Can the Political Override the Personal?

graffiti reading "the feminists are taking over!"
And not a moment too soon. (Photo by Rich Anderson via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0))

In an essay at n+1, Harmful to Minors author Judith Levine looks back at her ideological and sexual history, and at the contradictions that challenge a young woman simultaneously burgeoning into her feminist and her sexual selves. Her wide-ranging retrospective paints a particular picture of a young feminist in 1970 en route to exploring bigger issues: the concept that the definition of “consent” might be historical, and the tensions between the personal and political (or what we think is the political) in the midst of the sexual revolution.

His fly is unzipped. When did that happen? He is kissing my mouth. Technically speaking, he’s a good kisser. I concentrate on this and try to relax, as instructed.

His pants are on the floor and mine are halfway down my legs. Did he do this or did I? He presses himself against my crotch. I squirm. Does he think I’m encouraging him? He moves more vigorously. Sal’s and my lovemaking, languid and aimless, floats before me like a childhood idyll. Adam’s parts are making contact with my parts, one businesslike step after another.

This is sex is the adult world, I think. Boy meets girl. Boy fucks girl. Girl fucks boy. Boy gets what he wants. Girl—no, Liberated Woman—gets what she wants. I wanted this, I remind myself.

If heterosexual sex is like sleeping with the enemy, should the good feminist be a political lesbian? Perhaps unfortunately, desire doesn’t really work like that.

But it is one thing to know something and quite another to feel it, and there’s a great distance between what you think you should desire and what you desire. With women I see the light; the light burns with rage at men. But in the dark with a man, another desire burns. The inescapable fact is that I still want men and want them to want me; I still wish to love and be loved by a man. With time and the help of consciousness-raising and a growing pile of users’ manuals like Our Bodies, Ourselves, I am getting to know my body and liking sex more and more. But it will be years before I have an orgasm in the same room with another person, as one CR group member puts it.

I continue to conduct my sex life according to the folkways and wisdom of the sexual revolution: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. When I fail to be swept into sexual ecstasy, the rumor of frigidity whispers icily into my ear. The women’s movement, meanwhile, has given me permission both to please myself and to reject men. I whipsaw between self-abnegation and self-righteousness. The feminism that is the key to my sexual liberation also erects a barricade between my beliefs and my happiness.

Read the essay