issue 169 - March 1987
Sex after AIDS
A major heath crisis, AIDS has also brought urgency to the debate
about individual sexual freedom in society and invested the debate
with greater frankness and meaning than ever before. Ros Coward
argues that what is at stake is the transformation of the
balance of power between the sexes.
'Safer sex' is the cry on the lips of all concerned with preventing the spread of AIDS. Avoiding certain kinds of sexual practices and indulging in others is widely held to be one of the few ways in which a major health disaster could be minimised. Yet if the call for safer sex were to be taken seriously by the population, this would mean a drastic change.
Such changes are not easy to make and for many, the concept of safer sex looks like just another attempt to infringe recent hard-won sexual freedoms. Virtually all discussion of the subject has been in these terms, revolving around the problems of the freedom of the individual versus interference or limitations on personal behaviour. It is curious that there has been virtually no acknowledgement that we live in a sexually unequal society and that sexual practices are the place where this inequality is often expressed.
In most talk about AIDS, what feminists have to say about sexual relations has been almost completely ignored. It is as if feminists had never criticised existing sexual practices between men and women as usually dreary, often oppressive and occasionally downright dangerous. Suddenly everyone is yearning nostalgically for the pre-AIDS era when choice and spontaneity were the names of the game. But it's clear to me at least that men and women have different interests at stake in any possible sexual revolution and that the crisis produced by AIDS may well have different implications for men and women. It is just possible that there may be things women can gain from the current situation - distressing as it may be.
For men, safer sex is seen as a curtailment. It means, at least at first sight, an almost compulsory use of condoms and a strong suggestion that penetration of the vagina or anus ought to wait until you feel pretty sure of your partner.
For women, safer sex has different resonances. Heterosexuality has never been safe for women, nor particularly spontaneous. The pill allowed women an unprecedented degree of spontaneity but it could hardly be described as unpremeditated or unrisky. In going on the pill, women make a definite decision - one that entails putting themselves at risk medically. It is too well-documented to ignore that women on the pill are in 'higher risk' categories for thrombosis and breast cancer. The choice to have an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD) fitted is also known to involve medical risks.
As far as statistics are available, it's apparent that women have been bearing the brunt of making sex safe for men in the past. It's been our problem because it's women who get pregnant, and women who have abortions; and unless a heterosexual partner is especially pro-feminist he's unlikely to have had sufficient motivation to use condoms. But now, suddenly, it's a matter of life and death to men that they abandon their historical privilege of spontaneous sex and assume personal responsibility for their actions.
Nor is it just a question of the gains to be had in heterosexual, penetrative sex. The crisis around AIDS demands we find sexual alternatives to penetration of the vagina and anus, or oral sex where semen is swallowed. Again, it seems to me that feminists have had quite a lot to say about the limited amount of pleasure which these activities bring women.
Feminists over the last 15 years have mounted a full-scale attack on men's obsession with penetration and ejaculation which has often denied to women any genuine sexual pleasure. Most women describe themselves as enjoying other forms of stimulation especially to the clitoris, at least as much, if not more, than penetration. This is particularly so if an obsessive focus on penetration and ejaculation minimises other pleasures. The endless tale told at sex therapy clinics is of women seeking other stimulation, verbal and physical, and of looking for other forms of physical closeness which do not inevitably lead to penetration. It has been described over and over again how women can become physically rejecting because they don't want all physical encounters to end in penetration.
A common form of advice given to heterosexual couples who have run into this problem is to put a temporary taboo on penetrative sex. It's a period where individuals are encouraged actually to learn about each other's pleasures, to find out about each other's bodies without the inevitable goal of penetration. Perhaps AIDS could be seen as a social version of this therapeutic taboo, a pause used for people to find out about each other, less obvious pleasures, and a moment where sexuality could be redefined as something other than male discharge into any kind of receptacle. In this new context where penetration might literally spell death, there is a chance for a massive relearning about sexuality.
It is an important aspect of this crisis that organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust in London and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation' have set the terms of the debate in explicit language about the kinds of practices which would be safe and the need to 'decentralise' penetration. In capturing the initiative, albeit often directed at the most vulnerable group - male homosexuals - such propaganda has become sufficiently widespread to make it difficult for governments to turn their backs on the need for sex education.
When I saw the literature of the Terrence Higgins Trust I was overwhelmed with regret that such explicit talk about what happened in sexual relations had not been available to me as a girl. Part of female oppression has been lived out through the ignorance in which women are kept about their bodies and sexuality. Indeed, even in the liberated 1980s there is still a fight on about how much women are entitled to know and choose in childbirth. And as various feminist commentators make clear in that case, knowledge is power. The more women know about what is likely to happen to them, the more likely they are to be able to take control of what is happening to them. The same clearly applies to sexual relations. The more women know about their own bodies and their responses, the more likely they are to be partners in sex who are not to be used just as repositories for male sexual urges and fantasies.
The question of knowledge about sexuality is one very pressing reason why 'sexual liberation' was not wholly a bad thing for women - in spite of the fact that it was men who mainly benefited from this freedom since they never had to bear the consequences of sex. The increased sexual freedom and possibility of choice and experimentation did give some women the possibility of knowing more and taking more control of their own sexuality. The new need to communicate about sexual habits and practices is something which could greatly benefit girls since it would extend the information which they have about sex. It seems to me that what is really at stake in the AIDS crisis is not whether we can preserve our existing freedoms but whether we can use the crisis to transform the balance of power between the sexes. This, of course, will not happen if we leave AIDS to governments and the 'experts' who have already demonstrated themselves more sympathetic to calls for sexual monogamy and a morality based on the nuclear family. This right-wing vision holds nothing for women. Traditional family life with its fixed sexual roles for men and women is probably far more disastrous for women than the heady days of sexual freedom. Within the traditional family lies the complete exploitation of women who are not only financially dependent on men but also deprived of personal and sexual equality.
There are some especially cruel ironies for feminism in the current situation. We have to watch general pressure mounting to transform sexual innuendo in advertising yet feminist campaigns against sexism in adverts have largely failed. Especially cruel is the conclusion of the British Government AIDS leaflet 'Ultimately, defence against the disease depends on all of us taking responsibility for our own actions'. The feminist call for men to do just that has been something of a voice in the wilderness in the past. However, it is of little use just to bewail these ironies.
If AIDS does indeed develop in the ways predicted then it will, whether we like it or not, transform the terrain on which sexual relations and sexual politics are played out. It would be foolish and defeatist if feminists did not engage in discussions about what to do about AIDS, or failed to recognise that this is an issue which concerns us politically.
1 See Organisations
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be
Editor: The basis of your argument is that it is women who have traditionally born the burden of responsibility in heterosexual relationships, and you reinforce your case largely with emotive points - for example that women are used 'just as repositories for male sexual urges and fantasies'. Surely such contentious rhetoric will not convince the unconverted?
Coward: I don't agree. My argument is based on ideas which have emerged form the feminist movement and are well substantiated. Perhaps my contention that women are often used in sex as repositories for men's sexual urges and fantasies does appear like unsubstantiated emotional rhetoric. But I had in mind all the research that has been done into sexual attitudes and especially into rape and men's use of pornography. The problem is that in a short article like this it is difficult to do justice to all the ideas which have influenced my own. I wouldn't like to think my tone may well reflect the fact that - like many feminists - I still do have very strong feelings about the disregard in which women are often held in sexual relationships.
Editor: Your association of the nuclear family with right-wing politics and, indeed, with the exploitation of women, is tendentious - yet you state it as objective fact. How do you justify this technique?
Coward: I don't offer this as an objective fact, but as a political position - based, again, on feminist ideas and research evolved over a long period. One of the only points on which most feminists still agree , even though many live in nuclear families themselves, is that the traditional roles and morality of the nuclear family have only ever worked against women. Perhaps I should have made it more clear that my position is based on a political assessment which has as its objectives improving women's position and transforming the relations between the sexes.
Editor: Your conclusion is that the AIDS epidemic should be used by feminists to transform the balance of power between the sexes. But couldn't this be seen as making political capital out of a tragedy?
Coward: Yes, it could - and there are some who would probably say that my argument is therefore dismissive of the very real tragedy currently afflicting AIDS victims (at the moment largely homosexual men). On the other hand, virtually everyone is suggesting that there will have to be a sexual revolution. It is important to me as a feminist that id there is to be a sexual revolution then it should be one where men's power is challenged. It seems defeatist and, indeed, self-interested, when people say that the only changes should be in the interests of protecting one's own health. This notwithstanding, I very much hope my ideas don't appear as profiting from the plight of homosexual men. On the contrary, I'm arguing that feminists should get more involved with what it happening around AIDS. The discrimination homosexual men and AIDS victims are currently experiencing are all part of the heterosexist and unequal assumptions of our society. We all stand to gain from overthrowing these assumptions.