When somebody mentions the word ‘feminism’ it often sparks stereotypical ridicule surrounding unattractive women who can’t get a man, mainly stirred up by subjective political publishing. In reality what was achieved by feminists throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st century has paved the way for a more intellectual and emotional acceptance of women in modern society. When we discuss the subject of feminism we automatically begin to consider the work of radical, Marxist and liberal feminists, but in order to understand the thoughts and feelings of this enlightening subject we must observe the work of not only feminists but other theorists, in an attempt to analyse the changing views of women from the 1960s onwards. The start of the sexual revolution remains prominent within our discussion, and throughout this essay we will refer to academic material in an attempt to educate ourselves on the thoughts and theories of the changing sexuality of women from the first wave of feminism onwards.
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landmark book the second sex offered women an existential and intellectual framework where by women could break down the barriers of social conditioning and take control of their own lives and sexuality, her famous words ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’ offered an iconic phrase which would help support the movement of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The sexual politics which took place throughout the 1960s and 1970s cannot be discussed without talking about the highly publicised second wave of feminism. The combination of student protests and medically prescribed contraceptives made it possible for women to own their own sexuality and move away from the confinement of sexual pleasure in the boundaries of a heterosexual marriage (Escoffier, 2003). The previous century has been that of a bourgeois one, where sexuality was held on the strict basis of a heterosexual family (Ollman, 1979). Marxist writer William Reich offered a revolutionary sexual radicalism which argued that capitalism sexually repressed the masses in the interest of its exploitative goals (Ollman, 1979).
Betty Friedan (1963) is often referred to as the ‘mother of the movement’. When her book the feminine mystique was published in 1963 she discussed the roles of women in industrial societies, whose main aim was to fulfil the stifling role of homemaker; for women these traditional roles were often deemed unsatisfying: emotionally, intellectually and also sexually, as she quoted “no woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor” (Women’s History, 2011). Betty Friedan (1963) was also noted for criticising Freud’s theory known as ‘penis envy’ along with feminist writer
Karen Horney (Hichcock, 2005). Horney describes how it is men who are adversely affected by their inability to bear children, she referred to this as ‘womb envy’, and Freud saw Horney’s theory as being a striking example of her own personal penis envy (Hitchcock, 2005). Horney and other feminist theorists have gone on to describe Freud’s work as condescending and distorted surrounding his opinion of women being inferior to men (Hitchcock, 2005).
Many feminist writers gained a high level of interest in the work of Foucault (1978) whose work is highly prevalent when discussing sexuality of the 1970s and power (Hekman, 1996). Foucault (1978) argued that sexuality was ‘regulated and controlled’. His theory of the body and sexuality has allowed feminists to appropriate it due to the consequences of drawing a distinction between sex and gender, which allows us to challenge the idea that a women’s biological make up is her social destiny (Foucault, 1978). The views of sexuality altered greatly from the 1960s onwards. It was a period of high criticism of the conventional heterosexual practices of sex, and the liberation of gay men and lesbians meant there was a positive control of identity (Escoffier, 2003). The gay liberation challenged the essentialist view of the ‘natural sex’, however for many gay and lesbian activists sexual exploration was not the only goal; the importance was recognition for the need to change. Essentialist theorists argue that sexuality has a reproductive function and how vaginal intercourse is seen as ‘the sex’ (Duggan, Hunter, 1995).
By observing Foucault’s (1978) literature the ‘history of sexuality’ we can see an anti-essentialist account of the sexual body. Foucault (1978) argued that the construct of the ‘natural sex’ functions in order to disguise the productive operation of power in relation to human sexuality. Based on Foucault’s (1978) work, Judith butler (1990) discusses that the notion of ‘natural sex’ naturalises the regulatory idea of natural heterosexuality which then goes on to reinforce constraints on sexuality. McNay (1992) outlines how Foucault’s history of sexuality “exposes the contingent and socially determined nature of sexuality”. McNay (1992) argues that this frees the body, allowing the breakdown of heterosexuality and the emergence of new realms of pleasure.
Much of the debates surrounding sexuality during the 1960s and 1970s were viewed as having a large emphasis of the theories of pleasure and power. On the way into the 1980s the importance for feminists shifted onto the subject of the degrading acts towards women through the process of sado-masochism, pornography and prostitution (Strud, 2010). Feminists have been noted for arguing that pornography works in the exploitation of women which in turn contributes to the male objectification of women and sexism (Strud, 2010).
A prominent figure in the anti-pornography movement was Andrea Dworkin, a feminist who aligned herself with the far-right movement (Strud, 2010). Dworkin and her fellow radical feminists characterised pornography as an industry of damaging abuse, and frequently discussed prostitution as a system of severe exploitation (Strud,
2010). Dworkin also suggested that heterosexual intercourse is a key factor in the subordination of patriarchy (Strud, 2010). Third wave feminists known as lipstick feminists made attempts to reclaim sexual power (Duggan, Hunter, 1995). They argued that dressing provocatively and maintaining sexual allure empowers women, it is also suggested that these feminists did not see a conflict between stripping, exhibitionism, girl-on-girl displays or pornography with feminism (Duggan, Hunter, 1995).
A criticism of the third wave is often how it came about. The first and second wave are acknowledged as coming from a period where the main aim at hand were women’s rights, it was a period where politics were intertwined with culture (Agger, 1992). The third wave which is also refereed to as the ‘feminist sex wars’ rose from the popular culture of punk rock, consumerism and the birth of modern technologies and outlets such as mobile telephony and the internet (Agger, 1992). It has been discussed how there is often tension between the second and third wave of feminism due to the methods used to gain attention for important causes. However when these are observed we can elucidate that the methods used, such as lipstick feminists sexual allure or Riot Grrrl bands political anarchist lyrics, they can be deemed appropriate for the fast chaning modern culture of the 1980s and 1990s (Leonard, 1997).
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think Oh bondage up yours”, lyrics sang by Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex (1977), one of the female punk rock bands who were part of the feminist anarchy movement. As can be observed by
many of the lyrics of such bands, there is a level of sexual empowerment in the female youth of the 1980s and 1990s. Riot Grrrls were seen to not meet the needs of all women, mainly due to the white middle class youth orientation (Agger, 1992). Riot Grrrls were seen to succeed in the overturning of the male hegemonic punk culture, “Turn the tables with our unity- They neither moral nor majority – Wake up and smell the coffee – Or just say no to individuality” quoted by L7 (1992), this supports the sense of community felt among young girls, who felt a sense of alienation from mainstream culture (Leonard, 1997).
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A prominent band in the Riot Grrrl movement was Bikini Kill (1998), there powerful, political and sexual songs featured heavily in the popular culture of American youth feminism, with lyrics such as “Just’ cause my world, sweet sister, is so fucking goddamn full of rape – does that mean my body must always be a source of pain”. Christine Hoff Sommers (1994) discusses women who have betrayed feminism, she talks about an article written by Roiphe in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. In the article Roiphe accuses feminists of defining rape “to include any kind of sex a woman experiences as negative” (Sommers, 1994). This could be seen as challenging for feminists who were attempting to educate girls that sex without their consent constitutes as rape. Although Riot Grrrls did not achieve any radical changes for women, they were seen to make differences on a more individual level, supporting the female youth on issues such as sexual abuse and rape, which are seen as important factors in the subject of female sexual empowerment (Agger, 1992).
Duggan and Hunter (1995) discussed that the controversial ‘sex wars’ which focussed on debates surrounding “political and cultural battles over sexuality” in the 1980s and 1990s, also characterised key feminist debates of the second wave. The false stereotypes of feminists such as anti-male, fat, humourless, bra-burning were seen to be actively challenged in the third wave (Hollows, Moseley, 2006). It is also discussed that some of what is currently referred to as ‘third wave feminism’ is indistinguishable from popularised atheoretical post feminism; Michelle Goldberg (2001) describes this as ‘shopping and fucking’. We can observe by this that where third wave feminists viewed their actions as being methods of sexual control politically and culturally, early theorists and feminists conduced their behaviour was un-intellectual and made important issues void by allowing them to revolve around hotter-sex, designer shoes, intimidating clothing and expensive make-up (Hollows, Moseley, 2006).
The acknowledgement of theorists and feminists has allowed us a deeper insight into the views of sexuality from the 1960s onwards. What is interesting is how different feminist theories began to differ in aims on the way into the 1980s. The common aim had been to liberate women from the societal constraints, not only in public places but also in the privacy of their own home. There remained however a range of strong views surrounding heterosexuality and the mystery of the ‘female orgasm’, with the liberation of gay men, lesbian women and straight women sexually, the traditional theories, such as essentialism were challenged. The changes made by feminists cannot be denied, changes that span over decades and in some cases centuries, it is easy to
take for granted the sexual freedom that can be experienced by women in modern society, however when we observe feminist history we can begin to understand the sacrifices that have been made on behalf of women and the empowerment of female sexuality. This is their legacy.
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