Wednesday, September 27, 2017

MacKinnon: From Sexual Agency to Desire

After reading excerpts from Catherine MacKinnon’s works, I wonder: do we enjoy sexual agency? MacKinnon’s dominance framework suggests that women do not because their sexual agency is an illusion that furthers their subjugation within our patriarchal state. In other words, women’s sexual agency is a form of false consciousness that conceals how women’s sexuality within heterosexual relations benefits men.

I don’t wholly agree with MacKinnon, but I do agree with her milder proposition that sexual agency is constrained. Indeed, not only is sexual agency constrained along gender, sexual orientation, and erotic lines, it’s also constrained by numerous institutions, fields, and practices emanating from and operating within our patriarchal state. For example, until recently, the medical field constrained sexual agency by medicalizing certain sexual practices, including some fetishisms and BDSMYet, MacKinnon elides over how our patriarchal state may also constrain men’s sexual agency. Our justice system, for example, used to constrain men’s sexual agency by criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct among men through the selective application of sodomy laws. Thus, if MacKinnon is correct and heterosexuality buttresses our patriarchal state, then clearly gay cis-men do not enjoy the same degree of sexual agency that straight cis-men do. 

I do not agree, however, with MacKinnon’s implication that because women’s sexual agency is constrained women therefore lack sexual agency. Instead, all individuals face constraints within which they exercise their sexual agency. And, in turn, individuals use whatever sexual agency they possess to negotiate the boundaries of those constraints, which are effectively in flux. Take the protagonist Ana Steele in the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. At first, her sexual agency is constrained by her libido: her pronounced sexual attraction to Christian Grey, and her quest for sexual pleasure. This prompts her to coyly negotiate a detailed BDSM-contract with Grey that outlines the sexual practices he’s allowed to perform on her. And though neither character tendered consideration to seal the deal, Ana had a voice during negotiations: she rejected the use of tape during bondage play. As silly as the scene may be, it illustrates that Ana had some sexual agency even if patriarchy loomed in the background. But I am sure that MacKinnon knew that much, so there must be more to her argument of sexual agency than meets the eye.

I think MacKinnon’s work raises a more provocative question: is a woman’s sexual desire her own? Or, more generally, are our sexual desires our own? This is a more provocative question because desire, being psychological in nature, may precede and shape individuals’ sexual agency. Further, it is difficult to imagine sexual desire as existing outside what is socially and sexually intelligible, and thus socially and sexually possible. But as dominance theory implies, it is our patriarchal state that moderates what is intelligible. If this is so, then Ana Steele didn’t have bargaining power at the table. Instead, she was a slave to her patriarchally moderated desires. But couldn’t the same be said of Christian Grey?

The numerous questions and responses that MacKinnon’s structuralist analysis elicits confirm the value of her work. Does MacKinnon’s dominance theory explain gender relations? Only partly. Does her theory elide over how our patriarchal state also subjugates men? Yes. Nevertheless, MacKinnon’s dominance theory provides a nice segue into more nuanced analyses of gender, sexuality, and erotic practices. Indeed, MacKinnon’s suggestion that our patriarchal state delimits what is socially and sexually possible (for women), is reminiscent of Judith Butler’s “matrix of intelligibility,” which is what allows for (gender) identities to be socially viable.

Thank you MacKinnon for pushing me to question my sexual agency, and desires!


Omar de la Cruz said...

I enjoyed reading your post as you echo many of the same thoughts I had while reading MacKinnon. You also mentioned a few ideas that I must admit I hadn't thought off. You question "...are our sexual desires our own?" was really thought provoking. I hadn't really given the question thought on that level. Our desires are largely influenced by what we're socialized into but perhaps there is more to that, perhaps there are intrinsic factors at play as well along with other factors that I simply cannot imagine.

I also agree with you here and with what you said in class about MacKinnon. Her writings are very much worth a read and useful as far as creating the avenues for a more nuanced discussion on gender, sexuality etc. It's too bad that, as the readings suggest, MacKinnon seemed more interested in defending her work as is against critics than having nuanced and constructive conversations about the subjects she raised.

Aoife Mee said...

Thank you for such a thought provoking blog!

While reading your post I was reminded of another way women's sexual agency is socially constrained. Today we live in a much more sexually liberated society in which it is widely deemed socially acceptable for individuals to have multiple sexual partners throughout their lifetime. However, the extent to which individuals are sexually liberated differs depending on your gender.

It remains the case that women are under pressure to have a much lower number of sexual partners throughout their lives than men. Men are free to go out "on the pull" (as we would say in Ireland) and sleep with as many different women as they like without fear of social stigma. Women, on the other hand, must be cautious not to sleep with "too many" different partners or they might risk being labelled a "slut" or a "whore". Such stigma can be a strong pressure on women not to act on their own sexual desires, thus constraining their sexual agency.

Women are merely allowed to "kiss a few frogs" before they "find their prince," while men are encouraged to "play the field" before finding a "nice girl" (not a slut) to settle down with.