Sex is natural, sex is fun . . .
. . . goes the old song. Bringing me back to a pet peeve in popular culture, even on the left . . . the aphorism that “rape is about power, not sex.” The Ford-Kavanaugh sham hearing told us something a good deal more difficult. Rape is sexual, and sex is always inflected with power. I know it’s passé to truck out a fossil-phrase like “patriarchy,” but it does stand for a form of systematic power that is still with us, as we saw in bold relief on September 27th.
Even the left has been captured by the naturalistic fallacy on sex, first because the left is still dominated by men who are all for sexual liberation as long as it increases male access to female bodies, or it plugs into the post-critical narratives of hedonism disguised as intellection. I went to a big DSA meeting some time back, where women were well represented in the front of the room, but the men still outnumbered the women in the rest of the room, and of fifteen people who spoke up during the meeting, twelve were males.
I’m not lumping DSA (with whom I affiliate) in with the white-male gerontocracy that is the Republican fraction of the Senate Judiciary Committee; but note how patriarchy (or andrarchy, as I’ll explain further down) is still the elephant in the room, with the Lindsey Graham assholes planted on one side of male power as its defenders and the postmodern, “post-feminist” erasure of women as a class of political subjects on the other. Women, as women, can never catch a break, never say no, never stand their ground.
First of all, sex is anything but natural. We don’t even get around to it, barring sexual exploitation during childhood, until we’ve had a decade and a half, more or less, of intense gender socialization combined with each person trying to find her or his accommodation to the actually-existing gender order as it is expressed in particular lives.
“Natural” evokes something quasi-sacred, like the picture of a bucolic farm on the side of packaged, manufactured food that assures potential buyers the product is “all natural.” Gamma rays are natural. Everything that “obeys” physical laws is natural. Even our species-nature as an animal that requires a highly plastic, closely-nurtured enculturation to survive is . . . natural. But not in the way that divides nature and nurture, merely two interpretive frameworks imposed on the same phenomena.
Sex has not been the same thing to different people in different times. Even if the procreative act responsible for each of us who are reading this now involves (natural) sexual dimorphism all the way down to the gametes, a uniquely modern understanding of procreation that didn’t exist for most people in most times.
Sex didn’t bear the same meanings in different times and places, and likewise, sex has never borne the same consequences for men and women. Ever. Which is why I find it curious how so many people on the left have been so quick to adopt an approach of puerile rebellion against the white patriarchy/andrachy — a kind of in-yo-face hedonistic celebration of “sex” that finds the critique of, say, Andrea Dworkin, “feminist, not the fun kind,” terribly inconvenient to this fundamentally libertarian account.
“A commitment to sexual equality with men,” she noted, “is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.”
Sex has always been transmogrified by the power of biological men over biological women (and the demonization of sexual minorities), which in many ways is a more fundamental, persistent, and intractable form of power than class. (Sit back down and rest your nerves, as Mom used to say. Class is important, and sex and class are inextricable. Thank you, Captain Obvious.)
But Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Ford both went to the same elite prep school, and guess what? The creepy frat-boy sexual aggression there is extremely similar to the same kind of aggression among the less privileged. What makes class and sex different is not that class trumps gender (a system dividing power based on compulsory heterosexuality). What makes class and sex different is that sex involves both biologically-sourced desire and the complexity of males and females being in otherwise intimate relations. The class-boss does not live in the same home as the class-worker. The class-worker does not experience physical attraction (even desire is learned) for the class-boss. The strength and limitation of radical feminism — to which I owe a great intellectual debt — is how it has taken the Marxian account of class and applied to gender.
At least, they historicize it.
Patriarchy to andrarchy
Heterosex for women was once associated with the likelihood of maternal death, e.g. Not for men. Widely available birth control helped with that. But something funny happened on the way to the Sexual Revolution of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, beginning with the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century.
First, white Atlantic patriarchy was overthrown by andrarchy. Patriarchy was rule of the fathers, which figuratively applied even to kings. In a kind of Oedipal twist, the republican revolutions (United States, Haiti, France) explicitly called itself a band of brothers (fraternité) rebelling against their political fathers. Women, of course, were still defined into nature (the ultimate object of masculine conquest), but their status changed.
From being the ward of a father, then husband who becomes a father (patriarch), women became hypothetically available to all sibling-men (fraternité), the solution for which (from the men’s point of view) was protective ownership . “Brothers” wouldn’t fight over women if each respected the proprietary rights of other “brothers.”
And so women were tossed out of the frying pan of patriarchy into the fire of andrarchy, the rule of fathers transformed into the rule of men, where their best accommodation was often to submit to one man in exchange for protection from all other men (the sexual protection racket).
Some women, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and continuing through it, began demanding “equality” with men. Women began to filter into fields of endeavor previously closed to them. This was particularly pronounced in professional arenas (medicine, law, etc.). With the introduction of every more sophisticated business machines (computers) that women could operate as easily as men, men and women were placed into direct competition in the enforced scarcity of the capitalist job market.
The sexualization of gender
White “gender” — the prevailing white sex hierarchies and norms — transitioned from the “separate spheres” framework of the nineteenth century to a system in the metropolitan states where the public distinctions between masculine and feminine work were being erased, whereupon male power over women within compulsory heterosexuality became increasingly sexualized — that is, focusing the domination of women by men more and more within sex-itself, within sexual practice.
Associated with the generally felt need for revenge among many men for their loss of power elsewhere, men came to eroticize women’s humiliation and degradation. Male prerogative was increasingly focused on sex itself. If women were going to become honorary men, the thought goes, then we needn’t afford them the formal “respect” of yesteryear. This was one major factor in the development of modern (now postmodern?) rape culture.
The libertarian account of sex, differentiating sex from power in order to exonerate all “consensual” sex as just harmless fun reminds me of what one fella I knew writing during the disastrous Duke Lacrosse episode who described strip shows as “playing with the erotic.” Zero account of objectification. Zero account of gendered power. Zero account of how dangerous and humiliating this “job” might be, or the forces that pressure a woman to take off her clothes to be ogled by drunken men.
Personal and political
And yet now, in this historical moment that includes Bill Clinton and Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore and Bill Cosby and Brett Kavanaugh, women are resurrecting that insight from the past — the personal is the political. Politics is about power; and for many women, their worst experiences of power have been intensely personal: pressure for sex, unwanted sex to maintain bad but inescapable relationships, coerced sex, sexual harassment, sexual humiliation, sexual assault, and rape. #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport are a watershed in American politics; and one that will be met (even sometimes on the left, when it is less tactically convenient) with baleful, writhing backlash like the outburst from Lindsey Graham and the whining outrage of Brett Kavanaugh.
Gender is a keystone of power. These nascent movements, growing up around women simply comparing experiences, are threatening that power by giving the lie to the notion that sex and rape are not the same thing.
Even “consent” cannot take on a fulsome meaning so long as there is a power gradiuent dividing the world of men and the world of women (race complicates this even more). Sex is not always rape; but rape is always about sex. I heard a Democrat man once say to his workmates, “I want to hate-fuck Sarah Palin.” I would now invite readers with the emotional endurance or the detachment required, to look at the comments sections on articles about women and sex and review this highly sexualized ways in which men — protected by the anonymity of the web — attack women.