important part of our struggle for liberation. However important heterosexual desire has been in our lives we will all have some experience of its opposite. We will have experience of sexual desire and practice which does not leave us feeling betrayed, a sexual desire and practice which eroticises mutuality and equality. It is this avenue that we should seek to open up while gradually shutting down those responses and practices which are not about sexual ‘pleasure’ but the eroticising of our subordination. We need to develop sensitive antennae for evaluating our sexual experience. None of this will be easy. It will take some effort, but then nobody said that the journey to liberation would be an easy ride. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want our freedom or whether we want to retain heterosexual desire. Feminists will choose freedom.

Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution (The Women’s Press, 1993), p313-314

What I found in my own life – and what friends of mine have found – is that earlier Progressions worked together with this stage of intentionally falling out of love with instrumental sexuality. Stopping doing some of these things felt frightening in the same way that giving up familiar habits is frightening, but in each case it should feel like giving up something which doesn’t seem good for us or our lovers any more.

But many women will be rightfully wary of instructions on what to do in bed, or of messages which seem like they might link to the virginal side of the Madonna/whore double bind. And many women will also have a shrewd understanding of the way that any sexual ideology can be harmful when it leaves a person feeling cut off from her source of sexual certainty.

Women have been told that we’re doing “it” wrong (whatever “it” is) as long as we’ve been women, invited to follow some new sexual diet with the key requirement being that we ignore our internal sense of our emotional health. This kind of destabilising, leaving us off-balance from our emotional and physical cues, is a key activity of objectification, and Prudes may by now have dis-covered a keen sense of danger when someone tells us what’s “good for us”.

Part of this is a hazard of trying to describe an entire potential Progress in one go, as I’m doing here, rather than living it one stage at a time. This absolutely mustn’t be one more Thou Shalt Not. I don’t think women automatically always move toward our own Self-interest – I think that patriarchy is good at forcing us off-course, at creating painful choices which involve Self-sacrifice on every path – but unless this particular giving-up does feel like Self-interest, I don’t think it can be helpful. So this step is only for women who want to take it, who feel like it’s a direct step toward personal healing.

Fortunately, in the same way that loving the Self makes it easier to love others makes it easier to love the Self – in the way that those processes are linked to and inform each other – there are similarities between this and previous Progressions, creating another circular movement. Giving up instrumental sexuality can feel like a healthy thing once we’ve spent time building up loving connections to other women’s and our Selves, and we’ve begun Realising ourselves as subjects, and our relationships as subject-subject relationships. And doing all those things also becomes easier because we’re working to create space in our sexualities by giving up the practices of instrumental sexuality, no longer giving ourselves that orgasmic reinforcement that “power is sexy”.

It’s not either that everything needs to change at once or that only one thing needs to change at a time; instead it’s a process of what Mary Daly calls A-mazing. It’s like working free a knot: a little here, a tug there, a pause to look, more work here. The knot is one thing but needs many kinds of work to dismantle it, and while they need to work together in particular ways there’s no one ideal sequence of actions that should always be followed, and we keep on circling back to the same places to make more progress.

[A couple of warnings, for two different reasons. The following two paragraphs contain some descriptions of power and sex mixed up together. Some women may also experience them as a direct challenge to their sexual practices. I mean them as a loving invitation, as encouragement for women already making changes to their practices, and as ideas/inspiration for women who have no clue what to do next. I only mean them as a challenge to those women who are willing and ready to be challenged. However, they do reflect my authentic experience, and that of some other Progressing Prudes I know.]

Progressing Prudes I know and have read (even if they wouldn’t call themselves that) have found it useful or necessary to stop doing some activities. While no women’s experiences can be generalised to all women, I want to suggest, as Mary Daly does, that things may be connected, and that if these things are/were connected to the love of dominance for me and other women, that they may be for you too.

Among these things are: reading the women’s magazine sex tips about the silk scarves and the bedposts; throwing a lover against the wall or being pushed against it ourselves; saying or hearing “you’re mine”; pinning her down (even ‘playfully’); the thrill of being taken away from ourselves, being made to react; being shoved, hit, controlled, bound, teased, shouted at, objectified and leered at (even by, or perhaps especially by, someone who loves us). And certainly, if we currently do, to consider stopping practising BDSM.

In fact, I want to give the subject of BDSM some special attention, because I know that many women are very much in love with BDSM and experience it as deeply life-affirming, and perhaps many more would be thrilled to try it. I understand, because in the past I’ve felt that myself. I loved it because it felt like one of the only ways to bridge the distance between two souls and glimpse the infinite. At least it acknowledged that power, tension and distance existed, and asked, “what can we do with them?”

BDSMers use the term “aftercare” to speak about a moment after a scene where the distance has collapsed, or been transcended, and where both partners can come together in a kind of heightened intimacy, love and care. It’s perhaps very similar to what’s signposted by sex advisors who suggest that cissexual female/male couples try anal sex because the vulnerability “will make them feel closer”.

But like any framework, there are only a limited number of things one can “know” within BDSM, and the things it’s possible to “know” are limited by the assumptions built into the system. The assumptions which limit us here are shared by instrumental sexuality in general, meaning that the “all of sex” described by the system of dividing sex into BDSM and vanilla is an “all” which excludes feminist desire. One summing-up of those assumptions is in the final paragraph of an article on the blog Meet Me In The Margins:

Regardless of how far a person wants/doesn’t want to push/be pushed in their sex there will always be a tension between the position of lead and follow – between the objectifier and the objectified, between Dom & sub or top and bottom. The decision of how to approach that tensions in a way that would be most pleasurable and least damaging is a decision best left to the individual and those with whom they share their sex lives. To mandate a level of “safe” or “nonviolent” sex without leaving space for that variances of sexual tension would sanitize and sedate so many sex lives. We can’t get rid of objectification and the lead/follow roles it involves (without drugs/surgery). It’s the support structure of sex itself. Sex is the agreement to enter into the lead or follow position of drawn out, intimate objectification. You either lead with your objectification or follow in being objectified by the leader. This process of objectification is not dirty. It is what human animals do.

It’s a quote which contrasted clearly for me with this passage from Audre Lorde:

I never knew whether to lead or to follow in most other dances, and even the effort to decide which was which was as difficult for me as having to decide all the time the difference between left and right. Somehow that simple distinction had never become automatic for me, and all that deciding usually left me very little energy with which to enjoy the movement and the music.

Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Quality Paperback Book Club collected edition, 1993), p243-244, also included as Tar Beach in Afrekete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing (Doubleday, 1995), p5

Anyway, I’m not a fan of “assassination by quote”, so I got in touch with Margins’ writer, Wendy, about this piece, saying that I’d like to quote her. Wendy asked to have some clarifications included along with the quote, writing in our exchange:

I wrote this post in the spring the night after I was shocked by the words of my fellow radical feminists. I was still entering radical feminism at that point (new to my feminist book club which includes the speaker I talk about in the beginning of the post). Some of my words were rash and my sexual politics have grabbed up a bit more nuance since. I was shocked and looking for a place to stand (not a defense of the points but for context). I now see some of my words (specifically the ones you point out) as positing that all sex includes some level of power exchange. This is a belief I now recognize as personal preference.

… While I no longer think that sex or desire necessarily includes objectification or lead/follow power dynamics I think that definitions of sex/desire are culturally & subconsciously stuck with objectification and power dynamics for the vast majority of people. (This is taught implicitly, explicitly & near exclusively in our cultural narratives and is the reason consent is such a hard seemingly oppositional sell ). I know there can be more than this, but it’s a struggle to experience it personally in an affirmative way and I’m more educated about sex and my own sexuality than 90% of the people I meet.

Blogger Wendy R.M., Meet Me In The Margins

The exchange with Wendy reminded me that sometimes, the way that feminist debate happens can drive us into stating more fixed/firm positions than we actually feel, keeping nuance out of our words. It re-affirmed my desire to look for respectful dialogue, even with women whose views are very different from my own, as in fact this conversation revealed we both felt a struggle for “more than this”. Finally, it also highlighted how our views can change over time.

One of the ways my views and understandings changed, and a major reason why I stopped practising BDSM, was because I realised there were other paths leading to a kind of intimacy that was more integral with the rest of my life, less traumatic and more symmetrical with my partners, but that BDSM practices were leading in the wrong direction. I now believe that BDSM aftercare intimacy is the reflection in the glass of the simple, direct connection of feminist desire, but to get to here from there, you have to back up and go around.

Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable. It can be compared to the phenomenon of worshipping a godhead with two faces, and worshipping only the white part on the full moon and the black part on the dark of the moon, as if totally separate. But you cannot corral any aspect within your life, divorce its implications, whether it’s what you eat for breakfast or how you say good-bye. This is what integrity means…

… I ask myself, under close scrutiny, whether I am puritanical about this – and I have asked myself this very carefully – and the answer is no. I feel that we work toward making integrated life-decisions about the networks of our lives, and those decisions lead us to other decisions and commitments – certain ways of viewing the world, looking for change. If they don’t lead us toward growth and change, we have nothing to build upon, no future.

Audre Lorde in conversation with Susan Leigh Star as published in A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (Firebrand Books, 1988)

As we make “integrated life-decisions” which move us away from dominance, we may start to feel its hooks tugging in us in the form of instrumental sex acts we can’t seem to stop thinking about or recurring flashes of unwanted fantasy. This is an indication that it’s time to look at the next Progression, that of undoing fetishes.

The Sixth Progression: Undoing Fetishes

The simplest definition of when a person has a fetish is when they find a thing sexy, not a person. This has traditionally been interpreted only in a very narrow sense, e.g. towards a boot or a particular kind of material, and is often considered an aberrant kind of sexuality. But as introduced earlier, feminists such as Mary Daly have linked the idea of a fetish with the feminist concept of women’s sexual objectification and shown that fetishistic sexuality is actually mainstream sexuality in which a particular way of seeing human beings (primarily but not exclusively women) creates the sexual object. So fetishistic attraction can be to objects, body parts seen as objects, or whole persons, objectified and dismembered as seen through pornovision. Put this way, fetishistic desire is the norm.

A fetish is a subject-object sexual relationship, but we can be both the subject and the object, enjoying the objectified treatment of ourselves, or we can experience ourselves as an object via another subject, e.g. a sexual partner. All of these things are normal and understandable in this society. Unfortunately, long after we’ve built the capacity for and started doing political work to cultivate feminist desire, the fetishes can stick. A fetish generally doesn’t go away just because we want it to. Sometimes, wanting a fetish to go away can make it feel stronger; the taboo can keep it centred in the mind, the way in which it lies over a boundary (even if only a self-imposed one) can make it sexier.

This can be painful; it can feel like we’re under attack from within, in a way which is completely against our values and felt sexuality. But we should have Self-compassion. Most people who breathe poison air get poisoned, and it would be strange to grow up breathing instrumental sexuality without internalising some of its necrophilia as self-fetishisation (or otherwise).

Fortunately, wise, Self-loving Prudes may be able to find ways to work with on the fetishising parts of our sexuality which don’t require us to embrace feelings of failure or shame. In fact, fetishes can be useful because they can point back to earlier Progressions which are worth revisiting. For example, the way that taboo can make something sexier is strongly linked to the idea of finding it sexy to cross a boundary, which is based on the violation process of objectification, as Sheila Jeffreys writes:

Where sex is constructed to be eroticised inequality, the idea of consent can be an incitement, both to men’s violence and to sadomasochism. The idea of consent constructs a taboo to be broken. The transgression of consent becomes an exciting possibility.

Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: A feminist perspective on the lesbian sexual revolution (Spinifex Press, 1993) p43

But after working toward consentfulness, when boundaries are no longer elusive, mysterious things that decorate sex like gossamer to be brushed aside, when keeping boundaries becomes more habitual and more of a (welcome) chore, then the idea of crossing boundaries can start to feel less taboo and more like not washing your hands before sex – just nasty and unwanted, without being appealing in any way.

In general, the idea of distance is key to fetishes. As a subject-object (human-to-fetish) relationship, there’s a distance between a person and a fetish which makes an electrical charge crackle. Sometimes a fetish is ‘other’, representing something ‘exotic’ compared to day-to-day life. Other times, like with fetishes for uniform or “discipline”, there’s an interpersonal distance of ritualised coldness or reservation. When a woman gets sexual enjoyment from the idea of herself as a fetish, there may be a distance between her everyday experience of herself and the “fetish self”. And there’s a reason that the kind of fizzing instrumental desire felt at the beginning of a relationship – how hot it seems that they are new and different and exciting, an almost person-sized fetish – fades with closeness and familiarity.

Sexual desire requires a “barrier”, “some kind of tension, a taboo, a difference of some sort, a power discrepancy, romance, the excitement of newness or the thrill of the chase – some form of disequilibrium.” Nicholls is giving a good description of heterosexual desire. Heterosexual desire is based upon eroticising otherness, in fact power difference.

The Homosexual Matrix (New York: McGraw Hill, 1975), quoted in Margaret Nicholls, Lesbian Sexuality: Issues and Developing Theory (Boston Lesbian Psychologies Collective, 1987) p106, quoted in Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: A feminist perspective on the lesbian sexual revolution (Spinifex Press, 1993) p52

This should give us a clue that the path out of fetishisation is about a lack of distance. This doesn’t mean enthusiastically embracing the fetish behaviour, but rather taking time to see it clearly without it being about sex. Meeting it somewhere outside of the bedroom for a cup of tea, so to speak. It’s not a coincidence that patriarchy warns us that, “men and women can’t be friends”; it’s worried that if they come to know each other as friends, the magic (the fetishistic charge) might go away.

Thinking about distance should also warn us that shame, disgust and denial are all potentially ineffective ways to undo fetishes. All these reactions continue to hold the fetish at a distance, via, “I shouldn’t”, “I don’t want to” and “I don’t”. In fact, each of these three distancing methods is explicitly sexualised: chocolate advertisements sell their product as deliciously deviant; in every film where the female and male lead hate each other we know they’ll end up in bed; and “I don’t want to” is branded by this rape culture as enticement rather than the firm boundary it is.

And then we have a cycle: pushing away leads to distance, leads to sexualisation of distance, leads to following the fetish, leads to shame, disgust or denial and pushing away again. At best this cycle fails to disrupt the fetish. At worst it becomes a kind of work in itself and disrupts ideas of subjecthood and self-worth (“If I can’t even change this…”), or leads to an understanding that as something which has been difficult to reject, the fetish must be “inherent” and hence unrejectable (and hence, according to centuries of work by male thinkers on sexuality, “good” or even “compulsory” to act out). It’s an effective cycle which has managed to convince many people that undoing a fetish is impossible.

Returning to our idea of a fetish as a knot, this approach would be like pulling sharply at the knot or attempting to cut it through, something which Mary Daly speaks on in the finale to Gyn/Ecology:

Journeying to the Center is undoing the knot, not cutting the knot. To try to cut the knot is merely to take a misleading short-cut. It is to remain fixated in the foreground, the place of the patriarchal War State [the struggle for hierarchy].

Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (The Women’s Press, 1979), p406

So the first movement of undoing a fetish is to interrupt the push-pull cycle and acknowledge the fetish. Instead of “I shouldn’t”, “I don’t want to” and “I don’t”, how about, “I could, sometimes I want to but generally choose not to, and sure, it’s definitely something I’ve done in the past, am still kinda into and might occasionally lapse and do”. That’s a kind of bringing-closer which doesn’t create distance and tension. It’s admitting to having a complicated single self who sometimes wants more than one thing and who can make informed decisions about her behaviour. And, importantly, it’s about not attacking oneself for having a fetish.

The second movement is to examine and analyse the fetish without doing it, and to try to get a complete view of it. So here’s this thing you used to do. What do you like about it? What kind of place does that enjoyment of it come from? Does it link to any of the forms of objectification? Are there any ways in which doing it closes off other options, or supports certain ways of thinking which you’d like to change? For example, some pornography users know that the flashes of dehumanising pornovision they get when looking at women are related to the pornography, and that they won’t really be able to stop that way of looking at women until they stop using pornography. It’s a choice, and the word “choice” doesn’t mean that it’s morally neutral.

The third movement is the creation of what I call an unfetish. Progressing Prudes rarely deal in opposites, so this isn’t “the opposite of a fetish”. It’s something which is similar to the fetish but unglamoured. Working with the unfetish requires all the tools of subjectification, guided by our lack of love for dominance, the source of a fetish’s glamour. The unfetish of a specific piece of pornography might be superficially similar to the original pornographic scene, but with object transformed to subject, the scene appears differently. Now we perceive power relationships, now we question why the actual women are in that actual room, performing those actual acts. Wimminsight unglamours the rituals of pornography and we see, perhaps, workers, or seeing further, humans making choices within power structures which limit “choice” before choices are made.

“What if one of those women was your daughter!” is a misguided attempt at creating an unfetish. It’s a pair of moving pictures in which the image of “woman” is flickered with “daughter”, in a hope that the man perceives the freeze-frame between the two in which a human being exists. But since men think they own both “women” and “daughters”, it’s not a true unfetish as there is never a subject, and in fact, as “slut” is overlaid with “virgin” and then “slut” again, it reinforces the dual view of women. “What if that woman was human” is better, and although there’s much public confusion about whether women are in fact human, Progressing Prudes will by this stage know how to find the human in the pornography. And even non-Prudes can have a flash of insight (link is to a comic which doesn’t show any pornography but does reference some pornographic language), although it’s often tinged with a misogyny of its own.

Or, with regard to the breast fetish (I don’t mean specific “big breasts” fetishes in the pornographic sense, I simply mean normative cultural fetishisation of breasts in some parts of the world), the disgust shown to breastfeeding mothers is likely in part a result of unfetishistic effects. As the breast is perceived, for a flicker, as a simple body part with a purpose, poorly understood unfetishistic energy is transformed into hatred and bigotry, the manchild’s fury at a parent taking away a fun (read: sexy) toy.

Charlotte Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland makes an analogy to unfetishistic wimminsight when the male point of view character Jeff Margrave speaks about his sexual desire for Ellador, a woman who has grown up in a utopian feminist society which has been woman-only for sixty generations (although Ellador’s culture itself is afeminine, rather than the character negotiating cultural femininity to perceive personhood):

When my hereditary instincts and race-traditions made me long for the feminine response in Ellador, instead of withdrawing so that I should want her more, she deliberately gave me a little too much of her society – always de-feminized, as it were. It was awfully funny, really.

Here was I, with an Ideal in mind, for which I hotly longed, and here was she, deliberately obtruding in the foreground of my consciousness a Fact – a fact which I coolly enjoyed, but which actually interfered with what I wanted.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (The Women’s Press, 1979), p130

All this indicates one unfetish which you don’t have to be a Progressing Prude to understand: the unfetish of the familiar partner. Confused into thinking that fetishistic sexualisation-of-the-Other is the only kind of desire, people without some level of understanding of feminist desire (remembering that they may not call it feminist desire and may not even be feminist – this way of relating isn’t our exclusive discovery) are deathly afraid of becoming “too familiar” with their sex partner. They rightly understand that it’ll dampen their ability to relate to that person in a fetishistic way. One route towards unfetishising a partner is the deliberate knowing of that partner as a human animal who burps, passes wind (flatulence is a feminist issue!) and sweats. Not as a ‘disgust object’ but as a re-membering of her body:

[Belching is] a disruption which – along with yawns and farts – can be seen as “jolly shows of power against authority… It may be a peculiarly male type of aggressiveness and hostility toward authority. If it should ever come into women’s repertoire, however, it will carry great power, since it directly undermines the sacredness of women’s bodies [sic: perhaps “sacredness” is meant as sarcastic, but if not, this is a reversal; it’s Belching Bodies which are sacred, not the pedestal], a cornerstone of their suppression; and it will consequently command greater retaliation.”

Nancy Henley, Body Politics (Prentice-Hall, 1977) p83, quoted in Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler, Amazons, Bluestockings and Crones: a feminist dictionary (Pandora Press, 1992), p68

For other women it may be a matter of deconstructing our favourite fantasies, to recognise a fantasy as the mental manipulation of a person as an object for the purpose of masturbation, a conceptual human vibrator aimed at the mind. This is a profoundly frightening part of this Progression which can provoke powerful inner structures of shame. A deep and complex woman-loving compassion is incredibly important, one which refuses to judge other women’s Labyrinthine Selves and trusts that each woman – including you – can Progress along her own path.

If we love our Selves and if we understand objectification, we can have compassion for the way a fetish has become established. And if you and other women are exploring this during consciousness-raising, love for other women is also very important, so we can understand without morally condemning how a sister got to this point (although this is not the same as giving a free pass to revelations of behaviour which might have hurt other people).

The fourth and final movement is to develop a new relationship to the fetish. It’s easy to take this step too soon and say, “Ah, I took a look at it, it was fine, I’m back to doing it again.” Did you give yourself enough time to understand what other possibilities the fetish might be closing off? Feminist desire is incompatible with fetish sexuality. If you want to continue re-membering your feminist desire, fetishistic subject-object practices will eventually become a barrier. A good way to be cautious is to not accept it back while you still need it. A fetish which you need or can’t get off without is a kind of script/template for sexuality in which the other person is more or less interchangeable. In other words, it’s not a sexuality centred around both your and others’ full presence as subjects (human beings) during sex.

Those familiar with Buddhist thought may recognise some of the above practices (and perhaps even draw some links between Daly’s concept of the “Center” and Mumon’s “Gateless Gate”). Some Buddhist conceptions of the way we commonly relate in “attachment” to reality have a lot of similarity with the way we relate to others under instrumental sexuality, and I’ve structured this section on undoing fetishes around Buddhist ideas of sitting with the S/self, as discussed in this conversation between bell hooks (herself a Buddhist) and Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön:

Pema Chödrön: A lot of having compassion toward oneself is staying with the initial thought or arising of emotion. This means that when you see yourself being aggressive, or stuck in self-pity, or whatever it might be, then you train again and again in not adding things on top of that – guilt or self-justification or any further negativities. You work on not spinning off and on being kinder toward the human condition as you see it in yourself.

bell hooks: The idea in your work I find so moving is the unconditional embrace of one’s being, which allows you to embrace others at the same time. But if I unconditionally accept myself, then what’s the motivation to practice further?

Pema Chödrön: That willingness to stick with yourself is just another way of saying that you stay awake. It seems what blocks seeing things truly is our tendency to self-denigrate, to disassociate continually, to edit continually. When you don’t close down and shut off, then insight begins to come. This insight is the wisdom that completely cuts through the conventional way of seeing.

In my experience many fetishes melt away once once the attitudes which maintain them are dismantled and they are taken out of the push-pull cycle, broken down and put aside for a while. But the process isn’t immediate, and both this and the previous Progression (falling out of love with dominance) can take time, time during which it’s easy to feel alone and unsupported, as well as easy to slip back into familiar ways of relating. It can help to have places to go where others understand, and that’s the reason for the next Progression, Creating Places of Safety, which begins the next part of this series.

5 thoughts on “The Prudes’ Progress: Re-membering Feminist Desire, Part VI – Breaking Old Patterns, Cultivating Freedom

  1. I always wondered about why I never imagine myself or people I know into my fetishistic sex fantasies, and instead have a roster of imaginary characters to participate in them. After I read this post, it’s really kinda obvious that it’s all about creating sufficient distance and dehumanization for the fetish to function.

  2. i am deeply grateful for this. the bell hooks/pema chodron link *alone* made my toes curl. so happy to be doing this sacred work of self-universal love. thank you so much.

  3. @fantysq: If that’s something you want to do differently, maybe you could get to know them and change that distance/dehumanisation factor by inviting some of them “round for tea” (for fun, maybe through exploratory non-erotic fiction)? :)

    @March: I was so pleased to find out about bell hooks’ practice, and to see her joining these threads together, especially in that interview. Happy to have been able to share the discovery.

    @Grackle: Thank you. :) Yes, this post, out of all of them, is most meant for slow reading, and for re-reading. It also (along with the next two progressions, up next week) is where I’m doing most of my work at the moment.

  4. Pingback: Feminist Desire Chronicles: what I learned from kink « Pyromaniac Harlot's Blog

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