Which sexualities and identities are possible and allowed for women in the post #MeToo era?
By Marian Lens
Did a sexual revolution take place in May 1968? In European, Western spaces, it turned out to have allowed men absolute free access to women after a limiting puritanist period of a few centuries.
What is the field of choice for the ultra-minoritised within and outside minorities?
The last few decades have seen a less visible and more insidious violence against women. An ordinary, unabashedly masculine, politically correct discourse still dictates to women what they should think and how they should conceptualise and reason.
Does sex power for those assigned female rhyme more than ever with clit power? Is the clitoris, that small yet powerful organ, still more revolutionary than ever at the beginning of the 21st century? The challenge will certainly be for women to (re)claim their place and reinforce it: to be free to self-define, name and study specific mechanisms of oppression, from sexism to lesbophobia, from racisms to other oppressions, in all their interactions/intersectionality. This remains the great challenge of this century.
Identity? An existential questioning
Asking the existential question “Who am I?” refers to the construction of the Self, to the way we look at ourselves and our bodies: Do we view it with indifference? Is it the “wrong” body? Or the “wrong” person? Assignation? Subject? Sex? Gender?
“With whom can I?” refers to who the other person is, what the Other means: the possibility of an equal relationship? A risky one? Will I remain an Individual? Will there be attraction? What about orientation? The perception of the other person’s body? Sex ? Gender? What differences?
And how will this approach towards the other be made possible in a given context and society (time and geographical space)? According to what relational codes, and who will specify, impose, forbid, authorise them?
Facts that have been decried and denounced for much too long
After a puritanical period of a few centuries, the “sexual revolution” that supposedly arose from May ’68 has turned out to be nothing but a delusion for the large half of the population, women and a minority of men. Indeed, the period of May ’68 and the hippie years only proved to have been liberating for the dominant fringe of the population, heterosexual men and a few others, by providing them with absolute free sexual access to women, unprecedented in the history of men (a word used here in its generic and specific sense).
The implicit and explicit message to women was: “Since you are now set free, and you have access to contraception, there are no more barriers, you have no reason to say ‘no’”.
It was not thanks to the “sexual revolution” that macho and heteronormative sexual norms were challenged, but much earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century, with the confirmation or start of women’s liberation movements (notably the suffragettes at the end of the 19th century) and of invertees (later called lesbians or homosexuals, to be understood in the broad sense of the term). The accelerating effect of these movements or groups demanding greater liberation of ‘morals’ following the two world wars, linked to the unpromising 1968 upheaval, were the real triggers for a questioning of sexual norms and gendered socialisation, which had always concerned a large part of the population.
The #MeToo Movement
Women’s new collective awareness
What are the new generations of women realising at the beginning of this new millennium? That they have been fooled by a discourse that claimed that this millennium was almost completely free of the old, of the past. They are painfully discovering that society continues to operate – economically and socially – in favour of men.
In economic terms, the repeated messages that “there is only a 15% wage difference” hardly hide the fact that this does not correspond to their own realities, that most of them remain trapped in jobs reserved for women, which are poorly paid and undervalued (and which are not included in statistical comparisons with more lucrative jobs in which men predominate).
In terms of “sexual” or “gender” violence, street harassment, rape or so-called “family” or “marital” violence, these are overwhelmingly reserved for them as a social group, even if some assigned-male individuals also endure specific violence.
All of these violations on their integrity as “individuals” confirm that, in a society that claims that “no” is possible, it’s a possibility that is very relative to them, simply because of their “girl/woman” status since birth.
Contrary to the facts where violence proves to be more brutal than ever, between myth and reality, the fall is rough. Women still seem to be the property of men, whether it be their bodies, their work, or all other dimensions of their own “being”. They have understood that, like those who came before them, they remain a much less valuable commodity, which doesn’t justify the dispatch of troops (for example, to prevent the massive kidnapping of women, teenagers and young girls by Bokho Haram or in Kivu to use them as sex slaves, with the absolute horror going as far as the rape of infants, preferably “little girls”) or serious consideration by the courts. Nor is there any widespread mobilisation – apart from those they themselves initiate – for the corrective rapes leading to the systematic murder of lesbians, nor for the feminicides (those so-called ‘natural’ gynocides, ‘killed because they are female’) that occur daily throughout the world.
The reality of brutal physical and economic violence, so widespread that it appears to be ‘ordinary’ and yet is underestimated by the authorities and society, does not fit the myth of supposedly achieved equality, and is causing an explosive outburst among a generation of assigned women of all ages. They are tired of having to navigate between Fake News (“you now have equal rights”), the degrading image that is made of them, and all the other forms of violence that is so common. New communication technologies, including social media, have played an important role in this.
The Covid19 ‘crisis’ reveals even more clearly the real social divide between men and women. Like any major global crisis, it has the effect of accelerating a society’s dysfunctions, of instantly and vividly revealing the accumulated and visible inequalities in a very short space of time, and of the violence suffered mainly by women and the most vulnerable sectors of the population. It also confirms that this society continues to place women at the forefront of danger “because they’re only women and it’s natural for them to take care of others”: forced to take uncontrolled risks, economic survival, and the expected gratuity for economic or societal activities that are vital to society. And as the post-crisis period will be hard on them, all this will only exacerbate tensions and frustrations.
My name is clitoris: still as revolutionary in the early 21st century.
The end of the 20th century witnessed an upsurge of publications (magazines and books), publishing houses, bookstores and libraries in the feminist and lesbian communities.
An immense collective work is expressed in encyclopaedic anthologies with very political titles such as Our Bodies Ourselves (1970), which explore all the sexualities and identities they envision. Among all parts of their bodies, the clitoris is of course extensively explored and illustrated. Its particularly ‘revolutionary’ character is underlined, notably in The Joy of Lesbian Sex (1977) , as it is one that serves only for pleasure, whilst ‘doing without men’. They link it very clearly to the autonomy of assigned women, and also demonstrate that their excision illustrates the pervasive violence of patriarchal societies against women.
The tone is quite different half a century later when the documentary Mon nom est clitoris comes as a bombshell.
The award-winning documentary is wonderfully produced and filled with a wealth of testimonies and experiences. But the enthusiasm it arouses – full houses at all screenings – also indicates that it fills a void. It is clear that women are still not experts when it comes to their sexuality.
From the groping to the unanswered questions that come up during interviews, the documentary reveals the extent of their lack of knowledge or ignorance of their own sexuality: a lack of academic support (sex education remains the exception in schools at the beginning of the 21st century and is still focused on reproduction), quality literature that is not easily available, social networks invaded by the predominance of search engines that direct them to the sole desire of men and to pornography that prefers an instrumentalised and demeaning image of women (trivialised scenes of violence, disregard for women’s bodies, conquering image of men, romanticised merchandising of women,…).
How can one forge a positive identity in such a context? How comes, when the psychological damage of these stereotypes to women has long been proven .
Fortunately, what the documentary reveals even more is a generation that is curious about its sexuality, a sexuality that is bursting at the seams and trying to find itself, and this generation is just as keen to discover all the facets of identity that are linked to it: “gender” (but which one? what does it mean?), “sexual orientation” (but what? what does it mean?) or “other possibilities”.
In the aftermath of #MeToo, what sexualities and identities are possible and permitted among individuals who are assigned women?
There is currently a multitude of thoughts or essays that address issues of sexuality and “gender” identities.
Most of the current analyses are essentialist and do not seek to fundamentally question the very existence of “(sexual) genders” (men, women). They consider heterosexuality as the basic, natural and biological reference. On the periphery, ‘male’ or ‘female’ homosexuality is defined as a ‘sexual orientation’, and considered as a behavioural peculiarity of equally biological origin, as is ‘transsexuality’ or ‘transgenderism’ (depending on the viewpoint).
One of the most recent approaches, that of the queer movement, aims to blur these genders, without however making them disappear.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, radical lesbian materialist analyses consider human categories to be (socially) constructed, as well as all structures that emanate from society. And that the heterosexuality that is intrinsically linked to it is not of a natural order either, but rather an imposed – and therefore binding – institution whose aim is to solidify the links between the constructed categories of ‘gender’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’. This entire heterosocial system (social, economic and political structures) is constructed in favour of the ‘class’ defined as dominant, that of ‘men’. This analysis aims to render obsolete all the categories thus elaborated, as well as the coercive structures and mechanisms that support them.
All these different approaches appeal to new critical generations, who are more than ever seeking to confront a social system that they perceive as too rigid, conscious of the value of confrontation and the achievements of the recent past. This is a more silent, assertive and curious majority, not very interested in dogmatism, but willing to listen to the positive and negative experiences of previous critical generations, to hear all the disturbing questions, to understand conflicts fundamentally and not to avoid them.
They themselves frequently stand at the intersection of plural minorities, too often silenced in their eyes. They resent the persistent invisibilisation, muzzling or discrediting of older lesbian and women, which for too long has prevented them from finding their rightful place in the spectrum of recognition that pioneers deserve.
They are also very conscious of being part of those invisibilised or over-minorised minorities: lesbians or “bi” or “…”, or black, or fat/thick, …
They are also close to minorities within the non-dogmatic assigned-men who are more attuned to the assigned-women.
As a result, these generations find it all the more difficult to bear the new dogmas that are being established and the new taboos that are being imposed, and the difficulties in being heard in their own search for identity or in being able to talk about it, particularly if this is happening within the feminist or LGBTQI+ movements where, logically, these questions should be able to have an assured place.
The beginning of the century has seen the emergence of a tension caused by a recrystallisation of ‘new’ categorisations, a phenomenon that is often accompanied by new taboos and prohibitions, new stereotypes.
Thinking differently should not be seen as a threat, but rather as a challenge and an opportunity for enrichment, because of the questioning and the new solutions that it allows.
The challenge of the 21st century is to succeed in granting freedom of thought and self-definition to every being, a recognition as a subject in its own right, without taboos or stigmatisation.
This requires learning to listen to the experiences and analyses of ultra-minorised groups and movements, who are the real experts on their experiences of discrimination and oppression. To discover and understand them, from their own point of view. Accepting disturbing confrontations, which are so instructive and constitutive, in that they provide the most differentiated insights possible, which allow an optimal search for solutions.
To codify new concepts or to freeze new identity categories as the only possible and unique ones, is to deny any other possibility, to lose sight of the relativity of identity, fundamentally linked to the contexts from which it comes. It all depends on the point of view from which we place ourselves. The “transsexual” of the 1970s has become the “transgender woman” in the early 21st century. Similarly, colour symbols have changed, and the ‘pink houses’ of less than twenty years ago are now ‘rainbow houses’ or umbrella associations. The next two decades will reveal other concepts, symbols and identities.
What is the terrain of possibility for the ultra-minorised within and outside minorities? A field that is sometimes mined, land that has been once again lost, and a renewed vigour.
Another challenge of this (early) 21st century is really to have the specificities of each oppression, genuine societal systems of discrimination, properly acknowledged.
By naming and studying all their particularities, the specific mechanisms of oppression such as sexism, lesbophobia, racism and other forms of “-isms”, this era could make it possible to restore lost or slippery ground for those assigned as women. An approach that would also make it possible to expose negationisms, i.e. the denials of oppression that are re-emerging, more virulent than ever. For extracting a reality or a choice from its societal structural envelope denies the link to the structure of oppression.
To deny the specificities of this oppression is to deny the specific discriminatory and oppressive forces of an imposed identity.
No, an assigned-woman does not have the same structural experience of discrimination and oppression as an assigned-man, even though the latter may also experience discrimination and other specific types of oppression.
Being allowed to say and analyse this, without stigmatisation, means having the right to freedom of research, analysis and thought, in a personal or collective process.
To – finally – acknowledge the systemic oppression of women, to understand why those who are at the intersection of the codifications of sexuation or who have broken away from these normativities contradict and defy the structures of the societies from which they originate.
Sooner or later, it will be necessary to allow for an in-depth questioning of the so-called “sex” or “gender” categories and to understand how societal structures operate. For allowing oneself to understand how the specific mechanisms of discrimination and oppression operate in all their dimensions, to understand them in depth and detail, will ensure that one can reach the tip of their roots and study their complex ramification.
Existential research is more topical than ever for every being in a world where the social categorisation of sexuation still implacably determines the social status, or lack thereof, of a human being in our societies.
The quest for a free identity also means developing a society that no longer draws a pretext from “nature” – skin colour, genital, hormonal or morphological mosaic… – to brand individuals, confine them to categories, to roles whose purpose is to differentiate the rights-holders from the others.
This is precisely what the new utopian generations aspire to: the right to self-definition, to be able to simply exist without having to put oneself in a box, even if it’s a new one, so as to have the right to exist.
Marian Lens, Sociologist – April 2020
(Translated from French by Brussel Onthaal vzw, supervised by the author and Tamara for L-Tour – With the support of Equal.Brussels (Equal Opportunities for the Region of Brussels)
*Originally published under (references to quote the article): LENS, Marian : Quelle.s sexualité.s, quelle.s identité.s sont possibles et autorisées pour les femmes dans l’après #MeToo ? in : Chronique Féministe (Université des femmes), Post #MeToo ou l’amnésie du désir, n°125, janvier-juin 2020.
[i] Sisley, Emily L. & Harris, Bertha, The Joy of Lesbian Sex. A tender and liberated guide to the pleasures and problems of a lesbian lifestyle. A Fireside Book – Simon & Schuster, New York, 1977.
[ii] Mon nom est clitoris. Film documentaire de Daphné Leblond & Lisa Billuart Monet, Belgique-France, 2018-2019.
[iii] Franks, Violet & Rothblum, Esther D. (ed), The Stereotyping of Women. It’s Effects on Mental Health, Springer, New York, 1983.