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Call for a Sabotage of Female Sexuality

November 23, 2010

As I said in a previous post, learning about various social violence is emotionally hard for me.  However, the two hardest episodes had to do with mass and intense sexual violence.  The first case was when I read Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith.  The second case was two years later, when I watched Rape: A Crime of War, a documentary directed by Shelley Saywell.  I felt it hard not only because the crimes were a violation of women, but also because of the ways it was combined and morphed with other forms of violence.  The difference in my emotional reaction (compared to other violent events that I studied) was more complex than just a variation in levels of intensity, but it is too enigmatic for me to go into right now.

Anyhow, why did those two instances hit me harder than other intensely violent events that also affect a mass population (other aspects of wars or extreme destitution, say)?  I suspect that it is because I’m conditioned as a woman.  Why does sexuality play such a big role (if not the most important) in a woman’s sense of self? Why is sexual act the division between “good women” and “bad women”?  Why are there such a thing as virginity, and such a thing as losing virginity?  And how does one “loses virginity,” by any kind of sex, or penetrative sex, or vaginal penetration, or penile-vaginal penetration?  Why is rape one of the most traumatic experiences, and the worst violation of women (both her psyche and body)?  Why is sex work viewed differently compared to other kinds of work?  These questions aim both to bring forth our views of sexuality, and bring up issues with assumptions behind our views.

Most of the answers to those questions have to do with how we feel about female sexuality.  But what is feeling and emotion?  Arlie Hochschild suggests that “we experience [emotion] when bodily sensations are joined with what we see or imagine.”  Emotion, like a biological sense, works as signals that shape our view of the world and our selves1.  “But signaling is complex—it is not the simple conveying of information about the outside world [or from our inner selves, I would add].  It is not a telling.  It is a comparing. When an emotion signals a message of danger or safety to us, it involves a reality newly grasped on the template of prior expectation.”

Emotion, like our tastes, beliefs, and many other things that we often see as parts of our core selves, is shaped by our environments2.  Hochschild writes: “Prior expectations are part and parcel of what we see, and in the same way they are part of what we feel. The idea of prior expectation implies the existence of a prior self that does the expecting. […] Most of us maintain a prior expectation of a continuous self, but the character of the self we expect to maintain is subject to profoundly social influence. Insofar as our self and all we expect is social—as by the time of adulthood is inevitably is—the way emotional signals messages to us is also influenced by social factors.”

So how we feel about (female) sexuality is a social matter.  It is also a political matter. By “female sexuality,” I’m not only referring to matters in sex and sexual orientation.  In a patriarchal society, the category of women is defined by a set of patriarchal notions about female sexuality.  (Men are not tied to his sexuality the same way).  Ideas about femininity – women’s “natural” capability, hence what kind of education she should study and what kind of jobs she should do, her sensibility, her bonding, her desire – all of these are based heavily on entrenched patriarchal ideology regarding female sexuality.  And all of these ideas about women are tied to ideas about patriarchy, the nation, and society.  For example, think about the two oldest societal institutions: heteronormative family and military.  It’s probably easy to see what role women play in the first case: career of home, rearer of children, server of husband.  The stability of the family depends on women obediently taking the serving position.  The patriarchal nation’s cohesion depends on a stable notion of the nuclear family.  The military institution, which is often considered the masculine enterprise, also depends on entrenched ideas about female sexuality.  Authorities rallied men to build armies and go to war in the name of protecting their women, their families, and their nation.  Sometimes patriarchal institution makes a more direct connection between women’s sexuality and the nation.  For instance, when Kathy Ferguson was in Israel a long time ago, she found maps where on the back side they included a guideline on how women should wash and clean, and what they should do when they’re in menstruation, etc.  On the back of a nation state (map), is the woman doing her prescribe duties.

If a patriarchal society manages women by controlling the significance of her sexuality3 (and many other things), then when women themselves view their sexuality as an extremely important aspect of their sense of self, it actually creates more power for patriarchal dominance.  The second-wave feminism brought new heightened awareness of female sexuality.  Since then, many social movements focus on reclaiming/liberating women’s sexuality, and protecting women from sexual violence.  Many intellectual movements have also drawn critical analogy between rape and other forms of violence.

Those works are important, but the ways the movements operate often take for granted and reinforce the significance of sexuality in women’s sense of self.  This could backfire and make women feel more vulnerable to and more devastated by sexual violence, which give patriarchal institutions more validity and control over women.  It also curbs political possibility by molding it around sexuality, and not much else4.  This operation does not simply work in a rational manner (like saying how frequently sexual violence occurs makes women more afraid, or proclaiming a clear definition of female sexuality make it important for women) but it works in an affective sphere5.  It does not persuade us rationally but it shapes our habitus and social imaginary6.

The role of emotion is crucial here.  I don’t think that the social and intellectual movements mentioned above are unreasonable.  In fact, I think they are very sensible.  And it is exactly this sensibility of female sexuality that I wish women would examine.  Jacques Rancière writes that the distribution of the sensible is political. ‘Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of times’ (quoted in “Anarchist Spaces”).  What is sensible – what can be perceived and what is rational – is embedded in our emotion habitus.  We perceive and believe not only with our mind, but also with our feeling and body.

Society conditions its subjects to have certain views of male and female sexuality (as well as sexuality of adults, children, elders, Blacks, Whites, Asian, gays, straights, etc).  This conditioning is tenacious because it operates affectively.  Emotion plays a big role in our thinking of the world, our selves, what is possible, what it right and wrong.  But we don’t often ask how we come to feel (i.e. believe with our heart) a certain way, because we think of emotion as irrational, uncontrollable and coming from unknowable parts within our selves.  However, emotion is a habitus that forms over time.  Society plays a large role in shaping our emotion, but we can, in fact, manage and actively mold our feelings since we’re already doing it everyday (though mostly just in compliance to the current system).  Many feminist movements fight for gender equality but they do so within ideology of femininity and masculinity set by patriarchal tradition.  If women want to take control of our own sexuality, then it is not enough to reclaim it–to take our sexuality back from patriarchy, because female sexuality was formed by patriarchal system from the beginning.  Women need to mold a new sense of their own selves and sexuality.  This is not a simple matter of intellectively proclaiming some sort of official consensus.  We need to question our current sensibility, and pay attention to own our emotion habitus and the operation of affect.

I’m certainly not saying that if women change their emotion then they’ll be free from sexual violence, or that feminist activism is insignificant.  On the contrary, social movement is extremely important because (emotional) habitus is a social phenomenon that manifest in a bodily and individual level.  What I am frustrated with is that despite much activism, many women’s lives have not improved significantly, and women movements are now pretty much dispersed.  It makes me ask why all the analysis of class, race, sex, gender, and sexuality fail to move people.  What else is at work here?  A friend of mine said: it’s like “‘feminism’ has become a dirty word now.”  Backlashes against women’s movements since the second wave of feminism have been intense and pervasive.  It could mean that patriarchal ideology about female sexuality is a critical point that we need to dislodge in order to fight gender inequality.

Feminist movements has long been challenging gender inequality.  Isn’t it about time we also challenge the patriarchal construction of women itself?  Time to dig deep and wide, for the current notion of female sexuality is entrenched in our selves and also far into other ideologies about patriarchy and the nation.


1. “Emotion is unique among other senses because it is related not only to an orientation toward action but also to an orientation toward cognition.

Darwin defined emotions as a protoaction, as what occurs instead of or before an action, as an action manqué.  Emotion, therefore, is our experience of the body ready for an imaginary action. Since the body readies itself for action in physiological ways, emotion involves biological processes.  Thus when we manage an emotion, we are partly managing a bodily preparation for a consciously or unconsciously anticipated deed.  This is why emotion work is work.

Cognition is involved in the process by which emotions “signal” messages to the individual.  Freud wrote about the “signal function” of anxiety; anxiety, according to Freud, signaled the presence of danger from within or outside the individual.  It was a mean by which the individual told of an apprehended danger.  Similarly, other emotional states such as joy, sadness, and jealousy—can be seen as the senders of signals about our way of apprehending the inner and outer environment.” (Hochschild, The Manage Heart)

2. Our society promotes the view of the feeling self as our “real self.” But Hochschild says that in emotion work, we manage both how we express emotions and our inner emotions according to the social feeling rules.  “The actual content of feeling—or wishes, or fantasies, or actions—is not what distinguishes the false self from the true self: the difference lies in whether we claim them as ‘our own’.”

3. This management not only takes the form of imposing force on women but also shaping ideas about femininity, and it doesn’t control only women but also men.  For example, according to their societies’ sensibility, some main reasons for the mass systematic rape of women of all ages (not just reproducing age), in the Yugoslavia Wars are to “dilute” the race of the other side, to humiliate men on the other side for not being able to protect “their” women, and to break their familial (hence national) tie.  All of this work based on assumptions like women and their sexuality are men’s property and pride, are symbol of the family (which also belongs to men), and a fundamental basis of the patriarchal nation.

4. This is a part of the “intimate public sphere” that dismays Lauren Berlant.  She observes that the US no longer has a political sphere due to the privatization of citizenship, a process that “involve[s] rerouting the critical energies of the emerging political sphere into the sentimental spaces of an amorphous opinion culture, characterized by strong patriotic identification mixed with feelings of practical political powerlessness.” (“The Intimate Public Sphere”)

5. For the purpose of this discussion, we can think of affect as the signal that our emotion transmits to us. Sara Ahmed posits that “affect does not reside positively in the sign or commodity, but is produced as an effect of its circulation. Signs increase in affective value as an effect of the movement between signs: the more signs circulate, the more affective they become. Given this, affective economies are social and material, as well as psychic” (“The Organisation of Hate”).  If affect operates in such movement, then what we feel doesn’t exactly come from an object’s inner quality, or our inner self.  Affect builds on pre-formatted values, it draws from a social repertoire.  We need to pay attention to the movement of affective value and ask both where our emotion comes from, and how we come to feel this way.

6. Habitus is a social sedimentation that forms over time.  It “refers to those embodied rituals of everydayness by which a given culture produces and sustains belief in its own ‘obviousness’. The body, its gestures, its stylistic, its unconscious ‘knowingness’ as the site for the reconstitution of a practical sense without which social reality would not be constituted as such. It also generates dispositions which ‘incline’ the social subject to act in relative conformity with the ostensibly objective demands of the field.” (Judith Butler, Excitable Speech)

“Social imaginaries are embedded in our daily habitus, just as our habitus takes meaning from our surrounding social imaginaries. Social imaginaries are both ways of grasping social life and part of the social life to be grasped. They generate the ‘implicit understandings that underlie and make possible common practices’.” (Kathy Ferguson, “Anarchist Spaces”)


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