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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents


The search for satisfaction


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Straight Sex
Lynne Segal
Virago £8.99

In the current climate of bigotry and attacks on ‘political correctness’, a book which celebrates women as sexual beings is to be welcomed. While veterans of the women’s movement such as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer have shifted to the right (admittedly Friedan didn’t have as far to shift as some), saying perhaps feminism has gone too far (Friedan) and revelling in the joys of motherhood, the menopause and celibacy (Greer), Lynne Segal still maintains that women’s social and sexual liberation is a necessity.

‘Straight feminists’, believes Segal, ‘have succumbed, by and large, to the pressure to keep silent about their sexual pursuits and pleasure’.

In this book she sets out to re-evaluate women’s heterosexuality, and constructs her arguments around what is at stake in women’s desire for men, dealing with theories of heterosexuality as the basis of men’s exploitation of women.

Segal argues that at the heart of the problem lie the notions of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’, which link ‘masculinity’ to sexual activity and dominance, and ‘femininity’ to sexual passivity and subordination.

She refutes the idea that there is a fundamental difference between men and women, which is the basis for radical feminism. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon believe male power ‘authentically originates in the penis’ and that to ‘give up fucking for a feminist is about taking your politics seriously.’

Heterosexual women should enjoy sex with men, argues Segal, and not feel guilty.

Segal’s class politics rear their head when she attacks the Cosmo-type middle class feminism which sees women as having the opportunities to be as successful as men, but that achieving sexual fulfilment and orgasm is the last bastion of women’s oppression needing to be conquered. Segal rightly points out that anyone, however alienated or powerless, rich or poor, may have an orgasm, but that women’s liberation means much more than the right to have an orgasm.

The backlash against the gains made for women over the last few decades is illustrated by the media attention afforded to the likes of Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe. Segal rubbishes their arguments that women’s oppression no longer exists; that women can and should make it on the same terms as men, and that rape is largely a figment of feminist imagination. This leads to blaming individual women for their own oppression.

However, too much of the book is devoted to a quite abstract dissection of sexuality in the fields of psychoanalysis and sexology. Because the struggles which have taken place in recent years (over the pits, Timex, teachers, signal workers and nurses) have tended to emphasise class unity between women and men, not divisions, the argument that men benefit from, and have a stake in, women’s oppression seems to have less of a hold than it once did. But because Segal accepts a variation of patriarchy as partly explaining women’s oppression, she has a dilemma as to the relationship between class and gender.

If men bear some of the responsibility for women’s oppression, then for socialist feminists this leads at best to a contradiction in attempting to explain who women must fight to end their oppression. As Lynne Segal admits, ‘I think that many of us (socialist feminists) did feel undermined and confused, if not guilty, by the accusation that we were “soft on men”.’

Women’s oppression affects the sexual and personal relationships of everyone. But because it is a result of class society, sexual liberation has to be tied to social transformation. Class is the key. The failure to see this means that although Segal desperately wants to, she can’t see a way out of the problems of women’s oppression today.

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