The “Sex” in Sexual Revolution

One of the best things about coming out as a lesbian in 1989 was that for the first time in my life wanting and having sex was a positive, not a negative, value. As a teenager I thoroughly enjoyed heterosexual sex, but I struggled with deeply internalized Christian values that held me a sinner of the worst kind, and was subject to the cruel and unrelenting judgment of my peers. It is a very true and sad story that shortly after I transferred in to a new school in grade 9 I was labeled a slut because I had had some kind of sexual contact – the stories were legion, and grew more elaborate as the school year went on – with another grade 9 student. I was genuinely stunned that I was marked “bad,” and that the other participant suffered no negative social consequences. Indeed, it could only have been him who told others we had ‘fooled around,’ so he must have been confident that revealing this would have yielded a social benefit. Perhaps he had no idea what impact it would have on me, but at the time the damage felt intentionally caused. I was so demoralized and depressed that year that when his friend showed up on my doorstep asking for sloppy seconds, I shrugged my shoulders and let him in. I felt dead, inside and out, but he didn’t seem to care or mind.

When I discovered feminism in my third year of university, a breeze blew through my body and dislodged a lot of the detritus I had accumulated during and since that awful year. Sex-positive feminism told me that my desire was not the problem. The problem is patriarchy. It’s an old-school term, I suppose, but I think it is just as true today as it was in the 1970s when it was on so many women’s lips.

I have been lately reflecting on how central my sexuality came to be to my own personal and political sense of self. Madonna, though influential at the time I discovered feminism, was not the one to plant the seed. This month I’m reading classic feminist texts from the 60s and 70s. In her enormously influential 1969 book Sexual Politics, Kate Millet posited that sex is not simply a biological force, it is shaped by culture and put into the service of patriarchy, a system that was built on the subjection of women to the rule of men. So how to bring about change?

Millett

“A sexual revolution would require, perhaps first of all, an end of traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos, particularly those that most threaten patriarchal monogamous marriage: homosexuality, ‘illegitimacy,’ adolescent, pre-and extra-marital sexuality. The negative aura with which sexual activity has generally been surrounded would necessarily be eliminated, together with the double standard and prostitution. The goal of revolution would be a permissive single standard of sexual freedom, and one uncorrupted by the crass and exploitative economic bases of traditional sexual alliances.”

Looking back almost fifty years later, it is striking just how accommodating patriarchy can be. In Canada and elsewhere, homosexuality is for many benign, children born out of “wedlock” (now there’s a word for you) are not considered “illegitimate,” pre-marital sex is expected and marriage generally isn’t except in some faith communities, and even if we don’t condone adultery in the way we do homosexuality, it certainly is less stigmatized, both for the adulterer and the one who was “cheated on.”

And still, the double standard persists.

Inhibitions and taboos have fallen away, but patriarchy marches on, more softly, perhaps, than it did in 1969, but marching still. (I don’t agree with the premise that prostitution is only the result of patriarchy, so I leave that aside in this discussion.)

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