We are all familiar with the conventional ideology of the sexually aggressive dominant man and his sexually submissive female counterpart. Naturally in contemporary western society this ideology has been challenged. How successful such a challenge has been is open to debate. The purpose of this post though is to explore this contemporary ideology on the assumption that it remains for the most part paradigmatic.
I had the opportunity recently to attend a public debate presented by the Wits Centre for Ethics, on the question: should consenting adults be allowed to pay and be paid for sex? It was a lively, stimulating (no pun intended ) and instructive debate with significant audience participation.
One of the panellists, Mickey Meji, who spoke on behalf of the African Alliance of Sex Workers, stood out. Beyond her personal courage in assuming this role her charisma, conviction and rhetorical skills were such that it would not be an exaggeration to say there is a parliamentary post with her name on it in her future. She had the audience of their feet more than once in spontaneous applause! Mickey along with the rest of the panel, with the exception of Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge whom I will come to shortly, spoke for the complete decriminalisation of the sex work industry and as such the removal of laws which prohibit both the sale and purchase of sex.
The line of argument that the panellists adopted in support of decriminalisation was overtly pragmatic. Whilst the moral issues were briefly considered, the thrust of the argument (please forgive these repeated sexual metaphors, they are genuinely unintentional ) was that sex work (or what we used to call prostitution) is a reality of society, which history shows does not decrease through being criminalised. And that decriminalisation would improve the working conditions of those who, most frequently through economic marginalisation, are obliged to enter the profession. The criminalisation and consequent stigmatisation of sex workers only acts to further marginalise them and effectively oppress a significant portion of society, who through being disproportionately female are already oppressed by the dominant social patriarchy.
Furthermore, and I think this is significant, to paraphrase Eusebius McKaiser, the decriminalisation of sex as a commercial commodity, allowed to be legitimately traded on the open market, is the only tenable position in a liberal democracy; and I think we can add, by implication, liberal capitalist democracy.
The only voice of dissent in the panel came from Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge who spoke, against the stream, for the maintenance of some form of criminal legislation designed to dissuade at the least the purchase, if not the sale, of sex. Madlala-Routledge wished to see the adoption of the ‘Swedish’ of more broadly ‘Nordic’ model which as I understood it criminalises the purchase and not the sale of sex. Madlala-Routledge stood as the representative of a national body that seeks the abolition of sex work, or as she referred to it the commercialisation of sex, in the belief that sex work fundamentally degrades the dignity of the human person, in particular the sex worker herself. This degradation is brought about through the objectification (and reduction) of that person into a sexual object. And furthermore that the contemporary and historical fact of sex workers being predominantly female, acts to further entrench the patriarchal bias of society and thereby keep woman disempowered.
In my own opinion, firstly it is very hard to argue against the obvious practical utility of decriminalising of sex workers, and secondly, and I think this was implied by number of the pro-decriminalisation speakers, it is arguably one’s constitutional right to commoditise your sexual labour, much as one commoditises one physical or intellectual labour. However for my part I was deeply moved by Madlala-Routledge’s position. What she said regarding the dignity of the human person and the implications for that dignity of decriminalising sex work resonated for me. As she pointed out, there are those of us who hold a fundamentally pessimistic attitude to sex, she gave the examples of Augustine, Kant and Freud, as opposed to sexual optimists Russell (I believe) and strangely, this may have been an error on her part, she cited Freud again i.e. as a sexual optimist as well as previously citing him as a sexual pessimist.
I would have to number myself in the pessimists’ camp and so am naturally sympathetic to her argument. I am inclined to agree that the sexual act is in itself, even without the added factor of commercialisation, undignified and reduces the human person.
The above being noted, it is this idea of gender inequality in the arena of sexual politics that I would like to briefly explore.
Let us consider the issue, does the commoditisation of sex, whether such sex is purchased pre-paid, pay as you go or on contract, as Mickey Meji put it , reinforce gender inequality and support the patriarchy? Now I think at first blush the answer is a resounding yes and, as such, one can sympathise with the stated intention of those opposing decriminalisation and seeking the abolition of transactional sex, at least in its commercial form.
However on further consideration it is a lot less clear and the complexity of the question starts to emerge. Consider whether perhaps the explicit attempt to dismantle the edifice of social-sexual-politics, such as they are, and doing so in the name of acting against patriarchal prejudice, does not implicitly reinforce just what is being opposed. This is the kind of line I think Žižek might assume. The very act of explicitly calling attention to the vulnerability of the female in transactional sex reinforces the idea that she is vulnerable. Is she in fact vulnerable, or more vulnerable than her male interlocuter? Does such an explicit a position, as Madlala-Routledge assumes, not rest on an implicit assumption of the primacy of the patriarchy and thereby act to maintain it?
Why is the sexual act perceived as one where the man dominates his sexually submissive female partner? Is this in fact what is going on? Is it not this archetypal image that informs the abolitionist movement? And does their attempt at an injunction not reinforce this unconscious prejudice?
I would argue that it does.
However this leads us to a bigger question is there a fundamentally different way to conceive of male-female sexual congress.
One may think that this idea of sexual dominance by the male of the female is archaic and belongs to a more primitive conception of gender. This may be so, nevertheless I would argue that it is the modern mind that holds such ‘primitive’ ideas and images, not the ‘primitive mind’ (whatever that may be). I think it is the meaning associated with the image, rather than the image itself, which invokes the idea of dominant male and submissive female.
Many anthropologists and mythologists speak of matriarchal society pre-dating the patriarchy. How, I wonder, would the male-female sexual union be conceived in a matriarchal society? Whilst it is unlikely we could ever conclusively answer this question, I think it is a reasonable premise to assume the paradigm of man as the sexual aggressor, with his reluctant and or submissive female partner, would be substantially different. Whilst it is natural to imagine the masculine in an active, enthusiastic and animated role in the sexual act, it does not follow from this that he is necessarily dominant; there are enough instances from nature of the dominant (not to say devouring) feminine for us to know that the balance of power in essential sexual nature is not the exclusive domain of the masculine.
However sexual politics being so central to social and gender power structures it is little wonder that the advent of the patriarchy would seek to establish male sexual dominance as the accepted norm. But let us ask if this idea of the dominant sexual male is in fact an essential gender property? Consider the issue of erectile dysfunction and the consequent dark fears that arise in so many men around this, as well as the booming industry of medical, homeopathic and mechanical aids to address this. Consider also the issue of penis size and how deeply this concern is embedded in the psyche of the masculine and contemporary culture. The list of men’s sexual insecurities and the lengths they go to to address these, of which I have provided only two of the more obvious examples, is only too well known; do these speak to the idea of a sexually aggressive dominant masculine?
Furthermore who is actualy the more aggressive, more focused and more ruthless sexual predator, the male or female? In the arena of sexual politics who is playing for the higher stakes, the man who wants to get his rocks off, or the woman who, whilst also possibly seeking immediate sexual gratification, has, generally speaking, a longer term and more biologically intelligent perspective in her pursuit of an appropriate mate. As a very good gay friend of mine, who is only marginally misogynistic , once said to me:
Stephen no I have nothing against women at all; I’m very fond of some women in fact. I know enough to be afraid of them though, to know that they take what they want.
Let’s consider the more specific topic of the debate at Wits, prostitution or commercialised sex. Here as well there are examples from other cultures and other historical periods wherein the woman fulfilling this role can be viewed quite differently to the marginalised, abused, vulnerable victim of society that seemed to be the subject under discussion in the debate. In fact even in contemporary society Lucy Allais provided an example, which if not paradigmatic is also not exceptional, of a contemporary sex worker who appears anything but disempowered.
I suggest that this idea of the sexual dominant masculine and his submissive female counterpart is a cultural product which serves the patriarchal power structure rather than being an essential property of gender. Following this that the actions of Madlala-Routledge and the abolitionist movement she represents, whilst well intentioned are misguided. Contrary to their stated intentions they implicitly support the patriarchy whilst explicitly opposing it. Their very attempt to protect the sexually objectified vulnerable female reinforces the implicit patriarchal ideology.
Beyond this debate though, the idea of dominant aggressive masculine and submissive feminine is deeply embedded in the collective sexual imagination of our society. It serves an important purpose, which whilst possibly a product of political ideology now transcends it, that is simply the idea that opposites attract. The more masculine the man, with all the associated images including dominance, and ideas that that evokes and the more feminine the woman, with its associated imagery including submissiveness, the greater the degree of sexual tension, anticipation and (presumably) satisfaction in the sexual act. So much so, that even in homosexual relationships this male-female, dominant-submissive act is played out.
Is there a fundamentally different way to relate sexually other than as opposites and as dominant-submissive? And please before you rush to provide a Hallmark greeting card sentiment, I am talking about f**king not ‘making love’! Is it possible to evoke the same or a similar degree of sexual tension without acting out the contemporary sexual power paradigm? Whilst no obvious answer presents itself to me at least, I think this is a really interesting question and a sincere attempt to answer it could genuinely aid in the evolution of society.
Finally I want to leave you with something Madame Madlala-Routledge said in response to question from a young, rather enthusiastic, man in the audience, question and answer paraphrased below.
Young man: Let’s assume that I am married and my young wife and I both really enjoy sex. Now it happens that whilst using a sex swing [god knows what that is, but anyway] my wife breaks her neck. Now the sexual act between us would no longer be satisfying for either of us. But still you know we would like to stay married because marriage is not only about sex there are other things…[i.e. in this case is my use of a prostitute with my wife’s consent not only appropriate but a good thing?]
Madlala-Routledge: Nice egalitarian question; let’s reverse the situation and assume it was you who broke your neck. How would you feel about your wife satisfying her sexual desires with another man, whilst remaining married to you?
With that I bid you adieu.
 I stand to be corrected on the exact name of the body; and whether it is representative of the continent or simply South Africa. Also, as I understood it, Ms. Meji is, hersef, a former sex worker.
 The obvious intention here is to protect the marginalised sex workers whilst not endorsing the industry as a whole and placing the legal onus on customers not to purchase the commodity through threat of criminalisation. There was disagreement amongst the panellists as to the efficacy of this model, however reading between the lines it did not sounded as if it was a flawed system in its practical application.
 This left me wondering into which classification Freud falls, sexual optimism or pessimism? I’m not sure…I would lean toward pessimism which I think is closer to Freud’s global philosophy; however I am not sure.
 Professor Lucy Allais, head of the Wits Centre for Ethics.