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Feminism and Sexuality

Posted: March 6, 2012

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The relationship between feminism and sexuality is not just tenuous and sometimes dangerously contradictory, but one that has changed over time in the debate on feminism. This debate and struggle has moved from the arena of women’s rights to encompass rights for all minorities (depending on their relative position within existing hierarchies) that is now understood as ‘feminisms’.

So, whose rights and what rights should we as feminists struggle for, when inter-subjectivity between women and ‘feminized’ men begin to interact dangerously with each other? Is a ‘lower’ caste/class/rural man really an equal for his female lover from a ‘higher’caste/class/urban background only the basis of sexual chemistry? And don’t social location, power and privilege determine and produce pleasure in the first place by constructing inequality as part of that pleasure itself, when the socially disempowered protagonist feels pleasure in being consumed and feminized?

And this is quite apart from the issue of commercial and contractual sex, which is a debatable issue where abolitionists/ radical feminists and materialist feminists are pitted against each other. What about the powerful choice to publicly enter violent contractual sexual relationships and seek pleasure and payment from it than become party to insidious exploitation?

Many women performing low paying menial jobs as domestic help or at construction sites enter commercial sex work, since it pays better than their erstwhile menial jobs, which include clandestine sexual exploitation for free in any case. Can one define the power to make pleasurable and painful choices in terms of violence? Or should sex become labour like all other varieties of its kind? Or does sexuality within feminism only come to mean the right to experience and express sexuality, whether mainstream or alternative, despite the ‘perception’ of violence, whatever it may be, as a matter of choice and power? These are a lot of confusing questions.

Can one define the power to make pleasurable and painful choices in terms of violence? Or should sex become labour like all other varieties of its kind?

I wonder whether the choice of pain as pleasure exists only if the power to keep the pleasure status-quo remains constant, wherein different kinds of power can then be pitted against each other and negotiated. Then these painful/pleasurable relationships are not unequal but differently equal. It is only in the presence of power being differently equal, that inequality can become a pleasurable game, a charade that invokes drama and role-playing…and heighten sexual pleasure.

Can pleasure then become valid as power in a relationship that subverts social disempowerment? Are we problematizing the relationship between pleasure and pain as kinky because feminists consider ‘differently equal’ as utopian in a patriarchal world? Is it not obvious that those ‘other’ to each other in sexual relationships, in how far they experience and express sexual pleasure, may also experience power and pleasure differently and hence produce the question of unidirectional equality as irrelevant?

On the other hand, would the politics of pleasure seek to masculinize women, producing them as being equally privileged and hence capable of enjoying the pain of inequality, whereby they can be further subjugated into ‘choices’ of pain that are without safety? Then what about the feminist struggle that problematizes privilege as expressive of masculine violence? Are privileged women masculine, when they negotiate violence and safety on the same lines as pain and pleasure by collapsing violence into pain and safety into pleasure? Then is the risk of living pain pleasurably just as loving the freedom to live dangerously – taking the risk of pain and violence at the cost of pleasure, a subjectivity that is deeply empowering? Then how would a woman living risk for pleasure deal with violence from feminized men? Or would the violence be at the cost of her pleasure and her choice? Or are safety-violence/ pleasure-pain parallel questions that can never converge even in infinity? I continue to raise questions…..

This often brings to mind the power of pleasure and deep and passionate love, despite and because of difference in equality within ‘feudal’ relationships that both men and women connect with their superiors in relational terms, at least in India. This often sounds a deeply discordant note with feminist politics where women are no longer considered to endorse ‘feudal’ politics of being caste/class strengtheners and progenitors and seeking pleasure and validation only as part of that. They become separate social players now who are parallel with men. However they run the risk of their pleasure still being marooned within ‘Bhakti’ feudalism and safety from violence (and violence against women has increased as women have increasingly stepped outside the feudal fold of patriarchy) as they face rejection and attack within their family and conjugal relationships. Their journey from ‘rights’ to ‘pleasure’ lies within this fragmentary transition that constitutes them as differently equal with an access to different kinds of power.

Consent for pleasurable violence is a deeply sensitive issue that might be a question quite beyond relationships that involve love, vulnerability, dignity, trust and empathy and the journey to feel emotionally safe enough to take the risk of sexual game play that involves violence.

I saw depictions of consensual violence of one such inequality played out in Ranbir Kapoor’s ‘Rockstar’ that finally led to a conventional and conservative ending of personal ruination at the cost of professional success. I myself suffered deeply in sexual relationships that did not accept pain in return for the pain that was sought to be caused as part of making pro-pleasure choices, within what should have become moments of deepest empathy and compassion. Consent for pleasurable violence is a deeply sensitive issue that might be a question quite beyond relationships that involve love, vulnerability, dignity, trust and empathy and the journey to feel emotionally safe enough to take the risk of sexual game play that involves violence.

It is in this transition between a unidirectional debunking of equality, where masculinity becomes the emblem of freedom and femininity the emblem of subjugation, that pleasurable choice may involve consensual pain and violence in order to produce power as different and differently equal. It remains a personal choice for women, who perceive ‘masculinity’ along with its privileges as an emblematic vision of freedom and empowerment to negotiate with ‘feminized’ power among both men and women. I have often been privy to sickening conversations that complain about the masculine ‘bitch’, while ‘feminizing’ the ‘outsider’ or the ‘lower’ within existing hierarchy….and both these experiences have been deeply painful.

As far as the difference or equality among empowered women and feminized men is concerned, an incident comes to mind. A friend of mine and I were eating dinner at a restaurant in Venice, served by a Bangladeshi man at our table. The Bangladeshi man and I struck up a conversation with each other, speaking in Bengali, albeit different kinds of Bengali, since we were from different sides of the Bengali border. After some time, my friend rose to pay at the counter and the Bangladeshi man came to our table to clear up as I made to leave. It is then that he asked me, as if he could not resist asking it, whether my friend who was with me was my husband. His gaze was no longer obsequious as it earlier was in my friend’s presence; it was personal. His eyes slipped to capture my eyebrow piercing and the tattoo on my chest. When I declined, he smiled. I sensed his smile more then I saw it that evening and was left to wonder about who was more empowered or violent.

Was I as a ‘masculinized’ elite Indian traveling in an expensive Western tourist outpost like Venice more empowered than he, a ‘feminized’ man from a poor, mostly uneducated and rural Bangladeshi background, supporting a large family? Whatever the equation, his smile made sure, in that too a violent manner, that I did not forget, especially in the absence of my ‘white’ friend, that I was a coloured woman. In one gaze, he reduced me to a specific morality he felt contemptuous about.

*Photo credit: patrikmloeff (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License)


Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in

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