Sheila Jeffreys and the sexual revolution

Wednesday, November 6, 1991

Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution
By Sheila Jeffreys
The Women's Press Ltd, London.
Reviewed by Melanie Sjoberg

"Male supremacy is centred around the act of sexual intercourse ... justified by heterosexual practice", Sheila Jeffreys claimed at a recent forum, "Where is Feminist Theory Going?", held in Melbourne during Feminist Book Fortnight. The crowd of close to 200 women were treated to a tirade against "male behaviour". A spontaneous ripple of disbelief shuddered through the audience when Jeffreys made some blunt remarks equating male sexuality with male violence.

This theme is developed in much more detail in her book Anticlimax. Jeffrey's fundamental thesis is that heterosexual sex is defined as sexual desire that eroticises power difference. She sees it originating in the power relations between the sexes and taking the form of eroticising the subordination of women.

Jeffreys claims that as a power system "heterosexuality functions more effectively than oppressive systems such as apartheid or capitalism". This claim illustrates the nub of Jeffreys' position. Women as a gender are oppressed by all men, and this somehow occurs outside of or unrelated to other social relations.

This is an elaboration of the theory of "patriarchy" which many feminist writers regard as expressing the totality of the social relations of male supremacy and female subordination. According to those who subscribe to this view, "patriarchy" has existed in all known socioeconomic formations; it is a hierarchical system which exists across class lines and in which power and control are vested in men to effect and reproduce their domination over women.

Such a view is based on an essentially ahistorical analysis of relations between men and women. It ignores the considerable body of anthropological evidence that human societies lacking inequalities based on property ownership also lacked any institutionalised oppression of women. It is unable to explain how "patriarchy" arose out of such non-oppressive social relations. Thus, throughout her book, Jeffreys provides examples of mechanisms through which men oppress women in relation to sexuality, but she fails to relate this to the social conditions which have given rise to them.

Perhaps the most revealing chapter is the section on the sexual revolution of the '60s. According to Jeffreys, "the sexual revolution was a counterrevolution and constituted a timely adjustment to the fine tuning of the heterosexual institution". She argues that the breaking down of previous moralistic barriers and inhibitions was aimed simply at improving the sexual diet of men.

Jeffreys goes so far as to argue that "to many who lived throughout the '60s and early '70s the changes in sexual behaviour would have been imperceptible".

This is a severe distortion of history. The '60s sexual revolution occurred in the context of the rise of broad social movements challenging major aspects of capitalist society — from its n in Vietnam to its repressive mores regarding sexual relations. This was the period of the birth of the "second wave" of feminism and of the gay and lesbian rights movements.

For the first time in history, large numbers of people began to grasp the depth of women's oppression, the degree to which women have been systematically stunted and dehumanised to fit the social role of wife-mother-housekeeper within the monogamous family unit.

I remember, as a teenager in a working-class area at the time, being extremely conscious of options that had not been available to our parents. We explored issues such as contraception, abortion and living in "de facto relationships".

If we were to accept the analysis that no gains were made during the '60s and '70s, then we would be forced to say that the women's liberation movement has had no social impact. What about the number of women who are now working in non-traditional jobs, anti-discrimination and EEO legislation, the equal pay decision, campaigns against domestic violence, establishment of refuges, women's referral services, community health centres? Of course we still have a long way to go; these gains are by no means secure. But they are a vast improvement on the '50s.

Jeffreys concentrates on the sexual side of life without relating it to broader social relations. Her analysis leaves out any consideration of who really profits from, and who makes the decisions that, maintain the oppression of women. It is simply untrue that all men are responsible for decision making and are the controllers of society.

Her analysis ignores the crucial role that the family system plays in perpetuating the unequal distribution of social wealth for the benefit of a minority of men (and women) at the expense of the great majority of men and women.

The oppression of women flows from class organisation of society. With the division of society into classes — those who own property versus those who must work to live — the monogamous family came into existence as the basic social unit.

Sexual restrictions on women were designed to uphold the monogamous family system as the main mechanism for the transmission of individual wealth by assuring the paternity of the heirs of private property. Women were relegated to the role of domestic slave — child rearer, cook, housekeeper — because this was the least costly means for the ruling class to assure that society as a whole has no responsibility for the care of nonproductive members of society — the children, the elderly, the incapacitated.

Everything else follows — the exclusion of women from a central productive role; the economic dependence of women on men or a man (father or husband); the educational and job discrimination; the psychological conditioning to accept all this, supposedly willingly, including the acceptance by women of the submissive heterosexual stereotype.

In her conclusion, Jeffreys attempts to provide some answers about moving beyond heterosexual sex as a power relationship: "No for women in a world in which inequality and specifically the inequality of women is sexy. We need to build a world where the connection of power difference and aggression to sexual feelings will be unimaginable."

The crucial question on which Anticlimax ends is "how to construct homosexual desire. That is desire which eroticises equality and mutuality, a form of desire not even recognised as sex by many theorists of sexuality in the present."

However, Jeffreys concedes that even in homosexual relations there is not necessarily "equality and mutuality". Yet she fails to draw the essential conclusion from this: there is something outside male-female sexual relations that is constructing our attitudes.

The character traits which she equates with "male behaviour" — aggression, violence, domination — to the extent that they have any validity at all, are social, not biological, in origin. They are not characteristics of men per se but of class society, of a social system that is based on the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few.

It is a system that must use violence to maintain itself; that must produce sexism, racism and other prejudices in order to prevent those who produce all the wealth from uniting to demand control of what they produce. It is a system based not on planned rational production to meet human needs but on anarchic competition to increase the individual wealth of the corporate rich.

For me, freedom means more than solving the question of sexuality. Jeffreys' analysis offers nothing for understanding the interconnection between the multitude of social evils that confront us.

What of the threat to the environment that may leave none of us with a chance to improve our personal relationships? This is certainly not a result of heterosexual intercourse, but it does have a link with women's oppression. It is the capitalist private profit system that is responsible for our oppression as women in the same way that it is responsible for the exploitation of people in the Third World and the destruction of our environment.