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Sexing the Political: A Journal of Third Wave Feminists on Sexuality

Krista Jacob

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©Krista Jacob, 2004
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Volume Three
Number Two
May 2004

Turn, Turn, Turn: Thoughts on The Sexual (Counter)Revolution
Lise Shapiro Sanders and Patricia Miller

How do sex and sexuality figure in contemporary feminism? If we take the lessons and struggles of the Sexual Revolution to heart, women now have the freedom to practice sexual independence like never before. But if feminism today is all about choices, why does it lately seem that motherhood is more of a mandate than a choice? Patricia Miller and Lise Sanders work it out below….

LS: First things first. How do third wave feminists view sexuality? Does this perspective differ from that of previous generations (especially feminists of the second wave)? And does all this "wave" business make any sense, anyway? Is it possible to generalize according to age, generation, affiliation, or for that matter, according to race, class, sexual preference, lipstick or shoe choice?

PM: Sexuality seems very central for third wave feminism, although I also think that women's sexuality has been a significant topic and motivating force of feminism for a long time -- for second wavers, in terms of "the sexual revolution" itself, as well as discussions of motherhood and the objectification of women, and also for some pre-second wave feminists like Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman and their efforts to provide access to contraception. Plus, women's sexuality always seems to come up in any discussion of Women, whether it's about maternity leave, women in the military, prostitution, promiscuity, marriage, women executives, women's television, etc., etc.

LS: True, true. But isn't the force different now?  The first and second wave projects around sexuality seemed to fight, first and foremost, for the mere acknowledgement of women as sexual beings. Don't third wavers take this as a given? Also, would you agree that second-wave feminists focused more explicitly on politics and policy, while for their third wave daughters, the emphasis has fallen more on culture?

PM: I totally agree, on both accounts. But since your initial question is actually a little different, I'd also add this: My own investment in feminism also has a lot to do with sexuality. My own experiences with the hyper-sexualization of women's bodies, the sexual double standard, and negotiating sexual intimacy in relationships remain significant questions for me and my understanding of feminism. I mean, I think that feminism has a lot to offer and a lot of work to do around these issues. Of course, my feminism is not just a personal issue; I'm interested in feminism for more than a model on which to base my personal life, but also as a way to transform the cultural attitudes and institutions that create and sustain sexism, double standards, and equate women's worth with their sexual behavior.

LS: Right. The personal is political….

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PM: Plus, the discussion of sex and sexuality in contemporary feminism definitely seems different from previous feminist discussions of sex/sexuality. I mean, just as an example, it seems that many feminists today say "fuck" in a positive way and without the sense of violation or even violence that the word connotes for, say, second wave feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. This lightheartedness with sexual language also seems less of an indication of being "duped" by the patriarchy than a way of taming and reclaiming those words and the desire that they connote. Although maybe "fuck" is a little tricky of an example to use when you're talking about desire. The point, though, is that these kinds of words -- like fuck, or cunt, or pussy -- seem to have a different meaning for (some) contemporary feminists and feature prominently in certain contemporary feminist projects to reclaim language and articulate women's sexual desire and agency.

LS: Yes, and the very practice of "taming and reclaiming" grew out of sex-positive movements like Queer Nation and the HIV/AIDS activism of the 80s and 90s. This legacy of appropriative re-use also seems to connect to the parodic approach to language evidenced by Girlie feminism, which has lately been associated with young women who self-identify as urban, hip, consumers of fashion, make-up, and all things "girl." Yet one could argue that Girlie's parodic approach to girl culture can, and perhaps has, become commodified by a mass culture industry concerned only with marketing goods to this newly identified market of young female consumers. Is Girlie over? And what does this imply for female agency?

PM: I don't think that Girlie is over, but I do think that parody is more difficult in an era of commercialized parody and irony. Certain objects that were once subversive, like t-shirts proclaiming "Girl Power," have now been successfully reappropriated by the mainstream and divorced from their rebellious roots. However, a mixture of fierceness and femininity (in appearance and/or personality) still seems like a powerful affront to the persistent notion that women should be nice, quiet, and malleable.

LS: This tactic of mixing-it-up also seems to engage the productive possibilities of risk and its place in the claiming of pleasure for feminism. A certain measure of toughness combined with the aspects of femininity formerly associated with ornamentation -- everything from lipstick to knitting -- has a paradoxical appeal that seems to speak to young women, ourselves included, who have grown up in this culture of parody.

But then there's the appropriation of aspects of sexual culture formerly seen as degrading to women, such as porn, stripping, and Playboy: hence the emergence of lesbian and feminist porn, women (straight, lesbian and bi) choosing to become strippers, trendy pro-sex parties like those hosted by Cake and Throb, and the unauthorized use of the Playboy Bunny logo on t-shirts by Stella McCartney for her Chloe line (and subsequently by Playboy Enterprises). Do you see this as exploitative or empowering?

PM: I personally do not like the Playboy Bunny logo, especially on something that is mass-marketed or made by the Playboy empire. The Bunny seems too closely related to an overt objectification of women's bodies as a way to construct an image of the Playboy himself -- a type of wealthy and sexually over-active masculinity that views women as objects to consume like fine cigars, liquor, and expensive cars.  And I don’t really want to be a part of that.

LS: Me neither -- though when I was interviewed for the Ms. article "Rabbit Redux" (Audrey D. Brashich, August/September 2000), my mother bought me a t-shirt, bright red, with the Bunny logo in sparkly silver on the front. I wear it to clean the house (a task which, I should note, my husband and I share equally). What does that say?

PM:  I think it depends on what your husband wears! [laughs] But, seriously, I think it highlights the fact that while some things are more easily reappropriated, like sexual language, other items are more difficult to separate from their history -- with the Playboy Bunny as one example of that difficulty. For instance, I do think that there is some value in lesbian and feminist pornography as well as "trendy pro-sex parties" like Cake and Throb as a way to make women’s desire more public and visible. But why is pornography as a genre easier to reclaim than the Bunny? Who decides what’s "worthy" and what isn’t? This still seems like a pretty significant contradiction.

LS: Speaking of contradiction: is feminism in crisis? And if it is, is it because of these very rifts over sexuality, identity and agency? Are there other issues we should account for? Are pluralism and diversity -- of acts, practices, identities -- the answer to feminism's contemporary conundrum?

PM: Hmmmm. I think sexuality, identity, and agency are very contentious topics for feminism right now. How to interpret or act on certain notions of identity and the meaning and place of sexuality seem to be significant struggles for feminists today. I mean, all of the talk about the "Baby Panic" in the media recently seems to speak to these questions and highlights a real contradiction in the messages that women receive about careers, marriage, singlehood, and sexuality. This whole "forget about your career and start thinking about babies" line (popularized by Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her recent book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children) seems pretty anti-feminist at best. I just think there's a lot left unsaid about this idea that women still have to choose between a career and a child and why that is still the case. It also seems like a pretty blatant conservative backlash against the subversive implications of a large group of unmarried, professional, childless women supported by feminist goals and discourse. The whole thing just reeks of "family values" and paranoia, if you ask me.

LS: But Hewlett views herself as making a strong feminist intervention, calling for increased child care and parity for women in the workplace. Of course, she herself has five children, so her feminism would have to be more family-focused.

PM: OK, but I'm wondering, "But what if you don't want to have kids AT ALL?" Of course, while I think that everyone who wants to have kids should be able to decide when and how to have them, I'm also really disappointed that the discussion must always presume a maternal desire for all women. Not only that, but it also seems that the message is that somehow women who don't have children are really missing out on what's important in life and should be pitied for their barrenness or something. What's wrong with deciding not to have kids and enjoying the children of your siblings and friends? Or just working with kids but not necessarily living with them?

LS: My thoughts exactly!

PM: I mean, maybe we can choose NOT to have kids in our teens and twenties, but it seems like there's an expectation that at some point we WILL have kids. I always say that I'm not planning to have kids, if I have kids, for another decade (I'm 22, by the way), so this doesn't seem like quite as much of a pressing personal issue. However, this baby stuff also relates  to marriage and "looking for a soul mate" and all of that, which seems a little more pertinent to me. I definitely feel a tension between not wanting to "settle down" too early while also continuing to look for that "soul mate" and worrying that maybe I'll never find that perfect person. What do you think about all of this baby stuff?

LS: Well, I feel like lately it's become even more pertinent than I want it to be. In my late teens/early twenties I thought I might have kids, might not, but certainly didn't have to make any decisions about it for quite a while; now, the closer I come to the twilight of my childbearing years, the LESS I want to have children. Spending time with friends who have kids always feels like a nice little vacation -- but then I get to go home, to my real life. Reading the recent media coverage, though, my first thought was, "Well, I can't put this off forever -- at some point soon (I'm 32), I'll have to make the conscious choice that I won't have children." And that does induce a degree of panic: how can I make a choice I'm just not ready for?

PM: Do your friends or other professional women that you know feel this burning desire for children?

LS: My friends take up a whole range of positions. Kate has always said she feels meant to be a mother, but now she's starting to consider the possibility that she may not find her "soul mate" in time to have a child of her own, barring adoption or its alternatives. Meg, by contrast, told me five years ago that she NEVER wanted children, and we commiserated on how children could change your life for the worse (how do you ever even finish reading a book in the first five years of your child's life??) -- and then she just gave birth to a baby girl last fall. She and her husband have decided to only have one child, though, and then she'll have to answer the nosy questions about why: was it because she couldn't? And why wouldn’t she want to? Others seemed destined to be mothers from the start, the kind who actually "glow" during pregnancy; and their very absorption produces this incredibly ambivalent reaction in me (how can they find this so easy? So all-consuming?).

PM: So does it seem like there's support for women who choose to have kids or who decide to stay childless? Do young women still have to choose between careers and families?

LS: I do think having children is terribly difficult, at least for women who want to stay on any kind of professional "track." So far, my work has been my top priority: writing as progeny. But I think this does imply a choice, or a choice that isn't actually one; the American model of corporate success still doesn't seem to allow room for childbearing and child-raising in any real way, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Which is to say, in answer to your question, the support structure doesn't seem to be in place to truly accommodate the diversity of women's desire and relationships to the prospect of having, or not having, children. Either way, you're facing a tough road: discrimination if you choose the mommy track over your career, or a lingering pity if you choose not to have children (since I still think the perception dominates that if you don't have children, it's because you couldn't, not because you didn't want to). At best, in the popular imagination, women who choose not to have children are an anomaly, at worst, an aberration.

PM: So does the image of the swinging single girl no longer resonate for young women? Or is the mainstream turn away from the "single and fabulous" trend just a backlash to reinforce "family values, monogamy, and a notion of women's naturally domestic aspirations?

LS: I'm sure the image of the swinging single girl still holds some pretty interesting possibilities -- I don’t think women are about to give up all of the perks of single adulthood overnight or anything. And it's not as though the demographics have changed: that body of unmarried/childless professional women still exists, with ready money to invest in their own goals and desires. What really does trouble me is the potential effect such a backlash could have on women's self-perception. Doesn't this have significant implications for our ability to make informed choices? What "truth" do we have to go on, even when it comes to our own bodies? Lately I feel like we're just being told, once again, to distrust our bodies and minds and place our confidence (and our futures) in the hands of the medical establishment. And that's disconcerting.

PM: Maybe feminists need to respond to the Baby Panic with a counter-attack. Like, analyze the actual medical data, get the facts straight, and work to provide women with reliable information. We also need to make sure that women’s experiences are not overshadowed by a publisher's scheme to move units. We can't let the media hype undermine the significance of women's sexual and social empowerment.

LS: And isn't that exactly what feminism has been working toward all along? Knowledge, freedom of choice, and equality. Maybe it's just that simple.

Patricia Miller recently finished her undergraduate thesis on Girlie feminism in popular culture. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature at Duke University.

Lise Sanders teaches gender and cultural studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.



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