On Feminism, Gender Roles and Sex

An Interview with Lynne Segal

Feminist Fist
On Feminism, Gender Roles and Sex : An Interview with Lynne Segal - Eloise Waldon-Day & Katelyn Budd

1. Your 1994 book, Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure is being republished this year. What prompted you to republish the book after 21 years? What makes it relevant to today’s generation of young women?

Times have certainly changed, although people disagree about how to interpret those changes. This, in itself, makes re-thinking our old feminist debates (about the straight sex and the politics of pleasure) as relevant as ever. Are women more autonomous and in control of their own lives and bodies in this new century? Or are women, when we’re young, more objectified and sexualized than ever – indeed, perhaps, at even younger ages? Start talking about sex today and, just like yesterday, we quickly run into trouble unless we stick to jokes, or gender cliché. Consensus on this subject is hard to achieve with anyone, not just with feminists! So returning to Straight Sex and a frank conversation can do no harm.

Trying to face up to the strange unruliness of desire is what led me to write Straight Sex. As one example, it’s not only sex workers who know that what men want, as often as not, is to be sexually passive. Of course, what men do not want is for women – and even more so, other men – to know this: therein lies the ‘politics’ of pleasure. These are the thoughts that emerge most strongly in Straight Sex.


2. What do you think are some of the most important issues women face in 2015?

Obviously the continuing endemic nature of violence against women is one of the most important issues to combat globally. Everywhere, it is heightened in situations of war, conflict, and other situations of precarity and stress (so widespread today), which always impact most inescapably upon those with the least resources to protect themselves.

The austerity policies that have been implemented since the recent collapse – a collapse due to the fiscal gambling of the wealthy – have also harmed the most vulnerable, the furthest-removed from any responsibility for the crisis: as ever, it has not harmed those whose careless risk-taking created it. Women in particular, in their caring jobs (whether in waged work, or in the home) have been hardest hit by austerity. These are among the most important issues.

However, four decades of social volatility concerning gender relations have created a world where the symbolic grip of sexual difference is constantly being repackaged and flaunted back to us commercially, as objects for identification and desire. In the face of continual social upheavals, we see the gritty determination put into maintaining some traditional façade of sexual difference. This is presented as the only secure sanctuary of love, caring and commitment. It bolsters, above all, the myth that traditional family structures will survive to protect us. In the meantime, welfare entitlements are further whittled away, in increasingly insecure societal and economic contexts.

This means most of the old issues drawing us into women’s liberation remain, but they will be more prominent for some women than others. I would argue that it is the divisions between women themselves, more than that between the sexes, which we have seen deepening over these decades.


3. In your book you reject the idea that men are an enemy to feminism. How do you see men’s role in the feminist movement and discourse today? How important is male input in a movement about women’s rights?

There can be no women’s liberation, many feminists once said, without there being changes in men and masculinity. Our aim was to transform society in a more equal and caring world, less exploitative of people and the resources we all rely upon. Women’s lives overall change when the workplace is made more compatible with the unpaid work of caring and community building, with women and men largely sharing many of the challenges, joys and burdens in these different spheres. That remains as true as ever, and some men have always known this.

That is why a minority of men, across time and place, have supported women’s and feminist struggles. In an increasingly militarized and, in many areas, still impoverished world, we do need women and men to work together for progressive change, however autonomously we may choose to organize. Men’s input remains important. Yes, men remain advantaged, in so many ways, by the greater respect and freedoms still accorded to men overall, compared to women overall. But men are also disadvantaged in a world where they must always appear the ‘stronger’ sex.


4. What do you think about misogyny on the internet? Is the rise of the misogyny on the internet exacerbating or reflecting existing sexist attitudes? Do you find the level of vitriol displayed online against prominent female activists surprising?

I am sure it can both exacerbate and reflect existing attitudes. But deep levels of misogyny and women-blaming have always existed, taking us right back to the nonsensical narrative of Eve betraying Adam in the Garden of Eden. Sexism has never simply reduced to sex, it can be found in all fields of life. Its origins come, tragically, from the most respectable of sources, just as often as from the demeaning images of mainstream sexist pornography.

No, the level of vitriol towards successful women does not surprise me, however much it distresses me. Women have always been blamed for the social ills of this world, and in fact the idea of projecting wickedness onto women has historically been more vicious and lethal than it is today. For instance, it took centuries to root out the scare of ‘witchcraft’ in Europe, which primarily targeted older, vulnerable women.


5. How well do you feel our Western culture responds to ageing and older people, particularly older women?

As you know, I have just written a book about this – Out of Time: The Pleasures & Perils of Ageing – so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about age in our society. We are always ageing, and there are generalities and particulars at every juncture. However cultures of ageing, it should be obvious, have always been gendered – whatever the time and place. I am hardly the first to notice this. From New York, over 40 years ago, Susan Sontag was pointing out the double standard of ageing, indicating that women are aged by culture far faster than men.

Women are also discarded sooner, both in the public world and, increasingly, in the private world as well. It is ‘femininity’ and ‘womanliness’, in particular, which have always been so firmly grounded in the youthful and fertile body, which means that generally, women are silently stamped as undesirable, frightening or pitiful decades earlier than men. Old women in particular are still far more likely to end up alone, unprotected and (for some) impoverished. The most terrifying images of old age have always had a female face: the witch, old hag, medusa, harridan – whether in myth, folk-tale or contemporary horror movies. This creates a residue of fear, including in women ourselves, which we need to try to combat. Fortunately, many older women today in public life are trying to do just this.


6. Do you believe gender roles have changed significantly in your lifetime? Are structural gender understandings still an obstacle to equality? We still see the world in the sense of a binary gender model, can our Western culture allow for another paradigm?

I think that, while there has been a shift to a degree and women do enter spaces they were excluded from in the past, the old gender binaries have ways of consolidating themselves. Their precise detail may change, but certain hierarchical codings remain. Often these are attached to the ways in which mothering and other caring responsibilities can continue to marginalize women in the turbo-charged, neoliberal workplace. I don’t think things will change dramatically unless and until this changes. Modern corporate capital is not compatible with a world in which the intimate worlds of care, commitment and community attachments are truly valued.


7. Do you think our culture encourages female pleasure and expression of female sexuality? Can there be such thing as "female-friendly pornography"?

Well, our world tends to commodify female pleasure and expressions of female sexuality, along with everything else. Right now, as my American friend Leonore Tiefer has written much about, the pharmaceutical companies are promising to release a female Viagra, hoping to make as much money from it as they did with the male version. I doubt they will be anything like as successful, since women tend to be a little more sophisticated about the world of sex and desire. We hardly reduce this to the erectile state of any single organ...

More seriously though, I do think more women, especially young women, have a slightly fuller language to discuss their bodies and desires. At least, I hope so. However, this can vary greatly depending on how open and communicative their parents, friends and mentors have been able to be in discussing intimate matters. In many parts of the world - above all, incredibly, in the US - huge battles have been fought to keep young women as ignorant and vulnerable as possible. It is, as the American feminist Judith Levine has written, actually harmful to minors to deny them any good sex education.


8. What are your thoughts on the latest threats to women’s bodily autonomy in the US? Is this a threat to the feminist movement, and what are the options for the feminist movement in combatting it?

It is true that there are many threats to women’s bodily autonomy in the US (and elsewhere). The denial of a woman’s right to choose a termination, if she find herself pregnant without wanting to be, is a particularly huge threat to women’s bodily autonomy. And of course, this impacts differently across class and ethnic lines. Some women will have no problems accessing treatment, whereas for others - in fact, for the most vulnerable - things will be quite the opposite. Again as I said above, austerity regimes have hit women hardest in the US and the EU alike. They’ve had significant consequences for the increase in violence against women, as well as other threats to women’s independence and our ability to lead fulfilling lives.


9. Are there biological limits to equality?

Although people think it is not, this is a very strange question. Of course there are no biological limits to equality unless we want there to be. It all depends upon how we interpret and deploy what biological differences exist.

We could say, for instance, that since nature made the average man marginally taller and physically stronger than the average woman, and since men cannot do the utterly essential work of reproducing themselves, men should occupy the lesser, hardest working position in society. Women therefore, like Queen Bees, should be the more valued, and understood as born to rule over men…

As I said, of course there are no biological limits to equality.


10. Is there a place for radical feminism in 2015? 

There is a place for any belief in 2015, whether or not I share it. In the UK, Finn Mackay has recently written a book reclaiming the political stance of radical feminism, which she feels has been undervalued, especially in contemporary feminist scholarship. This led her to found the London Feminist Network, and to revive the Reclaim the Night Marches (RTN) of the late 1970s. Given the continuing prevalence of violence against women, this serves a useful purpose. Interestingly, Mackay herself insists that she, like all the feminist activists she knows well, is politically on the left, anti-capitalist and in favour of a peaceful, egalitarian world. So to that extent, I have no quarrel with her politics.

Yet, for me they will always be incomplete. In my view, you need more strategies than radical feminism has ever been able to offer to build coalitions that might have some chance of impacting upon mainstream politics. Without this I cannot see how you get closer to creating any sort of socialist or peaceful future.


11. The revolutionary attitudes of the 1960s have been described as a ‘pop culture blip’. In the light of the recent upsurgence of different movements in the UK (Occupy, Focus E15 Mothers, various socialist + feminist activism), do we need broader social radicalisation (as accompanied the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s) to achieve further gains for women?

Of course we do. In my view feminism is always strongest when it is able to unite with other progressive groups, men and women alike, fighting for change. Given the wretched state of things at present for so many people, especially the young, and many of the elderly, we need this more than ever.

Just to take the situation of housing in London. Every possible effort needs to go into organizing to stop the take-over of all our public spaces and housing resources by the global rich, who have been laundering their ill-gained money buying up London property. There is so much that is rotten and dangerous in the current world order. Most people know it, but have little idea how to change things. It is always more resources for hope that are needed, and the combination of Left and feminist activism is surely the best way of finding those resources.


12. The principle of multiculturalism in Europe is currently facing a huge challenge. How should we integrate different understandings of women’s rights?

Given the explosion of ethnic violence and conflict we have seen over the last few decades, few things are more important than to be fighting racism, and everything that breeds it. We are encouraged in harsh times, in which we have been living of late, to find scapegoats on whom to project rage and sense of failure. Find an immigrant to blame! Find a woman to degrade! It all fits together, in one noxious spew, where cultures of blame are encouraged by regressive forces to divert attention from criticism of the powerful, onto contempt for the powerless. Think of the Tea-Party (formed by the corporate billionaires) the Koch brothers in the US, or the success of UKIP here. Thatcher was iconic for playing this game, but she was a mere puppet in the hands the corporate interests she served.

The way to begin to build any fairer and better world, and protect environmental resources, is to recognize how potentially vulnerable we all are. But the few are safeguarded in every way from recognizing this. The many, in precarious times, are directed towards blaming all those more vulnerable than themselves, as if they were the cause of the difficulty. On the contrary, it is only by turning such thinking on its head, and aligning ourselves with the most dispossessed, that we can think though any genuine way forward, together. Syriza has tried to do this in Greece, building upon the sorts of grass-roots resistance that we can see all around us, once we care to look.   


13. What lessons do you hope women take away from this book and your other academic publications?

That’s a big question. Gaining some understanding of the complexity of all human affairs, I guess. My framework is that of a Left feminist. I look at the multifaceted nature of gender, class, ethnicities and all the intersections of power relations, as they shift and refashion themselves across time and place. It’s important to note that sexuality and desire has always been entwined with these hierarchies of power; not only in the gender regime, but in the disowned desires historically projected onto those ‘others’ we dominate and exploit. Feminists have been at the heart of trying to understand all this.

And yet we have always faced our own problems, trying to tie the protean complexity of personal intimacy or desire, to any consistent feminist sexual politics. Certainly, the personal is a part of the political, and vice versa… but this does not mean that the power dynamics we eroticise and explore in our individual worlds are the same thing as a collective effort to end social dynamics of domination and exploitation. Not at all. This is what the so-called feminist ‘sex wars’ were all about – refusing to distinguish the psychic and the social. This was never just a mother-daughter affair, though it was often presented as that. We challenged and fought with each other, from the beginning – as straight, lesbian, Black, working-class women, and more.

It was drawing upon both psychoanalysis and critical theory that I dared, in Straight Sex, to return again to all those questions we had raised in the first passionate days of women’s liberation. How might it still be possible to develop loving, pleasurable and responsible sexual politics around heterosexuality, despite all we now know about the solid phallocentrism of the symbolic order; the androcentrism of discourse; the problematic ways of men determined to shore up their entitlements with the flaky mantle of masculinity? Well, the first way to do this, I argued in Straight Sex, was by questioning, not affirming, all the traditional assumptions around gender. In particular, I rejected that absurd active/passive divide, constructing what Judith Butler called the ‘heterosexual matrix’: the belief that the terms “male” and “female” and “masculine” and “feminine” are only existent within the heterosexual matrix, and are just common terms that keeps the matrix concealed, to protect it from radical critique.

It is not hard to notice that what actually happens in consensual sexual encounters often bears little relationship to those binary divisions, that so oppressively insert themselves into our thought and language. However secure or fragile our hold on power in most areas of our lives, desire can render any one of us helpless – whatever our gender or sexual orientation. In passionate sexual relationships, in love, we are all vulnerable. As Judith Butler says in Undoing Gender, addressing the perils of desire: “Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something. If this seems so clearly in the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire.”


Lynne Segal is an Australian-born, British-based socialist feminist academic and activist, author of many books and articles, and participant in many campaigns, from local community to international. She has taught in higher education in London, England since 1970, at Middlesex Polytechnic from 1973. In 1999 she was appointed Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, where she now works in the School of Psychosocial Studies.