Liberated Sex: Firestone on Love and Sexuality

by: , April 18, 2018

Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970) forms part of the canon of radical and Marxist feminists texts; every feminist seems to know that the book is a utopian manifesto on the uses of technology to free women from the ‘tyranny’ of pregnancy. Firestone is infamous for her alleged biological essentialism and attendant technological determinism. Under these terms, Firestone suggests that women’s oppression stems directly from the biological injustice of pregnancy, and therefore pregnancy must be abolished through reproductive technology. Although the critiques of Firestone’s philosophy are not without foundation, more recent readings have undermined the received knowledge of The Dialectic of Sex (see Merck & Sandford 2010). In light of the shifts within feminist theory since the 1990s, notably the collapse of the sex/gender distinction, the meaning of ‘biological determinism’ has to be rethought. Moreover, developments in reproductive technology might trouble the distinction between nature and culture, and, thus, call for a re-reading of Firestone within a contemporary context.

In this essay, however, I want to focus on another aspect of Firestone’s book, namely her critique of current forms of romantic love, and her utopian thinking on sexuality. These aspects of The Dialectic of Sex have been neglected, perhaps because they seemed less original and controversial than her stance on technology. But Firestone does not propose the appropriation of technology for its own sake – for Firestone, technology should be used to free people from productive and reproductive work and the nuclear family, so that a new form of liberated sexuality can emerge. In The Dialectic of Sex, love and sexuality are related to biology and technology in intricate and sometimes contradictory ways, but the value of Firestone’s thought on these topics does not depend upon an acceptance of either biologism or technological futurism. As Kathi Weeks argues, technology in Firestone’s utopian manifesto functions as a mechanism of estrangement, which makes us think the future differently (Weeks 2015: 739). I would contend that the utopian vision of sexuality, and Firestone’s critique of the current organisation of sexuality, are of central importance for a re-evaluation of Firestone’s work. The reorganisation of sexuality is paramount for Firestone’s ultimate goal, which is the abolition of what she calls sex class.

Love

Firestone opens her chapter on love with an insistence on its importance. ‘For love,’ she writes, ‘perhaps even more than childbearing, is the pivot of women’s oppression today.’ (2015: 113). This should be read in light of her claim earlier in the book that childbearing is the root of women’s oppression (2015: 8). As technological development has progressed in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, love has taken on the determining position once held by pregnancy. The fact that a historical shift can override a biological determination seems to undermine the claim that Firestone is merely a biologistic thinker, and articulates a tension within Firestone’s work between different forms of determinations of society. As Firestone’s utopian vision is the abolition of sex class, the determining function of biology is not so deep that human sociality and inventiveness cannot counteract it. In fact, Firestone suggests that biology is already losing its foundational function in women’s oppression, and is now shored up by ideologies of love and romance (2015: 131).

 

Firestone ascribes a radical or even revolutionary potential to the critique of love, and her own analysis of love and romance is scathing. Her first conclusion is that men can’t love, followed by the parenthetical remark ‘Male hormones??’

Firestone goes on to emphasise: ‘women and love are underpinnings. Examine them and you threaten the very structure of culture.’ (2015: 113, emphasis in original). She ascribes a radical or even revolutionary potential to the critique of love, and her own analysis of love and romance is scathing. Her first conclusion is that men can’t love, followed by the parenthetical remark ‘Male hormones??’ (2015: 121). In the chapter on love, Firestone sarcastically inverts the assumption that women are determined and weakened by their biology, in order to suggest that men suffer from a form of emotional deficiency, which at present can only be remedied by distorted relations with women. Despite the reference to hormones, Firestone’s theory of love is social, political, and psychological. She insists that love has been corrupted by power. Moreover, men’s ‘love’ is fundamentally exploitative. In a move that prefigures later debates on emotional labour, as well as Anna Jónasdottír’s concept ‘love power’ (1994), Firestone argues that women’s designated role has been to satisfy men’s need for emotional satisfaction. Men’s culture is parasitical, thriving on the love, work and emotional strength of women. While the emotional aspect of cultural history has been disavowed in society at large, it is simultaneously a precondition for the existence of culture as such (2015: 114). Here, Firestone presents a historical materialist explanation of women’s position, theorising femininity as labour. This theorisation of love is in line with Firestone’s ‘dream action’ for the women’s movement, which Firestone calls a smile boycott (2015: 81), but which might be more adequately be described as a form of strike action against the exploitation of femininity.

This materialist approach is continued in Firestone’s exploration of the contemporary conditions of love and romance. She stresses the fact that women don’t have many options other than accepting the conditions of heterosexual monogamy. As exploitative as love is, women depend on the economic security that men can offer, as well as the psychological security of making love a life project (Firestone 2015: 125). Marx’s analysis of the ‘freedom’ of the workers ends with its inversion, namely the impossibility of escaping exploitation (Marx 1990: 272 ff.). Similarly, Firestone shows that the only freedom offered to women is the choice of a master. This is not a genuine choice, since women’s choices are always informed by ‘ulterior motives’, and not to be exploited is almost never an option. Sadly, women need men’s particular form of love (Firestone 2015: 124, 130). Firestone is thus attuned to the economic factors that shape women’s expressions of love. But she also neglects love between women as a precarious, but nonetheless real form of revolt against the constraints of heterosexuality.

Firestone does however theorise some of the restrictions on solidarity between women. What she terms ‘sex privatisation’ is the process through which women create a sense of false individuality through their (hetero)sexuality. While men consider all women to be essentially the same, they also make women think that their sexual attractiveness constitutes their individuality and difference (Firestone 2015: 133). Sex privatisation thus has a powerful political function, as it hides the generality of women’s position. Love and romance privatises the shared experience of women as objects of love and desire, and their experience of love work. This is related to an argument earlier in the book, namely that men need to idealise a particular woman in order to love a member of a subordinate group (Firestone 2015: 118). For both men and women, the exploitation of women is hidden by the privatisation of emotion. As Kathi Weeks suggests, it is precisely through the isolating experience of sex privatisation that ‘women’ are constituted as a collectivity (2015: 739). Thus, that which divides us is what we have in common. However, this political formulation of womanhood seems to contradict the biologically based conception of womanhood that Firestone explicitly espouses. As I will argue below, the half-hidden assumption in both these cases is the institution of heterosexuality, which Firestone simultaneously criticises and naturalises.

But Firestone’s description of the individualising experience of love, and our immense investment in finding true love, also gives us a subtle and sad account of the disappointments of life in a society founded on an idea of love that cannot be fully realised. Firestone’s portayal of women’s disappointment in love anticipates Lauren Berlant’s concept of cruel optimism. Berlant writes:

‘What is cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object or scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment, the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world.’ (2006:21)

Cruel optimism, the attachment to the promise of what is inevitably disappointing, forms part of the psychological investment in heterosexuality that makes ‘love’ such a powerful vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women. Berlant’s ‘x’ might be read not as a woman’s attachment to a particular man, but the very idea that heterosexual love will lead to a good life – the desire for heterosexuality itself – even when every specific instance of the heterosexual relationship may be experienced as isolating and depressing.

While Firestone’s account of love contains some valuable insights into these psychic attachments, and despite her stated commitment to a historical materialist method, it often tends towards overly psychological explanations. This is partly because of her reliance on a reading of Freud, where the oedipal complex retains an explanatory function, even as she explains the complex itself in terms of power. Especially in her reading of race as a ‘sexual phenomenon’ (2015: 97), Firestone’s explanations of racial oppression in terms of psycho-sexuality obfuscates the mechanisms of white supremacy. Her reliance on psychological categories is also evident in her description of authentic love, which she describes as an ahistorical psychological state beyond love’s corruption by power. She describes this love as ‘not only the incorporation of the other, but an exchange of selves’ (2015: 115, emphasis in the original). When Firestone describes the essential nature of love, she emerges as a humanist committed to the reality of an underlying human nature. This is quite far from the caricature of Firestone as a utopian technophile, whose political project consists of turning humans into robots. It is also dissimilar to the post-humanism of later technofeminism, such as Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1991). Firestone’s vision is a form of love liberated from power inequalities, where individuals could enjoy one another’s company as equals. As Stevi Jackson has pointed out, Firestone limits the utopian scope of her own project by assuming as universal a form of selfish individuality that is in fact present only in specific social formations, as well as retaining the monogamous couple as the locus of love (2010: 127, 133). This desire to hold on to love in its non-alienated form is strangely at odds with Firestone’s vision of a liberated sexuality and the dissolution of the nuclear, heterosexual household. As the word ‘exchange’ in the quote above indicates, Firestone is ultimately unable to relinquish fully a bourgeois model of monogamous love, in which relationships are understood as ‘projects’ and ‘investments’. The idea of exchange also indicates an unacknowledged heteronormativity, which is based on exchange between two subjects understood as essentially different and complementary. This conception of love, I would suggest cannot be severed from notions of sexual difference.

Sex

Firestone’s humanist assumptions are apparent when she describes a future, liberated sexuality. Here, she posits a ‘natural’, polymorphous sexuality, which Nina Power describes as a ‘second nature’ replacing the ‘older, unwanted nature’ of pregnancy (2010: 147). This unrepressed sexuality will be realised through the supersession of a number of taboos that currently restrict sexuality. Once sexuality is freed from its current constraints, the dichotomy of good/asexual and bad/sexual women will disappear, together with taboos against incest and homosexuality. Children will be allowed sexual freedom, and the segregation of adults from children will be abolished (Firestone 2015: 54, 187, 205). Here, Firestone’s radical critique of the notion of childhood comes to the undoubtedly troubling and controversial conclusion that sexual relations between children and adults would be accepted in a future society, although Firestone suggests that children might prefer to have sex with other children (2015: 215).

Firestone argues that with the abolition of the nuclear family, all of culture will be eroticised (2015: 55). Moreover, all of our bodies will become erotic, as polymorphous sexuality does not limit erogeneity to genitals. Here, there are similarities with Judith Butler’s critique of the fragmenting of the body through gender/heterosexuality, where the genitals become sites of meaning (Butler 1993: 146). Unlike Butler, however, Firestone does not criticise the supposed ‘naturalness’ of heterosexuality, nor does she adequately account for the link between heterosexuality and sex class. While Firestone remarks that in the future, homosexuality will no longer be taboo, she goes on to suggest that people might still prefer to have sex with people of the ‘opposite sex simply because it is physically more convenient’. The same idea is repeated towards the end of the book (2015: 54, 215). Rather than reading this as an odd lapse, revealing at most a curiously mechanical view of sex, I want to suggest that Firestone is unable to relinquish fully ideas of natural heterosexual complementarity. While Firestone imagines a very queer future, in the sense of the disappearance of sexual norms, she is oblivious to the queer and trans potentialities already existing in the present moment. Instead of thinking through such potentialities, Firestone introduces technology as the means to free (hetero)sexuality from the restrictions of the nuclear family. Although Firestone wants to abolish gender, she ultimately fails to account fully for the fact that the social institutions of heterosexuality underpin the supposed naturalness of biological reproduction, and the unity of the sex class we know as women. Underlying Firestone’s conceptualisation of women as a coherent class is the unacknowledged assumption that this class consists of subjects who are cis-gendered and engage in heterosexual practices. Of course heterosexuality as a social form has structured the oppression of all women, but feminist theory must explore how heterosexuality and gender are co-constitutive, rather than taking heterosexuality for granted as the natural state of things.

The naturalisation of sex in Firestone’s book is particularly striking if contrasted with her denaturalising account of childhood. One of the most interesting aspects of The Dialectic of Sex is its theorisation of the oppression of children, through a conceptualisation of childhood as a fairly modern social institution. Firestone argues that children, historically treated like smaller adults, are now segregated from adults through oppressive institutions such as schools. She rightly points to the relation between women’s oppression and the notion that children constitute a special group of humans, who require endless care and protection (2015: 81). By historicising childhood, Firestone shows that there is no natural biological state that can be understood in isolation from its historical context.

Compared to the chapter on childhood, it is striking that Firestone sometimes fails to historicise or even problematise the social institution of heterosexuality, even in chapters that explicitly deal with sexuality and love. Her text forms part of what Chrys Ingraham describes as the heterosexual imaginary, that is, ‘a way of thinking which conceals the operation of heterosexuality in structuring gender and closes off any critical analysis of heterosexuality as an organising institution’ (1997: 275). Ingraham points to the somewhat paradoxical fact that many feminist theorists have politicised gender while leaving heterosexuality in the realm of the natural (1997: 276). Firestone is thus not alone in this inability to step outside of the heterosexual imaginary, but rather symptomatic of a problem that continues to haunt feminist theory. Firestone expresses some hostility towards gay men, and lesbian practices and desires remain invisible in her text. It is curious that Firestone can only think of currently existing queerness in psychological terms, as ‘seriously crippling that individual’s sexual relationships, or even his [sic] total psyche’ (2015: 52). Unlike sex class and technology, homo- and heterosexuality are not presented as political categories in The Dialectic of Sex.

Perhaps because Firestone’s manifesto is based on the radical discontinuity between the present and the future, she seems uninterested in actual queer politics as a way of realising her vision of sexual freedom. Indeed, she argues that homosexuality at present is ‘as limited and sick’ as heterosexuality (Firestone 2015: 53). This can be read as a critique of identity politics and what Kevin Floyd has characterised as reified sexual identities (2009: 20). But Firestone applies no such critique to feminism, as the group ‘women’ is taken to be naturally existing. Rather than relying on the hope that technology will liberate us from heterosexuality, however, heterosexual institutions must be confronted directly. Feminism, in the limited sense of political struggle on the basis of gender, is not enough to abolish current constraints on sexuality. In order to carry out the project that Firestone envisioned, we need to be mindful of the ways in which gender is co-constituted by sexual institutions and practices, rather than using a unidirectional model that centres gender while leaving heterosexuality relatively unproblematised. Only in this way can feminist theory contribute to the radical goals of Firestone’s utopian manifesto – the abolition of gender and the liberation of sexuality.

The most useful aspect of Firestone’s vision of a future sexuality is the insistence that emancipation of sex must be linked to a reorganisation of the household. Here, the historical materialist Firestone emerges again. She is much less idealist and more practical than many others who have dreamed of an unrepressed sexuality. Sex, she insists, is not going to liberate itself. Nor can it be changed through a mere act of will – attempts to liberate ‘the erotic’ without changing the social and economic position of women have all failed, as Firestone’s critique of the sexual revolution reveals (Firestone 2015: 127). Rather, it is the structure of the household and our intimate, material lives that must be changed to support new forms of sexuality. Contrary to received knowledge of Firestone’s work, it is not only the becoming-technological of pregnancy that will liberate women and humanity as a whole. Technology’s function is to overturn the current social organisation of the household.

It is from this point that we can return to the radical potentials of Firestone’s text. We must note the instability of the concept of nature that is at work here, as it, at various points of the text, has strikingly divergent uses. If nature is the biology that oppresses us and the liberated sexuality that will arrive once biology has been abolished, the concept carries both repressive and utopian meanings. What Firestone posits as a natural sexuality is radically detached from ideas of biologically reproductive sex. While Firestone ascribes great significance to free sexuality in a future society, sex (in the double sense) simultaneously loses its meaning as a structuring principle. The eroticisation of all of society also means that the erotic can no longer be a rigorously restricted site, invested with intense meaning. And if all of the body becomes eroticised, that also implies the de-eroticisation of genitals, to which Firestone often ascribes such importance. Firestone’s text thus resists and undermines its own biologism. Similarly, Firestone’s vision of the dissolution of the heteronormative household counteracts her insistence on an implicitly heteronormative and monogamous framework of authentic love. In recognising these tensions in the texts, we can identify both pitfalls and radical potentials, which guide us towards the future we want. While I feel somewhat dissatisfied with Firestone’s exalted vision of liberated sex, where sexual norms have disappeared with the abolition of biological reproduction, I find it helpful to think of a future where sexuality is no longer burdened with immense meanings, either as something shameful or as an unambiguously positive and unrepressed vital force. It is by working through dichotomies of good and bad sex, as well as hierarchies based on gender and sexuality, that we can reach a point where a different form of sociality is possible.


REFERENCES

Berlant, Lauren (2006), ‘Cruel Optimism’, in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 20-36.

Butler, Judith (1993), Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, London: Routledge.

Firestone, Shulamith (2015 [1970]), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, London: Verso.

Floyd, Kevin (2009), The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, Donna (1991), ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, pp. 149-182.

Ingraham, Chrys (1997), ‘The Heterosexual Imaginary: Feminist Sociology and Theorises of Gender’, in Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham (eds.) Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women’s Lives, London: Routledge, pp. 275-290.

Jackson, Stevi (2010), ‘Questioning the Foundations of Heterosexual Families: Firestone on Childhood, Love, and Romance’, in Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford (eds.) Further Adventures of The Dialectic of Sex: Critical Essays on Shulamith Firestone (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 113-141.

Jónasdottír, Anna (1994), Why women are oppressed, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Marx, Karl (1990 [1867]), Capital, Vol. 1, London: Penguin.

Merck, Mandy & Stella Sandford (eds.) (2010), Further Adventures of The Dialectic of Sex: Critical Essays on Shulamith Firestone, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Power, Nina (2010), ‘Toward a Cybernetic Communism: The Technology of the Anti-Family’, in Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford (eds.) Further Adventures of The Dialectic of Sex: Critical Essays on Shulamith Firestone, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 143-162.

Weeks, Kathi (2015), ‘The Vanishing Dialectic: Shulamith Firestone and the Future of the Feminist 1970s’, in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 114, No. 4, pp. 735-754.

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