A friend of mine, several decades ago, was asked to speak at a conference centered on Feminism. This straight white guy spoke to the topic; why I am a feminist. I wish I had actually witnessed it. I only got to hear the story many years later.
He stands at the podium, looks into the crowd of mostly women and deadpan states, “I am a feminist because it’s sexy.”
From his retelling, most of the room groaned uncomfortably. The majority of folks were shocked and upset. But, he said, a small group of radical lesbians near the back of the room stood up and cheered for him. They clapped and shouted and gave him much love.
I have always enjoyed that story. I can just see him there; on the shorter side, a little round in the middle; Jewish guy with unruly hair and a scruffy beard. His eyes always sparkled with mischief. He had a radical, anarchist analysis and loved to expound upon it. He could be a real asshole, too. But something I admired in him was when he got called out for wearing his asshat, he would actually take time to reflect and correct. Of course, he didn’t correct himself every time. Sometimes he was committed to his opinion or action despite the blowback. What impressed me was that he seemed to always take time to really consider the criticism he received.
For the last 25 plus years, I have been trying to articulate why I love his declaration that feminism is sexy. I feel it deep down that it is indeed very, very sexy. It has been difficult to really put into words why. Partly because I am still maturing as a man and a feminist. It seems that saying feminism is sexy, might be somehow disrespectful or wrong. I figured it was some strange brew of guilt and complicity that made me feel that sexiness. That maybe my friend really should have retracted that one, and me and my penis were simply agreeing out of some hope for more sex. Actually, the hope for more sex is really right on point.
Feminism IS sexy, though. Very sexy. Fundamentally sexy.
First, we need to understand patriarchy. That, in and of itself is worth volumes, so I will simply address a few of the components that contribute to the sexiness of feminism. One of the keys to patriarchy is property. Ownership of resources is foundational to effective patriarchy. Once a patriarch has that ownership, he needs to be sure that it passes on to his sons. Not anybody else’s sons; only to his. But exactly how can he “know” that those boys running around are truly the spawn of his loins? Never fear! Patriarchy developed paternity certainty. For paternity certainty to really work, the patriarch has to keep his wife as his property. Control her sex. Control everything about her. It is only through this control that he can be certain the sons she gives birth to are from his sperm and his sperm alone.
Paternity certainty gives rise to a host of societal attitudes and institutions designed to oppress and control women. To name a few:
Virginal purity; Throughout the history of patriarchy, the virgin bride is regarded in high esteem. She carries with her a guarantee that no other man has deposited his seed within her, thus assuring that the only children she should bear will be that of her husband. Patriarchy shapes an image of the “pure” and “good” girl who refrains from sex and “saves” herself for her husband to be. Sanctioned, of course, by both her father and God.
The Temptress; Opposite the virgin is the Temptress. Her roots are found in Eve herself, tempting Adam with a bite from the apple. She desires sex with a purpose; to corrupt the souls of men. Her sex is her tool for evil doings.
Slut shaming; The double standards for women’s and men’s sexuality is seen through slut shaming. A man is given standing and respect by our culture for being a stud. However, a woman is shamed for the same degree of sexual interest. I recently heard a news piece on the radio of a couple caught having sex in the bathroom of an airplane at 35,000 ft. (someday, maybe me too…). It struck me that the entire piece focused on the woman. When discovered, the woman was handcuffed (!!!!!) to her seat for the remainder of the flight. She was not arrested, however she was reprimanded by the airline upon landing. No mention was made of the man who was having sex WITH her. I guess he got a pat on the back and a sly wink?
Rape culture; Another tool for controlling women is the culture of rape we live in. The threat of rape is ever present. A woman is expected to act and dress in certain ways to “avoid” rape. The onus is upon her to not be a slut or a temptress, unless she is prepared to “pay for it” through rape. In dating situations (and indeed all through marriage) a woman is expected to grant sex to her man in return for the attention and resources he bestows on her. Whether she wants it or not, it is her duty. This is rape.
All of these elements, and many many more, conspire within men and women to give sex a bad name. We have been socialized to perceive sex as a dirty act. The only “good” sex happens between a man and his wife. I understand that this is changing and there are tons of examples of cultures NOT doing this. But here in the middle of Empire, patriarchy is still alive and well. The Pro Life campaign is steeped in paternity certainty, and keeping women as dutiful baby producing agents of their men. The constant attacks upon women expressing their sexuality; the social stigma of and violence against LGBTQ communities, single motherhood, polyamory, trans persons, and and and… These are all reflections of patriarchy attempting to keep control of the situation in the name of paternity certainty. It is about property controlled through violence.
Feminism challenges all that.
Feminism turns paternity certainty on its head by asserting women’s sovereignty over their own lives and bodies. Once paternity certainty is removed from the discourse, the agents of patriarchy have no reason to continue. Virginity is no longer “pure,” it is simply the stage before sex. Women are no longer temptresses or sluts, they are simply sexual beings (just like men!). Rape culture can no longer thrive because rape is seen as the imposition of power through violence that it truly is.
With all these institutions gone, sex can resume its rightful place in our lives; an expression of love and affection. Regardless of orientation, gender, status, etc., sex loses its “dirty” persona, in exchange for a natural loving act.
Once sex returns to this loving place, sharing sex no longer carries social stigma. How many or what kind of sexual partners a person has will have no relevance to their standing in the community. Sex would become a mutually voluntary act, with mutually willing partners, unconcerned beyond their own agreements and sensibilities what the act of sex “means.”
From my perspective, that would lead to more and better sexual relationships between people. If you were not afraid of the “what ifs,” who else might be a willing sexual partner?
Imagine; if two (or more) people were attracted to each other and not one of them was worried about tainting their “purity.” That is one less barrier to actually having sex. Or if nobody believed that women who want sex were trying to corrupt men, or even that there was anything “wrong” with women wanting sex at all!! That might lead to a relaxed attitude from women and men about showing their affection and desire for one another. Of course, one of the most important pieces is to abolish rape altogether. Once men recognize that no, really, truly, every time, means NO, a woman could signal her interest or lack of interest or change of heart without fear of violence.
Maybe that is why the radical lesbians cheered my friend when he declared feminism to be sexy. Maybe they understood that smashing patriarchy will lead to more sexual freedom for everybody. And more sexual freedom means more sex for everybody.
That sounds damn sexy to me.