“Radical Heterosexuality”: Do We Want Equality?

Last year I started an individual blog which is currently defunct, and this is a repost of a post from that blog. I wrote it nearly a year ago, but it’s an issue that’s been on my mind lately, and our conversations about presiding reminded me of it again. It’s just a few thoughts on the difficulties of trying to negotiate feminist ideals in one’s life (in this case, when it comes to relationships). I’ve made no alterations to the original post.

I get frustrated by the disconnect I see in my life between how I act in relationships with others (especially those of the male-female variety) and how I ideally see myself acting in my head. Maybe that’s why the article “Radical Heterosexuality” by Naomi Wolf that my Women’s Studies students read this past semester (and that I hadn’t read before) struck such a chord for me.

Admittedly, it’s a dated article; it speaks to some debates in feminism that aren’t dominant issues anymore. For example, once of Wolf’s central questions is whether or not you can simultaneously love men and be a feminist. She answers “yes” (and then writes about how one goes about doing that in the rest of the article), but I think that most feminists these days would not disagree with her on this issue. We’ve moved from painting men as the enemy to recognizing that both men and women are caught up in societal institutions that create inequalities and shape our behavior and choices.

The parts of Wolf’s article I did find compelling were the moments where she detailed how feminists should act in their relationships with men. Instead of merely critiquing men for the ways in which they end up dominating relationships, she points her fingers at feminists and critiques them for the ways in which they allow their own behavior to be dictated by socialization and gendered expectations.

At one point in the article, she humorously narrates how she often will stand by while her partner “wrestles with a stuck window, an intractable computer printer, maps, or locks” because “people are lazy–at least I am–and it’s easy to rationalize that the person with the penis is the one who should get out of a warm bed to fix the snow on the TV screen.” One issue she spends a particular amount of time on is the way in which feminists have been socialized with an “antifeminist erotic template” (i.e. knights on white horses with damsels in distress), and that we need to acknowledge that this socialization exists and do our best to unpack and understand it, and afterwards, strive for equality in our relationships.

The past few months, I’ve been thinking about my own struggles with this issue. I think I worry about this more on a communicative and interactive than on a practical skills level (I’m not good with computers and fixing things, and if the person I’m with is much better than I am at it, I think he should do it by virtue that it’s going to take him about 1/10 of the time that it will take me). However, there are areas of my relationships where my ideals of equality don’t match the reality.

For instance, to what extent do the ways in which I demand emotional sensitivity and empathy from others produce these desirable characteristics, and to what extent do they place me in a protective emotional bubble where everyone around me has to step carefully lest I get upset? The latter puts me in a position where it 1) becomes increasingly difficult for me to take responsibility for my own emotional reactions and 2) doesn’t enable me to participate as a full equal in a messy-yet-hopefully-joyous emotional relationship.

To what extent is my tendency to look at things from multiple perspectives and validate the perspectives of others a good quality, and to what extent do I take this too far and allow my own visions, thoughts, and opinions to be subsumed into the thoughts and opinions of others? The latter puts me in a position where my unique perspective is not equally heard and valued in my daily environments and interactions.

I find the whole issue immensely tricky. My socialized/innate (it’s some of both) behaviors don’t fit the ideal in my head, and it’s difficult to change. Also, sometimes you want to take advantage of the benefits of inequality because you don’t get the benefits of equality; you’d rather have the latter, but if you can’t, the former is better than no benefits at all. But then you end up reinforcing dynamics of inequality that are making you unhappy.

I do think women are repeatedly silenced, demeaned, and oppressed in subtle ways that are often difficult to pinpoint. I think it’s important to look at how institutions and socialization reinforce these tendencies. However, I think each woman needs to look at the ways in which she allows herself to be silenced. We need to look at the ways we take advantage of unequal gendered positions rather than demanding equality in all its beauty and difficulty.

(I took the quotes from Wolf’s article from the anthology “Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives,” edited by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, and published by McGraw-Hill in 2004).


  1. Excellent, excellent post, Seraphine. The balancing act you describe is a part of every feminists life, I think.

    I see it expressed most keenly in the decision to stay home with the children, even if a woman would rather have an outside career. The Second Shift is a very real phenomenon. Even with feminist husbands who are happy to “help,” different standards of “acceptable” and the harsh judgements of those who believe employed women are “abandoning their children to be raised by others” make it easier just to stay home, rather than to fight.

    The programming to be sweet and accomodating is particularly galling. When a women is straightforward and direct and “disagreeable,” she’s “angry.” The same quality in a man is “passionate” or “forthright” or “principled.”

    And yet we have to LIVE in this society. We have to somehow manage to get along. Who wants to fight all the time?

  2. You raise some fascinating questions, Seraphine. (I might have to look up that article.) I’m wondering to what extent my behavior matches my ideals. If I’m with a guy, for example, and it’s pouring rain and someone needs to go out in it to do something, will I let him play chivalrous and do it? Or, to give an example along the lines of some of the issues you raised, even if I theoretically believe in the importance of women being assertive and not just emotionally taking care of everyone else, to what extent do I put that into practice in my relationships? Hmm. I need to think about this more.

  3. I’m glad you posted this here. I’ve found myself thinking similar thoughts many many times, over seemingly pointless things to very serious things. I think Ann says it well- we have to live our lives here, and while living for the principle is noble there comes a point where the costs are just too high. But we make compromises like this all the time with lots of other principles (see the eco-friendly thread at FMH), it’s just that feminists don’t have a lot of role models to follow in making compromises like this.

  4. Ann, since I’m not married yet (and don’t have children), I haven’t had to deal with “the second shift” or decisions regarding staying at home. I do feel like I have been socially trained to be less forthright and direct, however. My nickname when I was a child was “motormouth,” and I was known for speaking my mind on all subjects. I don’t really do that so much anymore.

    Lynnette, yeah, it’s definitely food for thought, and I’ve realized that my behavior definitely does not match my ideals. 🙂

  5. Starfoxy, good point. I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of making compromises, but that’s definitely true. I guess it’s all about picking your battles, and it can be so difficult to figure out how best to do that.

  6. Seraphine- I don’t know if you follow other feminist blogs, but a few months back there was a widespread disagreement that has since been named the Lipstick War. Basically Blogger A denounces lipstick (and all beauty rituals) as anti-feminist. Various other bloggers take exception to this, believing it to mean that good feminists can’t wear lipstick. A few people tried to justify lipstick wearing as beyond sexism- ie red lips are intrinsically beautiful. Much fighting ensued, and a lot of it was enlightening to read. I agree with the general sentiment of this post (just as a warning (especially if you read other posts from this site, she uses pretty coarse language and is openly hostile to religion in general.)

  7. Starfoxy, I Blame the Patriarchy is single handedly responsible for my lack of interest in the sexist patriarchal order described as the Divine Way of Things by the LDS church. After all, patriarchy is the underlying construct of our entire society. At least the church is open about it. In The World, the dominance culture just teases use with equality that we can’t ever really have.

    Once I recognized it, it was such a relief. Since the only cure is violent revolution, and that will never happen, all that’s left is negotiating my personal response to my powerlessness. Which is what I interpreted this post to be about.

  8. Starfoxy, I go through cycles of following other feminist blogs. I haven’t read them much lately because of a lack of emotional energy, so I haven’t been following the Lipstick War. Thanks for the link–I have my own attachments to femininity (as is probably evidenced by this post), but I do agree with the general sentiments in the “I Blame the Patriarchy” post.

    And, Ann, I would say this post is definitely me “negotiating my personal response to my powerlessness” (and trying to figure out small ways I can regain power) 🙂

  9. “negotiating my personal response to my powerlessness” (and trying to figure out small ways I can regain power)

    John 1:12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons (alternatively translated as “children”) of God, even to them that believe on his name:

    Might I recommend that the only power you need is the power that comes from receiving Christ? Everything else is ultimately of little/no value.

    This is the only critique I hold of feminism as you just stated it. It is inherently short-sighted in that it mistakes earthly dominions as significant because they are not held up in contrast to the gifts of the eternities.

    Admittedly my perceptions are handicapped by my manhood :). Maybe I’m just blind.

  10. Ryan, I agree that the power that comes from his Atonement is powerful, indeed (which is why I’m a feminist Mormon rather than just a feminist). 🙂

    But it’s a frustrating feeling to pressured to act in certain ways that decrease one’s ability to use one’s agency in beneficial ways. For me feminism is less about having “earthly dominion” than thinking about ways in which societal institutions can limit the power of our agency in problematic ways and figuring out how to reverse that.

  11. You’ve kind of lost me, what is a sample scenario where societal institutions limit your ability to use your agency in beneficial ways?

  12. I didn’t phrase myself very clearly (and I’m tired, so I’m not sure if I can do a better job the second time around, but I’ll try). What I was trying to indicate is that sometimes society/culture/institutions limit agency in ways that are problematic. Limiting agency is not necessarily bad. For example, people who kill get put in jail (and suffer other social consequences)–society limits their agency because they’re doing things that are harming the society.

    However, society often has “unspoken” limits/restrictions based on race, gender, etc. While society does pressure men to conform to certain behaviors, women have to deal with a lot more. More media imagery about “being thin” and needing to adhere to a beauty ideal is aimed at women. Women are more likely to face adverse consequences than men if they don’t adhere to standards of beauty or thinness in society. When it comes to sex-related crimes (rape, incest, etc.), a much larger percentage of the victims are female than male. Women are told they need to adhere to specific “feminine” codes of behavior, and when they don’t, they are punished in subtle ways.

    Anyway, the total effect of this is that not only do women not have as much institutional power (which you classified as “earthly dominion”), they lose power to enact change and make decisions in their own lives. The psychological consequences of rape limit women. Women who are socialized to be less outspoken are more likely to be unable to speak up for themselves in various situations later on in life.

    Anyway, when I use the word “power” and talk about how women need more “power”, I am generally refering to personal, autonomous power that becomes limited by the way that society trains women to be “women.” I don’t think socializing is bad, per se, but I think we need to be a lot more careful about how we go about doing it.

  13. *sigh*

    I think I’m going to be skinned alive for this… but the scenarios you are outlining indicate not a theft of agency but a surrendering of agency. It’s the “He/she made me do it” fallacy. To illustrate that I am not just being a callous jerk, let me use a personal example from my own life.

    I grew up in an extremely poor family that, by happenstance, found an inexpensive home in an upper class neighborhood. This, of course, led to a childhood ripe with ridicule when I would bring out my generic clothes, Pic-N-Save skateboard, used bike, etc… I grew up feeling an unspoken pressure to remain silent lest I draw attention to myself and incur more ridicule. Later on I learned that by having a quick wit, I could be a vocal part of the group and easily deflect the ridicule. Instead of bending to the pressure, I took it as an obstacle to overcome.

    There are plenty of successful and respected women who have fought against the societal pressures you mention. They didn’t let someone take their agency, they overcame the adversity. It made them strong.

    Mormon feminists even more so. The power of the atonement gives these women a knowledge of their eternal worth and their role in the plan of salvation – transitory societal norms be damned.

    Lucy Mack Smith is the quintessential example of this.

  14. I think I’m going to be skinned alive for this… but the scenarios you are outlining indicate not a theft of agency but a surrendering of agency.

    I can only agree. I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who gives into “unspoken limits/restrictions based on race, gender, etc.”

    That’s because I was an early-wave feminist who actually had to deal with REAL, SPOKEN limits based on gender. When I was in high school, girls could not wear pants to school. Women were not accepted into West Point or the NASA space program. When I was pregnant the first time, I had to sue to keep my job.

    So talk about “unspoken limits” makes today’s women sound like whiny wimps. Poor little darlings who don’t have everything you want handed to you!

  15. Naismith,

    Your perspectives on feminist issues are very interesting, and we appreciate your passion for the topic. It’s refreshing for all of us to hear from someone with the experiences you’ve had, and the discussion would be less rich without your voice.

    I’m sure you’re aware that your tone, however, is quite abrasive and sometimes outright rude. Please be warned that if you do not dial it down, you risk having your comments deleted from the site.

  16. Ryan, I wasn’t arguing for women to give into societal pressure. Obviously, I think women should strive to figure out ways to deal with societal pressures and excel. As much time as I spend pointing out problems with gender inequality, etc, I’m not solely interested in saying “Hey! I’m a victim! Someone go and fix things!” I mean, if you look back at my original post you’ll see that I ask women to look at their own behaviors and think about how they can change them.

    Anyway, I think it’s possible to resist societal pressures, but I still think society limits women in many ways that they can’t always resist (or they have a limited amount of resources, and they have to pick and choose their battles).

    And Naismith, why do you assume that my feminist complaints are because I “want everything handed to me”? If you looked over some my specific examples, I was talking about issues like media imagery (one of the causes of the serious epidemic of eating disorders and body image issues in women) and violence against women. Just because these don’t entail people saying to women “you can’t do this” doesn’t make them unreal problems.

  17. Ryan, I agree with what you’re saying about the importance and reality of agency. However, while I do think that we as individuals should take responsibility for resisting (as best we can) the destructive societal pressures that impact us, I don’t think that negates our responsiblity to also critique those pressures and seek for ways of lessening their influence–which is what I see feminists doing.

    Also, on the question of “earthy dominions”–I agree that earthly power is ephemeral, and not really significant from an eternal perspective. However, I don’t think that means we’re not meant to concern ourselves with it at all; in fact, my understanding of what it means to be a Christian is that it includes working for social justice.

  18. If you looked over some my specific examples, I was talking about issues like media imagery (one of the causes of the serious epidemic of eating disorders and body image issues in women) and violence against women. Just because these don’t entail people saying to women “you can’t do this” doesn’t make them unreal problems.

    I totally agree with you that violence against women is a real problem. It is a physical act which has real consequences. And one of the horrible things about the sin is that it takes away women’s agency to make their own decisions.

    Media imagery strikes me as in a whole ‘nother category and far less “real.” Nobody has to act on media images, any more than they have to act on other people’s expectations or “unspoken limits.” We have a choice in such things. We can control our media exposure, and we can choose our reaction to the media. We can decide to ignore “unspoken limits” and be what we want to be.

  19. Naismith, while we have a certain amount of control over our media exposure, it’s impossible to avoid completely–advertising is *everywhere* and we are more affected by the messages in advertising than we realize. For some really enlightening thoughts on how pervasive, effective, and destructive the media is, you should check out the work of Jean Kilbourne.

  20. Naismith, while we have a certain amount of control over our media exposure, it’s impossible to avoid completely–advertising is *everywhere* and we are more affected by the messages in advertising than we realize.

    My graduate work included many classes on media effects, so I’m not oblivious to the effects of media exposure. But there are also limitations. MOST people who view a television movie about a mass murderer do not mimic the behavior. MOST advertising campaigns fail to capture the public’s attention or get them to purchase the product–anyone heard of an IBM PC lately?

    So I think it is not accurate to compare the tangible black-and-white restrictions that prohibited me from taking drafting in high school because I was female from the more subtle and amorphous influence that media exerts.

    And just about every media study I had to read drew a correlation between exposure and effects, so by choosing to limit our exposure (even though some is going to slip in, as you note), we can limit the influence of media.

    (Easy for me to say, I know since we live in a town with only two television stations, PBS and ABC, and by simply not getting cable, it’s been easy to leave the television off most of the time our children have been raised. It certainly would be different if we lived in Manhattan, but we turned down jobs on the East Coast to move to a smaller city that we thought would be better for raising children.)

  21. I tend to think that, because women are so self-regulating, we aren’t really aware of exactly what happens when we violate “unspoken limits.” Just because they are unspoken doesn’t mean that they have no real consequences, or that they cannot very quickly become spoken.

    Consider make-up. I don’t wear make-up and it’s pretty easy for me. When I worked my employer didn’t care, my husband never has cared, and I’ve never felt that people think I’m ugly or unkempt. Sometimes I feel ugly, but I know it’s in my head and that I would still feel like that even if I wore make-up everyday. Also since I don’t work anymore the only dress code I have to follow is the one I decide on. I have quite a bit of real freedom in my grooming choices because I have been incredibly lucky to have found work easily, and been wealthy enough to be choosy about my job prospects.

    Most women in my situation continue to wear make-up even though no one makes them, or tells them that they must. This contributes to widely held notion that basic grooming for women includes makeup. This widely held notion allowed a casino to fire a bartender for her refusal to wear make-up, and led to a court of law upholding the decision. The unspoken expectation that women should wear make-up very quickly became spoken, and was upheld by the law. Let me also make it clear that make-up is not part of basic hygiene that should be required of food workers (things like clean hand and hair), it can negetively contribute to skin irritation, and besides the indirect costs of wearing make-up (dealing with skin irritation, time spent applying it, etc.) make-up has direct costs and in this woman’s case was an unfunded mandate– which means that the casino and the court were really out of line on this one.

  22. Naismith, I definitely agree that by limiting media exposure, we can limit effects (this is something I hope to do when I have children, as well). And I agree that there is no direct causal link between things like media violence and murder. At the same time, if someone hears over and over again as they grow up “you’re not good enough,” they will believe that message. On a similar note, when women see over and over again degrading, sexualized, objectified images of their bodies and hear over and over again that to be a woman is to be thin and lose weight, it’s hard for them not to internalize that to at least some extent.

    Thanks, Starfoxy, for the examples on how there is not such a difference between “unspoken” and “spoken” limits as we may think. 🙂

  23. That’s a disturbing case, Starfoxy. I don’t wear make-up either, just because I can’t be bothered, but it’s clearly a widespread cultural expectation for women. Although in other respects I dress extremely modestly (I don’t think I even own shorts), I like my face to be naked. 🙂


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