Lynne Segal: ‘The language of sex is still phallocentric’
In the run-up to the republication of her landmark feminist treatise Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure, Lynne Segal talks with Rachel Cooke of The Observer about violence between men and women, the commercialization of sex and the complex status of women today.
Straight Sex was written against feminism’s increasing preoccupation with men’s violence. Segal wanted to reclaim the early confidence around sexuality that had come with the sexual liberation movement of the 60s. She disagreed profoundly with the idea that men were the enemy; that heterosexuality was bad for women; that straight women should feel guilty about their desires. The Manichaean, essentialist views of feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan were not for her.
“I didn’t, and don’t, believe there is a natural relationship between men and violence,” she says. “This idea that women are nicer than men. Women can be violent, too. For me and my feminist friends, men were absolutely part of what we were doing. We knew lots of pro-feminist men. I mean, Stuart Hall [leftist icon and founding father of cultural theory] ran the creche at the first women’s liberation conference!” At this last thought, she sounds awed even now.
Was there hostility to the book? “Yes. I was once swimming at Highbury pool and the lifeguard got down and shouted at me, ‘Are you Lynne Segal?’ I told him that I was. ‘Well, you’re too soft on men!’ he said. He was a student at Essex University, where he was being taught by some radical feminist that all men are rapists.” She laughs.
Straight Sex has a chapter entitled The Liberated Orgasm. Does she think that, in 2014, it is? Liberated, I mean. “Well, we’re more sex positive. But what we’ve also seen is the commercialisation of sex and the language of sex is still phallocentric. Show a woman having sex on the internet and this is a way of shaming her. Show a man and you’re just making him more of a man.”
Women have, she thinks, made net gains in terms of financial independence and contraception, but our status remains complex; with every advance, the ground shifts beneath our feet. “These mystical, mythical ideas of what a man or a woman is: the more we are in the same places, doing the same things, the more we reach for these blueprints.”
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