What, exactly, is “the sex class”? If you read Twisty Faster’s blog, I Blame the Patriarchy (which I do only sporadically), you would get the impression that it refers to patriarchy’s definition of women wholly as sexual objects, at the whim of men’s desires. Some of the blogosphere’s other self-professed “radical” feminists use it in the same way. This has been bugging me for a while, ever since I went back and actually read some early radical feminist texts, because it’s a gross distortion of how they used the term. Maybe it seems like I’m being pedantic. (It wouldn’t be the first time!) However, this distortion has profound consequences for the relationship of feminism and sexuality, especially heterosexuality. It also drastically circumscribes the relevance and inclusiveness of feminism. I’ll get to all that in a moment.
But first, let’s look at the genealogy of the term “sex class.” It goes back to Shulamith Firestone, who coined it in analogy to the Marxian category of (economic) class. For her, the word “sex” does not mean sex as in intercourse, sexuality, etc. (Twisty’s usage). Instead, for Firestone “sex” refers to the basic biological division of humanity into two categories, men and women, which she regards as prior to class divisions. In The Dialectic of Sex, she modifies Engels’ analysis of the origins of the family and patriarchy by insisting that economic class did not supplant patriarchy. Instead, male domination remains the primary oppression – and like class oppression, it can be understood through a materialist analysis.
Let’s take a look at Firestone’s actual words. (They’re taken from her first chapter, which can be found here in its entirety; passages in bold are my emphasis.) Here are the opening lines of The Dialectic of Sex:
Sex class is so deep as to be invisible. Or it may appear as a superficial inequality, one that can be solved by merely a few reforms, or perhaps by the full integration of women into the labour force. But the reaction of the common man, woman, and child – ‘That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!’ – is the closest to the truth. We are talking about something every bit as deep as that. This gut reaction – the assumption that, even when they don’t know it, feminists are talking about changing a fundamental biological condition – is an honest one.” (my emphasis)
Later in Chapter One, Firestone writes:
But Engels has been given too much credit for these scattered recognitions of the oppression of women as a class. In fact he acknowledged the sexual class system only where it overlapped and illuminated his economic construct. Engels didn’t do so well even in this respect. …
And then, on Simone de Beauvoir, upon whose work Firestone is building:
Her profound work The Second Sex [note that Beauvoir's title also does not refer to genital sexuality, but again to biological sex, male versus female] – which appeared as recently as the early fifties to a world convinced that feminism was dead – for the first time attempted to ground feminism in its historical base. Of all feminist theorists De Beauvoir is the most comprehensive and far-reaching, relating feminism to the best ideas in our culture.
It may be this virtue is also her one failing: she is almost too sophisticated, too knowledgeable. Where this becomes a weakness – and this is still certainly debatable – is in her rigidly existentialist interpretation of feminism (one wonders how much Sartre had to do with this). This, in view of the fact that all cultural systems, including existentialism, are themselves determined by the sex dualism. She says:
“Man never thinks of himself without thinking of the Other; he views the world under the sign of duality which is not in the first place sexual in character. But being different from man, who sets himself up as the Same, it is naturally to the category. of the Other that woman is consigned; the Other includes woman. (Italics mine [that is, Firestone's].)”
Perhaps she has overshot her mark: Why postulate a fundamental Hegelian concept of Otherness as the final explanation and then carefully document the biological and historical circumstances that have pushed the class ‘women’ into such a category – when one has never seriously considered the much simpler and more likely possibility that this fundamental dualism sprang from the sexual division itself ? To posit a priori categories of thought and existence – ‘Otherness’, ‘Transcendence ‘Immanence’ – into which history then falls may not be necessary. Marx and Engels had discovered that these philosophical categories themselves grew out of history.
Before assuming such categories, let us first try to develop an analysis in which biology itself – procreation – is at the origin of the dualism. The immediate assumption of the layman that the unequal division of the sexes is ‘natural’ may be well-founded. We need not immediately look beyond this. Unlike economic class sex class sprang directly from a biological reality: men and women were created different, and not equal. Although, as De Beauvoir points out, this difference of itself did not necessitate the development of a class system – the domination of one group by another – the reproductive functions of these differences did.
(All of the above comes from Shulamith Firestone, Chapter 1 of the Dialectic of Sex)
These passages make abundantly clear that “sex,” for Firestone, is not genital activity. It’s not the bundle of acts, desires, feelings, and cultural ideas that we term sexuality. “Sex,” here, is the biological distinction between men and women.
In particular, her reliance on Beauvoir shows that Firestone sees women as ensnared not by sexuality per se, but by its consequences. She modifies Beauvoir’s critique of maternity by arguing it’s not society that constructs pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation as oppressive, trapping women in “immanence” (or passivity and cultural irrelevance) as Beauvoir contends. For Firestone, the root of women’s oppression is their biological function as mothers. She retains enough of Marx and Engels’ materialist method that she views the material reality of motherhood, and not the ideology that surrounds it, as the real problem for women. Women’s biology is thus inherently oppressive. Free women from their biology, says Firestone, and you free them from their subordination. (That’s where artificial reproduction plays into her argument, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
So how on earth did we get from this basically Marxian category of women (or “woman”) as a biological class (or caste, as Beauvoir termed it) to a category focused entirely on women getting fucked, literally and figuratively? It’s because Twisty and her compatriots are not radical feminists in the same sense as Firestone. They’re what Alice Echols – the preeminent historian of radical feminism – would categorize as cultural feminists:
Most fundamentally, radical feminism was a political movement dedicated to eliminating the sex-class system, whereas cultural feminism was a countercultural movement aimed at reversing the cultural valuation of the male and the devaluation of the female. In the terminology of today, radical feminists were typically social constructionists who wanted to render gender irrelevant, while cultural feminists were generally essentialists who sought to celebrate femaleness.
(Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75, 6)
I don’t know that Twisty would reject social constructionism altogether, but her conviction that patriarchy is all-encompassing and basically unchangeable comes very close to essentialism, in my book. She certainly reverses the valuation of male and female without overturning the idea of a hierarchy. Women really do appear to be the better human beings in her worldview.
In addition, actual radical feminists were steeped in Marxian thought, even if they modified Marxism dramatically, as Firestone did. They accordingly retained an awareness of socioeconomic class, though they tended to be well-educated, middle-class white women who didn’t always recognize their own privilege. Most of them remained critical toward capitalism. Twisty – and other self-professed “radical feminists” who actually fall into the cultural feminist camp – rarely discuss class. They’re far too focused on sex and sexuality.
This narrow focus on (hetero)sexuality spawns a plethora of problems. First, while it doesn’t necessarily preclude intersectional analysis, it certainly draws attention away from it. Cultural feminists only rarely differentiate on the basis of socioeconomic class, for instance. Daisy at Daisy’s Dead Air had a strong critique of this a while ago; while she focused on Twisty, you could easily multiply the examples. As Daisy points out, this often leads to a heavy-handed judgmentalism toward women’s experiences and choices.
This judgmental tendency leads to another problem of cultural feminism: Though its practitioners claim to be blaming the patriarchy, too often they end up blaming women’s choices, especially when it comes to sex. (See for instance the feminist BDSM blow-up of last winter.) This is an ironic corollary of portraying patriarchy as a monolith: Since you can’t actually target and change the system, you can only target its inhabitants. What purports to be a systemic analysis of sexism ends up radically individualizing it. Yet more irony: By portraying women as only ever the objects of male sexuality, the cultural feminist version of the sex class too often denies women’s agency.
This approach to feminism ends up ratifying and reinforcing the heterosexual status quo, rather than pushing it toward greater equality or actually giving free reign to women’s desires and pleasures. As figleaf points out for Twisty,
by insisting that women withhold sex from men — even those who want to have sex with men, either eternally or at least until men agree to the terms of this leverage-for-sex strike — she’s perpetuating rather than subverting the dominant no-sex class paradigm.
By the way, I don’t think that my criticism of the cultural feminist “sex class” invalidates figleaf’s analysis of what he calls the no-sex class. Not at all. But it does suggest that it’s important to carefully define its points of reference, since Twisty ≠ Shulie. It also draws attention to some of those early radical feminists whose ideas could enrich his arguments – Gayle Rubin, for instance. Rubin sees the sexuality of women as subordinated to a much larger system of domination, in which men historically exchanged women in order to cement kinship systems:
It would be in the interests of the smooth and continuous operation of such a system if the woman in question did not have too many ideas of her own about whom she might want to sleep with. From the standpoint of the system, the preferred female sexuality would be one which responded to the desire of others, rather than one which actively desired and sought a response.
(Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” in Linda J. Nicholson, ed., The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, 42)
As an actual radical feminist, Rubin grounds her argument in a critical reading of Marx, Freud, and Levi-Strauss. She radically reimagines the possibilities of sexuality and gender, rather than getting stuck in the idea that PIV intercourse is at the center of women’s oppression. She identifies grand structures in society and culture, but she doesn’t regard the resulting power relations as immutable.
I’m not suggesting that an analysis of sex and sexuality is tangential to feminism. (Any reader of this blog knows otherwise!) Nor am I implying that hetero sex has magically cast off the chains of male domination. Instead, I want to recover and respect the original meaning of “sex class,” in the hope of getting beyond some of the impasses that cultural feminism has created. Including the alienation of a great many women from feminism when they find themselves getting blamed for the patriarchy.