This essay argues that feminism is impossible. After examining a recent #MeToo episode—a bad sexual encounter between actor Aziz Ansari and a woman named Grace—as a case study in feminist disappointment, the essay turns to several key seventies feminist texts to reconstruct their theories of bad sex. By taking bad sex as the model for women’s oppression, seventies feminists crafted a culturalist theory of patriarchy logically culminating in lesbian separatism. This theory, while containing the essence of all feminisms, proved unactionable: feminism could not outlaw women’s stubborn desires for men. Hence, by the eighties, some feminists had reframed bad sex as rape, calling upon the state to police sex in lieu of changing women’s minds. In conclusion, the essay returns to the Ansari affair, taking Grace’s continued attachment to heterosexuality despite its disappointments as an image for feminists’ attachment to feminism despite its evident impossibility.
This essay tells a story about feminism in the United States. The story goes like this: The feminists of the late sixties and early seventies, by opening up the personal to political critique, accidentally proved feminism impossible.1 Heterosexuality remained largely intact. Most feminists stayed with their boyfriends and kept having bad sex. It turned out that feminism was unable to deliver on its promise to radically restructure not just material institutions but relationality as such. The theories feminists produced in order to understand sex didn’t actually do much; in fact, paradoxically, the stronger feminist theories of sex got, the less effective they became. This is a problem about which feminists since the seventies—including me and, I am assuming, you—have been in rather serious denial. I call this problem the Impossibility of Feminism.
This is a disappointing story. I know: I’m disappointed, too. In fact, I will argue that disappointment is the governing affect of feminism as a political imaginary. By this I mean simply that most feminists are mostly disappointed in feminism most of the time. Here I am led by Clare Hemmings’s excellent book Why Stories Matter, in which she directs her attention to feminist theory as scene of affective investments in narrative form. Histories of feminism from the seventies to the present, Hemmings argues, are written in three modes: progress, loss, and return. Motivating all three is what Hemmings describes as an “attachment to feminism’s demise”—a sense that feminism, and specifically the feminism of the seventies, has been, rightly or wrongly, “surpassed” (136–37). The affective valence of this attachment can change (in progress narratives, it is celebrated; in loss narratives, mourned), but the attachment’s basic structure remains the same. In this respect, progress, loss, and return are not so much three competing genres of feminist history as they are the three most common tropes within a single historiographic genre. (The proper analogy would therefore be not to comedy, tragedy, and romance, but to something like the meet cute, the big fight, and the grand gesture within the modern romantic comedy.) I’m suggesting that these stories differ in content, but not in form: in all cases, Something Went Wrong in feminism then, and in almost every case, it falls to the feminist now to Make Things Right.
This is the basic structure not just of feminist disappointment but of disappointment generally. Disappointment is not how it feels when the object of your attachment fails to give you what you want; rather, disappointment is how it feels when you fail to detach yourself from the disappointing object. You ought to break up, but you don’t. What’s disappointing, in other words, is your own optimism: your continued belief in the world’s being enough for the desires that tether you to it, all evidence to the contrary. I owe this understanding of optimism to Lauren Berlant. “All attachment,” she writes in Cruel Optimism, “is optimistic, if we describe optimism as the force that moves you out of yourself and into the world” (1). To this I add a corollary: if optimism is the fundamental orientation of all subjects to the world, then optimism’s persistence is wholly independent of the capacity of any given object to meet its expectations. Disappointment, then, is the subject’s rediscovery of the fact that all optimism is in the final analysis blind. So when I say that feminism is disappointing, one thing I mean is that while feminism as a concrete political project may require objects (e.g., women, sex) or institutions (e.g., the family, the workplace), feminism as a structure of desire does not depend, for its sense, force, or direction, on anything in the world at all.
Perhaps the most recent episode in feminist disappointment in the United States is #MeToo, a national movement against sexual assault, harassment, and abuse that has, in some cases, resulted in the firing, resignation, or public shaming of famous and powerful men. Feminist responses to #MeToo, especially within the academy, have been, as the special issue from which you are reading attests, ambivalent. In this essay, I will not weigh the movement’s successes and failures; I will pretend that I am making this move out of academic principle, rather than the thrill, guilt, disgust, uneasiness, irritation, pleasure, and cruelty that #MeToo and its train of debates have aroused in me. Instead, I’m going to focus on a single #MeToo story, one that marked a turning point from the workplace to the bedroom: that is, from a focus on sexual harassment, a traditional target of liberal feminist struggle and something that more or less everyone could agree was Not So Good, to the much more contentious matter of what to do about sex as such. By reprising seventies feminists’ centering of bad sex, as the form of women’s oppression that adumbrates every other (economic, psychic, cultural, etc.), I’ll suggest that this story brings into sharp relief the thing I’m calling the Impossibility of Feminism.
On January 14, 2018, the website Babe published a story about a woman who went on a date with the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. In the article, a twenty-three-year-old Brooklyn-based photographer with the pseudonym Grace described her September 2017 date with Ansari, a well-known actor and comedian, as “the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.” According to Grace, Ansari became sexually aggressive, ignoring her requests that they slow down and pressuring her into giving him a blowjob. Grace came to consider the experience a “sexual assault.” Shortly after the article ran, Ansari released a statement describing their encounter as “by all indications [ . . . ] completely consensual” and reaffirmed his support for #MeToo, calling it “necessary and long overdue” (qtd. in Way). The story generated tremendous controversy. Writers from the New York Times and the Atlantic to the feminist blogosphere argued over every detail. Had Grace been forced? Did the encounter constitute sexual assault? Had she already been socialized into feminine compliance? Why hadn’t she made her desires clear? Why hadn’t she left?
As Babe noted, the story was complicated by the public persona Ansari had been crafting for years. Aziz Ansari rose to prominence as a regular on nbc’s mockumentary-style comedy series Parks and Recreation, where he played Tom Haverford, a self-styled entrepreneur whose boyish optimism in the face of repeated failures as a pick-up artist endeared him to fans. In one episode, after years of Tom’s trying to score a date with his coworker Ann, who finds him irritating, an exasperated Ann finally agrees to a single dinner. “The four sweetest words in the English language,” Tom tells the camera afterward, repeating what Ann’s just told him: “You wore me down” (“Dave”). This kind of character work was no surprise to anyone familiar with Ansari’s stand-up, in which Ansari frequently offered up his own middling sexual prospects as proof of a politically flattering disavowal of alpha-male swagger. Following Parks and Recreation, Ansari developed a reputation as both a dating guru, coauthoring the book Modern Romance with a New York University professor of sociology, and a television auteur, creating, writing, and starring in Netflix’s Master of None, which television critics hailed for its representation of South Asian Americans, its critique of the television industry, and its putatively nuanced account of thirty-something heterosexual intimacy. Off camera, Ansari has publicly identified as a feminist, telling Late Show host Dave Letterman in 2014, “You’re a feminist if you go to a Jay-Z and Beyoncé concert, and you’re not like ‘I feel like Beyoncé should get 23 percent less money than Jay-Z. Also, I don’t think Beyoncé should have the right to vote, and why is Beyoncé singing and dancing? Shouldn’t she make Jay a steak?’” (qtd. in Marcotte).
Hence the controversy of Ansari’s alleged behavior, which registered among onetime fans not only as (at best) loutish and inconsiderate but also as a betrayal of the implicit terms of digitally mediated public fantasy. After all, as Babe itself noted, Ansari was a “certified woke bae,” a title bestowed on him by fellow comic and podcaster Phoebe Robinson in a video series produced for the website Refinery29. A woke bae, per Robinson, is a male celebrity who is “super hot, smart af, and effecting positive change in the world.” (Other recipients of the title include Jesse Williams, Mark Ruffalo, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Justin Trudeau.) The terms “woke” (politically conscious) and “bae” (romantic partner) were first applied together to the actor Matt McGorry in a viral Buzzfeed post from late 2015. In one representative photo, pulled from the actor’s Instagram account, a shirtless McGorry in tortoiseshell glasses poses thoughtfully with a copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. With “woke bae,” the longstanding notion of the celebrity crush is reconceived as an act of political fantasy in which fans can tweak, without giving up on, the often disappointing terms of actually existing heterosexuality as conducted with actually existing men. In this fantasy, political awareness and sex appeal are not just happily coincident; rather, the love object’s politicalness has entered into and helped constitute the architecture of the love relation itself.
So when female fans lusted after Ansari, the object of their desire was, in some sense, feminism itself, understood here not as a politics in the (arguably romantic) sense of direct actions carried out in the arena of history, but as an aesthetic tending toward certain kinds of affective production and available for attachment, pleasure, interest, habit, curation, study, and crushing. What I’m suggesting is that feminism in the twenty-first-century United States, especially on the Internet, might be best understood as a fan-dom. By “fandom,” I mean an intimate public organized around mass sharing of a small number of love objects and, importantly, detailed knowledge about these objects (“lore”) whose value is affective rather than veridical, providing practical instructions for how to feel about what one loves and how to synchronize one’s feelings with those others.2 To say that feminism is a fandom is to argue that popular feminist beliefs—including being “for” intersectionality, consent, body-positivity, and self-care, and “against” erasure, the gender binary, and white feminism—are held, not out of ideological orthodoxy, but primarily in order to produce belongingness as a habitable form for going about everyday life. I could mean this derogatorily, but I don’t. Politics is never accessed except by way of aesthetic mediation; on the contrary, I do not think it possible to think doing politics apart from feeling political, and hence the aesthetic practices people use to produce this second thing.
In fact, Babe, which broke the Ansari story, belongs to one of Internet feminism’s primary modes of affective production. I refer here to what I call the feminist lifestyle magazine, examples of which include Jezebel, Teen Vogue, The Cut, them., Bustle, Autostraddle, Rookie, an. Refinery29. Defining the feminist lifestyle magazine is, beneath its blending of beauty tips with current events or celebrity gossip with political analysis, a belief that being a feminist, in an ontologically thick way, is both possible and desirable. In tone, the genre is pedagogical, advising readers on not just how to have sex, for instance, but how to make the sex one has contribute to the fashioning of a feminist self. I choose the word lifestyle for two reasons: not only because it is the industry-standard label for periodicals focused on helping readers extend ordinariness, especially through reproduction of intimacy, kinship, sociality, and the body (cooking, dressing, shopping, housekeeping, childrearing, chatting, eating, relaxing, flirting, fucking), but also for its sense as a code word, within the history of feminism itself, for what the speaker regards, disapprovingly, as someone else’s withdrawal from politics into the ordinary, and in particular into “culture” and “sex.” Hence the specific mutation, in publications like these, of the classic “tips and tricks” listicle popularized by beauty magazines like Cosmopolitan: instead of “6 Sex Positions to Try If He Has a Big Penis” (Kareem), try “Your 3-Step Guide to Practicing Non-Oppressive bdsm” (Hamilton).
This is the broader context in which the Ansari story posed, once again, a question that feminists have been struggling to answer since the seventies. Let’s decide to call this the Fucking Question. The basic structure of the Fucking Question looks like this: men being, in so many words, The Problem, how can women keep sleeping with them without Making The Problem Worse? Here’s Ti-Grace Atkinson asking it in 1970: “Since our society has never known a time when sex in all its aspects was not exploitative and relations based on sex, e.g., the male–female relationship, were not extremely hostile, it is difficult to understand how sexual intercourse can even be salvaged as a practice” (44–45). If seventies feminists wanted to claim that sex was a primary site of women’s political oppression, then they would have to answer two questions: Could heterosexuality be fixed? And if not, was lesbianism a workable alternative?
In the remainder of this essay, I will suggest to you that the answers to these questions were No, and No.
Consider Alice Echols’s influential 1989 study Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975. Hemmings would call this book a loss narrative: a story about how feminism was good, until it wasn’t. Echols argues that from 1967 to the early seventies, having firmly broken with the New Left’s class politics, radical feminism blossomed into a fully systematic critique of the patriarchal sex-class system supported by direct political actions around abortion, marriage, and child care. By 1973, however, radical feminism had been “eclipsed” by what Echols calls “cultural feminism,” basically a countercultural movement focused on replacing “male” values with “female” ones that effectively withdrew from politics into the domain of lifestyle choices, lesbianism and separatism chief among them. Echols’s project is therefore to draw as clear a distinction between radical and cultural feminism as responsibly possible. Radical feminism was social constructionist; cultural feminism was essentialist. Radical feminists were egalitarians; cultural feminists were female chauvinists. If radical feminists, at times, ignored race and class, cultural feminists ignored them more. Most importantly, whereas radical feminists believed the personal was political, cultural feminists believed the political was personal.
By now thirty years old, Daring to Be Bad is the first but hardly the most nuanced history of seventies feminism, and many have taken issue with its conclusions. Some argue that, while lesbian feminist communities did “show signs of” cultural feminism, these trends were best understood as strategic moves that have helped to “sustain and nourish feminist activism” (Verta and Taylor 41). Others simply think Echols is wrong: the historian Anne Valk argues that lesbian feminists never retreated into “lifestyle” at all, faulting Daring to Be Bad for failing to understand “the role that so-called cultural activities play as a part of a militant political agenda” (308). At the same time, Echols’s critics tend to ratify her framing: they agree, in other words, that cultural feminism, if it existed, was definitely Bad. I take a different tack here. I am deeply suspicious of Echols’s history—that is, of both what she says happened and what she says what happened meant—but I won’t dispute it directly. Instead, somewhat against my better judgment, I will accept that that cultural feminism was indeed a thing, in the manner Echols describes. To make matters worse, I will assume not only that the cultural feminism of the seventies expressed the “essence” not just of the radical feminism that preceded it but o. any feminism whatsoever. I will do this in order to elucidate a paradox: namely, that the cultural feminist critique was far more radical than anything that came before or after it, and that it was also, for this very reason, utterly unactionable. This paradox is the Impossibility of Feminism.
So: let’s posit that seventies feminism begins with bad sex. As Jane Gerhard puts it in her study Desiring Revolution, “Much of what galled women into feminism was precisely the sense of injustice forged in and through all things sexual,” including, most proximately, “the whole range of interpersonal dynamics between women and their sexual partners” (3). Bad sex is where we’ll start too. Take Anne Koedt’s essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” distributed in pamphlet form in 1968 and published in the underground journal Notes from the Second Year in 1970. What Koedt presents in this essay is not a full-fledged political theory of sex. Relying on postwar sexologists like Alfred Kinsey, Koedt argues that the problem of female sexual unfulfillment is not mental, as claimed by the Freudians and the marriage manuals, but anatomical: the clitoris, the one and only organ of sexual climax for women, is not “stimulated sufficiently in the conventional sexual positions” (37). In this sense, the pamphlet is eminently practical; its goal is to make sex better, that is, “mutually conducive to orgasm” (38). But it is the essay’s final section, in which Koedt explains what bad sex means, where one finds three elements that will soon prove key to the seventies feminist theory of sexuality.
The first element resides in the status of sex within the structure of Koedt’s analysis. Under conditions of patriarchy, the anatomy of intercourse is endowed with allegorical—indeed, mythic—sense. The penis is “the epitome of masculinity”; the clitoris, being “almost identical” to the penis, must therefore be disavowed, and the vagina, soft and preferably shaved, must be emphasized (40). For Koedt, this is symbolic clitoridectomy, a way of “further ‘feminizing’ the female by removing this cardinal vestige of her masculinity” (41). In this argument, bad sex (i.e., conventional vaginal sex) is not just bad sex; it is transformed into a scene in which masculine and feminine roles are played out through reference to a governing symbolic system. Put simply, bad sex means something.
The second element can be found in Koedt’s claim about the nature of male supremacy: “The essence of male chauvinism is not the practical, economic services women supply. It is the psychological superiority” (40). Note well that this is a nonmaterialist, or if you like, culturalist claim: the “essence” of patriarchy—its soul, its principle, its Idea, even—is not economic, but “psychological.” Like much of seventies feminist theory, this claim reflects a deeply ambivalent relationship to the New Left from which many radical feminists, at the time of Koedt’s writing, were breaking (see Echols 51–102). In contradistinction to the politico’s class-based models of oppression, in which the economic is the material base on which culture may be understood to depend, a culturalist theory locates the origins of patriarchy at the seat of subjectivity itself: that is, in relations of intimacy, affect, and desire.
Hence the third notable element of Koedt’s pamphlet, found in its final paragraph. Since male chauvinism is at root a kind of relationality, she reasons, clitoral orgasm is threatening to men insofar as it makes possible another, alternative set of relations. Set free by the sexual independence of the clitoris, women might decide to “seek the company of other women on a full, human basis” (41). This is the impulse that very soon will be called separatism: the thesis that feminist practice must include a withdrawal of women from men, not just economically but on the level of relating itself.
To recap: While “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” does not present a fully articulated political theory of sex, it does showcase three of the most fundamental theoretical moves of seventies feminist theory in general. These are: 1) the transformation of bad sex into an allegory for women’s oppression; 2) a culturalist theory of women’s oppression; and as a result, 3) a political tendency toward separatism, in which lesbianism holds pride of place.
To see the first two of these moves systematized, we need only turn to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, published in 1970. (Keep the lesbian separatist thesis in mind; we’ll return to it soon.) A quick flip through the text reveals what the critic Georg Lukács once described as an “aspiration towards totality,” a desire to relate any given phenomenon to the dynamic whole in which it is already integrated (198). Millett organizes her theory into eight sections: Ideological, Biological, Sociological, Class, Economic and Educational, Force, Anthropological, and Psychological (26–58). That every one of these sections is a case study in both the sexual and the political depends on Millett’s expansive definition of both terms. First, the latter: “The term ‘politics’ shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another.” Then, the former: “The situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of the phenomenon Max Weber defined as herrschaft [sic], a relationship of dominance and submission” (24–25), which Millett footnotes with Weber’s gloss on domination as “the possibility of imposing one’s will upon the behavior of other persons” (25n3). These are, I’d suggest, the same definition: the political, like the sexual, is fundamentally predicated on a relationship of super- and subordination. In this theory, sex is pulling double duty: it is one, albeit privileged, part in a whole with many other parts (economic, religious, psychological, artistic, etc.), while also being, as it were, the truth of that whole, which can be found expressed in any of the parts. This is what allows Millett to claim that “sexual dominion” provides our culture’s “most fundamental concept of power” (25).
Millett’s theory thus depends, foundationally, on massively expanding the allegorical function of bad sex: “Coitus,” she writes, although it appears to be a “biological and physical activity,” is in fact a “charged microcosm of the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes” and may serve as “a model of sexual politics on an individual or personal plane” (23). In this move, the feminist theorist abstracts from the scene of heterosexual intercourse a portable essence that could then be identified across the spectrum of human activity. The boss making lewd comments, the congressman rattling his saber, the capitalist lowering the wage, the father reading his paper—all could be said to have something in common with the Boyfriend, in any position. This theory was therefore an attempt to distill the empirical institutions of women’s oppression (the family, the market, the school, the church, the arts, the law, the state, the bedroom, the heart) to something like a formal relation or schema. Following Janet Halley (17–20), I’ll call this relation “m/f,” which I, like her, intend not as the equivalent of concrete oppositions like “male/female,” “masculine/feminine,” or “dominant/submissive,” but rather a distinct abstract form underlying all of those.3
A clarification: you may think I am mischaracterizing Millett’s argument. Yes, you could object, Millett is identifying a relation, but that relation is specifically one of power, of the control of one thing by another. This is true. But we must distinguish the content of that relation from its form.4 You and I might well disagree about what counts as “power” or “control”—feminists have, after all, been disagreeing about this very question for a long time—while still agreeing that some kind of relation obtains between men and women, or maleness and femaleness, or the masculine and the feminine. It’s the second thing I emphasize here: that the simple positing of m/f as a formal relation had significant implications for seventies feminist theory regardless of that relation’s content. It was m/f, for instance, that served as the logical link between the two transcendentals that hovered at both ends of the scale of analysis: on the one hand, an integrated, structural whole called Patriarchy, greater than the sum of its parts and veiled from empirical observation; and on the other hand, the gnawing sense, which in the consciousness-raising groups went by the name Women’s Experience, that something was up with how men and women behaved. This was, in fact, an aesthetic theory of patriarchy, that is, a theory of male supremacy as a set of genre conventions soliciting certain kinds of affective expectation.5 The proof of patriarchy’s reality was not to be found by sorting through anthropological works about early man or collecting statistics about rates of sexual violence, though feminists did both of these things. Patriarchy existed, quite simply, because women could feel it.
So what was a girl to do? If feminist theories of patriarchy in the seventies rested so strongly on the affective sense of bad sex—indeed, if the personal was political—it was inevitable that the relationship between feminist theories of sex and the sexual practices of the feminist theorist would fall under scrutiny. Was Anne Koedt having better sex? Why had Kate Millett dedicated Sexual Politics to her husband? The same whispers circulate today, of course: I, perhaps like you, have attended enough boozy postconference dinners and thumbed innocently to the end of enough acknowledgments to know that feminist theory has always been about who’s fucking whom. Ever since the seventies, feminists have been “stranded,” as Jill Johnston put it in 1973, “between their personal needs and their political persuasions” (276). Indeed, the thesis of Lesbian Nation, which collects and expands on columns Johnston wrote for the Village Voice between 1969 and 1972, is seductively simple: “The lesbian is the revolutionary feminist and every other feminist is a woman who wants a better deal from her old man” (156). At its heart, Johnston argues, feminism is a “massive complaint” about bad sex, and lesbian separatism is the obvious solution (166). Importantly, separatism entailed not just economic withdrawal, but withdrawal of women’s most “vital energies” from the man (180).
Yet what exactly this withdrawal entailed was difficult to put your finger on. For if patriarchy was, as the culturalist theory held, not a material institution but a formal aesthetic—not a what, but a how—then lesbian separatism, too, had to include an aesthetic intervention. It is here that the lesbian separatist thesis becomes complicated by a theory of roles. Even Johnston, something of a hardliner among separatists, admits that lesbianism per se—in the simplest sense of women sleeping with women—will not be politically sufficient, thanks to the persistence of “male identification” among many dykes (154). The formal relation m/f, initially abstracted from the scene of bad heterosexual sex in order to characterize other, nonsexual spheres of activity (economy, religion, etc.), now sticks, like a criminal charge, to lesbian sexual cultures that “have aped the normative institution” (155). “The butch or diesel dyke,” Johnston writes in disapproval, “is a stylistic imitation of the male whose structures she thought she had to transpose in relation to herself to obtain gratification. Likewise the femme” (176). Lesbian separatists must therefore separate not just from men but from other lesbians, insofar as the latter have continued to have lesbian sex without developing a corresponding aesthetics with which to have it.
The problem, in other words, was not just men, but “male style,” as Robin Morgan (1973) would describe it in her divisive keynote at the Second West Coast Lesbian Conference, held at ucla in 1973. These days, Morgan’s speech is most remembered for its vicious attacks on the transsexual folk singer Beth Elliott, whose scheduled performance had been disrupted the previous evening by a small group of attendees who regarded Elliott as a man. The episode is typically cited as proof of seventies feminism’s rampant transphobia, a historiographic move I find highly suspect (see Enke). I note it only to point out that Morgan’s remarks on Elliott were window dressing on a larger argument about “the epidemic of male style among women” (“Lesbianism” 33). For Morgan, the issue plaguing the women’s movement was “not the Lesbian-Straight Split, nor the Lesbian-Feminist Split, but the Feminist-Collaborator Split”—that is, a schism between true feminists and the practitioners of male style (33). This latter group included, by Morgan’s reckoning, women working for the McGovern campaign, women against monogamy (“the anti-mono line [having] originated with men”), women who dressed in leather and ride motorcycles, women who danced to “cock rock” like the Rolling Stones, women who joined communes and got high (“the life-style cop-out”), women who organized alongside the Gay Male Alliance, lesbians who refused to organize alongside straight women, and, as always, butches, who “in escaping the patriarchally enforced role of noxious ‘femininity’ adopt[ed] instead the patriarch’s own style, to get drunk and swagger just like one of the boys, to write of tits and ass as if a sister were no more than a collection of chicken parts” (32–33). In short, “Lesbianism,” Morgan warned, quoting a comrade, “is in danger of being co-opted by Lesbians” (34).
If all this strikes you as a little absurd, it’s worth recalling that the thing about the West Coast Lesbian Conference of 1973 was that no one could agree on what a lesbian was. It is hardly accidental that when “lesbian” became the preferred name for good feminist subjectivity, it also became impossible to define. Flip through the follow-up issue of the short-lived underground newspaper the Lesbian Tide, and you’ll see what I mean. Was a lesbian just a homosexual woman? Was a lesbian the same thing as a dyke? Was it something you were, or something you did? Was it a feeling? What about all the “apolitical ‘bar lesbians’ ” who had crashed the conference just to pick up chicks, all of those dykes who used feminism as an excuse to fuck (Forfreedom 4)? And what about Robin Morgan herself? As one skeptical participant wrote of Morgan afterwards, “It would seem hard to me to be such a man hater while living with one of the same” (Buchanan 6). Indeed, Morgan’s self-identification, which came early in her remarks, had been anything but clarifying: “I identify as a Lesbian because I love the People of Women and certain individual women with my life’s blood. Yes, I live with a man—as does my sister Kate Millett. Yes, I am a Mother—as is my sister Del Martin. The man is a Faggot-Effeminist, and we are together the biological as well as the nurturant parents of our child. This confuses a lot of people—it not infrequently confuses us. But there it is” (“Lesbianism” 30).
This sounds like an impasse, because it was one. Morgan perfectly exemplified a feminist caught between the personal and the political. By arguing that the essential characteristic of the lesbian should be a repudiation of male style, she had done nothing less than to advance lesbianism as a defense of heterosexuality: role-playing butches were out, Morgan and her faggy husband were in. In so doing, she had pushed the decision to allegorize bad sex all the way to its payoff. Seventies feminist theory had proceeded, by way of abstraction, from sex, to sexuality, to relationality; now it had bottomed out, paralyzingly, in the matter of style. The Fucking Question had become a Liking Question. I’m suggesting that seventies feminism is here revealed as a politics of taste. This is a terrifying claim to make. It sounds as if I am saying that seventies feminists had no moral grounds on which to oppose patriarchy, or that the matter of the world-historical defeat of the female sex was on par with, for instance, one’s musical preferences, or eating habits, or favorite position in bed. I might be saying those things. But I am definitely saying that seventies feminism attained a degree of radicality never before reached in the history of progressive political movements, and that it had done so by constructing a theoretical framework that hoped to intervene politically not just in policy or even in social practice but at the level of attachment as such.
And here it is that feminism discovered itself to be Impossible. The simple fact was that most feminists liked male style, at least sometimes, and this liking was able to withstand the most ardent ministrations of theory. The true threat of the bar butch, after all, was not that she was apolitical; it was that she was hot. Even Jill Johnston knew this, recounting an early experience wearing a tie in a lesbian club in London: “The tie seemed to guarantee my role as a female who would play the part of a male. [ . . . ] I regarded the attitude with amused toleration, thankful to be attractive to one half of the jam-packed room for inadvertently wearing the right thing” (160). As for Robin Morgan, who would later describe herself as “hopelessly heterosexual” in the seventies (Saturday’s 340), she really did love Kenneth Pitchford, the poet she had married in 1962, and she really did love their four-year-old son, to whom she had written a sweet letter on the plane en route to the convention in Los Angeles. Things with Kenneth had been far from perfect, but “still, we hung on somehow” (Going 47). They’d even resolved, one cold night in December 1966, to try a separation, following a bitter period “broken only long enough to give us each a faint, desperate, renewed energy sufficient to prolong the agony still further” (47). The separation was supposed to last four months; it lasted one night. Returning to their shared apartment to collect some of her things, Morgan found that in her brief absence Pitchford had filled the house with food, wine, candles, flowers: “None of which, even so, would have tempted me. His face, his loud tears and quiet voice, the words he said, however, met my own longing at least halfway, and I stayed” (47).6
I bring this up not just because I find Morgan’s writing beautiful here, which I do, but also because this Morgan, who isn’t busy bashing transsexuals or hating on the Rolling Stones, knows quite intimately that “love is more complex than theory,” as one of her poems puts it (Lady 45). For there is no political program, I submit, capable of efficaciously restructuring people’s attachment to things that are bad for them—no matter how much we in the academy tell ourselves that the purpose of a liberal arts education is, as Gayatri Spivak likes to say, “ceaseless uncoercive rearrangement of desire.” You simply cannot tell people how to feel, at least with the result that they start feeling the way you want them to.
What’s left is force, of one kind or another. It is now a truism that, in the eighties, some feminists began lobbying the state to recognize and crack down on violence against women—paradigmatically, rape, prostitution, and pornography. It is also a truism that the unintended consequence of this turn was to whittle women down to pure victimhood while gifting the state with a plausibly progressive rationale for policing sex and sexuality, especially among already marginalized communities. I want to suggest that this shift was born in part of seventies feminists’ frustration with the genuine unactionability of a culturalist theory of patriarchy. Taste is above the law. Violence isn’t. Morgan foreshadowed this in 1973, referring at key moments in her speech to the recent rape and murder of a university student whom a group of men had killed “by the repeated ramming of a broom-handle into her vagina until she died of massive internal hemorrhage” (“Lesbianism” 32). That was real; that was actionable. What the exploitation of labor already was for the New Left’s class-based analysis—a material base—some feminists would increasingly find in violence against women.
The work of the feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon is instructive here. In 1982, MacKinnon declares in the journal Signs, “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism (“Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda” 515). Like the cultural feminists of the seventies, MacKinnon rejects an economic explanation of women’s oppression for one rooted in sex, but her model is different. Sexuality, she writes, is “a social sphere of male power of which forced sex is paradigmatic” (“Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward” 646). Rape, not bad sex, now becomes the formal paradigm for all male dominance; indeed, it appears on almost every page of her 1983 follow-up essay. Its conceptual power is so vast that MacKinnon declares, with characteristic grandiosity, “To be rapable, a position which is social, not biological, defines what a woman is” (651). Rape is not a feeling; rape is a physical act, one that could be legally defined, criminalized, prosecuted, and punished, while serving as the analogical figurehead for all forms of violence against women. By the mid-eighties, in other words, one can find a critical shift in terms from a culturalist analysis of male style to a materialist analysis of violence against women: that is, from bad sex to rape.
I’ve ended up telling my own version of a loss narrative: feminism was about bad sex, until it was about rape. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the same critiques frequently leveraged at Catharine MacKinnon I would also extend, as some have, to contemporary movements like #MeToo. Grace, you’ll recall, eventually decided that her encounter with Aziz Ansari had been sexual assault. Like feminism, it took her a while to reach that conclusion. “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” she told Babe. “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault. And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad” (qtd. in Way). One reading would throw Grace under the same bus as MacKinnon: regretful over bad (albeit patriarchally conditioned) sex, Grace revised the encounter into sexual assault, casting herself as a victim in need of rescue by an overreaching state. This reading could be feminist, but certainly doesn’t have to be (see Ward; Weiss).
But another reading is possible, if we assume that the language of rape and sexual assault is not overdetermined by its legal or jurisprudential senses. When Grace identifies the encounter as sexual assault, I would suggest, she is appealing in the first place not to a legal power capable of finding Ansari guilty and doling out punishment, but to something socially intelligible as a material event—he touched me without my consent—on the basically accurate intuition that a feeling of violation, taken on its own, will bear little moral or political weight in the publics to which she belongs. What I am getting at is not material reality “itself,” but rather the affective charge of “materiality” as a rhetorical figure—or to put it another way, the process by which affect in want of an object draws forth (or discloses, in the Heideggerian sense) a material event as its putative cause in order to become shareable with others (see Chu). It takes effort for me to do this second reading, though I think it is important. I do not know if Grace was sexually assaulted. I am certain she had bad sex. This tells you more about me than Grace: that I can’t stand the eighties feminist analysis of rape; that I am fully seduced by the seventies feminist analysis of bad sex. I do think male style is an epidemic. I do think separatism is the only answer. Each time I read Grace’s story—as I have dozens of times in writing this—I want to leap through my computer screen like the sex police: Why didn’t you become a lesbian, Grace? This was my version of the question everyone on the Internet was asking, feminist and otherwise: Why didn’t she leave? We knew the answer, but it was so simple we were too terrified to believe it. She stayed because she wanted to. Six words in which fifty years of feminism disintegrates like sweetener into coffee.
Reading Grace’s story one final time, I realize it’s clear that this is what she keeps saying, over and over again. “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill,” she says (qtd. in Way). Don’t ruin this for me, she means. Don’t make it impossible for me to stay. I still want something from you, after everything. Don’t break my desire. “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” she tells him. Don’t make this about violence, she means. Let me believe that you’re a good guy. Make yourself into something I could want. She is not destroyed; she is disappointed. But what disappoints her is not, in the last instance, the man who is failing to be what she wants. What disappoints her is the stamina of her own desire, the surprising durability of her optimism. Let me believe, she pleads with him. Let me believe that heterosexuality isn’t a lost cause. Let me believe that feminism is possible. Eventually she does leave, it’s true, wriggling away to call an Uber, which he insists on calling for her. “You guys are all the same,” she tells him. “You guys are all the fucking same” (qtd. in Way). He asks her what she means. She means: You hurt me. She means: You disappointed me. But she also means: You’re not the first man to hurt me. You’re not the first man to disappoint me. And also: You won’t be the last. No wonder the reporter gave her a name that meant Another Chance.
I guess what I’m saying is that feminism is disappointing the way that heterosexuality is disappointing: not because it isn’t everything you’d dreamed it would be, but because the fact that it isn’t doesn’t make you feel any differently. That is to say that the desire for feminism, in terms of its affective structure, is less like radical separatism and more like Robin Morgan leaving her husband for one night—and then coming back. Feminism, like good sex, is probably a fantasy. By “fantasy,” I mean not something that is untrue, but something you believe in not because it’s true, but because you want to. That’s not, in and of itself, a shortcoming. The question is never how to get rid of fantasy; the first and last fantasy, after all, is that fantasy is something you can do without. The question is how to make adjustments in fantasies without totally breaking them, or how to survive a shift from one fantasy to another, or sometimes, just how to survive the fantasy you’re already in. Feminism’s being impossible doesn’t keep us feminists from wanting it. That’s hopeful, in a disappointing kind of way, but it’s the closest I’m going to get to performing the perfunctory optimism of a final paragraph. If you like, we can call it the Impossibility of Not-Feminism.
For convenience, in this essay I will refer to the feminism of the late sixties and early seventies as “seventies feminism.”
For more on intimate publics and women’s culture, see Berlant, Female 5–13.
m/f was also the name of an important British journal of feminist theory that ran from 1978 to 1986.
A loosely Kantian theory of form underlies this essay that I do not have the space to elaborate in detail. By “form,” I mean something 1) nonempirical, that is, unavailable to objective observation or verification; but 2) experienced nonetheless. This roughly corresponds to what Kant would call an a priori synthetic judgment. When I say a woman is beautiful, I am referring not to any of her empirical qualities, but to how she looks: she has the look of a beautiful woman. This is a judgment about form. Form, in this theory, is the correlate of affect. Her look is made available to me not by my sense organs, but through my feelings: I envy her beauty, her beauty arouses me, I am ashamed of my ugliness. Forms are felt; feelings feel forms. This reciprocal process is aesthesis; it is what I refer to when I use the term “aesthetic” in this essay. (This may seem the most classically misogynist example I could give; I give it because, as a trans woman and a lesbian, it is something I think about every day.)
I follow Lauren Berlant’s definition of genre: “A genre is an aesthetic structure of affective expectation, an institution or formation that absorbs all kinds of small variations or modifications while promising that the persons transacting with it will experience the pleasure of encountering what they expected, with details varying the theme. It mediates what is singular, in the details, and general about the subject” (Female 4).
Morgan and Pitchford wouldn’t separate until the eighties; they wouldn’t formally divorce until 1990, at which point she had— would you believe it?—taken up with a woman.