Margaret Atwood got something wrong in the generally impeccable Handmaid’s Tale. When she imagined the reproductive dystopia of Gilead, she saw a world where backlash theologians had allied with anti-porn feminists to create a state that was hostile to non-reproductive sexuality in all its forms. What has actually happened in America between the novel’s 1985 publication and 2015 is rather different. Pornography has unambiguously triumphed: popular culture is saturated in it, and in any state of America, you are only a few channel-hops away from seeing women naked, women crawling, women jerking their body parts (either surgically hypersexed or tastefully starved), women degraded for male pleasure. Meanwhile, 56% of US women now live in states hostile to abortion rights – an increase from 31% in 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and part of a general pushback against the rights enshrined by Roe vs Wade. When Gilead comes to be, it won’t have anything to do with the Redstockings.
The assumption that male sexual license and female emancipation will go hand-in-hand is a persistent one, despite the lack of any plausible mechanism to justify it. “If we liberate men’s sexuality, the war against women can end,” promises Margaret Corvid, writing at the New Statesman. Men, she points out, are constrained by the part that patriarchy demands of them, and they suffer deprivations on that account. Working as a professional dominatrix, Corvid writes that she is “creating a space for men to explore areas of their sexual lives that society feels are unmanly; they come to me to be penetrated, to be used, to serve, to submit, to worship, to be taken.” She surmises from this that men are not happy in their gender, and I agree with her that they should not be: patriarchy is bad for men, and male violence deprives men of life at a preposterous rate.
All this is well and sympathetically observed. We start to part company, though, when Corvid claims “radical feminism would call me a traitor to my gender for serving men’s needs” (in my radical feminism, she is no traitor, though I would question whether “needs” is the right word for elaborate sexual preferences), and then diverge entirely when she offers her political prospectus. Men are victims of masculinity, she says, and pick-up artists and men’s rights activist are offering seductive solutions for those who feel betrayed. She believes that feminism has an obligation to provide an alternative. “We must offer a real answer for men consumed by anxiety, and especially those who feel a sense of sexual frustration,” she writes. Her motive here is not purely altruistic. In fact, there’s a strong dose of pragmatism:
“But we must also end the debate between moralists and libertines in our ranks for an essential strategic reason. If feminists do not abandon their moralism, men’s rights activists and their growing penumbra of supporters will continue to paint us all with the same brush. They will continue to distort our views, telling their audience that we are all moralists, and channeling the frustration of men towards their hateful ends. And, for millions of boys growing up, misogyny will continue to make more sense than feminism.”
“Moralism” here means the feminism that criticises porn and seeks to abolish prostitution – although activists such as MacKinnon, Dworkin and Dines are driven not by prudishness but by an intimate understanding of the woman-hating that animates the sex industry. (“I lived inside of a world where it almost seemed like an entire gender was being denigrated […] simply for the crime, it seemed, of being a woman,” says one former pornographer of his time in the industry.) What Corvid offers is no new sexual settlement: this is still the female body being held hostage by the threat of male violence. If feminists don’t do this, then men will hate us more. If we (the “we” here presumably being women) liberate male sexuality, then men might not exert their power over women with quite such brutality. If only we were more fuckable, then men might like us and be kinder. It’s a mirror of PUA-inspired mass murderer Eliot Rodger’s complaint in his suicide note: “All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so!”
It takes more than sitting on a dildo to free a man from patriarchy. Men surely do find pleasure and release in submitting to Corvid, but they are the client buying a service from her: as she concedes, their sense of self is not radically altered by the experience, and they put their clothes on and return to their real lives. And what they undergo with Corvid is less an escape from gender than a temporary trip through its looking glass: services she provides include “forced feminisation and sissy training” (where a man experiences the eroticised degradation of being treated as though he were female), “maid training” (where a man experiences the eroticised degradation of doing housework, just like a woman normally does), “slave training” (where a man experiences the eroticised degradation of being treated as a “beautiful object”, just like a woman is should she pass an arbitrary aesthetic standard) or “medical play” involving a fully equipped gynecological bench (where a man experiences the erotic degradation of… well you’ve probably got this by now).
The hierarchy of gender (masculine above, feminine below) is alive in all these performances. I don’t doubt that these experiences are pleasurable, revelatory and cathartic for the men who seek them, but a fleeting inversion of a power structure does nothing to dismantle it. The clients’ bumholes might have been expanded, but their minds have not necessarily. The experience of intersubjectivity for which penetration is a metaphor – of feeling for others, of letting someone else inside – is encouraged in little girls and deplored in little boys, and a man who pays for his ejaculation has in no sense been forced to confront that lack in his socialisation. She works, he receives, and the money framing the scenario is a guarantee of his power. Ultimately, he doesn’t need to care about what he’s missing.
It’s always supposed to be women who care – who do those labours of love, the second guessing and the sublimation from which others can derive their happiness. It’s always supposed to be women who mind – who stay watchful, who maintain appearances, who count out our allowance of humanity for fear of someone thinking we have asked for too much. The alternative is not offered by either Corvid or the MRA types she defines herself against, but it is the only one that makes sense for female survival: it is that we women are not effigies to be fucked by men or traded (not even by ourselves in exchange for safe passage through a hostile world), but real beings with real wants, needs, wishes and existences apart from what men desire and can pay for. Contrary to what men are repeatedly told, their erections are not the most important thing in the world, and women’s liberation starts when we refuse to live in the shadow of the cock.