The Scope of Sexual Politics
In ordinary speech ‘politics’ is a narrow and faintly disreputable term, meaning elections, parliaments, presidents and party antagonisms. ‘Politician’ can be a term of abuse,.‘political’ a label for distrust. Social science has found the negative overtones unnecessary and the narrow definition untenable.
In what follows ‘politics’ is assumed to be neither bad nor good, simply an essential part of social life and a very widespread one. The same kinds of processes occur in companies, voluntary organizations, and in stateless societies as occur in and around the state: contests for power, mechanisms of succession, debates over policy. Sociological research on families found power structures and power struggles even in that haven, as soon as it looked. R. D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience marked another discovery made in the cultural politics of the 1960s. When Kate Millett characterized politics as ‘power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another’ and by applying the idea to relations between men and women defined ‘sexual politics’, the term startled many people but her thought followed a well-marked path.
Millett’s definition now appears too narrow, given the range of overt social conflicts about sex and gender over the last two decades. It is worth trying to get these conflicts in some sort of order to arrive at a definition of the scope of sexual politics.
There is, first, a political process centred on the state, some of whose dimensions were discussed in chapter 6. Its most visible moments have been attempts to commit major states to guarantees of equality for women, such as the Equal Rights Amendment in
the United States, and the United Nations declaration of the International Decade for Women. Of course ‘sexual politics’ also include the counter-mobilization that scuppered the Equal Rights Amendment and undermined UN policy, for instance the repression of women in Pakistan and Iran. Attempts to introduce equal opportunity policies have contested the sexual division of labour in the state and provoked widespread, if muted, resistance. Issues of access have been fought out in political parties, notably in attempts to get more women endorsed as candidates, and in a few places like San Francisco and Sydney, gay men too. Resources issues have been opened with the creation of women’s units in the bureaucracy, and specific welfare programmes directed towards women, gays, and even transsexuals. A new resources politics is emerging around the unequal impact of apparently gender-neutral state policies such as the form of taxation or welfare-funding cuts. The 1985 ‘Women’s Tax Summit’ which contested the Australian government’s proposed shift to indirect taxes is a notable example.
Overlapping all this is a politics of workplaces and markets. Campaigns to break down prohibitions on women’s employment, or restrictions on promotion, continue. In 1985, for instance, women’s exclusion from the steelworks in Wollongong was declared unlawful. Sexual pressure on women employees by men, especially their bosses, is now defined as sexual harassment and cases are being taken before tribunals – not always with progressive results, as Jocelynne Scutt shows for a landmark Australian case of 1983. The long-standing exclusion of women from power in trade unions, and the corresponding lack of interest by unions in the interests of women members, is also being challenged. In 1983 Jenny George became the first woman elected to the executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions; in 1979 the Trade Union Congress in Britain sponsored a mass demonstration in support of abortion rights. It is more difficult to get leverage on a whole labour market than a particular workplace, but the attempt is made. There are for instance programmes to get girls into apprenticeships, to break down the sharp sexual division of skilled trades; and to get more girls into professionally oriented streams in schools and colleges.
The content of schooling, and other areas of cultural work, has become a focus of struggle. The new feminism sparked the rewriting of sexist textbooks and attempts to remove discriminatory material from curricula and libraries; similar issues have been raised by
gay liberation though with less result. Right-wing politicians attempt the opposite: in 1978, for instance, the Queensland government banned the use of the MACOS primary curriculum because it was thought to undermine the sanctity of the family. Mass-media content has come under fire for sexist advertising and hostile stereotypes of gays, though media-reform groups have not had much leverage. In book publishing rather more space has been gained by feminism. Attempts to gain more space in performance arts, like the ‘Women and Theatre’ project launched in Sydney in 1980, have provoked remarkably hostile reactions from some of the men in the same trades.
The politics of families has a public face. Official campaigns to increase or to limit the number of children are familiar, with the Catholic Church’s intransigence on contraception a curious counterpoint to rising concern with world over-population. Negotiation of the relations between husbands and wives often ends in the courts for adjudication of terms of divorce and custody of children. A struggle also surrounds the courts that do this, from parliamentary conflict over divorce legislation, and feminist criticism of inadequate enforcement of maintenance payments, to murderous attacks on family court judges by embittered husbands. The use of force between family members is now a public issue, with campaigns on domestic violence, child abuse and incest. An informal political process has developed around the attempts within parts of the Left to construct egalitarian households, working through conflict-ridden issues over child-care, sexual relationships and property ownership.
The politics of contraception raises the question of control over sexuality. Some of the bitterest conflicts of the last fifteen years have concerned abortion, with right-wing mobilizations in defence of the ‘unborn child’. Conservatism desires to confine sexuality to marriage, though conservatives now divide over whether marital sex should concentrate on procreation (the Pope) or pleasure (Marabel Morgan). Both versions are homophobic. The control of men’s homosexuality is a well-established area of state action, with the front-line police and courts backed by security agencies, discrimination in employment and exclusion from schools. Control of erotica and pornography is also well established. In the 1960s a sudden liberalization occurred in the rich capitalist countries, marked by the ‘Danish Sex Fairs’ of 1969-70. The rapid growth of a mass-circulation pornography industry provoked bitter
criticism from some tendencies in feminism for its exploitative content; some unexpected alliances in the politics of control have emerged in the United States especially.
Finally, the movements addressing these issues have a politics of their own presence. Quiet campaigns for legal reform on homosexuality were transformed into a highly visible Gay Liberation movement in the rich capitalist countries; these have since changed again in the context of visible gay ‘communities’. The new feminism was divided early between liberal and radical currents, with radical feminism in turn dividing between socialist and cultural feminisms. New concerns with violence, disarmament and ecology have emerged. There have been internal conflicts over lesbianism, separatism, Marxism, connections with the state and a range of other issues. There have been attempts to create a counter-sexist movement among heterosexual men, which have not been very successful. Nor have the attempts at permanent mobilization of right-wing sexual politics. Organizations like the anti-feminist Women Who Want to be Women remain small; parties like the Call to Australia movement have minor electoral success. For the most part the churches and conservative parties provide the organizational framework for reaction. Their potential strength is shown by the fundamentalist mobilization in the United States over the last ten years. At the time of writing a television evangelist is making a strong bid for the Republican nomination as President in succession to Reagan.
The six fields just sketched involve overt politics, with issues publicly stated and the course of events readily accessible. This is not the entire scope of politics by any useful definition. Tacit politics, where conflicts of interest and power struggles are not publicly articulated, are equally real though less easily documented. Some examples have been given: the family and the street in chapter 6 and workplaces in chapters 5 and 11. The difference between the two kinds of politics is not just a matter of degree of publicity. It has to do with the way interests are articulated and political movements formed.