Why focus on gender and sexuality?

Why focus on gender and sexuality? Because the political importance of these issues is not recognized in many radical movements worldwide. The important questions raised by feminism and queer liberation for social radicalism in general are not taken up. The conception of what politics actually means remains pretty classical and therefore serves to obscure and de-emphasize violence and exploitation in the so-called private sphere. This concept of politics remains unable to grasp subjective and emotional phenomena, be they individual or collective.
As Linda Nicholson argues convincingly in Gender and History, one of the major historical contributions of feminism to radical social critique, and where it supersedes earlier critiques such as Marxism, is its politicization of subjectivity. Of course second wave feminism was not the only current that reacted to the social changes of the 20th century by putting the dichotomies of public and private, subjective and objective, rational and emotional… on the agenda of social change. But feminism on the whole was the most radical in doing it.
In most radical circles that are not explicitly pro-feminist, gender and sexuality are still generally conceptualized classically, that is, they are naturalized, imagined as outside history, immutable, derivative, determined, to do with subjectivity, emotions and the private sphere, in a word, they are seen as soft issues of secondary importance.
This is why it is so much less acceptable in radical circles to claim to be a pro-feminist man than to claim to be an anti-racist white. You cannot make gender and sexuality an issue without it being very personal and emotional, whereas in the case of racism, in many radical circles you can talk and act mostly in relation to structural and state racism and de-emphasize personal, emotional and sexual issues. As soon as you come out as a pro-feminist man the vexed question of what your motivation is – taking into account that you are your own political enemy, as it were – immediately gets raised. Whereas, in the really-existing left today this is not so much the case for upper class people who declare they are anti-capitalist, or whites who say they are anti-racist. And this is not surprising, given the funny ideas people have about how different types of social domination relate to subjectivity.
Of course, really, sexism and hetero-sexism are just as objective, have just as much to do with the economy and the state as racism or class. And vice versa, race and class really have just as much to do with emotion, desire and subjectivity as gender and sexuality.
That is just the point! The point that non-feminist leftists finally have to understand and that we should take more seriously, too.
Here is a major political problem. The question really is: what is the source of social change? What motivates people to want a different society, to fight for it, to suffer and make sacrifices for this goal?
The less than edifying spectacle of those few left men who organised or still organise in men’s groups, with the stated intention of doing something against women’s oppression and homophobia, with all their ambivalences and with the problems they run into, are, in my eyes, just one particular subset of this more general problem and cannot be properly understood, in my opinion, outside this context. That is why I am going on about all this general stuff.
So: One of the classical answers to the question of motivation was, well oppressed people have their objective interests, they have to free themselves of the ideology of the oppressors, recognize their interests and then fight for them.
I am not saying there is no truth to this conception, yes there are dominant ideologies, yes there are objective social positions that give people a certain perspective on what is going on in society. But there are no objective interests, at least not in any simple way. The question of where the motivation for radical activism comes from is in fact a very difficult one.
What is wrong with the classical conception of where the motivation for liberation comes from?
First of all, once you accept a multidimensional social analysis, there are no longer groups of people who are either clearly oppressed or clearly oppressing. People are usually some particular mixture of oppressor and oppressed. This in no way denies the fact that there is social stratification, it is just that the stratification is very complex and contradictory and cuts through individuals themselves.
The obvious problem with this idea is that it can easily be distorted into “well, we are all oppressed in some way or another, and we all suffer, so we are all in the same boat”. Which is of course total bullshit. The differences are there, they are violent and exploitative, and there are clear relations of oppression and exploitation that can and must be named. The different kinds of suffering, malaise, discontent, frustration of people in different oppressive situations, and their different sources, have to be understood in their context and a common framework for expressing, understanding and mediating these experiences needs to be constructed, if alliance politics with radical goals is to succeed.
I think when Nira Yuval-Davis talks about “transversal dialogue” she means something very similar: Her idea is that each social positioning produces specific situated knowledge which cannot be but an unfinished knowledge, and therefore dialogue among those differentially positioned should take place in order to reach a common perspective as a basis for a common action or policy. This transversal dialogue should be based on the principles of rooting and shifting, i.e. being centred in one’s experiences while in the dialogue, thus enabling the participants to arrive at a different perspective than that of hegemonic tunnel vision. The result of the dialogue might still be differential projects for people and groupings positioned differently, but their solidarity would be based on a common knowledge sustained by a compatible value system.
Yuval-Davis believes that transversal epistemology and politics “point the way to transformatory political projects which transcend the terrain of the political debate beyond the ethnocentric assimilatory universalism of the Old Left on the one hand and the particularistic relativism of identity politics on the other hand, without becoming afloat with the apolitical free floating signifiers of some of the deconstructionist post-modernist intellectuals”.
I agree.
Secondly, it has to be recognized that the social and the personal are linked, but that the personal (or call it psychological, internal) level has a degree of relative (relative!!!) autonomy and its own logic. Subjectivity is not simply completely determined by social structure. Nor is it independent of it, of course! Obviously thinking liberation and feeling liberation are not at all the same thing, and the structures of feeling that you have learned do not necessarily change in accordance with your changing your thinking. So how do practices of personal change relate to political activism? I am in favour of making processes of personal change an integral part of radical politics and of trying to use and adapt therapeutic and communication techniques that already exist. I believe that personal change follows a different logic than political struggle, which is inevitably very much about confrontation and fighting for strategic positions of power, whereas personal change needs some degree of protection from the rigours of fighting and competition, and some degree of suspension of judgment.
The obvious danger of getting very involved in working a lot on the personal level is to lose sight of the social-political level, especially because this society stabilises itself by individualising and psychologising all kinds of collective social ills. Accordingly modern society offers all kinds of wrongheaded ideas that serve to make social problems invisible, dress them up as individual problems. Some people go so far as to confuse society with some kind of therapeutic setting.
Nonetheless, I believe there is no alternative to trying to find some combination of political work and personal change.
Finding such a combination is just one of the problems many men’s groups and individual men with anti-sexist aspirations ran into and are still confronted with. But in my eyes, really, it is a general political problem all radical activists should deal with.
It is possible to change one’s structure of desire, to a surprising degree sometimes, and certain therapeutic and artistic practices can be very helpful in such processes. I wish more political radicals would work with themselves more at this level, instead of clinging to implicit rationalist notions that lead them to believe that when their cognition changes, their physicality and emotionality will obediently follow suit. Or that all that subjective stuff is unchangeable anyway and should be well left alone…
One subset of the problem of the personal and the political is the issue of power and pleasure.
I think power and pleasure are not necessarily linked. You can derive pleasure from being dominated and you can feel shitty while totally in control of someone else. I personally am in favour of calling the kind of pleasure you get from being fucked over pathological or using some other derogatory normative term. At least when it is not part of a game like some types of s/m. It is quite important to de-link power, morality and suffering. One who suffers is neither morally superior to one who does not, nor is he or she necessarily powerless. And having power is not necessarily enjoyable.

Some remarks regarding left anti-sexist men’s groups in particular. Before I go on I need to specify that my experience is that of someone who has participated in and observed a lot of what was happening in Western Germany in the eighties and then unified Germany in the nineties and after, and has had some exposure to what was going on in terms of attempts at men’s anti-sexist politics in the UK, Australia and the United States. I don’t know much about what went on in the French- and Spanish-speaking parts of the world, and I know even less about other areas.
As should be obvious from what I said further above, I criticize groups that focus exclusively on theory and public action for not getting into the emotional work that needs to be done, and I criticize groups that fall into the psychology trap and stop being politically active.
Furthermore, and this is one of my main points, since the mid-eighties I have been criticizing the attempt by many men’s groups to somehow wriggle out of having to realize that we are part of a privileged, dominant and exploiting group.
Of course, this is nothing special. Members of dominant groups often have the tendency to deny their dominance, get a victim status for themselves and deny the suffering of the ones they dominate. These operations can become quite complex. For example, many Germans today manage to be proud of the way the German people has dealt with the unspeakable crimes of their past and believe that now, because the German nation has taken responsibility for its past, Germans have the right and, yes, the duty to advise anyone and everyone on how to prevent a holocaust, because, you know, we are specialists, do you want us to send some soldiers?
For men in general I think there is an added dimension. Because, among other reasons, we usually grow up with a woman as primary caretaker, who actually has a lot of power over the infant, the fantasy of the mother (split into witch and fairy, or whore and saint, of course) as all-powerful figure gets embedded in the male psyche and is reactivated later in life whenever a woman wants power. Often men feel dominated or threatened by women in situations where it is quite obvious that actually they have more real social power than the woman in question.
There is also the issue of sexual power or love power. In many ways, love and sexuality are symbolically associated with women and the power to influence men by way of heterosexual attraction is often one of the few semi-legitimate types of power women can have. In this arena too, many men feel powerless vis-à-vis women while in fact their social power as men is superior to and more legitimate than the sexual power certain women may have.
The tendency of many men’s groups was and is to try to find some way out of hating oneself, and retaining their privileges, by denying their status as members of a dominant class.
What a lot of men have an especially hard time accepting is that one’s innermost being is indeed very much part of the problem. There is no pure self that could be salvaged and fielded against the evil forces of patriarchy. The forces of patriarchy are already right there, in my heart and in my belly, so to say.
My argument in criticizing the attempts by men to ignore the fact that we are oppressors was that, while it is legitimate and necessary to find some way of loving, or at least not hating, oneself, since the self is not fixed and unitary, there is no need to positively identify with masculinity, much less a specific type of hegemonic masculinity. It is possible to identify with other aspects of yourself.
Also, giving up the romantic utopian idea that you can completely purify yourself of the social relations you are embedded in could help in finding a way of accepting the fact that, even if we change radically, in this world, in this life, we will still feel and do things we really would like to not do and not feel. I think it is important to learn to deal with this without getting mired in self-hatred, which gets you nowhere and does not actually help the people you are hurting, either, instead, it binds energy that could be better used elsewhere…
So, one of the primary problems of anti-sexist men’s groups is that they were, and are, usually not very pro-feminist or pro-queer but have a tendency to lapse into a modernized type of male bonding. Not the same as in the army or in a club, but also not radically distinct.
But there are more problems. At least in Germany and France, many radical gay men have taken their distance from heterosexual left anti-sexist men after working together initially. In part this is due to the fact that a lot of gay men are no more pro-feminist than their heterosexual colleagues, or get tired of it just as quickly as their heterosexual counterparts. But there is a critique that cuts to the core, i find, which says: Really, you heterosexual so-called anti-sexist men care only about women. You try to change so as to become acceptable for women. You meet in a men’s group, but really, this is all about women and in reality you don’t give a damn about other men.
I believe this charge is quite justified. From my experience, many men’s groups were and are not very aware of how they exclude gay men, how disinterested they are in gay men and the specific oppression of gays. The whole issue of the ambivalent emotional dynamics of heterosexuality in a male dominated society seems under-theorized to me.
Another twist to this issue that I should mention is that in the debates among anti-sexist men about new relations between men, the homophobia issue has at times been paradoxically mobilized in defence of masculinity, that is to say, any man who admits to hating or fearing other men because he feels threatened by their potential violence or just can’t stand their masculine attitude, gets treated as homophobic.
There are more problems. From my experience, very few left anti-sexist men tried to make the connection between their racism and their sexism. The whole issue of how sexism gets projected on racially or ethnically different men was not and as far as I know is to this day hardly addressed. In Germany at least, a reflection of how the scene that created anti-sexist men’s groups excludes non-white, non-German men is entirely lacking. But then, in Germany there are hardly any active left anti-sexist men’s groups left anyway.
In general, besides the fact that these groups have a hard time being pro-feminist in any meaningful sense of the term anyway, their theory tends to very much lag behind the developments in feminist theory, which, at least in its more radical versions, has been trying to take into account the differences in sexuality, class, ethnicity, etc., among women. Of course there is some work in academic Men’s Studies that addresses the diversity of masculinity and differences among men, but at the level of practice I am not aware that it has had much impact. This might have to do with the fact that a lot of the academic men’s studies literature on masculinities is not very radical, but on the contrary seems fascinated by its object of study, and one asks oneself if it is not mainly about giving a lot of loving attention to the object that, in many ways, (and somewhat paradoxically, given the rampant homophobia of patriarchal societies) has always been at the centre of men’s attention: men.