Guest post by Sheila Jeffreys
My 1990 book Anticlimax, which has been out of print, is being republished by Spinifex Press this month with a new preface. It is a book of which I am particularly fond because I wrote it in the late 1980s, as a way of making sense of my own experience of the ‘sexual revolution’. The sexual history of the 1960s was being written up in the 1980s as a process of women’s sexual liberation. I did not see it that way.
I did remember that the ‘alternative’ magazines of the period, Oz and International Times, were full of women’s naked bodies, albeit painted with flowers often enough, and promoted pornography as liberating. In the book I had the opportunity to look back at what was really going on, through the sex advice literature and the pornography of the time. I wrote Anticlimax, and my first book, The Spinster and Her Enemies (1985/1997), to demonstrate that the ‘sexual revolutions’ of the twentieth century liberated men’s sexual access to women rather than women’s empowerment.
When I wrote the book I was hopeful that sexual practice would change under the influence of second wave feminism and women’s increased opportunities. I argued that sexual pleasure and practice under male domination were constructed around the eroticising of women’s subordination. I expressed my concern that a developing pornography industry, and a backlash within feminism itself which supported the status quo, posed a serious challenge to the possibility of ‘eroticising equality’ but I still hoped that progress would be made. It is now very clear that the opposite took place, not only an absence of positive change, but a further strengthening of the bindings that tied sex to eroticised power difference.
Sex as political
I explain in Anticlimax that sexual pleasure and practice is culturally understood as natural and biological and uninflected by social construction or power relations. This idea, that ‘sexuality comes from the stork’, as Catharine MacKinnon puts it, is still current even in the face of the obvious influence of the pornography industry in the construction of sex today. It is still current despite the perfervid efforts of the sexologists, or scientists of sex, the sex therapists, marriage guidance counsellors, women’s magazine advice columnists, to shape the appropriate sexual behaviour of girls and women. I examine the work of these sexologists and sex advice writers in this book, and analyse their very specific instructions about the way in which sex should be done to women, how women should respond, and how they should service whatever men desire. The sex educators in the twentieth century in general saw themselves as knights bearing the standards of sexual health into battle with the majority of women, estimated at from 40 to 100 percent, who were reluctant to engage in penis in vagina (PIV) sex, or who gained insufficient pleasure from this activity. The educators considered that the correct sexual response from women was enthusiastic submission and abandonment of personhood. As an influential 1920s sexologist, Stekel, quoted in my first book, The Spinster and Her Enemies, put it, ‘To be aroused by a man means acknowledging oneself as conquered’. So women needed to permit men to do PIV sex and show appropriate enthusiasm not just because this gave men pleasure, but because it subordinated them. The work of the sexologists shows us that sex is very political indeed. The campaign is still going on because many women today are similarly recalcitrant and refuse, or do not get pleasure from, what men want to do sexually.
The sexual revolution of the 60s added extra requirements. Not only were women to be enthusiastic about PIV sex, but they were to be sexually available outside marriage, and to accept more and more practices that were directed specifically towards men’s pleasure and potentially painful or degrading for themselves. The sex educators who were stars of the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s, such as Alex Comfort, mandated that heterosexual practice should take the form of penis in vagina sex, usually in the missionary position i.e. with the woman pinned down on her back. But this could be spiced up, from the man’s point of view, with extras such as ‘buttered bun’ a practice now more generally engaged in by teams of professional footballers, where men penetrate women one after another, revelling in the fact that their penises are bathed in the semen of their mates. Most importantly, Comfort said women must accept that men like to express aggression in sex, and may wish to throw their partners on the bed on their way back from the shower, gag them, or tie their arms and legs to the four corners of the bed. None of this comes from the stork.
Second wave feminists reacted against this model of sex, as I outline in Anticlimax. They pointed out that women’s sexual pleasure originated in the clitoris, rather than the vagina, so PIV sex was a bit beside the point. They argued that women’s sexuality should be ‘self-defined’ and about women’s pleasure rather than just directed towards pleasuring men. They imagined and practised what a very different kind of sex could be like. They questioned the way in which women were trained to experience sexual pleasure, in the form of masochism and taking satisfaction from their subordination, and used humour to deal with this quite difficult issue. They argued that women should have the right not to do PIV, or engage in any genital sex, if they did not want to. This was truly revolutionary, and the industry of sexology and sex advice, as well as the pornography industry has been dedicated to burying this, and the other threatening feminist notions, ever since.
In the book I develop the idea of ‘homosexual desire’ as the antidote to the eroticising of inequality, as the form of pleasure to which all who value women’s equality should aspire. By ‘homosexual’ I mean desire that is based upon a sameness of power, not a sameness of biological sex, although I argue that same sex relationships have a greater possibility of this form of desire. Same sex lovers are not necessarily afflicted by the burden of inequality that is brought into heterosexual relationships. But lesbians and gay men are also brought up in a world of male domination in which inequality of power is eroticised as what sex is, so some, to gain excitement, bring the power back in through sadomasochist or butch/femme practice.
‘Heterosexual’ desire I define as eroticised power difference. This does not need to be extreme but could simply be the excitement of high heeled shoes versus ordinary men’s comfortable clothing which is so normal in heterorelations that it is scarcely remarked upon. One of the reasons that some feminists were critical of the book at the time is that they could not imagine sexual pleasure without the stimulus of inequality, and because some considered that I was interfering in their sex lives which were private and nothing to do with politics! I suspect that it is even harder today for many to imagine a sexuality of equality. When I wrote Anticlimax sadomasochism was becoming quite dominant in male gay and some lesbian circles. Today sadomasochist fetishes have become normalised in the fashion industry, and sm practice has moved out of the pages of porn to be the expected norm in the relationships of many of the students I teach, judging by their questions and concerns.
Since this book was first published, there has been a considerably increased cementing of sex around women’s subordination. This has occurred particularly in the development of the global sex industry, and in the pornographication of culture. Pornography has become the very model of healthy sex. There is even less space for rethinking the sexuality of eroticised women’s subordination and creating an alternative vision. The economic and cultural clout of pornography has taken over any space that might have existed to imagine sex differently. The goal of eroticising equality is far from being realised, but, as I argue in Anticlimax, women cannot achieve their revolution whilst it is precisely their subordination that forms the foundation of how sex is felt and practised. The new rising wave of feminism will need to take up this baton again.
Sheila Jeffreys is an academic and writer, originally from London, who teaches in Australia. She has been a rad fem activist for 38 years.