Radical feminism, by definition, seeks to dis-cover and examine the root of women’s global oppression by men, and the sources of male power. In our work, we have discovered that there are several key themes that appear over and over, and which transcend time and place — this is evidence that women’s oppression by men is class-based, that is, that women as a sexual class, around the world, share the experience of being oppressed by men because we are women.
In this series, republished in part from Radfem-ological Images, we present 17 themes for discussion and analysis. Like all radical feminists previously and presently, we do this because it is the truth, and radical feminists accept the truth no matter what it is, especially the truths about women’s lives and what men do to us.
In Part Three, we present just one theme, the “PIV-centric narrative” and its 6 subthemes: Goal is to “land a man”; Normalize exaggerated/simulated female pleasure; Normalize reproductive stress and pain; Pathologize menstruation; Pathlogize older women and menopause/fetishize female youth; Rape and rape culture. Part One is here. Part Two is here.
— Goal is to “land a man”
— Normalize exaggerated/simulated female pleasure
— Normalize reproductive stress and pain
— Pathologize menstruation
— Pathologize older women and menopause/fetishize female youth
— Rape and rape culture
Under patriarchy, penis-in-vagina sex (PIV) or “intercourse” comprises the totality or majority of heterosexuality, including women’s sexuality, despite women having reported for centuries that intercourse is not their preferred sex act. Intercourse also has reproductive consequences to female-bodied persons, and is therefore uniquely harmful to women who engage in it when they do not wish to become pregnant. Normalizing intercourse and normalizing and invisiblizing the harms to girls and women of intercourse is accomplished through a complicated multi-faceted narrative which is particularly insidious. The details of the narrative are important individually and collectively and are given thorough treatment here.
PIV and PIV-centric sexuality support male power. Intercourse and its attendant female-specific reproductive harm is the source of terrible suffering for women all around the world. While some women may experience pleasure from intercourse, many do not; regardless, intercourse always occurs against a backdrop of institutional and interpersonal misogyny and includes extreme physical and emotional risks to women, who are both more vulnerable to disease transmission than are men via PIV, and where women and only women experience pregnancy, including unwanted and ambivalent pregnancy. Intercourse is a harmful cultural practice which harms women and benefits men, as women are frequently removed from the public sphere, whilst they spend time, energy and resources dealing with intercourse-related complications, leaving opportunities and resources for men to share amongst themselves.
The harmful consequences of intercourse to female-bodied persons are clear. Even in this day and age, some 500,000 women continue to die globally each year due to complications from pregnancy. Many more are made gravely ill or are permanently injured, often being left to suffer the rest of their lives with obstetric fistulas which leave the women incontinent of urine and/or feces, for which they are socially ostracized and abandoned by their husbands and families. All of this female suffering, every bit of it, is due to the reproductive consequences to women of PIV, including mandatory PIV and rape. And where almost all instances of rape include PIV, normalizing PIV also serves to normalize rape: we are expected to accept that penises belong in vaginas, often regardless of context, and where the reproductive harms of PIV as well as the political and coercive context of all PIV under conditions of patriarchy are routinely ignored.
Furthermore, intercourse being central, necessary or even included in female sexual pleasure is ahistorical, acontextual, and dependent on consumerist “first world” conveniences and harm-reduction strategies such as hormonal and other birth control devices and products which are dangerous themselves, and less than 100% effective. To call intercourse “sex” or conflate it with women’s or even men’s sexual pleasure is not simply misguided, but rather, a deliberate and effective means of normalizing female submission and suffering and increasing men’s individual and collective power. Because PIV and its attendant harms affect all women, across time and place, and is central to our suffering and our political and interpersonal standing, and because men’s political and interpersonal standing increase as ours decrease, intercourse should rightly be seen as the foundation of patriarchy itself.
And critical to a discourse centering sexual politics, rather than apolitical “sex” and regardless of the wishful-thinking of — and deliberate obfuscation by — some liberals and feminists, intercourse continues to be very much a political act and a political institution that is supportive of male power, and obviously so: the “Big 3” of the patriarchal institutions, namely, medicine, religion and law, all attach to women’s bodies and women’s lives at the moment of conception. The same oppressive controls never attach to men’s bodies and men’s lives. The direct correlation and causation between intercourse and formal, institutional and often state control of women is obvious, and deliberate, and is obviously supportive of male power, but the political implications of intercourse are never addressed (except by radical feminists) and have yet to be remedied. Indeed, when the many ways in which intercourse benefits men are revealed, and when it is accepted that the relationship between intercourse and patriarchal institutional control of women is deliberate, and meant to harm women and to support male power, it seems unlikely that the harms will ever be remedied under patriarchy because men like things the way they are. And although politically-active women and radical feminists have been doing intercourse-critical work for decades, anyone who continues to address it continues to be shunned and marginalized, and the long history of this work is all but erased.
The PIV-centric narrative is comprised of six (6) elements or sub-themes, which are detailed below. All the sub-themes serve to normalize intercourse and remove it from its historical and political context, and erase the clear and present dangers of intercourse that persist for women, even modern, “first-world” women who have access to contraception and abortion. In fact, the PIV-centric narrative and its sub-themes lead women directly into the patriarchal meatgrinder, where women are literally “sleeping with the enemy” and suffering harm that only women can experience, and only at the hands of men; and once there, the overlapping forces of patriarchy make it almost impossible for women to escape. See also PIV on TV for examples of the PIV-centric narrative in 20 popular television shows.
— Goal is to “land a man”. Otherwise known as heteronormativity, or compulsory heterosexuality. This sub-theme normalizes PIV-centric sexuality because the endgame is marriage or a long-term partnership with a man, where it is expected that PIV will be a requirement of the formation and continuation of the partnership.
Heteronormativity, including homophobia/lesbophobia is literally the normalization of penis-in-vagina intercourse, the harms of intercourse to women, and of women’s submission to men. Here, the ultimate goal, which is framed in positive terms and as the thing critical to women’s success, is actually — and historically — the path to women’s undoing. When successfully “landing a man”, the female-centered world of a woman’s upbringing including female relatives and friends (if she was lucky enough to experience that) is replaced with a male-centric world that requires constant male-pleasing and being compliant and pleasing to the patriarchal institution of marriage itself. Where the goal is to land a man, lesbianism or spinsterhood are not options; so-called “women’s sexuality” becomes penis-centric, despite the reproductive consequences to women and regardless of whether the intercourse is pleasurable or wanted by the woman. Female friends and relatives take a back seat to the romantic heterosexual partnership and are not welcome in the co-habitative or marital home.
Included are heteronormativity/lesbophobia and femininity; male-pleasing generally; unattainable and unavailable men and spending vast amounts of time and energy “trying to change” men into suitable partners; the “bumbling husband” meme and unappealing men being partnered with women who are too good for them; dating and serial dating; fuckability mandates including clothing and grooming; competing or vying for male attention; marriage preparation.
— Normalize exaggerated/simulated female pleasure. This sub-theme normalizes PIV-centric sexuality by conflating PIV with female sexuality and female sexual pleasure, when in reality many women do not enjoy PIV at all. Female pleasure from PIV is read as net-pleasure, meaning — essentially — female pleasure minus female risk, when in fact an honest cost-benefit analysis of PIV is never performed and the risks are rarely if ever acknowledged, and never satisfactorily addressed.
For example, in all media depictions of “sex” and sexual themes and imagery, we have paid female actors, as part of their job description, “acting” aroused by PIV and faking orgasms from it, and they do a convincing job. Considering the countless PIV-centric narratives on TV where women are literally pretending (acting) to enjoy PIV, and considering the acting in porn too, we have all probably seen and/or heard thousands if not hundreds of thousands of women faking extreme — or any — pleasure from PIV. The effect is to normalize exaggerated/simulated female pleasure from PIV-centric sex. Women faking it is normal — if a woman is actually having PIV in real life, and it doesn’t feel like she imagines it should from all the simulated female pleasure she’s seen in the media, her experience is not normalized, even though unwanted, unpleasureable or downright painful intercourse is part of women’s shared experience as women, as sexual class around the world, and has been reported by millions (billions?) of women across time and place. Many times, PIV just doesn’t feel that good, especially compared to how risky it is. But from watching PIV on TV (and porn) you would never know it.
Included are all media and entertainment using actors; porn and pro-porn; faking it; discussions of sexual positions and increasing female sexual response to PIV, and pathologizing women’s “inadequate” sexual response to it; PIV-related mansplaining or handmaidensplaining; “bad” or painful intercourse that is made to seem like an aberration; sex that’s “dangerous” or with extreme or heightened female risk, implying a correspondingly-extreme payout in terms of female pleasure; extreme or simulated female pleasure in non-sexual contexts, such as with food; and female sexual aggression.
— Normalize reproductive stress and pain. This sub-theme normalizes PIV-centric sexuality by normalizing and invisiblizing female-specific reproductive harm, namely, trauma bonding from intercourse, unwanted pregnancy, and pain and stress arising from pregnancy-prevention methods; and invisiblizing the fact that these harms would not exist outside the PIV-as-sex paradigm, where intercourse was only used where the woman desired to become pregnant, and where “sex” for pleasure’s sake alone would only be found elsewhere, and never from PIV. In reality, PIV-as-sex is a construct, and neither natural nor inevitable, and the harms to women which flow from PIV aren’t natural or inevitable either. Where the harms to women of intercourse are made invisible, we are left with the image of PIV as sexy funtime or as stress-relief without physical or emotional complications and consequences (or stress!) but in reality, this is a male-centric perspective only. For women, for the entirety of our reproductive lives, the fantasy of stress free, harmless PIV is just a fantasy: the narrative, although completely normative, is simply not true.
Included are uncomfortable discussions about “sex,” birth control, or going on “the Pill”; missed periods, pregnancy scares and pregnancy tests; vaginal or urinary tract infections or STDs; and female-bonding over any of the above; unwanted/unexpected pregnancies, miscarriages and abortions; not knowing “who the father is” or becoming unwillingly impregnated through an affair; having too many children to easily care for; “change of life” babies; tubal ligation or permanent or painful contraception/sterilization procedures; and making all of this female stress and pain seem normal, and inevitable. e.g. “it’s time for me to go on the Pill.” Also included are keeping fertility-related secrets, including keeping possible pregnancies secret from the man “until you’re sure” so as “not to worry him”.
The plight of the “accidental impregnator” is also normalized — and the harms to women invisiblized and made to seem inevitable or unavoidable — where boys and men are shown to experience stress over possibly causing an unwanted pregnancy; but more often we see boys and men celebrating impregnating an unwilling woman, e.g. “My boys can swim!” The effect is the same — to normalize women’s reproductive stress and pain, to make it seem like it’s no big deal, or completely reversing it and making it seem positive when it’s not.
— Pathologize menstruation. This sub-theme normalizes PIV-centric sexuality by pathologizing the non-pregnant female body and normalizing the impregnated female-body unconditionally, regardless of whether the pregnancy is wanted by the woman and regardless of the danger. This normalizes and invisiblizes the harms of PIV by framing harm in positive terms, and normalizes PIV itself: the only “cure” for menstruation is PIV — and pregnancy.
Various prejudiced attitudes persist about pregnant women, but it is never questioned that pregnancy and bearing children is what women are for: men control the means of (re)production through mandatory PIV and rape and they demand that women give birth. Contrast the pathologizing of menstruation with the medicalization of pregnancy: pregnancy is medicalized and seen as a medical event requiring male medical intervention, but no one ever says that women aren’t supposed to be impregnated, that it is unhealthy for women (even when it is, and it often is) or that this is not what women are for. Some women are even said to be “beautiful” and “glowing” when they are pregnant — this *is* what women are for, even women who have too many children (they are thought of as animalistic, or breeders). Now contrast the normalized imagery of the “beautiful” pregnant woman with the most common, normalized image of the menstruating woman: menstruating women are horrifying and terrifying in comparison.
— Pathologize older women and menopause/fetishize female youth. This sub-theme normalizes PIV-centric sexuality similarly to the above, “pathologizing menstruation.” It normalizes the female body — and only that one — that is vulnerable to impregnation and reproductive harm via mandatory PIV and rape. This vulnerability to reproductive harm via the penis is framed positively, rendering the harm invisible.
The effect of pathologizing older women, and women in a permanent, non-impregnable state makes it clear that “normal, healthy” women are impregnable and that this state is preferable to the alternative. This normalizes pregnancy unconditionally and without regard to the woman’s wishes and the attendant dangers, it normalizes the “need” for birth control to avoid an inevitable result (but one that’s only inevitable within a specific context: the context of PIV-centric sexuality, but the context is made invisible). Often, the PMS-like effects on women of menopause are exaggerated (inconsistent mood etc.) while the vaginal changes associated with menopause are completely ignored, and women well into their 60s, 70s and older are depicted as being “sexually active” with men, indicating that intercourse is taking place. In reality, if intercourse is to continue, post-menopausal women’s bodies are pathologized and treated with local and systemic hormone therapies to maintain “youthful” vulvar and vaginal tissues that are able to be penetrated without becoming damaged, and even seriously damaged. This pathologizing and medicalizing of women’s normal, aging bodies is completely normalized and invisiblized, and PIV is assumed to continue for women’s entire lives; if it doesn’t, it’s because there is something wrong with women, and not because there is anything wrong with PIV, and normalizing PIV.
Included is the “evil mother in law” meme; cosmetic surgery and “rejuvenating” beauty rituals; reminiscing about youth.
— Rape and rape culture. This sub-theme normalizes PIV-centric sexuality because normalizing rape normalizes penis-in-vagina in any and all contexts, even obviously harmful contexts such as under conditions amounting to human trafficking and slavery. Whether rape is normalized or criticized in popular discourse, the effect is that “regular” PIV is normalized. If rape is normalized, it normalizes all PIV under all circumstances; if rape is criticized, PIV looks harmless by comparison.
PIV includes penile-vaginal intercourse under all circumstances, including rape; PIV is necessary to the concept and definition of rape in nearly every context, where “rape” is almost always men raping women vaginally with their penises. Where this is not the case, other nonconsensual, intentionally harmful penetrations are modeled after vaginal rape, i.e. thrusting with body parts or objects, targeting orifices, and male gratification and ejaculation. The problem, really, is that rape and PIV are almost the same thing, but no one ever says it: for example, “normal” PIV is often coerced or occurs under circumstances that are or objectively appear to be coercive; both PIV and rape are politically motivated and politically effective, and specifically and uniquely oppressive to women; rape and PIV are the only things *in life* that cause unwanted pregnancy; and both are known to cause trauma-bonding, disease, and pain.
Included are alcohol and drugs, which reduce or eliminate legal capacity under “consent” rhetoric; all violence, including women having to be clever to avoid male violence or anger; restrictive female clothing, accessories and shoes; psychiatry and gynecology; prostitution and pornography; men’s PIV-entitlement; all abuse of power; deception and womanizing; rape-apologism, including mansplaining, framing rape in terms of consent only, accusations of “crying rape” and he-said/she-said; “runaway bride” meme; chivalry; kidnapping and references to “alien abduction” in popular culture; “Pickup Artistry” and the seduction community; and “teen sexuality” and underage girls.