Should the Personal be Political?

I recently came across the site Does This Make Sense? and I already love it. It’s got a lot of intelligent, thoughtful commentary. One piece that I particularly liked is called “Hell, No. I Won’t Say No.” It concerns the idea that women who want to change their society should withhold sex from men until their wishes are fulfilled. Lorraine Berry writes:

In principle, choosing not to have heterosexual sex as a protest against policies that restrict women’s abilities to have autonomy over their bodies seems the ultimate in women’s power. It did, to some extent, work in the case of Liberia, where the brave women there forced their men to continue negotiating for peace by sitting naked outside the building where the negotiations were taking place.

Ultimately, though, Berry argues that this form of protest is not only ineffective but counterproductive for women who happen to enjoy sex (which is, I might argue, almost all of them). There are many problems with a “sex boycott, such as what gays and lesbians would do, and the fact that it almost seems to confirm right-wingers’ anti-sex campaign (no abortion, no contraception, no pornography, no comprehensive sex ed, no premarital sex, no non-hetero sex, and so on).

However, I have another problem with it, and it involves the concept of “the personal is political.”

Here I’m going to just be a bad feminist and say that I disagree with this principle. Of course, I do believe that people should live according to their values (political ones included), but I cannot condone manipulating personal relationships for the sake of one’s politics. Unless your partner is personally overseeing the campaign to take control of women’s bodies, it’s completely unreasonable, not to mention unethical, to punish him for the actions of certain other members of his gender. (This is not even to mention that I cannot imagine a feminist woman dating an anti-feminist man to begin with.)

And, in general, I don’t think that politics should direct one’s personal life. If I choose to date a woman, it’ll be because I like her, not because I want to make a political statement about bisexuality. If I choose to date someone of a different race, it’ll be because I like him/her, not because I want to make a political statement about interracial dating. In contrast, the so-called “political lesbianism” movement advocated choosing to be a lesbian for political purposes. How is this an authentic way of living?

Of course, sometimes the personal becomes political, as when an anti-gay politician is revealed to be having same-sex relations, or when people speculate on whether or not Elena Kagan is a lesbian. In the first case, although people may bristle at the obvious hypocrisy, I think being anti-gay is bad enough regardless of what one does in his spare time (and sending inappropriate messages to teens is bad enough regardless of their gender). As for the second, most would agree that it shouldn’t matter. The fact that people make it matter is the crux of the problem.

So, is the personal political? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be. In my opinion, personal relationships are a sort of refuge from the outside world. I don’t bring politics into the bedroom, just like I wouldn’t bring my cell phone or my laptop or God into it.

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12 thoughts on “Should the Personal be Political?

  1. Miriam,
    Thanks for commenting on my article for Does This Make Sense?
    One of the things that provoked me to write the article was my reaction to the publication of Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, which creates a Lysistrata-type sexual shutdown by suburban women.
    I had also followed the news in Liberia, where the women had sexually shamed men into continuing negotiations.
    I don’t think you’re a bad feminist for wanting to not “punish your partner” for the messed-up state of the world. When I say the personal is political, I mean things like access to birth control, rights to abortion, marriage reform, and the creation of a system where women are seen as humans, as opposed to simply “not men.”
    Anyway. Thanks again for commenting. And come on back to the site–there’s a lot of great writing there.

    • Thank you for your reply, Lorraine! I’m curious about this novel…I’m sure it would challenge some of my opinions. :)

      Incidentally, I’ve made an account on DTMS, so I’ll definitely keep reading!

  2. I think you’re missing a much more fundamental problem with this Lorraine Berry’s idea. At least I would expect it to be serious problem for a Feminist.

    Berry has essentially stated, not even just inferred, that women’s power is the use of their bodies for men’s sexual gratification.

    Ahh….I though that was something that Feminists were dead set against. WTF!?!

    • That’s a REALLY good point, actually. It relates to the point I was making about manipulating personal relationships, but you took a different angle on it. However, I think that if anything, Berry disagrees with this view, because if this IS a power that women have, she doesn’t want to use it by taking that sexual gratification away.

    • OK, leave out the reference to Berry with my apologies to her. After rereading your article it has become clear that I skimmed over an important sentence.

      It’s a bit odd for me to be making these arguments since I’m a virulent enemy of most of those who pass as Feminists these days, but this idea of “sexual striking” just seems to violate some very basic tenets of Feminism, including those I completely support.

      It’s accepting that women’s worth is based upon their availability for sexual and reproductive purposes.

      Frankly and pardon the verbiage, it reminds me a lot of some Blacks’ misguided idea of “taking back” the word “nigger.” It may suborning something but it comes at the cost of accepting it.

      Also, there’s not a direct equivalency with the Liberian situation. Those women weren’t “sexually shaming” the men. They were socially and economically shaming them by violating strongly held modesty taboos.

      Sorry for the long reply. I’m speaking outside my comfort zone in both topic and assumed audience and am trying to be very, very carefully clear.

  3. jonolan-
    I appreciate your retraction. The point of my article is that the whole idea of women withholding sex from men as a political statement reinstantiates the very notion that women’s only power is sex, which I categorically reject.

    As I said, Meg Wolitzer’s Lysistrata novel led to my post.

    I am what I guess you call a “sex-positive feminist” although I abhor the term. I’m a big fan of sex. I’m a big fan of love for everyone. I was more concerned, I think, about how a “Lysistrata” option could possibly work in a world in which it’s not just heterosexual women making that decision. Which lesbian in a relationship has to make that decision?

    My understanding of Liberia, based on the documentary I saw, was that the women deliberately stripped naked in order to keep the men in the building negotiating for peace.

    • I actually felt that the implication behind the “Lysistrata” option is exactly that it only applies to heterosexual relationships. If the issue is that men are attempting to take control of women’s right to self-determination, then the point is to deny sex to MEN specifically.

      Of course, that makes the whole idea seem even more preposterous. Why should straight women have to take one for the team? It just doesn’t work. :)

  4. I think it is easy for us to look at this sort of thing from our cultural perspective only. In some cultures, this is the only bargaining position women have. So they have used it in some instances. In those cases I do not blame them.

    Personally, I agree with you – we should not be making the personal, political. I understand how it has been used in a few instances.

    I’m also not too sure about the idea that “almost all” women enjoy sex. There are still a high percentage that do not orgasm. I’ve heard women in their 40s state they’d be happy if they “never had to have sex again”. Sad, but true. I don’t know enough about it, but this lack of orgasm may be a western thing, other cultures deal with female sexuality in very different ways.

    • Hm, that’s an interesting perspective. You’re right, I should’ve qualified my opinion by saying that I only mean for it to apply to our particular culture. After all, this approach was clearly useful in Liberia and could work in other countries too.

      I think there definitely are women who don’t enjoy sex, but I also think that our culture places way too high an emphasis on male sexuality as opposed to female. I know college men who don’t realize that women even CAN orgasm. I just think it plays into that stereotype to suppose that women should be the ones giving up sex for political reasons.

      • Funny, you know, when I tell men that a lot of women do not orgasm, I get the completely opposite response. The usual question is “Why on earth do they have sex, then?” or “How do they get pregnant?”

        In my experience, men just assume that all women have orgasms, just like men do! The best comment I got, I think< was, "If this was a male problem, it would have been fixed years ago!". Probably true!

      • Well, to their credit, they’ve been trying to make a female viagra for a while now…but it’s not working.

        If I had to provide advice from my paltry 20 years of worldly experience, I would say that the female viagra is respect. I think it’s much easier for women to enjoy themselves sexually when they feel respected. :)

  5. Pingback: Why I Criticize Liberals and Not Conservatives « Brute Reason

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