Women, agency and sexuality
Laura // 4 February 2009
As a feminist who has spent a considerable amount of time struggling with my sexuality and sexual desires in the face of condemnation from certain feminist theorists and their followers, the following comment from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha really resonated with me:
…as second-wave feminism mainstreamed and got institutionalized (and whiteness and class priviilege was a huge part of that) that part of the movement did a lot to silence survivor voices and contribute to the professionalization of survivor culture. For example, saying that all sex workers who have survived violence are of course reenacting trauma if they’re doing sex work, instead of looking at the complex continuum of sex workers’ experiences doing sex work (and what sex workers, themselves, are saying about their experiences, instead of thinking that sex workers are too stupid to think for themselves); or enforcing an idea that all sex has to be vanilla or you’re re-traumatizing yourself…
In other words, while it is important to recognise the way in which our experiences and socialisation within patriarchy affect our sexualities, we must not allow this understanding to blinker us to women’s ability to overcome these experiences and socialisation and forge our own sexualities. It is both unfair and unhelpful to suggest that the only possible explanation for a woman choosing to engage in certain sexual practices is her experience at the hands of men or the way in which she has been socialised to express her sexuality within patriarchy. This becomes downright anti-women when it involves ignoring the voice of the woman concerned.
I’m going to pick up the old BDSM chestnut here because, along with sex work/prostitution, this is the area where the tendency outlined above can come in to play, and I have no experience of the latter. I have been told time and again that the only reason I could possibly like being tied up (etc, let’s not enter the land of TMI) by a man, is because patriarchy has hot wired me to get off on being “dominated” and “degraded”. The only possible reason a man could want to do this to me is because he’s been hot-wired (or, worse, it’s in his nature) to want to “dominate” and “degrade” me. No matter how calmly and carefully I try to explain that, actually, I like doing it because I enjoy the physical sensations, because pain can be pleasurable, because the trust aspect of letting another person be “in charge” of your body can be intensely enjoyable, that, actually, he likes doing it because he wants to give me pleasure, because I asked him to, because it just feels good, because – hell – we love each other’s bodies and love giving each other pleasure, I am told that I am deluded, that I need to “examine” myself more, that I need to stop engaging in something which reinforces patriarchal power relations.
Of course, the fact that we regularly swap roles is beside the point. He suddenly becomes in control when he’s tied up, goes the theory – either that or he’s feminised, take your pick of convenient explanations. The fact that we have a totally egalitarian relationship, that neither of us is bothered about transgressing gender roles or behaviours, that we love* and respect each other, does not change the fact that our sexual practice is 100% rooted in patriarchal misogyny.
Really? Because, you see, where I’m coming from, the assertion that patriarchy is so incredibly powerful that us poor, feeble women are unable to control our own sex lives, come up with our own sexual fantasies or have any kind of sexual agency whatsoever (unless, of course, it has been approved by Sheila Jeffreys et al), is way more misogynistic than my sex life (or my sweet, respectful, wonderful boyfriend thank you very much) will ever be.
*I’m not saying you have to be in love to engage in respectful sex, but to think he’s out to degrade and hurt me when we’re in love, well… Cue: “blinded by patriarchal notions of romantic love” etc etc…