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The Essential Ellen Willis$

Ellen Willis and Nona Willis Aronowitz

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780816681204

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816681204.001.0001

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Lust Horizons

Lust Horizons

Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?

(p.200) Lust Horizons
The Essential Ellen Willis

Nona Willis Aronowitz

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines whether the women’s movement is pro-sex. To those who believe that an understanding of sexuality is crucial to a feminist analysis, what is especially disconcerting is that feminists are as confused, divided, and dogmatic about sex as everyone else. If feminist theory is to be truly based in the reality of women’s lives, feminists must examine their professed beliefs and feelings with as much skepticism as they apply to male pronouncements. Otherwise they risk simply replacing male prejudices and rationalizations with their own. In one form or another, sexual conservatism still permeates the feminist movement. Ethel Spector Person, a psychoanalyst, argues that sexual activity and orgasm are indispensable to men’s mental health, but not to women’s; specifically, men need sex to feel like men, while in women “gender identity and self-worth can be consolidated by other means.” This chapter considers the issue of sexuality within the context of feminism by focusing on two anthologies: Women—Sex and Sexuality and Heresies.

Keywords:   women’s movement, sexuality, sex, women, sexual conservatism, Ethel Spector Person, orgasm, feminism, Women—Sex and Sexuality, Heresies

My nominations for the questions most likely to get a group of people, all of whom like each other and hate Ronald Reagan, into a nasty argument: Is there any objective criterion for healthy or satisfying sex, and if so what is it? Is a good sex life important? How important? Is abstinence bad for you? Does sex have any intrinsic relation to love? Is monogamy too restrictive? Are male and female sexuality inherently different? Are we all basically bisexual? Do vaginal orgasms exist? Does size matter? You get the idea. Despite the endless public discussion of sex, despite the statistics of “experts” and the outpourings of personal testimony about our sexual desires, fantasies, and habits, we have achieved precious little clarity—let alone agreement—about what it all means. At the same time there is no subject on which people are more passionately, blindly, stubbornly opinionated.

What is especially disconcerting, to those of us who believe that an understanding of sexuality is crucial to a feminist analysis, is that feminists are as confused, divided, and dogmatic about sex as everyone else. This sense of an intractably resistant, perennially sore subject pervades two recent anthologies that in other ways could hardly be more disparate. Women—Sex and Sexuality, a collection of articles from the feminist academic journal Signs, is a sober mix of theoretical essays, reviews, reports on research, and historical documents. The theory section is the most consistently interesting: most of the essays, including some I violently disagree with, raise provocative questions or make points worth mulling. (I particularly recommend Judith Walkowitz on the politics of prostitution, Rosalind Petchesky on reproductive freedom, Ann Barr Snitow on sex in women’s novels, Alix Kates Shulman on the genesis of radical feminist ideas about sex—I should add that the last two and I belong to the (p.201) same women’s group.) Otherwise the book is uneven, with valuable information and insights weighed down by reviews that are little more than summaries and research that borders on the trivial. Stilted academic prose is an intermittent problem, though less so than in most scholarly collections.

The sex issue of Heresies—a journal that was started by feminist artists and has put out 12 issues, each devoted to a single theme and edited by a different collective—is more fun to read. It is lively, raunchy, irreverent; it intersperses theoretical articles (“Pornography and Pleasure,” “A Herstorical Look at Some Aspects of Black Sexuality,” “Narcissism, Feminism, and Video Art”) with stories, poems, satire, cartoons, and witty graphics. The Signs anthology defines its subject in the most inclusive terms; Heresies sticks to the aspect of sex feminists have had the most trouble discussing—desire (“Where do our desires come from? How do they manifest themselves in their infinite variations? And what, if anything, do they tell us about what it means to be a woman?”). The editors of Women—Sex and Sexuality see the movement’s lack of any coherent sexual theory as healthy eclecticism: “Since female sexuality exists within specific contexts, within matrices of the body and the world, no single perspective, no single discipline, can do justice to it.” The Heresies collective simply admits it couldn’t agree on much; divergent editorials by individual (but anonymous) editors are scattered throughout the issue.

The failure of feminists to get a grip, so to speak, on this all-important subject is particularly disappointing, given our (naive?) hopes at the beginning. In “Sex and Power: Sexual Bases of Radical Feminism,” her contribution to the Signs collection, Alix Kates Shulman explains the premise of radical feminist consciousness raising: “The so-called experts on women had traditionally been men who, as part of the male-supremacist power structure, benefited from perpetuating certain ideas…. We wanted to get at the truth about how women felt…. Not how we were supposed to feel but how we really did feel.” As it turned out this was easier said than done, especially when the feelings in question were sexual. To challenge male “expertise” on what good sex is or ought to be, what women feel or ought to feel, is only a prerequisite to understanding “how we really feel.” Women’s sexual experience is diverse and often contradictory. Women’s sexual feelings have been stifled and distorted not only by men and men’s ideas but by our own desperate strategies for living in and with a sexist, sexually repressive culture. Our most passionate convictions about sex do not necessarily reflect our real desires; they are as likely to be aimed at repressing the pain of desires we long ago decided were too dangerous to acknowledge, even to ourselves. If feminist theory is to be truly based in the reality of women’s lives, feminists must examine their professed beliefs and feelings with as much skepticism as they apply to male pronouncements. Otherwise we risk simply replacing male prejudices and rationalizations with our own. But what criteria do we apply to such an examination? How do we distinguish between real and inauthentic feelings?

(p.202) An influential strain in early radical feminist thought assumed that women had a kind of collective wisdom, drawn from their experience, that would spontaneously emerge as the existence of a movement encouraged women to believe change was possible and to admit the truth of their situation, instead of fatalistically acquiescing (or pretending to acquiesce) in male supremacist lies. In practice, what this tended to mean was a faith in authenticity by consensus—particularly when the consensus of a feminist group seemed to dovetail with the traditional complaints and demands (the “individual struggles”) of “apolitical” women. Not coincidentally, the consensus among proponents of this view was that women really want marriage and monogamy, albeit on equal terms that do not now exist. (To the extent that lesbianism was discussed, it was assumed either that lesbians were exceptions or that lesbianism was a response to male oppressiveness, rather than a positive choice.) The “free love” ideology of male leftists and bohemians was, they argued, nothing but a means of exploiting women sexually while avoiding commitment and responsibility; the “sexual revolution” had not benefited women, but merely robbed us of the right to say no. If some women nonetheless preferred “free love,” it was only because marriage under present conditions was also oppressive. The opposite possibility was not considered: that women really want free love—on equal terms that do not now exist—and prefer to let the state police their sexual relationships only because the present male-defined and -dominated “sexual revolution” has so little to do with either genuine love or genuine freedom.

For another faction in the movement—which also surfaced right at the beginning—the standard of authenticity became one’s degree of antagonism toward men and male attitudes, particularly sexual attitudes. By this standard, marriage and “free love” are equally repugnant. Heterosexual relations are by definition a violation of women’s true feelings; the only authentic choices are lesbianism or celibacy. Here there was some confusion, for separatists tended to talk as if lesbianism and celibacy were at once freely chosen alternatives and necessary responses to men’s oppressive behavior. But this contradiction was resolved by an implicit biological determinism: men are inherently violent and predatory; women are inherently loving and nurturing; and the essence of men’s oppressiveness is their insistence on imposing their maleness—especially their male sexuality on unwilling women. (Adrienne Rich’s article in Women—Sex and Sexuality, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” is a classic example of this line of reasoning. Her premise is that both men and women desire women; this has impelled men to erect the whole structure of patriarchal relations for the specific purpose of ensuring their access to women’s vaginas. Where homosexual men fit into this analysis is unclear.) This wing of the movement has been primarily responsible for putting a feminist imprimatur on certain familiar ideas—that men are too genitally oriented, that women are more interested in nongenital forms of eroticism, that the supposedly irrepressible sex drive is a male problem (or a male myth), that women can take sex or leave it.

(p.203) These apparently opposed perspectives meet on the common ground of sexual conservatism. The monogamists uphold the traditional wife’s “official” values: emotional commitment is inseparable from a legal/moral obligation to permanence and fidelity; men are always trying to escape these duties; it’s in our interest to make them shape up. The separatists tap into the underside of traditional femininity—the bitter, self-righteous fury that propels the indictment of men as lustful beasts ravaging their chaste victims. These are the two faces of feminine ideology in a patriarchal culture: they induce women to accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men’s sexual freedom as a substitute for real power.

In one form or another, sexual conservatism still permeates the movement. In their introduction the editors of Women—Sex and Sexuality, Catharine Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person, approach the issue of sexual freedom with cautious equivocation, but quickly betray an underlying conservatism. They ask, “Is female sexuality like male sexuality, or does it obey laws of its own?” then note that researchers with an “egalitarian bias,” who prefer “to see the sexualities as essentially identical,” have found support in recent scientific studies. But “such a belief can be only apparently feminist. Too often, egalitarians masculinize the model of sexuality. They believe that male sexuality most accurately embodies a human sexuality that neither cultural nor psychological constraints have corrupted.” Perhaps. On the other hand, some egalitarians, including me, are inclined to believe that while “uncorrupted” male and female sexuality would be pretty much alike, cultural and psychological constraints have corrupted the sexuality of both sexes in different ways. But in the next sentence we see what all this has been leading up to: “They also tend to esteem a pure and unfettered sexuality as an invariant key to self-validation and autonomy.” Translation: to be “egalitarian” is to legitimize unfettered male lust—for both sexes, yet. It’s safer if female sexuality is different—maybe we don’t want to be unfettered.

Person, a psychoanalyst, elaborates on this theme in an article called “Sexuality as the Mainstay of Identity: Psychoanalytic Perspectives.” First, she reminds us that Freud’s libido theory—the concept of sexual excitation as energy that presses for release and if not satisfied directly (in orgasm) will seek indirect or disguised outlets—is unproven. True, but it hasn’t been disproven either. On the contrary, it remains the most plausible explanation for a whole range of phenomena, from the way sexual excitement feels, to the obvious correlation between sexual inhibition and certain neurotic symptoms or character traits, to the centrality of sexual restrictions in patriarchal morality. Anyway, one would think that whatever their hostility to other aspects of Freud’s thought, feminists would welcome the libido theory, since it supports the claim that men’s suppression of women’s genital sexuality is an intolerable denial of our needs. But the assumption that women have genital needs is precisely what’s unacceptable from Person’s point of view. She argues that sexual activity and orgasm are indispensable to men’s mental health, but not to women’s; specifically, men need (p.204) sex to feel like men, while in women “gender identity and self-worth can be consolidated by other means.”

This argument reinforces a social stereotype while completely ignoring social reality. In this culture, where women are still supposed to be less sexual than men, sexual inhibition is as integral to the “normal” woman’s identity as sexual aggression is to a man’s; it is “excessive” genital desires that often make women feel “unfeminine” and unworthy. In rejecting the idea that an active, autonomous sexuality is a necessary aspect of female autonomy in general, Person also rejects the possibility that the systematic social inhibition of female sexuality is a way of inhibiting our self-assertion in other areas—that this indeed may be the chief social function of our antisexual training. She notes the “evidence in the clinical literature that masturbation in adolescent girls is related to high self-esteem and to the subsequent pursuit of career goals,” but quickly dismisses the obvious inference: “It is unlikely that masturbation itself is so beneficial; more likely some general assertiveness plays a role in the exploration of both sexuality and role experimentation.”

From her dubious hypothesis Person reaches the following conclusions: “Many women have the capacity to abstain from sex without negative psychological consequences. (The problem for women is that they are often denied the legal right of sexual refusal.)” “One ought not dictate a tyranny of active sexuality as critical to female liberation.” “Given a current liberal climate of thinking about sexuality there is a danger, not so much in an anti-erotic attitude, but in too much insistence on the expression of sexuality as the sine qua non of mental health and self-actualization.” I hope that in the current conservative climate Person is having second thoughts, but I’m not counting on it. She goes on to say that a “neutral” discussion of sexuality must weigh not only the advantages of sexual activity but “the adaptive advantages of the capacity for abstinence, repression, or suppression.” No doubt about it—when one must endure abstinence, repression, or suppression, the capacity to adapt does come in handy. But somehow I always imagined that feminism was about rebelling, not adapting.

It has been years since feminist sexual conservatism (a contradiction in terms, really) has had to face any sustained or organized opposition, but that is beginning to change. Both of these collections—particularly Heresies—reflect the early, tentative stirrings of a revived feminist debate on sexuality, which is in turn a response to the right-wing backlash. The right does have a coherent perspective on sex, one that unites a repressive sexual morality with the subordination of women. Since feminists are at best ambivalent about sexual freedom, they have not been able to make an effective counterattack. Indeed, the movement’s attacks on sexual exploitation and violence, male irresponsibility, pornography, and so on have often reinforced right-wing propaganda by giving the impression that feminists consider the loosening of controls over sexual behavior a worse threat to women than repression. While liberals appeared to (p.205) be safely in power, feminists could perhaps afford the luxury of defining Larry Flynt or Roman Polanski as Enemy Number One. Now that we have to cope with Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms, a rethinking of priorities seems in order.

Which is why I’m grateful for Heresies’ sex issue. Both the content of individual pieces and an overall feistiness of style and tone assume that the purpose of women’s liberation is to liberate women, not defend our superior capacity for abstinence. (The issue does include an article by a woman extolling the joys of celibacy, but even she admits to masturbating. This may technically be celibacy, but abstinence it ain’t.) As one of the anonymous editorials puts it, “The work in this magazine encourages us to reflect on our individual and collective relationship to our desires for and of the flesh…. In a system where Women make love but do not fuck, where Women request but do not demand, women who actively strategize for their own pleasure are confused…. If we are not Women as we have been designed, then who are we? Many of us fear for our feminine identity …. As we proceed in this project of creating a feminist understanding of our sexual choices, our changing desires and our erotic possibilities, we prepare the way for a sexual politics that has pleasure as its goal.” In “Pornography and Pleasure,” Paula Webster argues that the antipornography movement “has chosen to organize and theorize around our victimization, our Otherness, not our subjectivity and self-definition. In focusing on what male pornography has done to us, rather than on our own sexual desires, we tend to embrace our sexually deprived condition and begin to police the borders of the double standard…. Indeed, I am convinced that pornography, even in its present form, contains important messages for women. As Angela Carter suggests, it does not tie women’s sexuality to reproduction or to a domesticated couple or exclusively to men. It is true that this depiction is created by men, but perhaps it can encourage us to think of what our own images and imaginings might be like.”

In short, Heresies #12 is, among other things, a forum for dissidents in the sex debate, and it tacitly acknowledges that role by publicizing a recent intramovement skirmish. Last year NOW, on the advice of its lesbian caucus, passed a resolution specifically excluding from its definition of lesbian rights certain forms of sexual expression that had been “mistakenly correlated with Lesbian/ Gay rights by some gay organizations and by opponents of Lesbian/Gay rights seeking to confuse the issue”: pederasty, pornography, sadomasochism (all of which were alleged to be issues of violence or exploitation, not of sexual preference), and public sex (“an issue of violation of the privacy rights of nonparticipants”). While the impetus for the resolution seems to have been opposition to the “boy love” movement, its effect is to endorse the moralistic rhetoric and the conventionally feminine sexual politics of the antiporn campaign; it also has disturbing overtones of homophobic and/or self-hating insistence that “lesbians are respectable too.”

The resolution inspired a letter of protest that has been circulating as a petition in feminist, lesbian, and gay circles and has collected about 150 signatures. (p.206) My women’s group (a hotbed of sexual dissidence) had a somewhat different point of view, so we wrote our own letter. All three documents are reprinted in Heresies under the headline, “News Flash: People Organize to Protest Recent NOW Resolution on Lesbian and Gay Rights.”

Lesbians have been conspicuous on both sides of the clash between sexually conservative and libertarian feminists. On the one hand, it is lesbian separatists who have most militantly embraced a saccharinely romantic, nice-girl’s view of female sexuality as the proper feminist outlook, while disparaging sexual attitudes deemed too aggressive or too bluntly lustful as “male-identified” (movementese for “unfeminine”). Other lesbians—impelled in part by the recognition that it’s hardly in lesbians’ interest to encourage moralistic attacks on unconventional sexual behavior—retort that feminists have no business setting up standards of politically correct sexuality and that women who do so are, like all bigots, fearfully condemning what they don’t understand.

A recent focus of this argument within the lesbian feminist community has been the issue of sadomasochism (i.e., consensual sexual practices involving dominance and submission rituals and the infliction of pain or humiliation). The prevailing lesbian feminist line has been that S-M, like pornography, is a male trip, a form of violence rather than sex, a re-creation of oppressive patriarchal, heterosexual patterns; lesbians don’t have S-M relationships, and if they do it’s because they are victims of heterosexist brainwashing. Dissenters have argued that lesbians do indeed have such relationships, that S-M is as legitimate a sexual taste as any other, and that its despised practitioners are an oppressed sexual minority.

Pat Califia carries on this debate in Heresies. In “Feminism and Sadomasochism,” she argues that S-M is not a form of sexual assault but a fantasy—“a drama or ritual”—enacted by mutual consent: “The participants are enhancing their sexual pleasure, not damaging or imprisoning one another. A sadomasochist is well aware that a role adopted during a scene is not appropriate during other interactions and that a fantasy role is not the sum total of her being.”

What then is the function and meaning of the drama? Why the desire to act out in bed roles that in other contexts would be distasteful? Califia’s explanations are less than satisfying. She suggests that S-M involves a quest for “intense sensations” and “pleasure from the forbidden,” that a sadist may encourage a masochist “to lose his inhibitions and perform an act he may be afraid of, or simply acknowledge shame and guilt and use it to enhance the sex act rather than prevent it.” But she doesn’t pursue these observations further, and in the end we learn little more than that S-M turns her on. For Califia this is enough; commenting on the term vanilla—S-M jargon for non-S-M people—she says, “I believe sexual preferences are more like flavor preferences than like moral/ political alliances.” To the question of whether sadomasochism will survive the revolution, she replies, “My fantasy is that kinkiness and sexual variation will (p.207) multiply, not disappear, if terrible penalties are no longer meted out for being sexually adventurous.”

Can it possibly be that simple? Here is Califia’s list of the activities she enjoys: “Leathersex, bondage, various forms of erotic torture, flagellation (whipping), verbal humiliation, fist-fucking, and watersports (playing with enemas and piss).” “There are many different ways to express affection or interest,” she asserts. “Vanilla people send flowers, poetry, or candy, or they exchange rings. S-M people do all that, and may also lick boots, wear a locked collar, or build their loved one a rack in the basement.”

Does the need to act out fantasies of debasing oneself or someone else really require no further explanation? Does it have nothing to do with buried emotions of rage or self-hatred? Nothing to do with living in a hierarchical society where one is “superior” to some people and “inferior” to others, where men rule and women serve? Can the need to connect sexual pleasure with pain and humiliation be unrelated to the fact that our sexual organs and their function are still widely regarded as bad, contemptible, and embarrassing, a reproach to our higher spiritual natures? Is it irrelevant that our first erotic objects were our all-powerful parents, who too often hurt and humiliated us by condemning our childish sexuality?

Puritanism is not the only obstacle to a feminist understanding of sex. If self-proclaimed arbiters of feminist morals stifle honest discussion with their dogmatic, guilt-mongering judgments, sexual libertarians often evade honest discussion by refusing to make judgments at all. I think that to read women out of the movement because of their sexual habits is outrageous, and that to label any woman’s behavior as “male” is a sexist absurdity. I also think it’s dangerous to assume that certain kinds of behavior will disappear “after the revolution” (as dangerous as assuming that “the revolution” is a discrete event, which will someday be over once and for all). But I don’t believe our sexual desires are ever just arbitrary tastes. Rather, I see sadomasochism as one way of coping with this culture’s sexual double binds, which make it painfully difficult for people to reconcile their sexual needs with dignity and equality. To be sure, the same can be said of many more conventional sexual practices: what, after all, is the ritual of male pursuit and female ambivalence (or, increasingly these days, the opposite) but a disguised and therefore respectable form of sadomasochistic theater? Probably none of us is free of sadomasochistic feelings; no doubt the hostility sadomasochists inspire is in large part horror at being directly confronted with fantasies most of us choose to repress, or to express only indirectly. The issue is whether such fantasies, expressed or denied, are themselves the product of thwarted desire. The very idea that “the forbidden” offers special pleasures suggests that the answer is yes.

Another source of controversy among feminists, lesbians, and gays is the claim of “man-boy love” advocates that theirs is yet another unconventional (p.208) sexual taste, entirely consensual and beneficial to all concerned, that is unfairly maligned by puritanical homophobes as child molesting. This one is much stickier, for the question is not only whether sexual attraction between adults and children (most adult-child sex takes place between men and girls) is comparable to a yen for chocolate, but whether, given the vulnerability of children to the power of adults, such relationships can ever be truly consensual. I don’t think they can. Adults can too easily manipulate children’s needs for affection, protection, and approval; children are too inexperienced to understand all the implications of what they’re agreeing to (or even, in some cases, initiating). And it seems to me that what attracts adults to children is precisely their “innocence”—which is to say their relative powerlessness. There is the question, though, of where to draw lines. At what age does a child become a young person, and when does protecting children from exploitation become a denial of young people’s sexual autonomy? Some 15-year-olds are more mature than many adults will ever be. And I agree that the public’s readiness to equate all adult-child sex with child molesting comes in part from a need to deny that kids have active sexual desires. Still, in this instance I would rather err on the side of restrictiveness, for if children cannot rely absolutely on adult protection, they have no ground under their feet.

The “I’m O.K., you’re O.K.” brand of sexual libertarianism is a logical extension of the feminist and gay liberationist demand for the right to self-definition. But the further this principle is extended, the sharper are its contradictions. Though self-definition is the necessary starting point for any liberation movement, it can take us only so far. To me it is axiomatic that consenting partners have a right to their sexual proclivities, and that authoritarian moralism has no place in a movement for social change. But a truly radical movement must look (to borrow a phrase from Rosalind Petchesky) beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?

Village Voice, June 1981