Sex resistance in heterosexual arrangements
Manifesto of the Southern Women’s Writing Collective
Read out in New York City, on April 1987, at a conference entitled “The sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism”.
In contrast to the pro-sex movement, we are calling ourselves Women Against Sex (WAS). For some of us, that has been a long time coming… This analysis has evolved from our work as radical feminists in the anti-pornography movement. We take seriously the statistics on harm to women. Women are hurt by sex acts in sexuality. The evidence is staggering. Specifically, our analysis reflects the realization that pornography is sex. We are offering a theory which describes the practice of sexuality at the level of class interaction and conflict, that is, at the political level. We wish to emphasize that both in the shortened presentation and in our handout “WAS speaks out”, we’re not attempting to describe or re-describe the lived sexual experiences of all women. (We realize that these experiences are lived out in various ways, ranging from the joyful to the humiliating to the murderous) ; that we believe that political reality connects up with each individual woman’s political and personal experience and psychology. We do not believe that there is any static formula that need be captures this connection. We offer to the radical feminist community one analysis of a practice : sexuality, which we believe is the root cause of women’s political subordination.
The practice of sexuality is everything that makes socially possible the having of sex, that is, our practice of sexuality is everything that makes sex acts socially happen and socially real. The practice includes gender roles : the social femaleness and maleness. These roles function to make sex acts seem natural and inevitable even though they are neither. Sex acts are central to the practice of sexuality. Sex acts are those acts that men as a gender class have constructed as genitally arousing or satisfying.
Sex acts are those acts whose shown social meaning produce male arousal. Historically these acts have included : rape, marital rape, foot-binding, fellatio, intercourse, autoeroticism, forced sex, child rape, incest, battery, anal intercourse, use and production of pornography, pimping and other use of prostitutes, cunnilingus, sexual harassment, torture, mutilation, and murder.
For women, these acts have sometimes been sought out in love and through desire and sometimes avoided and resisted in perhaps a nascent awareness of their anti-women political function. The material arena for adult women’s orientation to sexuality in general and sex acts in particular has usually been heterosexual. Our focus in this paper is on women in such heterosexual arrangements.
We believe the practice of sexuality is entirely socially constructed by the power of men as a gender class. We do not believe that it is either a curse of biology or a gift from God. Neither do we believe that it is joint gender project of men and women.
We believe the practice to be animated by an eroticized dynamic of male dominance and female submission. What makes the practice live and breathe, what sparks its social life is class hierarchy, or social top-bottomism.
We believe that the concomitant goal or, more properly, the function of the practice is the subordination of women.
We believe that this dynamic of male dominance and female submission and this concomitant function of subordinating women identify this practice at the political level. Thus in our analysis, any act informed by a practice which do not have this dynamic and this function and that is to say, any act informed by a practice which do not subordinate women would literally not be a sex act, but something else. More succinctly, if it doesn’t subordinate women, it’s not sex.
Not acquiescing to male-constructed needs might be called sex avoidance. Women learn to recognize even the subtle signs of male desire and enough have learned how to avoid becoming available to it to make mention of “headaches” a male joke. So women DO have headaches and dress and undress in closets, deliberately gain or lose weight, become alcoholic, develop other drug dependencies, carefully orchestrate schedules and attempt to shut down all communications that might hint of intimacy.
Women’s historical sex avoidance can, with feminist consciousness, become an act of sex resistance. The sex resister understands her act as a political one : her goal is not only personal integrity for herself but political freedom for all women. She resists on three fronts : she resists all male-constructed sexual needs, she resists the misnaming of her act as prudery and she especially resists the patriarchy’s attempt to make its work of subordinating women easier by consensually constructing her desire in its own oppressive image. A good example of the patriarchy’s successful attempt to reach within women, to fuck/construct us from the inside out is given in this letter to Ann Landers :Dear Ann, A letter that appeared in your column a few days ago could have been written by me : same number of children, married same number of years and, alas, same problem. To outsiders we appeared to have the perfect marriage : it was ideal. Except when it came to sex. I avoided it when I could, and tolerated it when I had to. Then the inevitable happened. Some little tramp in Tom’s office threw herself at him. The day he told me I didn’t have to be bothered with sex any longer because he had a good substitute, I nearly died. I went to my doctor and asked him for help. He recommended that I psyche myself out and suggested two books that, ten years ago, would have been banned as hard-core pornography. Well Ann, his advice saved my marriage. I decided to be the aggressor, something I had never done before. Then I put into practice what I had read in those books. My husband was amazed and so was I. For the first time, I enjoyed sex. We have developed a marvelous bedroom relationship, and the tramp is nowhere in sight. I now know I was frigid because I was ignorant and puritanical, but all that is over now and I am happier today than I have been in my entire life. Please print this letter if you think this will help someone else. Enlightened Wife
This was first out in 1974 ; it was just reprinted in February of ’87. The letter and the response never question the practice of sexuality and the way in which the practice precludes the wife’s rightful options.
The initial autonomous choice of this woman was one of sex avoidance but that choice was not perceived as valid. She made her second choice under the threat of losing her husband. She was taught to desire male-constructed sexual pleasure. The normalcy of such coercion of desire makes the claim that our sexuality is our own, untrue. As long as the price of not choosing sex is what it presently is for any woman, sex is in fact compulsory for all women.
Sex is compulsory for all women because the price of not choosing it is social worthlessness and exclusion. There is no esteemed social place or neutral place for the women who will not put out to someone at some time in some way.
By male design, the relationships that ground our social self, sense of self and self-worth are a package deal, with love, security, emotional support and sex all going together. Your value as a piece of ass becomes clear when you stop being that piece.
The sex resister understands that beneath the label of sexual incompatibility, beneath that mystification is the truth of the political equation : woman equals her capacity as cunt. The sex resister brings this hidden equation into view, dragging the entire practice of sexuality into the light of feminist scrutiny.
The sex resister refuses to accept the package deal of male desire. She demands the right not to follow the cultural precept that says : “Put out or get out.”
A sex resister must have the right to keep all those non-sexual, non-subordinating aspects of her relationship that do have value for her.
Sex resistance has been misnamed and ridiculed as prudery, virginity and sexual incompatibility.
Sex resistance has a historical claim to feminist authenticity. It is what many women have done when demonstrating our claims to integrity, to self-possession of our own lives and bodies.
It makes speech of women’s silent refusal to validate and valorize male-constructed desire. By performing the political act of sex resistance, the power imbalance is challenged and the practice of sexuality is exposed.
We believe that acts of sex resistance can be part of the process of transition that will dismantle the practice of sexuality.
- Version française.
On Sisyphe, February 23, 2012