by Zarina Macha, Guest Blogger
Disclaimer: these are my personal opinions based on my interpretation of feminism and do not necessarily reflect the view of every single self-identifying feminist.
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In the 1960s, which is when the contemporary feminist movement started, a revolution was happening in the UK and USA. Women were becoming sexually liberated. Gone were the old dark days where sex only had to happen between married men and women. Now women could (and were) encouraged to have sex whenever and with whomever they wanted.
Fast forward to today, and in the UK, women are now (generally) no longer seen as ‘sluts’ or other demeaning terms for wanting to dress provocatively or have sex outside of marriage.
However, was this really thanks to feminism, or was this simply a social response to society becoming less fuelled by Judeo-Christian fundamentalism?
Moreover, while feminism has (apparently) sexually liberated women, it has failed massively in three areas:
- It has excluded women who prefer to be ‘modest’, don’t like wearing sexy clothing, or don’t want to have lots of casual sex
- It chastises men for their natural sexual attractions to women by labelling them as ‘perverts’ or as ‘sexually objectifying women’
- It simultaneously chastises and patronises women who have freely chosen to work in industries that emphasise their beauty (prostitution, porn, stripping, ‘breastaurants’, beauty pageants, or anything that lets them flaunt their sexuality) as ‘sexist’ and ‘oppressive’ and other tiresome terms.
In this article I am going to present my thoughts on why feminism didn’t actually ‘sexually liberate’ women, and how contemporary feminism chastises male sexuality and freedom of choice.
Before continuing, it should be noted that there are many ‘types’ of feminism. When I discuss feminism here, I am talking about mainstream anglophone feminism of the radical sort. ‘Lipstick’ feminism, otherwise known as sex-positive feminism (and sometimes used interchangeably with ‘liberal’ feminism), generally supports prostitution, sex work, female and male sexual freedom. The book Female Chauvinist Pigs is a radical feminist critique of lipstick feminism and the type of ‘girl power’ feminism that was prevalent in the ‘90s.
This highlights one of the biggest problems with feminism: they can’t even agree on which feminism is the ‘right sort’ of feminism among themselves.
There are simply too many definitions and variations of the word.
Feminism vs Individual Liberty
Pressuring women to engage in casual sex or wear little clothing is not liberating. It’s liberating for a woman to choose whether she wants to have sex with multiple partners or with few or no partners.
Pressuring a woman to wait until she is married before having sex is not ‘the right way’ either. It’s liberating for a woman to make that choice for herself.
Telling women that they’re ‘demeaning themselves’ and are victims of ‘internalised misogyny’ when they choose to work in porn or be Hooters waitresses is authoritarian. It’s telling other people how to live their life based on your personal worldview.
How is that any better from telling women that they can’t have an abortion?
When men enjoy strippers or porn, they’re ‘misogynistic perverts’ who are ‘sexually objectifying women.’
When men go to prostitutes, they’re ‘participating in a patriarchal society which demeans and hurts women.’
When men check out or chat up or holler women in the street, they’re ‘objectifying women.’
When rappers have sexy women in their videos, they’re ‘chauvinistic bigots.’
Yet feminism completely ignores the women who have chosen to be porn stars, prostitutes, wear sexy clothing, or feature in these types of music videos.
When women choose to engage in jobs which allow them to freely express their beauty, glamour, and sexuality (e.g., prostitutes, Hooters waitresses, boxing ring girls), feminists claim that those women are being ‘objectified’ rather than acknowledging them as individuals with the freedom to choose their occupations in a capitalist democracy. (Or they blame their choices on ‘patriarchy’.)
Even Lara Croft, one of the most badass and intelligent female video game characters, couldn’t swing past the feminists (hey Anita Sarkeesian) because, oh horror of horrors, she was designed to be sexy with a large bust and small waist.
(Cos, ya know, she’s being marketed to young men who like to look at sexy women, in the same way that romance novels with bare-chested sexy men are marketed to women.)
Feminism rallies against women being ‘slut shamed’ and has all of these ‘Slut Walks’ to stop women from being called these demeaning terms. Yet it doesn’t support women who don’t want to dress in sexually revealing clothing from being ‘virgin shamed’.
Moreover, when men holler/check out those same women who wear sexually revealing clothing, those same feminists shout: “stop objectifying me!” Yet these men are simply responding to how the women around them are dressed. It’s naïve to expect red-blooded heterosexual men to just ignore overly sexed-up women in public. Maybe that’s the case in Saudi Arabia, but in secular liberal societies, people have the right to enjoy and appreciate each other’s bodies.
Men are visual creatures and are naturally attracted to the female form. This doesn’t make them ‘pigs’ or ‘perverts’, it makes them men. (Not to mention, in the UK, most men are generally respectful of women on the streets. Most men don’t go around making publicly demeaning comments to women to the extent that feminists think they do.)
Nonetheless, women have every right to flaunt their sexual appeal, and men have every right to enjoy the sexual appeal of women.
It’s called human nature.
Feminism is confusing at best and hypocritical at worst.
For many centuries, England has been a devoutly Christian country. Depending on the ruling monarch, Catholicism/Protestantism/Church of Englandism has been the governing ideology and governed how people lived their lives.
However, in the 1700s, things began to shift. The European Enlightenment moved people away from religion and towards science and reason. Philosophers like David Hume and John Locke emphasised empiricism over faith. Continental philosophers like Nietzsche and Sartre declared that humans should search for meaning outside of religion.
It’s taken a while, but the UK has moved away from being governed by Christian fundamentalism and is now mainly governed by secularism. (This is contrasted with Ireland, who only legalised abortion in 2018 due to being largely governed by Catholic principles.)
This doesn’t mean that people can’t be religious or practice religion in their own private lives and spaces. It just means that religion is now kept out of UK politics. This is a good thing because it allows people to have the individual freedom to practice whatever religion they want to without imposing this on the rest of society. (Much like feminism should be kept out of politics.)
Up until recently, England was governed by Christian fundamentalism, believing that all sex should only be between a married man and woman. Going against this (being homosexual, never getting married, having lots of premarital sex) was viewed as sinful. Homosexuality between men only became decriminalised in the UK in 1967.
Fast-forward to modern society and those beliefs are no longer mainstream. Nowadays people are free to default to their baser instincts: having sex outside of marriage, with whoever they do (and don’t) want to. Some people may still wait until they’re married, some will only do it with romantic partners, some will do it with many partners, some with partners of the same sex. But the point is that people will do what they want on their own terms, not because they’re scared of being damned to ‘Hell’ for wanting to get it on.
Moreover, in France, which is where the idea of women’s liberation started, these women’s movements were more about working with men, not against men. They didn’t deny men’s nature.
French icons like Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot criticised aspects of the ‘me-too’ movement. They understood that men and women are different, and that policing both men and women’s sexuality is not progressive, it’s backwards and chastises men for being men.
Biologically, heterosexual men are wired to mate with multiple women to spread their evolutionary seed (although this obviously doesn’t mean that every man has to or that men can’t be monogamous). However, some anthropologists have theorised that in ancient tribal societies, it was normal for both men and women to have multiple sexual partners. This is because if a woman has children with multiple men, those children will gain positive traits from various fathers (fast, strong, smart, tall) rather than having one father who may not provide every single one of those traits. These ancient societies were egalitarian (not feminist) and family oriented as they ensured that the children were cared for by multiple caregivers. (As the old African proverb goes: it takes a village to raise a child.)
Monogamous marriage became more prominent when humans stopped living in tribal, hunger-gatherer societies and started living on farms, during what some scholars have dubbed ‘the agricultural revolution.’
Feminism often asserts that telling women to ‘not have sex until marriage’ was a way of controlling women’s sexual desires, hence why the sexual liberation had to take place. This is true to some degree, but it ignores an even bigger part: it was also a large way of controlling men’s sexual desires (and even more so). This was to ensure that the planet did not become overpopulated (in the times before birth control) and there would not be too many people and not enough resources to go around.
Men (typically) have higher sex drives than women and are wired to seek out multiple sexual partners by default. This is why, even though both men and women cheat, men are more likely to cheat than women.
The fact that cheating is so common begs the question of why monogamy is still viewed as the ‘default’ and in some cases the only option for romantic relationships. Of course, many couples do thrive and enjoy monogamy, but it’s also becoming less frowned-upon for long-term married couples to choose ethical non-monogamy and swinging.
None of this really has much to do with feminism (which falsely claims women have been ‘oppressed throughout human history’ despite multiple ancient non-anglophone societies being matrilineal).
Yes, the feminist movement did encourage women to have sex ‘freely’ and be ‘sexually liberated’, but a lot of this was because society was already changing.
The UK (and most of Europe and the West) was already becoming more sexually open-minded thanks to secularism.
Feminism just happened to be in the right place at the right time, just as it did with abortion.
Nowadays, men and women don’t have to force themselves to stay with one person anymore.
People can have sex with as many (or as little) people as they want and have multiple relationships. No one has to settle down, and if a relationship doesn’t work out, people can break up and keep dating until they find the right person for them.
As society progresses and naturally becomes more open, people can choose their own path. We have contraception and condoms to stop people from having unwanted children, and we also have abortion. (In the UK, this is all provided by our wonderful NHS, so women don’t even have to pay for contraception and those under twenty-five can get condoms for free.)
This brings me to my next point:
Birth Control: Feminist or Secular Humanist?
The human population has been growing at an extraordinary rate. Nowadays people live much longer than ever before. Having children is no longer the necessity that it once was.
Contraception, condoms, and abortion are all necessary and important advancements in human society because they allow people to enjoy sex without the pressure of having children. This includes married or long-term couples who don’t want children or who have children but don’t want anymore.
Most people like having sex, and most of the time sex doesn’t lead to children.
Abortion is not a ‘feminist’ issue, it’s a scientific one. The vast majority of those who are anti-abortion and anti-premarital sex are religious extremists.
Pro-life groups might view abortion as ‘sinful’, but realistically it’s far more ‘sinful’ to force a woman to raise a child she doesn’t actually want or need. Not to mention, that’s far crueller and sadder for the child, to be born to a parent who didn’t even want them. It also promotes single-parent families, which tend to be the toughest environments for children to grow up in, compared with two-parent families or polyamorous families.
(Needless to say, plenty of single parents do an excellent job of raising children and become single parents through unfortunate circumstances. But statistically children tend to face more challenges in life when raised in single-parent families, which have become more common since the rise of feminism.)
Ironically, a lot of early Western women’s pioneers (so-called ‘first wave’ feminists), such as The Suffragettes and Mary Wollstonecraft, were very anti-abortion. This is because they were rooted in Christian ideals of virtue and monogamy. This is a stark contrast to the messages of so-called ‘second wave’ radical feminism which were anti-marriage and anti-family (espoused by women like Gloria Steinem, Julie Bindel, Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer, Robin Morgan, and Vivian Gornick).
This is why many, like myself, make the distinction between early women’s movements and the radical feminism of the ’60s which has continued until today. They had different goals, philosophies, and ideas.
Every woman has the right to choose whether she wants to marry, not marry, have children, not have children, have casual sex, not have casual sex, and so on. The problem is that feminism tends to divide people with its insistence on what is or isn’t ‘sexist’ or ‘patriarchal’. The minute one imposes their views on others, they become authoritarian. This is the difference between authoritarianism and libertarianism; one emphasises the individual while the other emphasises the collective.
Unfortunately, feminism gears towards the former, which is why ‘choice feminism’ is widely disliked by the radicals. They do not want women to have choice because feminism is fundamentally a collectivist movement, not an individualistic movement. This is why feminist scholars like Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff-Sommers have been dubbed ‘antifeminist’ by some, or why Helen Gurley-Brown, sex-positive author and editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, was dubbed ‘antifeminist’ by Betty Friedan.
“All Feminism is Equal, But Some Feminism is More Equal than Others.”
Nevertheless, not all religious people are anti-abortion, just like not all feminists are extreme. But those who speak out the loudest tend to be the most radical. Those who protest against abortion tend to be fundamentalist Christians, just as those who do and have protested against beauty pageants, breastaurants, and prostitution tend to be feminists of the radical and angrier sort.
Of course, there are sexually open-minded religious folk and positive aspects of Christianity (forgiveness, humility, turning the other cheek and loving thy neighbour). Likewise, there are plenty of feminists who are pro-femininity, pro-male-female relations, pro-family, etc.
But if you choose to identify yourself with a certain ideology, you have to be aware of the positive and negative connotations that come with it.
That’s just a fact of life.
This is why so many women who support gender equality and women’s rights refuse to call themselves feminists. There are too many angry and antagonistic elements of the movement. Not to mention, it is full of contradictions.
Anglophone feminism wants women to be sexually liberated yet calls men ‘sexist’ for checking out women or enjoying strip clubs. The Nordic Model of prostitution expresses this: women can offer themselves as prostitutes, but men are not allowed to buy. This is unfair to both women and men, as the women are losing out financially and the men are being penalised for their baser instincts. Even Iceland, the most ‘feminist country in the world’, banned strip clubs a few years back, despite being one of the most sexually liberal countries in the world.
There’s also a double standard here. If you go on Amazon and browse through the romance genre, you’ll see hundreds of beautiful man-chests and sexy man abs. Guess who’s buying these books.
Feminism never chastises women for being attracted to ‘billionaires’ or ‘alpha males’, yet it chastises men for being attracted to ‘strippers’ and ‘porn stars.’ Feminism wants to police male sexuality and reprimands men for ‘sexually objectifying women’. Yet when women swoon over Hollywood A-listers or Christian Grey, feminists are silent.
Does that sound like equality?
Plenty of women enjoy getting attention from men. Plenty of women enjoy feeling sexy and being desired.
There is nothing wrong with this. It is normal and natural to want to be desired.
Most heterosexual women desire male attention, either from multiple men or from one man. It makes them feel good and gives them confidence.
Women don’t need to be shamed by religious extremists or by radical angry feminists for making themselves sexually available to men. It doesn’t make them ‘whores’ or ‘sluts’ or ‘pandering to the male gaze.’
In 2018, four ring girls took to Good Morning Britain to speak out against militant feminists who lobbied for a ban on boxing ring girls.
The profession of having boxing grid girls was banned from Formula One due to…surprise surprise…it being viewed as ‘sexist.’
Personally, I think it’s far more sexist for women to tell other women how to live their lives.
These four intelligent and glamorous women said that they enjoyed their jobs and that it wasn’t right for feminist groups to control their life choices.
It harkens back to 1968 when the National Organisation for Women protested against the Miss America beauty pageant, describing these pageants as ‘sexist’ and ‘demeaning to women’, rather than as an empowering celebration of femininity. Once again, this reminds us that feminism doesn’t support women, it supports feminist women (and it has to be the ‘right sort’ of feminism).
Non-feminist women who want to be housewives, grid girls, or just want to live their lives in peace and quiet doing whatever they want (without inflicting harm on others) have a right to do so.
If women want to participate in beauty pageants, wear skimpy tight clothing, be housewives and stay-at-home mums, have lots of sex, or be page-three girls, it doesn’t ‘demean’ them or reduce their value. It’s a personal choice.
If women want to work at Hooters and get paid for having their tits on display, that’s a personal choice.
Plenty of women enjoy this kind of attention, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
Feminism needs to stop absolving women from personal responsibility and realise that women have agency. ‘The patriarchy’ is not making women behave in this way. Some women just enjoy attention and capitalise on it. Women like Katie Price and Kim Kardashian have made millions from capitalising on their sexual desirability.
A secular liberal capitalist society means that anyone can freely make money doing whatever they want. We all have the choice about how we live our lives. What gives feminists the right to tell other women how to dress, act, or how to earn a living?
Obviously, if a woman genuinely is being coerced into unwanted sexual acts (e.g., forced prostitution, underage sex), that is awful. But why can’t we put this down to bad behaviour? Why does that have to be because of ‘patriarchy’? When we make everything a systemic issue, we take away personal choice and responsibility.
Some people are manipulators and arseholes and enjoy taking advantage of others, which is why we have legal systems in place to penalise these people.
Some men do genuinely abuse and mistreat women and that’s not okay.
However, in most first world countries (such as the UK), women do have a lot of agency. Women are protected by laws in affluent first world societies. The Global Citizen marked the UK as the ninth best country in the world to be a woman. Needless to say, several of the worst countries to be a woman are governed by Islamic fundamentalism, where women under Sharia Law are subjugated to the kind of misogyny that would burn the hairs off white Anglo-feminists.
The vast majority of men would rather protect than hurt a woman.
This is why positive masculine traits (stoicism, emotional resilience, determination, inner strength) are important, as they cancel out and take down the negative masculine traits (aggression, physical dominance). This is also why most women want to feel protected when walking down the street with a man, be they her friend/lover/father/brother.
The liberated woman
A truly liberated woman does not ‘save her virginity until marriage’ because she is ‘scared of going to Hell.’ She does this because it is what she is comfortable with. A truly liberated woman does not become a sex worker or a page-3-pin-up because she is coerced into it. She does this because she genuinely enjoys the money and the attention that comes with this.
True ‘sexual liberation’ is about owning your sexuality and using it however you wish. It’s about choosing how much or how little clothing you want to wear, how and when you want sex, whether you want to have sex with men, women, or both. An asexual person can be sexually liberated, because true liberation is about realising one’s personal limits and desires.
Women don’t need feminism to make them sexually liberated, just like nobody needs religious fundamentalist groups to try and police their sexuality. People just need common sense and empathy. When you have those things to guide you, rather than ‘isms’, life becomes a lot less complicated.
And when in doubt, simply put on your lipstick, bat your eyes, and become a female chauvinist pig. It’s a lot more fun.
Zarina Macha is an author, blogger and musician in the United Kingdom. These are her personal opinions on feminism.
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One comment on “Did Feminism Sexually Liberate Women?”
I really like reading through a post that can make men and women think. Also, thank you for allowing me to comment!