NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews an essay by Adriene Sere, “Sex and feminism: Who is being silenced?” This essay is published in Christine Stark & Rebecca Whisnant, eds., Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2004, pp. 269-274).
This is the fifth in a series of reviews of the essays in this book. For earlier reviews, please see our Anti-Pornographers Bookshelf.
Sere, the former editor of the feminist e-zine Said It, says leftist publications, in their rush to overturn conservative taboos, have become apologists for oppressive and dehumanizing sexual practices. Magazines such as The Nation and The Progressive consider it off-limits to ask whether porn, prostitution, sadomasochism, and sex without emotional intimacy really advance the liberation of women, or simply perpetuate inequality. Feminists who raise these questions are mocked as prudes. (p.270) Sere describes the reigning ideology on the Left:
What is called ‘pro-sex’-sadomasochism, butch/femme role-playing, and the selling of sex as a commodity–is put forth not just as a personal preference that one should be able to choose without shame, but as cutting-edge politics itself… Capitalizing on the aura of taboo, ‘pro-sex’ advocates tend to characterize themselves as oppressed in a way that is on a par with racism, sexism, and classism. This notion has become widely accepted in popular alternative media, even though the explicit themes of ‘pro-sex’ are ritualistically hierarchical and often fascist–slave owner and slave, Nazi and prisoner, etc. (p.270)Feminists have long recognized that private sexual fantasies and practices have political implications. The Left’s critique of traditional sexual morality sprung from observing how those norms were used to reinforce social inequality. But this does not mean that every sexual practice that shocks conservatives is by definition liberating for women or society. Progressive ideology can equally be used to take advantage of women, typically in the form of accusations of prudishness that break down a woman’s defenses against sexual exploitation:
It must also be acknowledged that peer pressure and the demand for conformity within political movements are hardly exclusive to feminists. Leftist culture, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, put incredible pressure on people to conform to certain forms of behavior–including what to eat, how to dress, what language to use, and how to earn and spend money. Perhaps the most stringent demand for conformity was made on women’s sexuality. For a woman to be considered acceptable within leftist culture, she had to have a ‘good attitude’ about sex. She was supposed to be sexually accessible, go along with casual sex, and be open to ‘sexual experimentation’. If a woman rejected the demand for sexual conformity, she would face ferocious male wrath in the form of exclusion, harassment, and stigmatization. (p.273)One might observe that even today, the belief that good progressives should be sexual relativists allows liberals to silence the feminist critique of pornography without acknowledging that they are really perpetuating reactionary values. It’s true that a liberal society should respect individuals’ diversity, privacy and dignity, which suggests we should be reluctant to stigmatize people for their sexual choices. Intimate relationships need privacy in order to flourish. “However,” Sere writes, “the legitimate objection to inappropriate peer pressures should not be used as an excuse to eliminate from public debate feminist analyses of the history, context, and larger meaning of what is called ‘pro-sex’.” (pp.272-73)
Coming tomorrow: Our review of Christine Stark, “Girls to boyz: Sex radical women promoting pornography and prostitution”