Is there Such a Thing as Feminist Sex?
[Fleur] thought about Jake. His erotic pull on her grew stronger every time she saw him. She didn’t trust him, but she wanted him. And why couldn’t she have him? She turned the idea over in her mind. No emotional commitment. Just good, dirty sex. That’s all her attraction to him had ever been about. And wasn’t that the essence of real liberation? Women didn’t have to play games. They shouldn’t play games. She should look Jake straight in the eye and tell him she wanted to –
To what? “Go to bed” was too wishy-washy, “make love” had implications, “screw” was tacking, and “fuck” was just plain awful.
Was she going to buckle under just because of a language barrier? How would a man do it? How would Jake do it?
Why wouldn’t Jake do it?
Right then she knew she could never be the sexual aggressor, no matter how much she wanted him. Whether her reluctance was rooted in cultural conditioning and biological instinct made no difference, because women’s liberation got all tangled up when it hit the bedroom floor.
I absolutely love this passage from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Glitter Baby, because I think it eloquently expresses one of the central tensions in genre Romance – namely, the apparent conflict between principles of female “liberation” and sexual politics. On the one hand you have Fleur’s perception that “real liberation” means the ability to distinguish sexual desire from the sometimes twisted games of love and relationships. Then you have the ambivalence over language – how to express this liberated desire in terms not meaningless or already loaded with meaning. And then Fleur’s realization that she could never take the sexual lead with a man, which is tied to this incredibly cryptic logic at the end of the meditation, “women’s liberation got all tangled up when it hit the bedroom floor.”
But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that all the principles of what we tend to associate with feminism become moot when it comes to sex? Does it mean that we have not yet evolved to the point where we can separate sex from ideas of gender and from sexual politics and game playing? Or does it mean that feminism is all well and good but there is something in the “nature” of men and women that means our sexual desires will always run up against our principles of gender equity and female empowerment?
This dilemma is apparent in more than a few SEP novels, and it echoes more generally through the Romance genre as a whole. The very nature of the genre, at least in heterosexual Romance, where even the most “liberated” heroines ultimately end up in a committed relationship with the hero, could be read as a case against defining female liberation as the ability to express sexual desire separate from the games of love and relationships.
The recent article in Psychology Today, “Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra,” suggests that women are neurologically “wired” for sexual submission and psychologically inclined toward “dominant men.” While the authors point out that both male and female brains contain the wiring for submission and dominance, they suggest that the choice is made in the womb, pushing a biological rather than cultural explanation for their argument. The obvious answer to the question posed in the title, then, is that encouraging equity between men and women is responsible for the diminished sexual desire that –according to the authors – is “the most common sexual complaint” among women.
Note the logic here: women complain of diminished sexual desire; women are neurologically programmed for sexual submission, while men are neurologically programmed for sexual dominance; therefore, feminism is destroying female sexual desire. Where do Romance novels come in? According to Angela Knight, they reflect the “natural” way of things:
“I think this is one of the problems we’re having in romance in general right now: our heroes have gotten a little too PC. We’re portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be – respectful and consensus-building,” . . . “Yet women like bad boys. I suspect that’s because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order. In fact, this may be one reason why EroRom is gaining popularity so fast – writers feel free to write dominant heroes with more of an edge.”
So if we take Knight’s word for it – as well as the authors of the “anti-Viagra” article – Fleur could never be the sexual aggressor because she’s simply not wired that way, and whatever feminist principles she possesses are getting in the way of her sexual satisfaction.
Unless, for example, we subject the entire argument to a reversal of logic. Instead of the argument above, let’s try this one: If we had no inequality between men and women, we would not see sexual submission or dominance as symbolic of that inequity. But because we do have so much inequity, it’s easy to see sexual behavior and sexual desire through that same lens. However, isn’t it possible that these two things are completely separate? That we can enjoy equity in the boardroom and power plays in the bedroom?
After all, what is one of Romance’s most potent fantasies? It’s the brutish hero who is “tamed” by love. Think of the famous scene at the end of Linda Howard’s Dream Man in which the knuckle-dragging Dane literally passes out from sympathetic labor pains as Marlie gives birth to their child. Or how about Gray’s transformation in After the Night from an abusive jerk who bullies Faith without conscience into a crazy in love and proud of his independent and accomplished woman hero. And what about Bastien from Anne Stuart’s Black Ice, a man who goes from soulless assassin to profoundly domesticated house husband and father – a man who uses his lethal training to make the house safe for his wife and children, even doing the carpentry work himself.
As Susan Elizabeth Phillips argues in her essay for Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women,
The romance novel has – Abracadabra! Zap! Pow! – produced two completely integrated human beings. It has produced the new male – strong and intensely physical, but possessing all the sensitive, nurturing qualities of the female. And it has produced a new female – a heroine who possesses all the softer qualities traditionally assigned to women but who has none of a woman’s physical limitations because his strength now belongs to her.
Now Phillips’s argument is premised on the notion that women are physically weaker than men, so I would substitute the physical limitations with social, economic, and political limitations, and I have a number of other quibbles with the way she is conceptualizing this idealization. But I think her notion that the Romance often integrates the hero and heroine by redistributing the characteristics each possesses and lacks is a good place to start responding to what I see as a conflation of social equality and sexual play.
Although I’ve quoted this passage from Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman’s Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape several times now, I’m going to do so here again, because I feel that the statement is paramount to what I’d like to see in our conversations about sex and power in Romance – namely a paradigm shift away from requiring our sexual fantasies to a) line up with our social ideals, b) become anecdotal evidence that some sexual fantasies are anti-feminist and even pro-rape, or c) be used as evidence that feminist ideals are not “natural” or even desirable:
So often it seems as if the discourse is focused solely on the “no means no” model — which, while of course useful, stops short of truly envisioning how suppressing female sexual agency is a key element of rape culture, and therefore how fostering genuine female sexual autonomy is necessary in fighting back against it. We wanted to talk about how to make the world safer for women to say no and yes to sex as we please.
One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions about Romance novels is a deep suspicion of feminism and a perception that feminism amounts to man-hating or political extremism. We’ve all seen the “I’m not a feminist but…” comments, as well as the assertions that submission fantasies represented in Romance perpetuate rape culture and give a mixed message to men who apparently cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Even though research demonstrates that “[d]espite the increased prominence of rape themes in popular culture, prevalence rates for rape fantasies appear to have been relatively stable over the past 4 decades,” decades during which gender roles have also undergone quite an evolution.
Despite the superficial opposition between these two positions – suspicion of feminism and suspicion of submission fantasies – I believe that they both reflect patriarchal assumptions about women and sex. In both cases, women are being judged by a different standard, encouraged to sexually submit according to her “nature,” or resist submission because it gives men the wrong idea and reflects patriarchal conditioning. One of the things that really bothers me about this ‘submission fantasy = perpetuation of rape culture’ argument is the way in which it makes the subconscious sexual fantasies of women responsible for the criminal actions of men. How is that resisting patriarchal assumptions and entitlements?
What if we started to view female sexuality from a place of “yes means yes,” though? What if we simply assume as a matter of course that our sexual fantasies neither will nor need to match up with the rights of both men and women to enjoy the same legal, political, economic, and social opportunities? That men can be stay at home fathers without being emasculated and that women can ambitiously follow career without being de-feminized? What if, in other words, we reject the shame and judgment around our sexual fantasies and freed ourselves from the idea that we have to be all of one thing or another? I imagine that might have a powerfully positive impact on female sexual desire, especially if it means that women won’t have to carry most of the domestic work as well as whatever out of house work they are pursuing, as well. Because I think exhaustion is to blame for the depletion of sexual desire among women, and my idea of liberated, feminist sex is the acceptance of female sexuality as healthy and robust, without shame and judgment and the need to defend our own desires.
Does Romance offer that? Should Romance offer that? Or is the genre idealizing a negative fantasy of female – and male – sexuality?