Lynne Segal on cultivating a sexual revolution: ‘We need to begin by understanding that we’re all vulnerable’
“You have to be a powerful man to be prepared to be modelling Calvin Klein underwear!” Lynne Segal is laughing. We’re in her north London kitchen, talking sex and objectification – in particular, Justin Bieber’s latest underwear shoot. Twenty years after its initial publication, the author and academic’s 1994 book Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure is due to be republished, and it is as relevant as ever for heterosexual women. Segal’s socialist feminist politics play a huge part in laying out new ideas for the rules of engagement, conceptualising a different kind of sex and sexual desire.
A lot of the voices we hear from (those) that identify simply as feminist is paying attention to violence against women and pornography. I don’t dismiss those issues at all, I think they’re important issues,” she explains. “Things have moved on, and yet a lot of the debate remains the same. Can women really engage in intimacies with men on an equal playing field?” It’s a searching question. Do feminists spend more time talking about the kind of sex we don’t want, rather than the kind of sex we desire? Dazed presses Lynne Segal for her key messages towards cultivating a sexual revolution.
IT’S TIME TO EMBRACE VULNERABILITY
We need to begin by understanding that we’re all vulnerable. “(Women and men are) almost equally vulnerable in emotional relations, actually, even in relation to violence. I would begin by saying we are all vulnerable. I see all intimacy as coming together with our vulnerabilities in search of comfort and joy, and (it) ought to be seen in terms of an engagement.
“What I have always wanted, and what Straight Sex is about, is the possibility for broad sexual politics, which is about love, concern, joy and understanding how easily things can go wrong in sexual relationships, and also how men can bring a lot of anxiety and their past history of feeling abandoned.”
WE NEED TO ADAPT THE LANGUAGE WE USE TO TALK ABOUT SEX
“Every way of talking about sex seems to talk about men and their needs,” she notes. “The language of sex is still a totally reductive genital encounter, in which it is bizarrely seen as a man’s activity – conquest and submission. Because of the reductive attitude we have towards sex, (we’re) only seeing intimacy in terms of genital encounters. Not even genital encounters – penis-in-vagina sex. Penis-in-vagina sex wouldn’t be satisfactory if there weren’t a lot of other things going on around it – a lot of mutual desire, for a start!”
SEX AS ENGAGEMENT, NOT CONQUEST – DOMINANCE AND SUBMISSION DON’T NEED TO BE GENDERED
“To me, conquest and submission, in so far as those categories come into sexual encounters, could be played out any way. There’s no logical reason to tie that to gender.
“In loving relationships and physical intimacy, two bodies are coming together, embracing and entangling, and there’s not any reason to have this active and passive thing. So a lot of Straight Sex is questioning what we are talking about when we have this active-and-passive binary. It doesn’t really makes sense in erotic coupling at all. In terms of dominance and submission, what I would say is – there’s no reason to gender that.”
“We have to rethink intimacy… to remove it from these strictly gendered, binary ‘men are more likely to be violent and exploitative’ and ‘women are going to be the victims and the ones who are gendered and exploited’”. Of power-play, Lynne adds: “(on) the excitement of bringing power into sexual activity, I think there are actually forms of power there but in a loving relationship that is negotiated in various ways.”
“The Victorian attitude to sexuality is precisely that men have these powering sexual urges – that women unfortunately elicit – and so it’s up to women to try and control men’s powerful sexual urges for the sake of civilisation” Lynne Segal
WOMEN – DON’T HIDE YOUR DESIRE
“You can see women are quite as desiring as men, but somehow, still there’s still pressure on women to disguise their desire as to always wanting to be noticed, and become the object and very quickly being seen as the predator, whereas the opposite is true for men.” Penis and vagina sex, she says, isn’t always the overarching goal. “Women are quite active really. She doesn’t just lie back and open her legs, there’s a lot more things she’s likely to be doing in active sexual engagement. Somehow, the focus is on the penis…the focus is that’s what sex is and what the penis does.”
SAY NO TO VICTORIAN STYLE PURITANISM
“The Victorian attitude to sexuality is precisely that men have these powering sexual urges – that women unfortunately elicit – and so it’s up to women to try and control men’s powerful sexual urges for the sake of civilisation.”
A FAIRER WORLD WOULD LEAD TO BETTER SEX
“The fact that the world is more unequal and more violent is still such a big problem that it can threaten to smash over the joyful side of sex and intimacy. Re-engaging with intimacy, commitment and care is so important.”
Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure is republished by Verso on January 30