Many of us do not question the popular ideology that views sex as natural. Yet, for the purpose of this chapter, I ask that the reader temporarily put aside the assumption of sex as natural and view sex rather as a social construct in order to explore sex as it relates to social power. In this chapter, I discuss the way some feminists have thought about the link between gender, sexuality, and power.
Heterosexuality and power
In the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon argued that hetero-sex is a mechanism by which men dominate women. MacKinnon (1989) argues that, in order to understand the subordination of women in the United States, one must analyze the practice of heterosexuality. Dworkin and MacKinnon assert that, in America and elsewhere, sex is about male dominance and female subordination. In Intercourse (1987), Dworkin asks whether sex is a loving, intimate act between two mutually consenting people, or if it is the display of male social, political, psychological, and economic dominance over women.
Dworkin and MacKinnon argue that the expression of masculine traits such as aggression, power, and violence during sex shapes the meaning of sexuality for both men and women. In America, men define what sex is, and they have defined it in terms of men’s dominance and women’s submission. Dworkin and MacKinnon claim that women then come to understand their role within hetero-sex as passive and accommodating. Dworkin claims that women are expected to say “yes” to sex because they are expected to be compliant and to fulfill the man’s “implicit right” to get laid regardless of the woman’s desires. She suggests that women learn to view sex in a way that reflects men’s desires and wishes.
There are, however, feminist critics. Pat Califia (1994) agrees that we live in a society where power and privilege lie within the hands of men. She also feels that patriarchy controls women and limits their freedom. However, she does not believe that heterosexual sex is only about power and women’s lack of it. This perspective reinforces an image of women solely as victims. Califia argues that under conditions of male dominance women’s sexuality is limited. Women may have less freedom to explore, discover, and play with their own desires and pleasures, but they are not completely powerless.
Instead of viewing sex as dangerous for women, as just another area where men control them, Califia affirms sex as necessary for women’s sexual liberation. She argues that women need to explore their own desires and sexualities and fully embrace sexual variety, so long as it is between adults and consensual.
In this regard, Califia defends sadomasochistic sex, which involves eroticizing power in a consensual sexual exchange. For Dworkin, women who participate in masochism are traitors, self-haters, who are socialized into wanting to be helpless and assaulted. Califia argues that sadomasochism is usually understood, among those involved, as an intimate act between two mutually consenting people who come together to experience intense sexual pleasure. “Vanilla people send flowers, poetry, or candy, or they exchange rings. An S/M person does all that and may also lick boots, wear a locked collar, or build her loved one a rack in the basement” (Califia 1994:177).
Califia argues that sadomasochism is not about dominance, but rather about using power for sexual pleasure. She says that this is because the relationship between the individual who plays the dominant role and the one who plays the submissive role is freely chosen by the individuals depending on their erotic preferences. The roles are negotiated and the power is understood as play, enacted through role playing. “Hardly instruments of the sexual repression of women, fetish costumes [including leather, rubber, and spiked heels] can provide women who wear them with sexual pleasure and power” (Califia 1994:176).
Pornography: gender domination or sexual liberation?
Pornography has also spurred much debate among feminists. Some feminists reject pornography because they feel that it is an expression of men’s power over women; other feminists find in porn a potential avenue by which women may learn to be more sexually open and assertive.
Dworkin (1981) criticizes pornography because she believes it teaches men and women “gender appropriate” sex which reinforces women’s oppression. She claims that male power is the chief theme throughout pornography. She defines pornographic sex as women being humiliated, beaten, hung, having objects shoved up their vaginas, killed; all of which are supposed to illicit sexual arousal from the male consumer. Dworkin asserts that the force depicted in pornography is real because it is used against women. She argues that men form their understanding of sexuality and of women through their consumption of pornography. Pornography may depict a woman smiling as she is being raped. Thus, as feminist Susan Cole (1995) points out, men learn that women have uncontrollable sexual urges and enjoy being dominated and humiliated.
Critics of Dworkin do not deny that some porn is hateful toward women. However, they argue that much pornography offers images that encourage women to explore and enhance their sexuality and erotic freedom. Another feminist, Drucilla Cornell (2000), agrees that women need both to view images of sexually active women and to explore their bodies and desires. She suggests that pornography has the potential to prompt women to play with sex and can create an image of a healthy, unconstrained female sexuality.
Royalle is critical of much pornography to the extent that it is defined by genital sex and cum shots. Rather, she expands pornography for women to encompass the entire body as an erogenous zone. She encourages women and couples to sexually explore their entire bodies, expanding their understanding of what is sexy.
Califia criticizes some feminists for being prudish and uptight about sex. She is especially critical of anti-porn activists such as Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) who have tried to censor pornography. Censoring sexual material, Califia argues, hurts women and all sexual minorities such as lesbians. By censoring sexual material, it will become more difficult to talk about issues such as birth control, safe sex, and pregnancy. Further, censorship laws will make it possible to remove educational materials that encourage women to get in touch with their bodies, selves, and desires. In short, Califia believes that stigmatizing pornography reinforces the ambivalent and negative feelings many women already have about sex.
Rape and state-sponsored sexual terrorism
While hetero-sex and pornography may be morally and politically debatable because they involve both power and consent, sexual violence such as rape stands in stark contrast. Even further removed is rape as state-sponsored sexual terrorism. Unlike an individual man having sex or consuming pornography, soldiers are not acting as individuals. Rather, they are agents of the state who participate in sex acts that are not consensual, but coerced and violent.
R. W. Connell (1995) suggests that sexual violence is part of what it means to be a “real” man in Western society. Men are believed to be uncontrollably aggressive and sexual. Society therefore has a tendency to understand rape as a natural consequence of men’s uncontrollable sexual desires and natural tendency toward violence.
In any event, many sociologists have shown that men, as the dominant gender, use violence as a means to obtain and sustain power over women, and sometimes over other men. Men also sustain their dominance by using sex to intimidate women. This can include anything from cat-calls on the street to rape. Given the social privilege of masculinity, such sexual abusers feel that it is their right to exercise power over women, because they are “authorized by an ideology of supremacy” (Connell 1995:83).
In Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers (2003), Joane Nagel explores rape as an important aspect of war. She argues that sexual assault is a means of obtaining power and a way to humiliate and victimize the enemy. The use of sex as power is especially prominent during wars between ethnic groups. Military men often use sex in order to exercise power over men of an opposing ethnicity. For example, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Serbs exercised power over Croatian and Bosnian men by having them castrated.
However, it is women who are typically the focus of sexual violence during wars of ethnic conflicts. Militaries often set up camps that they fill with local enemy women whom they refer to as “comfort” women. These women are at the disposal of the soldiers as sexual servants. During war, women are involuntarily rounded up and given to soldiers as rewards. They become sex slaves. Nagel states that the sexual worth of the women is based on their class and ethnicity. For example, the Japanese, during World War Two, forced 200,000 women into camps. Most of these women were of the lower class. The Korean and other Asian women were given to low-ranking soldiers. The Japanese and European women (often Dutch), however, were reserved for the high-ranking Japanese officers.
Nagel points out that, in times of war, it is not power over the woman that is the ultimate goal of rape. Rather, ethnically different enemy women are raped and sexually assaulted in order for men to exercise power and dominance over one another. She argues that, ultimately, the raping of the enemy’s women is used to intimidate, humiliate, and dominate the enemy men.
Rape as a war tactic can further be understood as psychologically degrading the enemy. Since women often stand as a symbol of nationality (take the Statue of Liberty, for example), Nagel posits that sexually assaulting a woman pollutes not only her and her family, but also her entire nation.
The logic of rape in war is always the same: rapes are committed by both
sides for the familiar time-honored reasons … to terrorize and humiliate
the enemy, and as a means of creating solidarity and protection through
mutual guilt among small groups of soldiers.
Nagel goes on to say that raping the enemy women also serves as a technique of ethnic cleansing. For example, Serbian men raped Croatian women in order to impregnate them so that the women would give birth to Serbian babies. Often these women were gang-raped. In order to ensure that these women would not have an abortion, the Serbian military set up concentration camps in which they would imprison women until they gave birth to the next generation of Serbs.
I want to underscore a key point here. Some governments breed and train their soldiers to be sexually violent and aggressive. The widespread social belief that men are aggressive, especially sexually aggressive, justifies and conceals the role of the government in promoting sexual violence. In fact, the government is in effect teaching soldiers that they should, as a matter of national loyalty, sexually violate enemy women.
Califia, Pat. 1994. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
Cole, Susan G. 1995. Power Surge: Sex Violence & Pornography. Toronto: Second Story Press.
Connell, R. W. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cornell, Drucilla. 2000. “Pornography’s Temptation.” In D. Cornell (ed.), Feminism and Pornography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dworkin, Andrea. 1981. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. London: The Women’s Press.
Dworkin, Andrea. 1987. Intercourse. New York: Free Press Paperbacks.
MacKinnon, Catherine A. 1989. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Nagel, Joane. 2003. Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Royalle, Candida. 2000. “Porn in the USA.” In D. Cornell (ed.), Feminism and Pornography. New York: Oxford University Press.