Personal desire or collective politics?

// 10 March 2014

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This is a guest post by Nichi Hodgson exploring the conflict between personal desire and collective politics. Nichi is a 30-yr-old journalist, broadcaster and author of the erotic memoir, ‘Bound to You’.

Line in the Sand by ImageationEver since Paris Lees’ Vice magazine cat-calling piece was published last week, I’ve literally been losing sleep. Firstly, because my comment made it look like I was saying women that don’t enjoy street harassment are snobbish, which I absolutely was not. I don’t have enough words here to clarify that but have done on my own blog. And secondly, because it proved how far feminism has to go when discussing the tensions between personal desire and collective politics.

Many women in the feminist Twittersphere criticised Lees for asking what they considered to be the wrong question. The focus on whether personally enjoying cat-calls made you a ‘bad feminist’, was, they said, beside the point because it detracted from the better kind of world we envision for all women. What’s more, even if we believe heckling to be, in its mildest form, crude flirtation, there’s a power asymmetry at the heart of it – by and large, men dole it out, women receive it, (often without recourse to a reply if it’s a man shooting past in a vehicle). And as blogger Stavvers sagely remarked, when women challenge it, they’re are often met with less than benign follow-up line – “Hey you look gorgeous” becoming “ugly bitch”. Fair point.

However, even if we accept that the “Am I bad feminist?” question is the wrong one to ask, that still doesn’t solve the problem of how we grapple with the very complex intersection of personal desire – which is by its very nature amoral; where we draw the line between flirtation and harassment (something nobody seemed very willing to discuss at all) and how feminism deals with those contradictions.

In a follow-up post for the New Statesman, Glosswitch criticised Lees’ celebration of cat-calling: “We’ve reached a point where sex-positive feminism is doing the patriarchy’s work for it. All those good girls who grew up fearful of breaking the rules? They’ve discovered a way to do exactly what’s required of them without acknowledging the impact on others”.

I don’t use the term myself but as a published erotic memoirist and sex columnist, I’m obviously a fierce advocate of people embracing their desires, and enjoying sex. But the term “sex positive feminist” came about not just because some women still want to be the patriarchy’s petting toy, but because many of us still want to flirt and sexually engage with men, and because there was and is an absence of positive discussion going on in contemporary, mainstream feminism about how to negotiate this. The fact Lees was so roundly jumped upon for daring to try and explore the contradiction between personal desire and collective values only goes to prove this.

When I was first politically awakened, I couldn’t find any really good books which discuss the practicalities of sex as a feminist, only ones that denounced entertaining the patriarchy’s fantasies. Who talks about whether flirting, or traditional courting rituals can be tailored to contemporary feminism? Not Millet, not Adrienne Rich, not Dworkin, nor Naomi Wolf attempted it. Germaine Greer is the only one who got close and that was more than 40 years ago. Instead, it has been those outside of the canon and who don’t necessarily answer to the name ‘feminist’ – Nancy Friday, Erica Jong, and more recently, Brooke Magnanti and Emily Dubberley have explored desire, separate from politics.

I’ve also never seen the feminists that are currently criticising porn culture and “sex positivity” offer alternatives. How to co-parent, how to make it in a male-dominated work place, how NOT to be a sex object – all those things are covered – but how to explore your own sexuality – even the things you feel drawn to that aren’t politically correct – and then go get sex on your terms? As far as I can see, not even Glosswitch has attempted it.

What’s more, what women want on the streets for each other, and what they want in their heads and their beds, for themselves, are going to be different and contradictory things because of the way human sexuality works.

Take 50 Shades. From a strictly feminist perspective, the tale of a young virgin seduced and dominated by an older, more powerful man in a way that is dubiously consensual, does not smack of equality. But 50 Shades isn’t a political manifesto. It’s erotica, the place where your political beliefs are allowed to have a night off while you indulge your fantasies, safe in the knowledge you are not selling out the Sisterhood, but rather embracing your right to sexual desire, something women have been denied for too long. It seems the problem with Lees’ article is that she was trying to explore where the line between the two was to be drawn, which is more than our current feminist debate seems to be able to handle – partly because we are still so busy fighting for an end to harassment and abuse, and partly because we need to accept that, when it comes to sex, the personal and the political won’t always desire the same things. And that’s ok. What we need to get better at from here on, is opening up the dialogue on these contradictions. The only thing more threatening to feminism, and harmful to women than talking about desire, is not talking about it.

Image attribution: The image at the head of this post is a digitally-manipulated composite landscape photo called ‘Line in the Sand’. It is from Imageation’s Flickr photostream and has been cropped and resized by Helen in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Comments From You

Lisa // Posted 10 March 2014 at 11:23 am

“I’ve also never seen the feminists that are currently criticising porn culture and “sex positivity” offer alternatives.”

I have. I’ve written a long series on it. And other lesbian feminists have too – unfortunately, our work exploring resistant, woman-loving sexuality doesn’t get as much attention as our work about pornography. But if you’d like to check out my series, it starts here:

Sophie // Posted 10 March 2014 at 1:52 pm

I want to second Lisa’s comment that there’s a long history of sex-positive feminisms, starting with Audre Lorde’s brilliant essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” which draws useful and clear distinctions between the pornographic (sexuality commodified and used against the body in which it inheres) and the erotic (sexuality in the control of the body in which it inheres). I’d also recommend looking at Tristan Taormino and Rachel Bussel Kramer’s writing and editorial work on erotica and feminist-produced porn.

One major distinction that it’s worth emphasising is: who controls the levers of production (and also, where does the money go)? There’s a difference between a book published by a major publishing conglomerate who marketed that book heavily and have profited from it massively, and work produced by feminist collectives, such as the film anthology Dirty Diaries.

Desire is personal but it intersects with the political at every point.

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 10 March 2014 at 2:12 pm

What she said.

There’s a big, big difference between, say, directing and producing your own independent porn (incorporating any fantasies you wish, including catcalling as forward as you want it to be) and extolling everyday catcalling (combined with patronising half-hearted ‘praising’ of Everyday Sexism and similar projects) nowhere else but on

We live in the age of the media and so the platform matters a lot. On some websites, no matter what your article’s content, it will be published next to the pictures of nubile scantily clad women with their mouths ajar. As an author, you may be an attractive young woman (nothing wrong with that) or enjoy such images yourself (nothing wrong with that either). This is however besides the point.

Our desires are as ‘amoral’/ non-PC as it gets, of course. Where and how we decide to express them involves the entire new level of morality/ethics.

Laura // Posted 11 March 2014 at 9:40 am

My issue with Lees’ piece wasn’t that she was reducing the issue to the tired old “Can you do X and be a feminist?” question, but that it seemed to be very much lacking in solidarity for other women. I don’t doubt she enjoys catcalling, and I don’t have a problem with her enjoyment or her sexual desires: each to their own. But when so many other women feel intimidated, threatened and harassed by men shouting at them on the street, why provide more ammo to those who claim that street harassment is harmless fun or a compliment? Would Lees really rather say to men: “don’t stop catcalling women, because some of us get off on it!” than “stop harassing women on the street, because a lot of them find it intimidating”? Because that’s the impression her piece gave.

It comes down to the personal vs. the collective, as you say, Nichi, but for me feminism is about the collective: it’s about liberating all women, which may mean that some women need to modify their behaviour. For example, white women need to relinquish our privilege in order to make society fairer for Black women. If Lees can’t let go of the chance to get leered at in the street in exchange for other women’s safety, then personally I think that’s a pretty sad state of affairs. There are plenty of other ways in which one can flirt with and get sexual attention from men, after all!

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