The Dangerous Rise of Sexual Politics

February 23, 2009

Four decades into the boldest social experiment ever undertaken in the Western democracies, the full impact of what was once quaintly known as "women's liberation" is at last becoming clear. The political class of both the Left and Right have colluded to limit the debate to a series of innocuous controversies: job discrimination, equal pay, affirmative action. Only abortion has any depth, and that debate has been mired in stalemate.

Meanwhile, beneath the political radar screen, the real consequences are finally emerging: a massive restructuring of the social order, demographic trends that threaten the very survival of Western civilization, and perhaps least noticed, an exponential growth in the size and power of the state - the state at its most bureaucratic and tyrannical.

Feminism has now positioned itself as the vanguard of the Left, shifting the political discourse from the economic and racial to the social and increasingly the sexual. What was once a socialistic assault on property and enterprise has become a social and sexual attack on the family, marriage, and masculinity. This marks a truly new kind of politics, the most personal and thus potentially the most total politics ever devised: the politics of private life and sexual relations.

Sexual politics is both feminist and homosexual, with no distinct line separating them. Feminism has been the more overtly political doctrine. Until recently, gays asked mostly to be left alone and as such gained widespread sympathy.

Many homosexuals, especially males, probably do not consciously think about their sexuality in expressly political terms. Yet homosexuality in itself can be a political statement, especially lesbianism, which for many constitutes the personal dimension of feminist ideology. "Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice," in words attributed to Ti-Grace Atkinson. "For many of today's feminists, lesbianism is far more than a sexual orientation or even a preference. It is, as students in many colleges learn, 'an ideological, political, and philosophical means of liberation of all women from heterosexual tyranny.'" For sexual activists, sex itself is not a private but a political act. Recalling Henry Adams' definition of politics as the "systematic organization of hatreds," it requires little imagination to see that this rebellion against sexual "tyranny" has politicized and transformed sex, an act associated at its most sublime with love, into what may yet prove history's purest distillation of hate.

No sexual ideology has ever appeared before, and its unprecedented power is at once obvious and disguised. Obvious, because it is not difficult to see that politicizing sex and sexual relations potentially penetrates far deeper into the human psyche, unleashes energies and emotions, and disrupts relationships and institutions far more fundamental than those attacked by radical ideologies of the past. The capacity for intrusion into the private sphere of life is unrivalled since the bureaucratic dictatorships of the last century and potentially surpasses even them. "Radical feminism is the most destructive and fanatical movement to come down to us from the Sixties," writes Robert Bork. "This is a revolutionary, not a reformist, movement, and it is meeting with considerable success. Totalitarian in spirit, it is deeply antagonistic to traditional Western culture and proposes the complete restructuring of society, morality, and human nature."

Yet how precisely the scenario is playing out is far less clear and, indeed, has escaped most observers. The grip that sexual politics already commands over our political culture is so profound that its most destabilizing features are often undetected even by its harshest critics. Apart from its advocates, few have even singled out sexual politics for focused critical attention. It is bemoaned as simply another facet of leftist politics, like socialism and racial nationalism. But it is much more.

Sexual politics is the most complex and subtle political ideology today. On the one hand, the excesses of organized feminism's formal agenda no longer command serious respect. Many assume it is spent as a political force, that "feminism is dead" and we live in a "post-feminist" age. At the same time, unspoken feminist assumptions no longer hover in the political margins; they have permeated the mainstream and thrive unchallenged and unchallengeable on the Left, the Center, and even the Right. The danger is not the absurdities of its extremists, whom few now regard, but the steady erosion of social cohesion, civic freedom, and above all privacy, as well as the politicization of personal life by a sexual ideology that has so mesmerized us all that we are largely immune from realizing it. Perhaps the greatest danger is the absence of coherent opposition. For more than any other political movement, feminism neuters, literally emasculates its opposition.

Many have discerned a similarity between feminism and Marxism, but few appreciate how feminism extends the socialist logic and may actually exceed its intrusive potential. "Women's liberation, if not the most extreme then certainly the most influential neo-Marxist movement in America , has done to the American home what communism did to the Russian economy, and most of the ruin is irreversible," writes Ruth Wisse of Harvard. "By defining relations between men and women in terms of power and competition instead of reciprocity and cooperation, the movement tore apart the most basic and fragile contract in human society, the unit from which all other social institutions draw their strength."

Politicizing sex takes the logic of class conflict a great leap forward. The charge of "oppression" is leveled not at broad, impersonal social classes but at the most intimate personal relationships. The oppressor is not the entrepreneurial class or entrepreneur but the husband (or "intimate partner"), the father, even the son. To relieve the oppressed, the all-powerful state nationalizes not only the private firm but the private family. Human intimacy - the individual's last refuge from state power - is not only a collateral casualty but a targeted enemy.

The danger therefore comes not so much from the assault on freedom generally (which traditional tyrannies also threaten) but specifically from the attack on private life, especially family life (which traditional dictatorships usually left alone). "Radical feminism is totalitarian because it denies the individual a private space; every private thought and action is public and, therefore, political," writes Bork. "The party or the movement claims the right to control every aspect of life." Daphne Patai also perceives this hostility to privacy. "Feminism today, in its erasure of the boundaries between public and private, is writing a new chapter in the dystopian tradition of surveillance and unfreedom," she observes, "...whereby one's every gesture, every thought, is exposed to the judgment of one's fellow citizens." This attack on privacy is especially dangerous, because today many conservatives - those otherwise most likely to challenge feminism - themselves do not value privacy and civil liberties. By a destructive irony, feminists have already appropriated "privacy" as a rationale for abortion in legal cases like Roe v. Wade, leading conservatives (who at one time extolled the virtues of private life) to abandon the concept itself. Many conservatives also dismiss civil liberties as a pretext for acquitting criminals. This leaves the Left with a monopoly as guardians of the Bill of Rights. The guilty do indeed go unpunished, but partly because the innocent are convicted in their place. As we will see, the principal political force driving incarceration today - of both the innocent and the guilty - is politicized sexuality.

"Revolutions are very hard indeed on privacy," observes our leading sociologist of revolution. That the totalitarian governments of the twentieth century intruded themselves into the most intimate corners of personal life, politicized the private, and destroyed much of family life is well known. But even they did not usually make the destruction of private life their explicit aim.

Modern sexual politics, by contrast, specifically targets privacy, and especially family privacy. Political theorist Carol Pateman insists that denying "the dichotomy between the public and the, ultimately, what the feminist movement is about," and two prominent feminists sneer at "the ideology of the family as a bastion of privacy." Feminism's fundamental principle - that "the personal is political" - is so obviously totalitarian that historian Eugene Genovese (himself a former Marxist) has termed it "Stalinist." Again, this potential is obvious theoretical. What is seldom appreciated is how far the potential has been realized. "Radical feminists must regard it as unfortunate that they lack the power and mechanisms of the state to enforce their control over thoughts as well as behavior," muses Bork. "However, the movement is gradually gaining that coercive power in both private and public institutions." Actually, they have it now.

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Copyright ©2009 Stephen Baskerville, PhD

Stephen Baskerville is Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College and Research Fellow at the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, the Independent Institute, and the Inter-American Institute. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and has taught political science and international affairs at Howard University in Washington and Palacky University in the Czech Republic. He writes on comparative and international politics and on political ideologies with an emphasis on religion, family policy, and sexuality. His books include Not Peace But a Sword: The Political Theology of the English Revolution, and Taken Into Custody: The War against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family.
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