This is the final part of 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.
Every feminist work should be prepared to answer the question, “What contribution does this make towards a broad-based, international movement for the ending of sexist oppression?” (credit to bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: from margin to center for fixing this question in my mind). I have four justifications for this piece:
The first is that politically-minded sexual and emotional joy can be a powerful source of energy within feminist movement. For a movement to be Self-sustaining it must also replenish us. Feminist desire can both heal and motivate us within the feminist struggle, and so it contributes to feminist movement.
The second is that sexual misery, degradation and violence are not just the forces we’re opposing, they are realities in our lives and living with them can leave us exhausted and unable to join in feminist organising. In writing up this Progress I’ve aimed not only to reveal some aspects of how sexual degradation functions, but to chart a positive movement away from it. To the extent that we can free our lives from sexual degradation, we’re also freer to participate more fully in a broader movement.
The third is one I’ve stated throughout but I’ll repeat it here: The Prudes’ Progress naturally brings us into conflict with the forces of woman-hating, because while an isolated few individual women may be allowed to discover feminist desire under the current system, women as a class are not. Our collective Progress will inevitably create very concrete encounters with many of the structures we need to dismantle. If we were travelling individually, each of us would certainly skip over some of these encounters, as her privileges gave her a “free pass”. But Progressing together means that we are all bound to fight for all of us. We’ll still miss many of the issues, but this way we’ll catch more than we otherwise would. And so it makes our feminism wiser.
The fourth is that some women will encounter too many barriers to continue the Progress right now. This is likely to be more the case the more and more powerful forms of oppression a woman faces in her life. It may be that the situations of many women just don’t allow for this Progress. If that’s the case, we have to know that and, when we list the ways in which classist and sexist oppression, or racist and sexist oppression intersect and create new oppressions, we have to be able to include, “and they make it difficult or impossible to realise feminist desire!”. But despite the fact that women first mapped the paths decades ago, the route of the Progress is so covered over right now that I think very few women know either way whether this Progress is possible for them, and how systems of oppression affect that. And so it makes our understanding of sexist and other forms of oppression wider.
To sum up, every stage of this Prudes’ Progress has been about closing distance and re-membering the erotic. After orienting ourselves, this was done most generally in the form of Self-love and the love of others’ Selves, more specifically with regard to general mechanisms of objectification as we look to treat all women as subjects, more specifically still with regard to the love of dominance which lingers as we contemplate and undo our remaining fetishes and then most precisely when it comes to creating spaces of safety and then within them Kindling friendship and feminist desire between Progressing Prudes.
The task of re-membering feminist desire is to re-verse the ways our Selves are covered over by femininity, pornotypes and fetishes and held apart by distance, to bring those Selves closer and create the possibility for a more genuine encounter. To become, in Mary Daly’s words from Pure Lust, “women-touching women”.
I want to end this piece with two longer quotes which I wasn’t able to integrate elsewhere in the text. The first is from Rebecca Whisnant, an anti-pornography feminist, and the second is from Audre Lorde, who I’ve quoted extensively elsewhere in this piece.
To open up the space for new thinking and experimentation, we need to detox, to get out of the path of the porn culture’s cynical, manipulative, and hateful messages. To start thinking our own thoughts and dreaming our own dreams, first we have to get away from the bastards who are shouting at us through megaphones. Second, we need to draw on our own experiences of love and sex as joy and communion (and encourage others to draw on theirs). As radical feminists have long emphasized, patriarchy constructs our sexuality very profoundly, and even the most enlightened among us are not immune to that construction. But the construction, for most people at least, does not go “all the way down.” Despite everything, many people do have experiences of mutual and egalitarian sexuality – or at least hints or glimmers of it – and that’s really good news. We need to encourage people to tap into these experiences, hints, and glimmers – to remember what they know from their own lives, that no pimp or corporation sold to them or ever could, and to want more of it.
As we continue to tell people what sexual freedom isn’t, we should also encourage them to think deeply and creatively about what it is. What would real sexual freedom look and feel like – the kind that everyone can have, instead of the kind that amounts to freedom for some at others’ expense? We need to richly imagine, and encourage others to richly imagine, another world: one in which no woman or girl is ever called “slut,” “prude,” “bitch,” “cunt,” or “dyke”; in which no woman, man, or child ever has to fear rape or suffer its damage to their spirits; in which men do not control their own and other men’s behavior by the threat of being seen and treated as women; and in which lesbian [sic: bisexual women's love for women is also reduced this way] love and connection is not reduced to a pornographic fetish for men. In this world, every woman and girl sees her own body as beautiful, no man or boy is made to see his as a weapon, and people take part in sexual activity only when (and only because) they expect to enjoy it and to be honored and fulfilled therein. It can be painful to think in this way, because we become more acutely aware of just how far away we are from this better world. But the third wave has one thing right: desire can be, or can become, a form of power. We need to use the power of our desire for this world – our desire to bring it into being for ourselves and for our children and our grandchildren – to unite us and to animate our thinking and strategizing about how to take our culture back from the pornographers.
Rebecca Whisnant, Contemporary Feminism in a Porn Culture
The erotic cannot be felt secondhand. As a Black lesbian feminist, I have a particular feeling, knowledge, and understanding for those sisters with whom I have danced hard, played, or even fought. This deep participation has often been the forerunner for joint concerted actions not possible before.
But this erotic charge is not easily shared by women who continue to operate under an exclusively european-american male tradition. I know it was not available to me when I was trying to adapt my consciousness to this mode of living and sensation.
Only now, I find more and more women-identified women brave enough to risk sharing the erotic’s electrical charge without having to look away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative nature of that exchange. Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.
For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal and anti-erotic society.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Uses of the Erotic (Quality Paperback Book Club collected edition, 1993), p59
Appendix: A Bibliography of Feminist Desire (Dis-covering Women’s Words)
Not all the books and articles referenced here are about feminist desire, but all of them are either quoted in the piece or otherwise relevant. I don’t endorse every part of every resource mentioned here, in particular some parts of Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, particularly where it covers transsexuality and non-Anglo/American patriarchy. Conspicuously absent from the list is Daly’s Pure Lust. Reading and incorporating Daly’s insights on this subject was too large a task for this series, so Pure Lust, my copy of which only arrived late in writing this, is waiting on my shelf as a treat for once this series is published. I expect it to heavily inform my future thoughts, wellbeing and practice on my next spiral movement around the Prudes’ Progress.
So, sister, perhaps I’ll see you there.
Books and Journal Articles
- Linda Bacon, Health At Every Size (BenBella Books, 2010)
- Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (Routledge, 1990)
- Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (Simon & Schuster, 1975)
- Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (Second Edition) (Routledge, 2000)
- Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (The Women’s Press, 1979)
- Angela Y Davis, Women, Culture and Politics (The Women’s Press, 1990)
- Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (Plume, 1974)
- Andrea Dworkin, Right-Wing Women (Perigee Books, 1983)
- Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (Arrow Books, 1988)
- Shiri Eisner, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution (Seal Press, 2013) (not yet generally available as of this series’ publication)
- 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)
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (The Women’s Press, 1979)
- Nancy Henley, Body Politics (Prentice-Hall, 1977)
- bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center (South End Press, 1984)
- bell hooks, Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (The Women’s Press, 1997)
- bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (Atria Books, 2004)
- Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: A feminist perspective on the lesbian sexual revolution (Spinifex Press, 1993)
- Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution (The Women’s Press, 1993)
- Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis, Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (South End Press, 1986)
- Anne Koedt, Radical Feminism (Quadrangle, 1973)
- Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (Firebrand Books, 1988)
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Quality Paperback Book Club, 1993)
- Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Quality Paperback Book Club, 1993)
- Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Harvard University Press, 1987)
- Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Harvard University Press, 1989)
- Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings (Harvard University Press, 1997)
- Susie Orbach, Fat Is A Feminist Issue (Arrow, 2006)
- Krista Ratcliffe, Anglo-American Feminist Challenges to the Rhetorical Traditions (SIU Press, 1996)
- Janice Raymond, A Passion for Friends: towards a philosophy of female affection (The Women’s Press, 1991)
- Barbara Smith, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983)
- John Stoltenberg, Refusing to be a Man (UCL Press, 2000)
Web Articles and Other Reading
- Black Women’s Blueprint, An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk (signed and endorsed by many women)
- Greta Christina, Lesbian Sex With Men
- Chrystos, Those tears
- Heather Corinna, ?s something wrong with me because I like BDSM? Can I like it and still be a feminist?
- Sandy Covahey, Beyond Fantasies into Ecstasy
- Crunk Feminist Collective, Asking for Sex: What Do You Do When the Guy Says No?
- Crunk Feminist Collective, Asking for Sex: Revisited
- Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, An excerpt from Model Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance
- Shiri Eisner, The myth of myth-busting: normalcy discourse and bisexual politics
- Shiri Eisner, Snippet #4: The bisexual invisibility report
- Shiri Eisner, Hot sexy bi babes: media depictions of bisexual women
- (Trigger Warning for woman-hating in woman-haters’ own words) Elkballet, Porn Users Explain Why Porn Is Healthy Part 1
- (Trigger Warning for woman-hating in woman-haters’ own words) Elkballet, Porn Users Explain Why Porn Is Healthy Part 2
- Eschergirls, Tagged: “boobs and butt pose”
- Twisty Faster, There’s not enough femininity on the internet, so I wrote this
- Shulamith Firestone, Women Rap About Sex
- bell hooks, Straightening Our Hair
- bell hooks and Pema Chödrön, Cultivating Openness When Things Fall Apart
- Jess, Attack of the Unicorn Hunters
- Just Associates, Feminist Movement Builders’ Dictionary
- Literata, Porn is like fast food: an analogy
- Lovemme, On Not Loving Yourself
Monica Maldonado, How Gatekeepers Made Me Hate My Body: Part 1sadly no longer available as Monica has decided to take her blog down Monica Maldonado, How Queer Women Made Me Hate My Body: Part 2N/A Monica Maldonado, How Invisibility Made Me Hate My Body: Part 3N/A Monica Maldonado, How A Second Try Made Me Hate My Body: Part 4N/A Monica Maldonado, How We All Made Me Hate My Body: Part 5N/A
- Lisa Millbank, Significant Othering: Attraction Down The Privilege Gradient
- Lisa Millbank, The Gender Ternary: Understanding Transmisogyny
- Lisa Millbank, Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent, Part One: ‘No’
- Lisa Millbank, Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent, Part Two: ‘Yes’
- Lisa Millbank, Sex Educations: Gendering and Regendering Women
- Lisa Millbank, The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism
- Lisa Millbank, Cultural heterosexuality is the fetishisation of femininity
- Lisa Millbank, About ‘objectification’ – what does it really mean?
- Lisa Millbank, ‘What rape is not’ – and a suggested new crime
- Nahida, On Sexual Aggressiveness
- negationparty, Against Sex Positivity
- Evangelia Papadaki, Feminist Perspectives on Objectification
- Cliff Pervocracy, What do you want?
- Radicalesbians, The Woman Identified Woman
- Joanna Russ, Pornography and the doubleness of sex for women
- Kathie Sarachild, Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon
- Susan Leigh Star, Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation – An Interview with Audre Lorde
- The Suburban Bi, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, or: ‘how I came to stop worrying and like the word bisexual’, Part 2
- Molly Westerman, Have I ever had ‘ANY unwanted/undesired physical or sexual contact’?
- Rebecca Whisnant, Contemporary Feminism in a Porn Culture