So sorry for the extreme tardiness of this post. I am feeling much better now, so I feel like I can concentrate.
One of the main points and aims of feminism in the 20th and 21st centuries has been reproductive freedom. This is a complicated topic that is closely related to women's sexual freedom. I'd like to write about both, but I think it best to start at the beginning and discuss women's sexuality first. Next week, I'll talk about reproductive freedom. Ready?
Historically, in western society women’s sexuality has been suppressed and controlled by male power. Women's sexuality before the Victorian age was seen as a volatile, all-consuming, dangerous phenomenon, a wild and destructive force that must be tamed (by threat of rape/violence and by actual rape/violence), all of which preserves patriarchy. The idea of vaginatis dentata was popular, which portrayed the vagina as having teeth, representing the dangers of the sexually irrepressible vagina as consuming male flesh. It was commonly held that women's sexual appetite was insatiable, and that men could not keep up. This made men fearful that their women would be unfaithful; women were at this time considered property, after all, little more than chattle whores. Marriage in ancient Greece was seen as a form of prostitution or sexual slavery, where wives were expected to provide sexual favours to their husbands in return for being taken care of. Wives were often kept away from other men as a result, and eventually this led to women rooming together, in cloistered fashion, when men were gone.
Through the Victorian age, female sexuality became completely repressed, and the common view was that women's sexual appetite was smaller than that of men. The picture of the cold and frigid, virginal and pure woman became the norm. Everything about the culture was repressive, and women's bodies and sexuality was the ultimate site of inscription for this. This was also the time when women's clothing was most restrictive and punishing, with corsets and heavy layers of material piled high enough to cause fainting spells from lack of oxygen. Thanks, Queen Victoria!
Sexual relationships between women were condemned historically, although simultaneously encouraged by seclusion practices. Since men dominated women, sex between women did not present such a threat as did sex with other men (which threatened paternity). Because sex was associated with reproduction, phallic penetration defined sex. Therefore, sex between women was not ‘real’ sex and was tacitly tolerated by patriarchal systems, so long as patriarchal marriage commitments to reproduce were upheld. As a result, a silence about sexual relationships between women developed.
Sexuality became more important as separation of sex from reproduction became the Western norm. As access to contraception grew, an increased focus on sexual pleasure as a justification for intercourse developed, even in a marital context. Once sex was not tied to reproduction, homosexuality strengthened socially, and homosexuals became more visible. Subcultures developed, although gay male subcultures were more tolerable than their lesbian counterparts. Lesbians were seen to threaten male supremacy because they did not participate in patriarchal marriage situations. Lesbians were persecuted by law and deemed pathological and neurologically ill. As a result, lesbians often did not identify as such despite co-habiting and carrying on sexual relationships with other women over several years.
By the 1960s, feminists had a difficult task on their hands. Feminists had to advocate for women’s sexual freedom while also advocating for the end of male domination, definition, and exploitation of women and their sexuality. Trying to achieve sexual equality when women lacked economic and political equality was a a difficult task for feminists advocating amidst a political climate rife with tension. Feminists were seen as lesbians regardless of their personal sexual practices because they trespassed on what was traditionally male space politically.
Feminists had two separate ideals regarding sexuality: the idea of purity of women and the right to say no to unwanted sexual advances, and the idea of sexuality as being separate from reproduction. These ideals were not always complementary. Sexually liberated women of the 1960s often found their taste of sexual liberation unfulfilling. With increased risk of pregnancy and no economic equality or security, women ended up bearing the costs associated with pregnancy, motherhood, and abortion, and often were forced to turn to welfare to support their families. Women also felt they had lost the right to say no by being sexually liberated, and media and pornographic images perpetuated the notion that women were sexually available and perpetually eager to have sex. The sex industry proliferated during the second wave of feminism and the commercialization of sex through marketing became common. Sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, is being used and reinforced by capitalist commercialism today more than ever. This contributes to an idea of women’s sexuality that is primarily heterosexual, and damaging to women as we try to negotiate a more secure economic and political footing in society.
Lesbians grasped hold of the idea of female sexual self-determination. Lesbians lived outside of heterosexual institutions, and were seen as naturally challenging patriarchy. Also, lesbians were seen as “natural” feminists because they are free from emotional dependence on men. Heterosexual feminists risked losing privilege by associating with lesbians, felt excluded by lesbianism and felt “not feminist enough” because of their intimate relationships with men. The popular slogan of radical lesbian feminists, who encouraged a complete detachment from male society and formed a lifestyle that did not involve men in any way, was "Feminism is the theory. Lesbianism is the practice."
The picture of female sexuality in our society is certainly one of heterosexuality. Young girls now are subjected to extremely high expectations to have sex with boys, and teenage pregnancy and the rate of STIs in teens is rising: the group most at-risk for new HIV infections is 18-24 year old women. Sex is everything, yet it is nothing. It is everything because there is such a major emphasis on sex in our culture – yet it is nothing because it is "no big deal", "everyone's doing it", etc. More and more, this is true. The danger of this is for young girls more than young boys, because our culture seems to be sexualizing our young girls so much earlier. The pornography industry does nothing but feed this trend, picturing women with tiny little vulvas and no pubic hair, slender hips and thighs – but, paradoxically, huge round breasts, which signify the breasts of motherhood, full with milk. Young girls are paraded around in completely inappropriate clothing for their age, and are exposed to not just the damaging effects of Barbie, but very adult TV shows, movies, magazines, etc. Mothers don't seem to know where to draw the line with their children, perhaps because they went through this hyper-sexualization themselves, who knows? Fathers seem not to care. After all, a girl/woman's best chances of survival and economic prosperity lay with finding a husband. Sex is nothing, yet it is everything.
In her great book Promiscuities, Naomi Wolf writes about the coming of age for young girls during her generation, the 60s and 70s in San Fransisco, City of Love. Her story and that of her friends could jsut as easily be any girl's story; the feelings and rituals she describes are so scripted. Of course, coming of age for young girls means sex. Wolf talks about how in other cultures, women's sexuality has been celebrated and respected, and how in our culture, women's sexuality is degraded and repressed. When girls in some cultures begin to menstruate, they are seen as coming of age, and this is celebrated with rituals as the young girl enters into womanhood. She is taught about sex and her own sexuality by elder women in the group, and often go on adventures, either with other young girls or solo, in order to reflect on and experience her own power as a woman. In our culture, menstruation is seen as an inconvenience, an embarrassment – an inconvenience for men who cannot have sex with women at this time (which of course is totally untrue, but many men do freak out when see blood on their penises), or at least cannot have sex in order to procreate at this time; and an embarrassment because a woman's purpose, use, reason for being in a patriarchal society is to provide these things – sex and babies – for men. In some cultures, women seclude themselves during menstruation as a ritual, to celebrate their womanhood. It is well-known that when women live together, their cycles align naturally. This was convenient for these seclusions. In some cultures, women are sent away during menstruation. Or is that just how anthropologists viewing the situation with a patriarchal lens see this practice?
In our culture, this type of celebration of female sexuality for young girls is completely absent. Officially, our young girls are taught that sex is bad, it will make them pregnant, it will hurt, it will make them damaged goods, they will get STIs, and that any kind of sex is morally wrong. However, young girls are also exposed to the unofficial news about sex – it is fun, boys will like you, it feels good, that you can't get pregnant from anal or oral sex, that STIs are not that common and condoms will protect you – some of which is true and some of which is not. Kids are surrounded by images of what female and male sexuality is/should be, yet officially they are told a completely different story. Kids have hormones that race wildly, but they are taught that any kind of sexual touching – even touching their own body – is impermissible, because it will lead to more sexual contact. As a result, we have taken away the sexual learning ground for children – whatever happened to "petting"? (as much as I hate that term… kids are not animals to "pet"!) I say, bring back petting, allow kids – especially young girls – to develop some knowledge about sex that doesn't involve the risks of intercourse. Let young girls learn to enjoy their bodies through masterbation. Let young girls learn to express their feelings about sex, to ask questions, to find answers that are honest, in a safe environment. Let young girls learn what feels good and what doesn't, and that it's okay to share that with someone else, and not to accept sexual treatment that doesn't make them feel good, either physically or emotionally. The virgin/whore dichotomoy is old and tired. We need to let it go, move on from it, and stop letting it rule our sexual identities.