“What is sex?” I asked. I’m not the only one. Sociologist Jeffrey Weeks says

we should understand sexuality as culturally and historically defined and constructed. … sexuality must be understood as a series of cultural and social practices, meanings, and institutions that both structure and are in turn structured by social relations more generally. Thus, “sex is relational, is shaped in social interaction, and can only be understood in its historical context. . . .”[1]

In addition, sex is defined by the cultural power structure. Political theorist Nancy C.M. Hartsock explains:

[With sex,] like all hegemonic forms, what we see reflects and expresses the experience of the dominant group; that is, discussions of sexual excitement in general are in fact discussions of what is sexually arousing for white, heterosexual men of a certain class in a position to make their images of masculinity hegemonic.[2][3]

So I learned to think of sex in the culturally defined way. It was something I had to be careful about, because men are in charge. Of the laws, of the streets, of my status in any setting, of my future.

Hegemonic Sex

In our male-supremacist culture, manliness equals violence, and the approved form of sex is men dominating women. This perverts women’s experience of our own sexuality. As Linda Phelps observes,

So all pervasive is the male bias of our culture that we seldom notice that the fantasies we take in, the images that describe to us how to act, are male fantasies about females. In a male world, female sex is from the beginning unable to get a clear picture of itself.[4]

MacKinnon’s assessment is more scathing:

If women are socially defined such that female sexuality cannot be lived or spoken or felt or even somatically sensed apart from its enforced definition, so that it is its own lack, then there is no such thing as a woman as such; there are only walking embodiments of men’s projected needs.[5]

Nancy C.M. Hartsock surveyed research on what constitutes sexual arousal. “There is a surprising degree of consensus,” she concluded, “that hostility and domination as opposed to intimacy and physical pleasure are central to sexual excitement.” [6] For both men and women.

Women’s Studies pioneer Sally Roesch Wagner comments:

The archetype of sexual domination, sadomasochism, has become more overt in the culture as the patriarchy becomes increasingly threatened. It is no surprise that sadomasochism has emerged as a matter of controversy at the height of its popularity in pornography and its manifestation in culture.[7]

Enlightenment and Despair

A revelation: “Sex” — the culturally defined understanding of the bodily intimacy that people do together — is an oppression! Now I understand why I have been so confused about it. I knew that the wisdom of my body disagrees with the prescriptions of my culture. But I hadn’t realized how powerful those prescriptions are.

But now what? How do I deal with the oppression?

Hartsock expresses my distress:

Should we then conclude that sexuality is inseparable from violence against women, that sex is masculine and violent? And therefore feminists should simply stay away from sex? If hostility is so omnipresent — for men, and given our culture, women too — is there any escape?”[8]

Soon after I reached this understanding, I was watching a TV show called Bodyguard.[9] The protagonist and the woman he was guarding began an affair — quite precipitously. They embraced violently, pulling each other’s clothes off, grabbing each other’s body, lunging into each kiss — on their first sexual encounter. Until this I’d been quite involved in the story, but suddenly I thought “this is a man’s idea of sex.”

Certainly I’ve never behaved like that, and I can’t imagine behaving like that; watching it turns me off.

A day or two later, I started watching another TV show and the two principal characters started to enact the same scenario. I was startled: it was as though they had the same script for this event. Is this is a standard video trope for a first encounter? I switched it off and don’t remember what the show was.

Later, another show: The protagonist couple’s first two sexual encounters were gentle, tentative, exploring. Then when they are more sure of each other, they rush into sex, pulling each other’ clothes off — but laughing while they perform the trope. As though they are making fun of the stereotype.

I’m not laughing. I’m dismayed. The culture has me trapped. I may be enlightened to that fact, but knowing doesn’t give me relief.

The only thing that comes close is avoiding sex.

[1] Weeks, Sexuality and its Discontents, 12 — quoted with no further information by Hartsock, “Gender and Sexuality,” in Rethinking Power, ed. Wartenberg (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 252.
[2] Hartsock, 251.
[3] Activist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon defines the situation:

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away … Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society … As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of other defines the sex, woman.

(MacKinnon, Feminism, Marxism [Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1982], 515.)

[4]Phelps, Sexual Alienation (Reno:DOB, 8/1/1971), 35.
[5] MacKinnon 1982, 534.
[6] Hartsock, in Wartenberg, 253.
[7] Wagner, “Backlash of SM” in Linden et al., 39.
[8] Hartsock, 262.
[9] Bodyguard, Episode 2.

2 thoughts on ““Sex”

  1. Hi Kay Baird,

    I always think of intercourse as “the myth of the main event.” Most women don’t have orgasms during intercourse, unless cliterally stimulated. I’m 76 years old and I’ve had many sexual partners in my life, and only once have I come during intercourse. You are welcome to quote me.

  2. What I just read feels so despairing. At 76, I don’t expect to have another sex partner, male or female. But I am the mother of a daughter who has also been inculcated into the male dominated culture, and I can do nothing to help her with this profound issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *