Politicizing Sex

Politicizing Sex

More queer theory: Monique Wittig’s “One Is Not Born a Woman” travels some disturbing theoretical ground. The opening approach, common to most of the pieces I’ve been reading, is the destruction of “women” as a racial group of a special kind— a natural group considered to be “materially specific to their bodies.” She asserts that the presence of lesbian society destroys the “social fact” which constitutes women. The argument is that women are socially made as an idea of nature, and they are socially, not biologically, compelled to conform to expectation. The presence of lesbians is said to refute the concept of a natural essence which women are a manifestation of.

Wittig assaults the feminist notion of the biological nature of women because it relies on the normative presence of heterosexuality as the foundation of society— a biological essence, as it were, and a generative hypothesis which requires the biological differentiation of the sexes to posit an origin for society. Wittig wishes to remove both matriarchy and patriarchy from the social equation.

Wittig rejects “natural history” as a force to be dealt with at all. She wrongly cites Darwin’s opinion “that women were less evolved than men”— actually, rereading him I find that he didn’t consider them much of a factor in evolution at all. However, Darwin seemed to be deeply troubled by the inconsistencies of sexual behavior and secondary sexual characteristics as a part of his evolutionary theory. Sex and natural history didn’t get along well; even Darwin admitted that. “Sexual Selection” was a secondary force, and only slightly developed this in his theories. Like many people, I think she unfairly makes Darwin a whipping boy.

Instead of natural history, Wittig substitutes “materialist history” to explain the origin of sexuality as oppression. Gender is a mark bestowed by an oppressor. The “myth of woman” is only a mechanism by which women are appropriated by the dominant discourse. Wittig speaks authoritatively regarding race, claiming that “there was no concept of race before slavery.” I find this argument specious, because slavery has been a part society from the beginning. However, using the definition erected, it becomes only logical that lesbians, because they are neither men, nor adherent to the “myth of woman” are not a product of nature— they must be something else, because there is no nature in society.

Wittig seeks to construct “women” as a class, not as a gender. Lesbians thus form a sort of underclass to women, whose rebellion is a political rather than sexual struggle. They reject the normative “roles” they are supposed to play. The struggle, in these terms, is not an eternal one— but instead a class struggle for recognition. But before it can be that, it must be a struggle for an identity, outside the normative myths provided by society. The polemic she promotes is to destroy “woman” as an inclusive myth.

To destroy “woman” does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation we have previously called servitude . . .

I really have some major problems with her reduction. Most lesbians I’ve met enjoy the sensual myths of femininity, just not the political ones. Most of the radical theorists I’m reading really seem to want to abolish sex, period. I can’t see that as a solution. Most people (except gender theorists) seem to enjoy sexual myth-making.

2 thoughts on “Politicizing Sex”

  1. Finally!!!
    Wittig I feel is an example of academic chouvinism to defy nature in order create a world according to her narcosis. She even wanted to get rid of catagory of male and female. And it seemed she didn’t want women to become pregnant because it was basis of their oppression. She also expressed lesbians shouldn’t naturally have children either. I guess she was into human extinction.

  2. Just a couple points to clear up in the reading of Wittig, and of Tim’s comments. Re: slavery and race. Yes, slavery has existed for millenia, but slavery on the basis of RACE is, in fact, traceable to the European invasion and conquest of the “New World.” In other words, in China or Egypt or Rome one became a slave because of bad luck–your city was conquered, you were captured by a raiding party, you were too poor to feed yourself or your children, etc. Your skin color was irrelevant. In all three of those empires, former slaves actually became emperors. There was no notion that their skin color or race (and these are not the same thing) was what made them a slave or that their skin color or race should prevent them from holding political power. Once slavery became defined as something one was born into by nature, because of one’s skin color, the idea of race as we think of it today was created. Many point out that this is why we are perfectly willing to elect people to high office who came from very poor backgrounds as long as they are WHITE people, but that to date we have still never had a non-white person as a serious presidential candidate. The Romans, the Egyptians, and the Chinese believed they were superior by virtue of their culture, not their skin color, and thus were able to accomadate the idea of former slaves rising to high political office. All the slave needed to do was to live like a Roman when in Rome. But one can’t change one’s skin color or “race” in the same way. Tim’s misreading about Wittig’s comments on child-bearing are understandable, but what Wittig wanted to question was not whether women should or should not bear children, but why they should be defined exclusively by their ability to do so. Men, for example, are not defined as men because they may become fathers, they are defined by their personalities, their characteristics, their accomplishments, their skills, etc. Their biological ability to procreate is not the essence of what makes one male in our society. It is, however, at the heart of what we have defined as proper womanhood. Thus a man who chooses not to have children is still a man, but a woman who chooses not to have children is “un-natural,” not feminine, an old maid, not a real woman. THIS sort of thinking is what Witting sought to defy and challenge.

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