When Radical Feminism was about excluding (the wrong sort of) lesbians

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I’ve been digging out old articles from twenty years ago, and wanted to reshare this which appeared in a collection edited by Paul Reynolds (M. Cowling and P. Reynolds (eds), Making Sense of Sexual Consent (London: Ashgate, 2004)). There are, I’m sure, typos, mistakes, imprecisions in the paper that follows, but rather than confront them, I’ve left it as it is. The piece is so old that it is in itself a historical document, the product of a conference which brought together sex-positive and sex-negative feminists, to discuss sex work, the trans contribution to feminism, etc. Positions weren’t as divided as they are now, and my piece reflects that: it points out the destructiveness of one theoretical intervention (Sontag’s attempt to portray all porn as fascist) and another practical intervention that seems to have been forgotten since then (1980s-era feminism’s attempt to police the boundaries of acceptable lesbian sex, and to say that anyone who was into BDSM was a fascist). If I was to write the piece now, I think I’d be less guarded in insisting that Sheila Jeffreys and her allies shared much more with historical fascism than they did with any recognisable anti-fascist tradition of thinking about sex, fascism and liberation (Reich, Hirschfeld). I have cited the image above to show that the same debates about BDSM were happening in the United States at much the same time in the 1980s that they were happening here. it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that (in the above image) a gathering of US radical Jews found a greater natural affinity with advocates of sexual freedom than they did (or, we do) with a part of the left which promises to do away with sexual deviance.

Sex is Violence: A Critique of Susan Sontag’s ‘Fascinating Fascism’

Although I will be critical of Sontag’s work, it worth emphasising that Susan Sontag was a leading activist within a generation of feminist writers that rightly condemned the sexual mores of post-war Europe and America. In discussing the issue of sexual violence, it is always necessary to remember their point that sexual behavio ur takes place in a society marked by structural division and relationships of inequality. As Sontag’s contemporary, the libertarian sexologist Alex Comfort wrote, ‘Both women and men have always run the risk of violence from a sexual partner. For evident reasons, women are overwhelmingly the more vulnerable – in our society, intensely so, since injury by a husband or lover is one of the commonest medical problems they experience. Society offers them remarkably little support. The police are traditionally uninterested in “domestic” violence, and folklore treats it as a sign of passion’ (Comfort, 1973: 212-3). Thirty years on, the relationships within the family remain unequal, and the behaviour of the police unhelpful. If this paper appears to give a partial affirmation of some forms of sexual ‘violence’, it does not in any way defend the many oppressive practices that have been justified by violent men in the name of ‘fun’.

This is a paper about sexual violence and consent. The question of whether violent sex can ever be consensual has already generated much discussion. Several authors have written about one-form of violent sex, S/M sex, and its treatment in law (Thompson, 1994; Reynolds, 1997; Archard, 1998). This paper adds to the debate through an extended critique of one previous essay in particular, namely Susan Sontag’s article, ‘Fascinating Fascism’, which was first published in 1975 in the New York Review of Books (Sontag, 1980: 73-108). Ostensibly a critique of the art of the Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl, Sontag’s essay rapidly became an attack on the sexualisation of violence in all its forms. At its simplest, Sontag’s argument claimed that all sado-masochism was ‘fascistic’ and hence illegitimate. Susan Sontag could be criticised for its misunderstanding of fascism, but here my target is Sontag’s understanding of violence. I simply do not agree with her identification of fascism and sexual violence. The relationship is more complex than Sontag suggests.

‘Fascinating Fascism’

The occasion of Susan Sontag’s article was an exhibition of the art of Leni Riefenstahl. Sontag argued that there had been a tendency since 1945 for liberal writers to discuss Riefenstahl’s work apart from its political context. Leni Riefenstahl’s most famous film, Triumph of the Will, was an open work of Nazi propaganda, a celebration of the 1934 Nuremberg congress, and it is hard to reinterpret this film as pure art. Instead, the focus of revisionism was on Riefenstahl’s recent book, The Last of the Nuba, a series of erotically-charge photographs of this perfect, muscular, noble tribe. Although the images here of wrestling Africans seem a distant from the Nazi preoccupation with uniforms, Sontag observed that Riefenstahl pictures contained many familiar themes of Nazi art, including a glorification of the masculine, a love of violence, and a contempt for thought. ‘Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorises death’ (Sontag: 91; Renton, 2000) For Sontag, fascist art was fascism, and art which plays with fascist imagery was the same.

Having criticised the reception of Riefenstahl’s art, Susan Sontag went on to criticise what she saw as a process in which properly-fascist aesthetics had intruded into every-day art and culture. This is how she described the general themes of fascist imagery, ‘Fascist aesthetics’, she wrote, ‘flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behaviour, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.’ Because fascism had thrived on this aesthetic, so any use of this imagery threatened to recreate the social conditions of fascism. To demonstrate the point that fascism was a deviant sexuality, Sontag examined the many picture books of the Third Reich. Of one publication Sontag wrote, ‘One knows that its appeal is not scholarly but sexual. The cover already makes that clear. Across the large black swastika of an SS armband is a diagonal yellow stripe which reads “Over 100 Brilliant Four-Color Photographs Only $2.95”, exactly as a sticker with the price on it used to be affixed – part tease, part defence to censorship – on the cover of pornographic magazines, over the model’s genitalia’ (Sontag: 98). In such histories, the depiction of aggressive masculine crimes have become something else, the glamorisation of brutality. Sontag’s argument was a telling critique of an entire way of writing history, and one which continues today.

            Having described the role of dominance and submission in Nazi art and the commodification of fascist imagery as a form of violent pornography, Susan Sontag went on to identify fascism with all forms of violent sexuality, ‘Between sadomasochism and fascism’, she wrote, ‘there is a natural link’. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism, ‘Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism.’ Between fascism and sexual violence, one common theme was the glamorisation of military clothing, ‘There is a general fantasy about uniforms. They suggest community, order, identity, competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence.’ Another constant was the glorification of slavery. Thus for Sontag fascism can best be understood as the political sexualisation of violence, and if fascism was wrong – then so was any other practice which turned the processes of consent and domination into a sexual game (Sontag: 99, 102, 108).

            Susan Sontag argued that there was a strong link between the sexualisation of violence (sado-masochistic sex) and the imagery of fascism. It followed that violent sex could never be legitimate or properly consensual. Although this paper will criticise Sontag’s argument for this point, it should not be assumed that the argument here is a total rejection of Susan Sontag’s case. There are many aspects of ‘Fascinating Fascism’ which should be endorsed. For example, Sontag’s criticism of Riefenstahl’s art was timely and well-observed. Also, Susan Sontag was not the only writer to have observed some overlap between violent sexuality and reactionary politics. ‘Fascinating Fascism’ could be compared to Klaus Theweleit’s work on the culture of the German Freikorps, the pre-Nazi student bands and officer corps who opposed the German revolution of 1918-23. One difference is that Theweleit located fascism in the denial of sexuality, ‘the core of all fascist propaganda is a battle against anything that constitutes enjoyment and pleasure.’ Partly because Theweleit’s work is based on a sustained study of primary materials (250 Freikorps novels and memoirs from the 1920s) it seems to capture the dynamic interplay between political and sexual reaction far more vividly than Sontag’s essay (Theweleit, 1989: xii-xiii; Theweleit, 1987; Mosse, 1985: 153-81). Indeed Theweleit’s theories have gained in popularity over the past few years, and several writers have attempted to apply them, not always successfully, to other forms of male aggression (King, 1997; Smith, 1999). So there is space for a comparison of fascism and violent sexuality – but Sontag missed the key dynamics, and is simplistic in her claim that all forms of violent sex were the same.

One of the several interesting aspects of Sontag’s article is that it seems to pre-empt a certain radical feminist argument which would be expressed on several occasion through the late 1970s and early 1980s, namely that all violent sexual was male, aggressive and therefore non-consensual. Sontag’s work could be seen as an early counterpart to the notion of ‘gendered consent’ defended by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. For these later authors, all heterosexual sex takes place under conditions of domination (MacKinnon, 1989a; MacKinnon, 1989b; Dworkin, 1988). According to Dworkin all men oppress all women through the terror of rape, ‘Men develop a strong loyalty to violence. Men must come to terms with violence because it is the prime component of male identity.’ Or, to quote Dworkin more succinctly, ‘Force … [is] the essential purpose of the penis’ (Dworkin: 55; Segal, 1987: 177). It follows that all heterosexual sex is rape, and that consensual heterosexual sex is a contradiction in terms. One key argument in this literature is that women can never enjoy heterosexual sex – a claim fiercely contested by Alison Assiter, among others (Assiter and Carold, 1993: 14). As this chapter will argue, the debate over violence and male sexuality has not been restricted to radical feminist lecturers, and nor has their discussion been restricted to the norms of polite, academic discussion.

Sontag Applied

One of the problems with the rejection of violent sex as a ‘male’ phenomenon has been how to understand this sex, when no men were involved. Across both sides of the Atlantic, through the 1970s and 1980s, there was a repeated debate between feminist opponents of all forms of violence and female supporters of sado-masochist sex. One controversy involved the San Francisco S/M group, Samois. In the early 1980s, they were practically the only visible lesbian S/M group in the US. To their surprise, the members of Samois were banned from renting rooms in the San Francisco Women’s Building. This took place at a time when the building’s owners were desperate for income, and rented space to virtually anyone else. The ban was overturned, but only in 1989 (Rubin, 1996). In the same year, another conflict involved the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was closed to sadomasochist women. Lesbian separatists accused sadomasochists of being ‘heteropatriarchal’, that is, behaving like men. One exasperated activist, who found herself thrown out of the concert by female guards, described how she saw the debates,

In the context of dyke S/M debates, heteropatriarchal is being used the same way young boys use the word faggot: it’s thrown back and forth as a synonym for bad. Thus, debates consist of some women insisting, ‘You are oppressive, heteropatriarchal, and trying to control other women’s bodies and restrict women’s sexual freedom,’ while others respond, ‘No you are heteropatriarchal and brainwashed, imitating male patterns of violence’. And somehow, in the course of those debates, the real heteropatriarchal gets forgotten and is no longer a target for resistance – a resistance that’s vitally necessary (Kaplan, 1996).

The key phrase here is ‘male patterns of violence’. Some of the radical feminist critics of sado-masochism criticised by Rebecca Dawn Kaplan seem to have possessed a remarkably deterministic way of looking at the world, in which the bad was male and anyone they disagreed with could be placed in this category. But if women could become ‘heteropatriarchal’ like men – then what limits or meaning could be given to the term?

            In Britain, the conflict between lesbian sado-masochists and radical feminists was expressed most clearly in the equally heated debate over whether sado-masochistic groups should be allowed to meet at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC) which dragged on for six months from 1985 to early 1986 (Ardill and O’Sullivan, 1986). Despite any numbers of protests, the centre’s management committee not only refused to allow S/M groups to meet on their premises, they also refused to debate the issue, declaring any vote unconstitutional. The management committee received the backing of a group which went under the name of Lesbians Against Sadomasochism (LASM). A typical LASM leaflet from this period expressed the same formula that was there in Sontag’s piece, namely that violent sex is non-consensual sex, and non-consensual sex is fascism:

Q. But isn’t Lesbian and Gay Liberation about freedom, not more limitations?

A. Total freedom is the freedom of the powerful to oppress – do you condone racism, anti-semitism, heterosexism?

Q. But I like wearing long spiked belts and dog collars – and I’m not into S/M.

A. So what. If you don’t care that others see them as racist, anti-Semitic etc then you are being racist anti-Semitic, fascist (Ardill and O’Sullivan: 50).

Lesbian sadomasochists responded to this criticism from their opponents by asking ‘Who are the Real Fascists?’. In their words, ‘To label SM fascist is to trivialise the real fight against fascism. To throw the word fascism about with no reference to what it means is to make the real fight more difficult. To use people’s sexual revulsion as a scare tactic against sexual freedom is a real insult to fascism’s victims’ (Ardill and O’Sullivan: 50).

This debate became one of the key influences behind Sheila Jeffreys’ important book, The Lesbian Heresy (Jeffreys, 1994; Walker, 1982). In an appendix, Jeffreys gave her own response to the GLC debate. A former activist in LASM, Jeffreys maintained that S/M represents ‘the erotic cult of fascism’. As evidence of the link, Jeffreys’ cited the presence of gay men among fascist circles in 1930s Berlin; she gave a graphic description of fisting from a 1980s S/M primer; she mentioned the wearing of the swastika; and the sadism of German fascism; Jeffreys also described a scene witnessed on American television in which one white (Hispanic) and one black women acted out a ritual of racial domination. Jeffreys concluded in terms resonant of Sontag’s earlier argument:

Are S/M proponents fascist? Probably they are not members of fascist organisations and do not care for any aspects of fascism apart from the erotic one … Most are not fascists, even though experiencing pleasure from the terrorising of other lesbians by wearing fascist regalia comes pretty close, but promoters of fascist values. The eroticising of dominance and submission, the glamourising of violence and of the oppression of gays, Jews and women, is the stuff of fascism (Jeffreys: 218).

The claim that S/M supporters promotes fascism seems to rely on two misleading elisions, between fascism and fascists, and between violence and oppression. As to the first, fascism was not merely an accumulation of individual choices, it was a program for government. To reduce the phenomenon to the sexual choice of individuals is to reduce and misunderstand fascism. Indeed Jeffreys seems to recognise this point, admitting in her words the distinction between fascist parties and ‘the stuff of fascism’. As to the second point, it seems odd that ‘the eroticising of dominance’ should be confused with dominance itself. Those who make a theatre of power, are not generally the powerful. Often it is the worst victims of power who repeat the forms of their oppression, but when they do so the content is changed. Whether this notion of theatre as a means to revisit and overcome pain is accepted, the relationship is more complex than Jeffreys would suggest (Renton, 1999).

To return to the original GLC debate which sparked Jeffreys’ intervention, it appears that the language on both sides grew sharper – but the tone of the radical feminist LASM was far more pointed, and even became intimidatory towards fellow activists. Indeed the naive claim that only men can be aggressive could not explain the sheer hostility of the debate. The similarity with events in America is striking.

More recently Linda Wayne has challenged the identification of fascism and sexual violence from the perspective of an activist within the lesbian S/M scene. Wayne’s argument is with what she sees as a general tendency among feminists to treat all forms of violent imagery as if they were the same. In reply, she suggests that ‘subgroup symbolism’ can take symbols from the ‘dominant imagery’ of capitalism and subvert them. By removing them from their original historical context, these symbols lose their old meaning, and take on a different message, ‘through group agreement’. Although there is much to be said for this approach, it does seem that the process which Linda Wayne describes is actually more complex than she suggests. The meaning of words can be challenged, but only to a certain historically-determined limit. The desire to use old signs differently does not determine the effect of these symbols on an audience which receives them in the light of its own understanding of the past. Interestingly, Wayne strongly defends the use of particular symbols of sexual domination which can be stripped of their older meaning (the belts and dog collars criticised by LASM above), while challenging the use of others (the swastika) which continue to be associated today with the far-right. For Wayne, one crucial question to ask is how great a ‘distance’ can be placed between meanings of the past and the meanings of the same symbols used in a different context today? Susan Sontag’s simple equation, which identifies all forms of violence as being fundamentally the same, cannot provide any useful answer (Wayne, 1996: 242-51).

Fascist Violence And Legitimate Violence

Before coming on to the key theme of this article – the claim that violent sex can never be legitimate, it is worth saying a something more about the relationship between fascism and violence. As this chapter has shown, one of the main rhetorical strategies of those who regard all violence as identical has been to label all violence as fascist. Yet there have been writers who have attempted to elaborate a non-fascist understanding of violence. One example of a non-fascist defence of violence is Gorge Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (Sorel: 1950). The best way to make sense of Sorel’s philosophy is to follow his own distinction between force, which he believed was illegitimate, and violence, which he described as potentially just. ‘Force’ meant any attempt by a governing minority to impose the organisation of the established social order. ‘Violence’, for Sorel, referred to any form of collective activity which tended to undermine the capitalist order. Georges Sorel argued that violence was capable of providing a better world which could be created by no other means. New laws and new ways of living would result, based on what Sorel called ‘free producers working in a factory without masters’ (Sorel: 241). Although Sorel has been criticised for placing too much trust in the advocates of elite theory (Sternhell, 1984; Payne, 1995), the ‘free’ is not accidental, Sorel’s belief in free association and self-determination was genuine. Georges Sorel distinguished between violence for its own sake, and violence against violence. Expressed this way, the point is not to ask whether all violence is fascistic, but rather how realistic it is to see violence as a means by which power can be opposed?

            One of Georges Sorel’s claims was that violence does not emerge in the minds of warped individuals, but rather in the structures of capitalism, which give violence a spur. Recently Penny Green has drawn our attention to the role of the capitalist state in creating violence. Her claim is that violence is an ‘ideologically imbued concept’, whose meaning is determined by the society we live in. When we think of violence, most of us do not think of the 400 people killed each year in Britain through violent ‘accidents’ at work, but rather of the violence of individuals, which is used to justify police and state supervision of society. Penny Green argues that ‘Individual acts of violence are widespread in our society but rape, assault, and other forms of interpersonal aggression cannot be explained in any useful sense at the level of the individual. Like the violence systematically conducted by states and corporations against citizens and consumers, violence between individuals has its roots in the organisation of power in society.’ Class, gender and racial divisions ‘create a climate in which social violence is readily generated’, while unemployment and poverty also make violence such an endemic part of our lives (Green, 1994: 20-9).

            The importance of Green’s argument is that it reminds us that sexual consent takes place in a social context. The law treats the sexual decision as the prerogative of two independent adults, alternating between judgements based on intention (hence the importance of consent) and judgements based on effect (hence the distrust of S/M). In law, the missing consideration is equality and power. Despite my criticisms of ‘Fascinating Fascism’, I recognise this as a strength of Sontag’s argument. Her distrust of S/M springs from a desire to take questions of power seriously. Sontag failure is to equate the playing out of games based on power – with the functioning of real power in society.

Vanilla Sex And Violence

Perhaps the debate between radical feminists and sado-masochists was misplaced. The overwhelming majority of violent sexual acts takes place in the form of ‘vanilla sex’, that is heterosexual sex between socially-defined couples, and when intercourse is a consequence, it takes place usually in the missionary position. You could also argue that Sontag’s assault on the sexualisation of violence was misplaced. Rather than discriminating between different forms of violent behaviour, Sontag tended to lump all violence in together. This begs the question of what constitutes ‘violence’? It is a wide term, referring to different and often contradictory patterns of behaviour. Most societies are not based on a glorification of violence, but in all societies violence is endemic, ‘an ordinary part of life’ (Fawcett, 1996; Hall, 1978; Newburn and Stanko, 1994; Stanko, 1985; Witte, 1996; Stanko, 1990: 5). There is no society in which people have yet lived without war and violent rebellion, without crime, without private acts of violence, without street attacks, without police aggression and domestic violence. Surely it is not useful to treat violence as one and the same thing, irrespective of who committed these acts and why.

Instead, the best way to make sense of violence is to contextualise it, separating out different forms of violence according to the consequences of these acts. Two distinctions have already been made, between offensive and defensive violence, and also between the violence of private individuals and of corporations or the state. The differentiation between acts of aggression and self-defence should be familiar, as this distinction is entrenched in most moral and legal codes. As for the contrast between the violence of the state and the violence of the individual, this distinction reminds us just how violent most states actually are. Indeed our every-day definition of the state depends on its monopoly of armed power, and our use of language reflects these concerns. The government provides healthcare and education. By contrast, it is the state which jails and declares war (Malmo, 1998).

            In the context of sexual violence, the English language already makes several useful distinctions. In addition to the two examples already discussed, one further distinction is the decisive contrast between consensual and non-consensual sex. The primary indicator of non-consensual sex is the absence of a clear spoken affirmation of consent. Several writers have discussed the status of the sexual contract, and the ‘principle of communication’ – the claim that communication is the sine qua non of legitimate sex – is the major theme of David Archard’s book Sexual Consent, which has already been mentioned in this chapter (Archard: 136-47). An acceptance of the overriding importance of consent raises further dilemmas, can consent be withdrawn? Can consent be degraded? Can anyone consent to ‘bad’ or unpleasant sex? To raise these dilemmas does not detract from the overriding importance of communication. The ultimate form of non-consensual sex is rape; and any rape is in some senses an act of sexual violence. Yet if the test of rape is the absence of consent, then it by no means follows that all sexual violence equals rape.

A fourth division exists between physical and emotional violence. When people commit acts of brutality on each other, these injuries very often take the form of emotional hostility. Here is Alex Comfort again, ‘Both sexes need to realise that there is a healthy streak of hostility in all lasting adult love (where it’s a defence being too taken-over by another person) and that some sexual approaches are wholly hostile: notch-cutting by either sex, for example seduce-and-abandon operations by males, husband-hunting by females. Adults can often – but not always – recognise the state of play, but in adolescence once can far more easily get hurt or trapped’ (Comfort: 57). The language in this quotation is ambiguous. At one level Comfort regrets the importation into sex of confrontational behaviour which has emerged outside the sexual sphere. In another sense, the author acknowledges the damaging impossibility of a sexual behaviour solely dominated by romantic notions of monogamous love. In Alex Comfort’s opinion, occasional hostility is better than the disappearance of either self. Whatever the origins of such emotional violence – it is often the most destructive form of violent sexual behaviour.

A fifth useful differentiation can be made between passion and cruelty. The point which this contrast highlights is a distinction according to intention. It is perfectly possible that violent sexual activity could occur in a context in which both or either partners saw themselves as continuing their passionate activity. Many people would view such sexual ‘violence’ rather differently from similar acts which came about because one individual had the specific intention of doing harm to another. Here, the traditional doubt should be mentioned which applies to all notions of morality based on intent. How can any third person truly know what was the intention of the participants at that time?

            A sixth distinction exists between vigour, force and might. This is not a matter of intention, but of the level of physical pressure implied in the sexual process itself. Sex is a vigorous physical activity. It relies on heat, friction and rapid motion. Almost all sex involves some low level of ‘vigour’, and many consensual sex acts imply a greater energy, or ‘force’. In Rex v. Donovan (a discussion heavily cited in the later case of Regina v. Brown), the degree of bodily harm was defined as that which while it need not be permanent, should ‘be more than merely transient and trifling’ (Archard: 112). To cause such harm, overbearing physical ‘might’ would need to have occurred.

            From these six distinctions, it should be clear that any blanket criticism of sexual ‘violence’ runs the risk of conflating questions of communication, process, motive and outcome. In any lived situation, discord in one sphere is likely to imply discord in another. For example, a moment of violent and unwanted sex could easily take a form which combined every one of the aspects of violence listed above. Yet if this overlap of categories is a possibility at any one moment in time, it is not an a priori certainty.

Sado-masochism is one context in which the violence of outcome is often directly proportional to the level of prior communication. The more violence, the greater the prior discussion. This link is especially close when these acts involve active participants on the S/M ‘scene’. Indeed this observation would suggest a further paradox, that pleasurable sado-masochist sex depends on the most obvious forms of sexual communication. Such are the levels of agreement required that conscious efforts must continuously be made to create and renew trust. Yet several writers have made the point that the high levels of scene communication can conceal a smaller number of individuals who do not conform to the necessary rules (Califia, 1996: 264-77). It would be ridiculous to claim that all sado-masochists are necessarily better than all heterosexuals at sexual communication. But some are better, and maybe the rest of us have something to learn.

            While sado-masochistic sex would constitute one example of violence with communication, it is equally possible to imagine non-communication without violence, or certainly non-communication without the physical intensity of ‘force’ or ‘might’ (given the meanings of these terms suggested above). Degraded consent can take place without requiring overt physical violence. Indeed, this is probably the condition of most sexual acts which take place in the societies we live in. In most steady relationships, whether gay, lesbian or heterosexual, there is not a high level of verbal communication prior to sexual behaviour. Such communication as exists is often non-verbal, when it is not merely assumed in the sense of ‘I thought you’d like it, we tried this position last week’.

            The consistent argument of this paper has been that violence should not be used as the only indicator of non-consensual sex. Susan Sontag’s claim that sexual violence is fascistic and hence illegitimate, has been rejected for two reasons. First, her argument is not a convincing account of the sexual dynamics of fascism. Second, Sontag also seems to misunderstand violent sex. The claim has been made here that it is wrong to see all violence as possessing one unitary set of properties. Violence is a broad term, whose common meaning is hard to pin down. Non-oppressive forms of violence can be envisaged, including the libertarian syndicalist violence defended as a principle by Georges Sorel. In the context of sexual activity, violence can be said to have taken place when there acts which were non-consensual, ill-intentioned or rough. Yet each of these instances is analytically distinct. The key question to ask of all sexual activity is ‘did consent take place?’ If this is the key issue, then the presence of violence is only a secondary question. Much violent sex is non-consensual or illegitimate – but some violent sex is based on consent.

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