‘Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.’
– Rosa Luxemburg
Feminism took some time to reveal itself to me. Being brought up in a white, middle class, Christian, conservative household, I was so protected by privilege that it took me surprisingly long to realise that feminism was still a fight that needed to be fought. But once I saw how often the patriarchy and sexism still placed restrictions on women, I relearned what I thought I knew, and discovered how much work still needs to be done.
I am currently particularly fascinated by the idea of sexual liberation as a feminist issue. Is women’s sexual liberation the greatest feminist victory or has our new sexual freedom just given the patriarchy another stick with which to beat women down?
I had always believed it was a victory. Allowing women to have sex as and when they want is a freedom that I am in no hurry to give up! The focus on female pleasure within sex education and research is necessary and has been a long time coming, and giving women voices to talk about sex with freedom and without judgement is vital to show us all that we’re OK and normal and learning together. It’s why the Scarlet Ladies’ #ITalkSex campaign is so important; it’s why I’m a sex blogger.
But why hasn’t our increased sexual liberation reduced sexual harassment? Why are women who are open about sex still either judged or presumed to be constantly up for sex with anyone and everyone? Why has #MeToo been such an explosive movement and why have so many men been blindsided into realising that the sex they’ve been having hasn’t been enjoyable for women as it has for them? For example, this article about how bad sex is different for men and women broke my heart in its accuracy – bad sex for men is boring but for women it’s painful or dangerous. In my mind, this all asks a key question – why wasn’t consent included in our sexual liberation? Surely as women were allowed to say yes to more sex, they should have been allowed to say no?
But they weren’t and they didn’t, and the effects of this omission have not only shaped our current sexually liberated culture, thanks to the ever present influence of the Patriarchy, but have also become a source of conflict between different groups of feminists. As #MeToo gained momentum, Germaine Greer notoriously told the women speaking out that ‘it’s too late now to start whingeing’ about sexual harassment if they’ve already spread their legs, leading some to claim that she has lost touch with modern feminist issues.
A brilliant recent article in the Guardian suggested a reason for this clash, with author Van Badham blaming the fact that ‘as soon as older feminists had won sexual liberation, patriarchy reframed it as sexual availability for men.’ She believes that because older feminists fought so hard for the sexual freedom from which we all benefit, they struggle to comprehend the problems that this liberation could create, and consequently fail to understand why younger women are now complaining about the repercussions of their victory. They didn’t foresee that once women could have more sex, they would immediately be persuaded by men that they should have more sex.
When the moral restrictions that had historically prevented women from acting out their sexual desires were removed, there seemed to be no reason left for women to say no. And as women were no longer spoiled goods if they had sex before marriage – everyone was doing it after all – male entitlement to sex seems to have grown unchecked, no longer so bound by social norms. Fast forward forty or so years and the damage of this unrestrained patriarchal entitlement is becoming clearer. Sexual liberation has merged with unwanted sexualisation; sexual freedom has become expectation. We should be sex kittens or goddesses and should be having sex all the time. Sex sells everything and we’ve all been buying into this new lie. We are having more sex with more freedom, but are we all enjoying it? Are we having sex because we want to or because we think we should?
And it seems that attitudes are changing again. Much has been said of the statistic claiming that millennials are having less sex than the generations above them. Is this evidence that we’re becoming more prudish or that we’re not making the most of the opportunities that our elders fought for? We’ve built a sexually liberated world after all – why are we not taking more advantage of it?
But could this be the next step in our sexual liberation? Have we have finally learned to say no? After such a long fight for sexual agency, women have been dancing with unrepressed joy in their new freedom but were perhaps spun out of control by the residual chains of entitlement. Perhaps this next revolution will finally give women full control of their sexual wishes and needs, having all or none of the sex that they want.
Talking to a friend about generational attitudes towards sex, she mentioned how different her attitudes are from those of her teenage daughter, and how this can be illustrated in their differing acceptance of the contraceptive pill. My friend describes herself as an older feminist and thinks of the Pill as giving her ‘control of her fates.’ The Pill heralded a social and economic revolution and gave women freedom over their reproductive choices, literally allowing us to have sex and a career, as well as allowing women to have sex for pleasure without the same fear of consequence. Of course we flocked to take the Pill in our millions!
But the power to choose if and when we have children did come with a price. Early versions of the Pill contained such high hormone levels that the side effects and risks were much more severe. Initially women weren’t warned and were often being treated as an inconvenience when they complained. Even with improvements in doses and communication of side effects, women do still suffer for the privilege of reproductive choice. We will weigh up the risks and benefits, trying out pills that make us nauseated or fat or that gave us mood swings, before picking the one that is least objectionable, all so that we are conveniently ready for sex at any moment. Sadly, unwanted or badly timed pregnancies still have such a power to derail our life plans that for many women (myself included) the downsides of regular contraception still feel like a benefit in comparison.
My friend’s teenage daughter can’t understand that – she’s not having regular sex so why should she take regular medication? She has a point. Barrier contraception is still necessary to protect against STIs until having sex with a regular, fluid bonded partner anyway so why the belt-and-braces approach? Why cope with side effects if the benefits of hormones aren’t needed for other health reasons?
Except that, devastatingly, I fear her opinion reveals an optimistic view of sex that doesn’t match with the experiences of her elders! I cannot rely on the men that I am fucking to take equal responsibility for contraception when stealthing, the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex, is a disheartening reality. I cannot assume that no one will take advantage of me if I can’t soberly and sensibly discuss contraception, or that I won’t ever be pressured into having sex without barrier protection because it’s safer to play along than say no again. Of course, not all men behave like this but it doesn’t take many for us to lose faith in the rest. I’ve always needed that backup of regular contraception to protect me against pregnancy at least should the worst happen. How liberated is that?
Each feminist generation has had to fight a different battle and it’s not surprising that we may not understand the different war wounds our forebears – or successors – carry with them. For those who fought to allow women to have sex for pleasure at all, the knowledge that we’re still being manipulated by the patriarchy despite their best efforts must be galling. Equally, I suspect that many people (again, me included) have either forgotten or never knew quite how disadvantaged women were before. Taken from the Guardian article above, ‘only in 1965 did married women in France obtain the right to work without their husbands’ consent. In Australia, married women could not apply for passports without their husband’s approval until 1983. Britain did not make marital rape illegal until 1991.’ It is my privilege as a modern woman to have choices and opportunities thanks to the angry women fighting before me.
And I wonder if the battles I’m fighting now will seem as illogical and improbable to the next generation. Maybe that Utopia where women can have sex how and if they want will be a reality. As our liberation progresses and women’s voice becomes louder, I am really hopeful that we will look back at those days when sex could still be even partially non-consensual as the bad old days. That we could live in a reality where my friend’s teenage daughter won’t need the contraceptive pill to gain the professional or even the sexual freedoms that she deserves.
Because, honestly, finally, that feels like true liberation to me.