The Other Swedish Model

Gender, sex and culture, by Laura Agustín
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Good sex, equal sex: Who has the best sex?

Monday, January 11th, 2010

applesorangesFeminists have better sex is the latest catchphrase from Sweden’s feminist political party, Feministiskt Initiativ. That’s right, people supposedly interested in personal and class liberation sound as though they are engaged in a one-up-manship that says Our way of living is better than yours.

People who are alienated by this sort of stuff dismiss and hate feminism. Some years ago, I came to terms with the fact that there are different sorts of feminism. That is, many people who call themselves feminists believe in different, and sometimes opposing, ideas. I don’t see much future in endless battling about what ‘correct’ feminist values are. But this supposedly feminist claim about better sex is provoking.

One aspect of traditional value systems many dislike is how hierarchies are used to rank every aspect of life: grades, ratings, point systems all show how some people are better than others. Everyone can’t excel, many feel inferior and it all takes up too much time and energy.

It’s hardly significant that I don’t like FI’s catchphrase. But I wondered about the research that supposedly backed up the ‘better sex’ claim. Written by two psychologists at Rutgers University, Rudman and Phelan, the article is called ‘The Interpersonal Power of Feminism: Is Feminism Good for Romantic Relationships?’ The quantitative survey research asked participants to consider three items about sex: My relationship is sexually satisfying, The sexual side of my relationship could use improvement and How often have you considered having a sexual relationship with someone other than your partner?

The basic finding was modest: ‘Contrary to popular beliefs, feminism may improve the quality of relationships, as opposed to undermining them.’ A measured conclusion hardly substantiating FI’s catchphrase and Schyman’s claim in her article Lycka kräver reservationslösa relationer (Happiness requires unreserved relationships).

Elin Grelsson responded in Expressen that the FI campaign sets up a new set of ideals for everyone to feel inadequate about, another demand that we live perfect lives. State Feminism tends to produce rigid, utopian formulas proclaimed the only proper way to live. Schyman and Svärd objected and agreed that they know sexual satisfaction comes in many forms. But their reply’s title still uses the phrase ‘better sex’, continuing the same old idea that some sexual experiences are superior to others. Which is not what the authors of the original research said.

In fact, it’s impossible to measure sexual relations, so we can’t know who has good ones and who does not. The surveys mentioned simply asked people to say whether or not they felt satisfied. People who say they never enjoy sex, or it always hurts or disgusts them, are probably not having the same experience as people who say they always enjoy sex. On the other hand, maybe they are having the same experience but evaluate it differently (yes, it’s thorny).

But most people’s experiences fall between the two extremes: sometimes they enjoy sex and sometimes they don’t. There isn’t any formula for good sex: even someone who has managed to figure out what pleases her or him and how to achieve it has different experiences on different occasions. Too much to eat or drink, a bad day at the office, a thrilling film: all have the capacity to change how we perceive an experience that is, on the face of it, ‘the same’ as the last time. Sex education and sex therapy are forced to rely on descriptions of acts, diagrams of bodies and formulae about consent – as though always asking people if they want things were proof that all is well.

The term Gender Equality is usually used as though its meaning were obvious. Nowadays, equality in its most general sense is widely agreed to be a good idea; we believe human beings ought to enjoy equal opportunities to live, work and progress. In the abstract, it doesn’t seem difficult, but problems appear when we consider sex. Proponents of Gender Equality have a hard time understanding that people can consent to activities that don’t sound equitable (always being the ‘bottom’ or ‘top’ in sexual relations, one person having fewer orgasms than another).

Equality has more than one meaning: on the one hand, equivalency in value or status, with the idea of achieving balance; on the other, sameness and likeness. It is easier to see equality when things appear alike. But, as we know, people who seem alike end up being different in all sorts of ways – physical, mental, of ambition, of desire. The challenge is how to achieve equality and at the same time value human difference.

In Swedish, likhet refers to equality before the law as well as general similarity and alikeness. Olikhet is its opposite, and although olika things are usually understood simply to be different, more than one Swede has told me that unlikeness carries within it the notion of inequality. If that’s true, then a hierarchy is always present, some things considered more valuable than others. If difference implies a hierarchy then the achievement of equality becomes very hard indeed.

applesandorangesHow can you have equality between apples and oranges? You can say they belong to the same food group and show all the qualities they have in common compared to other foods. But they don’t have the same taste. But you can say that they are alike in size and roundish shape and fleshiness. But then there are the differences. You have to peel one of them to eat it. That’s rather a disadvantage, but you can make it into an advantage by pointing out that it bruises less easily. You must face the fact that some people think one is delicious and the other not. Some people don’t like the colour orange. One can be cooked whole with some success while the other cannot. They have different assortments of vitamins and minerals.

Similarly, men’s and women’s bodies are different. You can declare both to be of equal biological value and both necessary to reproduce. You can argue that women are more powerful and interesting because they incubate and give birth to babies or that they are weaker because they have sometimes debilitating monthly menstruation. You can see men’s genitalia as marvellously external and knowable or women’s as fascinatingly internal and mysterious. You can say that liking to look at or touch one or the other is a matter of taste. Or you can object to the dichotomy man/woman, pointing to the fluidity of gender identities and the ambiguities of many bodies. In this case, when you talk about equality you have to face a much more complicated array of possibilities.

My point here is not to make an exhaustive list of contradictions in order to suggest that equality projects are useless. But the idea of equality has to be questioned when it comes to sex, and any notion of judging equality by likeness, or sameness, has to be avoided (as Anna Svensson says in a discussion of the problems of State Feminism). Theoretically, a feminist outlook ought to be interested in uncovering the variety of feelings and thoughts for the sex that has long been subordinate. If you believe that most women, across the board, have been oppressed into a limited range of tasks, roles and expressions for most of history, almost everywhere – a truism – then a good step forward is to find out what women want and like, give them space to see where they would like to go before declaring some tastes unacceptable.

It is counter-productive, when women’s movements are still young and fumbling, to have institutionalised experts claiming to know what’s best for all women. That way, we get yet another hierarchy to substitute for the oppressive one we’re attempting to change. State Feminists, encouraged to believe they speak for everyone, condemn or marginalise everyone who doesn’t agree with them.  The principle should be allowing space for people to discover themselves, not decreeing them into silence. This will take some time.

Laura Agustín writes several times a week at Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex and is author of Sex at the Margins, Zed Books 2007.

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