Recently in a radical feminist space, someone made a case for intercourse, also called PIV (named for the parts), being a form of trauma-bonding. Intercourse is a specifically heterosexual act, which PIV makes even more clear. Intercourse poses inherent risks for a woman. While it may or may not be inherently hard on a female body, she has to trust that he will be careful enough, and receptive enough to her feedback, that he does not injure her. Each and every time: earned and maintained, this trust. Or his “sex” is actually his “raping” her: sex to him is rape to her and she, justly, is the judge. There is the risk of pregnancy, and of sexually transmitted disease. In reality, she is in bed with his entire sexual history of peopled intimacy. There is also the risk of his releasing into her body whatever toxins he has ingested or absorbed from whatever source, voluntary or unwitting. And she can never know what these toxins are, or what he is willingly imbibing that he doesn’t feel the need to disclose to her! All this accounted for, trauma bonding still seems a bit extreme.
If heterosexuality is coerced under patriarchy, being thin is also coerced. This does not automatically mean that if you’re thin, you’re complicit. Since some women are genetically thin, there is no reason to discount it as a way of being, no reason to fight Nature — to fight one’s own body. Having a privileged attribute does not automatically equal self-change to comply, or complicity. To some extent this even works with heterosexuality. Even intercourse. Dangers and all.
But let’s talk about privilege. There is an inane notion circulating among radical feminists — that if it isn’t delightful it isn’t privilege. Privilege is a about a comparison the powerful make: one group is privileged, or rewarded, at another group’s expense. To be rewarded for being in a group does not imply heaven-on-earth for its members. It simply means they will be treated better than the comparison group. Most of privilege just feels like basic, decent treatment. And if you grew up thinking you deserved basic decent treatment, privilege will not astound you.
We don’t, individually, get to claim or disclaim our privilege. That’s not within our power. Heterosexual women ARE privileged over lesbians in all manner of institutional power dynamics: in the workplace and in seeking employment, in schools, in governmental agencies and law, in medicine and religion. In access — in gaining and in sustaining that access. In social valuation. Under patriarchy, heterosexual women are valued, culturally, well above lesbians, and it is precisely for the complicity, the capitulation, that patriarchy understands it to be, that it is rewarded. Patriarchy also values thinness in women, and it’s roughly the same situation: thinness is seen as a sign of capitulation (whether it is or not).
Continuation of the species does suggest that some women might naturally, willfully reproduce. A Nature that is at least neutral would mean there is some sort of female buy-in to this reproduction thing in general. My childhood on a farm means I’ve witnessed female (other-) animal heterosexual desire. Since I don’t take Nature as innately or always cruel, the fact of some adult female humans being inclined toward heterosexual pairing does not surprise me. But some does not imply all. Even among wolves, generally only the alpha female and male mate (and she is said to dominate mating season and den location); the rest of the pack usually does not produce offspring — they do not mate. Shere Hite found that a mere 30% of women even have the capacity to orgasm during intercourse. Can it be said with any credibility that it’s natural for the remaining 70%? And what of those female animals who resist, and then are raped, even gang-raped, or fight back and stop the rape, injuring the male aggressor — don’t their different experiences factor in?
If hetness is seen as a form of capitulation by the oppressor elite, then why do we accommodate them? Why are some women heterosexual? The reasons are undoubtedly many, and somewhat varied, and that should be another essay. Beyond cause, though, we need to look at what the effects of heterosexuality for feminists really are. We need to understand that to be het means to miss the mark of one form of loyalty to girls and women: we have pledged time, energies and a certain amount of loyalty to our oppressors. This is reality. Having sons only further reduces the loyalty available for women and girls, and having sons within a rape culture endangers loyalty to females terribly.
I also think we heterosexual-privileged women need to consider our credibility. We should be subject to the same kind of ‘disregard of expertise’ that prostituted women still within the clutches of the sex industry receive. When your very life, down to the continuation of your breathing, depends on spinning the institution in the most positive light, you cannot be objective, or honest. Self-preservation also means that certain truths remain hidden, even from oneself, so that terrible realities don’t become unendurable, overwhelming. In the eyes of the culture that both demands and rewards it, to be a “wife” is a form of prostitution, of sexual servicing availability. To be a heterosexual woman but not a wife merely means the form of payment varies some. To be a woman who has sex with men means to be someone who is violated, penetrated, fucked. This is the only option the patriarchal mind can envision.
What, then, does it mean for a heterosexual feminist to say, “I love intercourse”? What exactly does she love and for what reasons? And what are the real political implications of that announcement in a culture where PIV is both compelled and viewed as capitulation? In a culture where woman-loving is always devalued under patriarchy’s terms of power?
Does it mean she’s delighted to a fuckable object? To be chosen thus? To be overtaken, penetrated like an enemy line, the demarcation the vulva in this war against women? I doubt it! And yet too often this is what intercourse, called “sex,” means to men.
Does it mean she has experienced intercourse as an integral part of “lovemaking,” where he has met and held her eyes, carefully, bridging across their separate humanness, to show her how much he values her, loves her, cares about her, puts her needs on par with his own? Does it mean she rejoices in the delights of her animal body and the intimate joys she finds in sharing it with a beloved other?
Does it mean she is backing feminist minds away from the idea of trauma bonding, and telling us all that it needn’t be so for those of us who are willing to risk the perils and live among men?
Does it mean that the sensations of intercourse, separate from its cultural or sexed meanings are pleasurable to her? Where, then, to put the cultural and sexed valuations, and the hierarchy that puts woman-loving far beneath man-loving, within the patriarchal frame? Can we really ever be separate from the effects of these? And what does it mean to lesbians, already culturally devalued, when we state our allegiance so openly to the oppressor class? It can’t be positive.
So what, then do we do? We work for women, we work for the empowerment of girls. We work for female physical and mental health and safety and nourishment and nurture. We work to grow the bonds across difference that know can be created, and we work to sustain them — we listen, especially carefully, to those women over whom we wield very real power in our privilege, and we learn and then we do (whatever needs doing). We give more to women and girls than we do to men and boys, and we hope this is enough to help build a woman-affirming feminism.