Lisa Millbank is a blogger I really respect, because she’s really smart about gender and even when I disagree with her ideas I always have to question my beliefs. Recently, she finished a series called The Prudes’ Progress, which is about developing a radical feminist concept of sexuality and has induced Many of the Thinky Thoughts on my part. So I’ve decided to write a bunch of blog posts responding to it, or talking about the ideas that are more-or-less related to her thoughts. This is the introduction to the series!
First: Millbank is a radical feminist. Most people I know tend to use “radical feminist” as either a synonym for “extreme feminist” or a synonym for “transphobic whorephobic kinkphobic feminist,” neither of which are actually correct. Radical feminism is a distinct theoretical perspective on feminism (which, yes, often happens to be extreme and transphobic/whorephobic/kinkphobic).
Radical feminists believe that gender is a social construct, not a biological reality, formed out of patriarchy. Patriarchy, they believe, is a social structure in which men dominate and oppress women; it seeps into every aspect of our lives, including such apparently apolitical things as appearance and one’s sex life. Radical feminists believe that gender, structures of domination, and patriarchy are bad for women and should be eliminated. (For the curious, I disagree with #1 (gender is both a social construct and a biological reality), agree with #2, and agree with #3 except for the gender bit with caveats.)
In particular, since I’m going to be talking about radical feminist views of sexuality a lot, I should talk about what they are. If patriarchy seeps into every aspect of life, it also seeps into sex; since patriarchy is bad, this leads to sex that hurts one or more of the people involved. How so? Well, obviously sexual violence. But beyond that an ideology of beliefs that wind up promoting sexual violence (the famous “rape culture”)– the treatment of one person as active, powerful, the subject, the one who wants, and another as passive, subordinate, the object, the one who is wanted and does what the subject wants. Through sexuality, patriarchy eroticizes and actively maintains this difference. Lisa Millbank calls patriarchal sex “instrumental sexuality,” which is a phrase I’m going to use.
Radical feminism was originally opposed to liberal feminism, which was the feminism that mostly dealt with legal inequality and job discrimination and reproductive rights. Very few people identify as a liberal feminist anymore because the abortion thing is basically the only part of liberal feminism that’s remotely controversial and if you like abortion rights you can just call yourself pro-choice.
Around about the time liberal feminism became incredibly uncontroversial, feminism decided to have something called the Feminist Sex Wars (not kidding). Radical feminists tended to believe that porn, BDSM, and sex work perpetuate social structures of domination and were violence against women. Sex-positive feminists, on the other hand, were like “wait, no, I get to do what I want with my own vagina, stop telling me what to do.”
(Also in this period huge swathes of radical feminism inexplicably decided that trans people were Public Enemy #1. Which, okay, if you think gender is a product of the patriarchy then trans people probably won’t exist in the post-patriarchy, but I fail to understand how that turns harassing trans women into a feminist practice.)
(Yes I do. The answer is transmisogyny.)
A huge amount of theory that even sex-positive and trans feminists use was developed by radical feminists. The concept of “patriarchy”? Radical feminists. “Rape culture”? Radical feminists. “The personal is political”? Radical feminists. Consciousness-raising groups and their descendant the feminist blog? Radical feminists. I am really sad that radical feminism has all too often devolved into woman-hate, because there are so many radical feminist authors I respect and who have deeply affected my feminism and challenged my thought on gender. Part of the reason I like Millbank’s work a lot is that she’s a modern radical feminist who gives my brain the same workout as, say, Dworkin.
Another reason I particularly like The Prudes’ Progress is that a lot of people, having proved to their satisfaction that such-and-such sexual practice is inherently oppressive, consider their work done. To pick on a non-radical-feminist example… let’s say it’s oppressive to consider trans, disabled, and fat people inherently unattractive, both because it’s a product of a culture that considers trans, disabled, and fat people unattractive, and because it’s shitty to be considered ugly because you’re part of whatever marginalized group. Okay, great. What do you do with that? If you’re someone who’s only attracted to cis, abled, thin people, do you… have sex with trans, disabled, and fat people anyway for anti-oppression points? Self-flagellate about your oppressive boner? What? Identifying a problem is not the same thing as offering a solution.
Millbank has written an entire really long series of articles about how, if you accept radical feminist beliefs about sexuality, to make your sexuality less patriarchal. I approve of this and wish more people who want to critique sexuality would do similar things.
Obvious Disclaimer: all of this is personal piety, not basic morality. Your moral obligation sexually is discharged by not being an asshole. (You know: don’t rape people, don’t call people ugly because they don’t give you a boner, don’t lie to your sexual partners about how many people you’re fucking or whether you have an STI, use contraception unless you’re prepared to have offspring, that sort of thing.) If you don’t accept radical feminist beliefs about sexuality (which I do with some caveats), you might be able to get something out of The Prudes’ Progress, but it’s primarily targeted at a different audience. If you’re in a place where working on your sexuality is not healthy or fulfilling or the optimal choice for you right now, great! Go build houses for Habitat for Humanity or something. If your feminism involves hating on women who aren’t hurting anyone for being insufficiently feminist, you are bad at feminism.
Further Obvious Disclaimer: The Prudes’ Progress is mostly written for women in erotic relationships with other women. I am a nonbinary but female-presenting person primarily in erotic relationships with men (although I have been in erotic relationships with women in the past). I expect this is going to affect my reactions to shit she talks about.
Probably Non-Obvious Disclaimer: Most of my planned blog posts range from “inspired by The Prudes’ Progress” to “completely unrelated to it but thrown in as an appendix because why not,” so you do not have to read The Prudes’ Progress in order to understand the series.