Labor for the woman (1898), Jan Toorop. Public Domain.

Why ‘Reactionary Feminism’ Is Destined to Fail

“But if they reap the benefits of their vision, its costs are born elsewhere.”

Mary Harrington, Feminism Against Progress

In the name of freedom, contemporary feminism has embraced gender transition, the Pill, abortion, casual sex, and the delegation of care to industry. In doing so, it has lied to women. You too can be men, it has told them. You can leave your female body behind, you can have sex without feeling and without consequence, you can reject the burden of care. But women cannot be men, and the price of the pretence that they can, and of the assumption that they should want to be, is one that women can no longer afford to pay. If feminism is to once again serve women, it must accept that the sexes are different. It must strive for a world in which “men and women can be human together.” So Mary Harrington—a Featured Author here at Fairer Disputations—argues in her book, Feminism Against Progress.

As a gender-critical feminist philosopher, I read Harrington’s book with both pleasure and frustration. For every insight, I found an assumption or an unasked question. Harrington seems to assume that some can be free only while others do “the dull, sticky drudgery that keeps the world of freedom . . . turning,” and that these others are necessarily women. She seems to assume that women need an excuse—the possibility of pregnancy—in order to refuse men’s sexual demands. She seems to assume that sex is naturally “dark[] and danger[ous].”

Why must the free individual be accompanied by a carer, and why must women be the carer? Why can women not refuse men on the grounds that they do not want to have sex with them? Indeed, why must women cite grounds at all? Why must sex be dangerous, and why is it always dangerous only for women?

Harrington’s is a radical critique with fatal blind spots. The result is a proposal—“reactionary feminism”—that is destined to repeat contemporary feminism’s failure of women.

Harrington’s Argument

In its pursuit of freedom, Harrington writes, contemporary feminism has accepted a particular template for personhood, the template one finds in the writings of classical liberal theorists. In this (“supposedly gender-neutral”) template, a person is an autonomous being, free from dependence on the wills of other.

The person of this template is actually, as Harrington’s “supposedly” suggests, an adult male person. Consider his features: rational, self-interested, bounded, discrete, separate, independent, autonomous, strong, productive. Would liberal theorists have so conceived the human being if they had had a female human being in mind? Only on a conception of the person as bounded, where the boundary lies at the edges of a conspicuously non-pregnant body, does a foetus appear a “parasite” invading that body.

Contemporary feminism pursues for women freedom at the price of disavowing their bodies. Hence gender transition, the Pill, abortion, and the delegation of care to industry.

If this is a price that some women can pay, it is so only because others cannot. Harrington captures this point beautifully in the memory with which she opens her book. Every day her mother would cook dinner and set the table, and after they had eaten her father would get up and leave. In doing so, she says that he asserted his status: “I’m exempt from these petty chores.” As her two brothers got older, they began to follow her father’s example. Harrington found herself in a bind. She considered herself no less entitled to freedom than her brothers. Yet she could exercise that entitlement—leave the table with them—only because her mother (and perhaps her own future self) remained to clear it. And mothers in turn can exercise this freedom only if poorer women can be paid to substitute for them. And some women can refuse to become mothers only while other women do not.

This contains an insight more significant than even Harrington realises: the individual can be free only while another exists to attend to his needs, to birth his babies, clean his toilet, do his dishes. The price of freedom is another’s servitude.

But Harrington does not ask why, nor does she ask why it is typically women who occupy the place of servant. To my mind, these questions have answers, and these answers make clearer still why contemporary feminism is wrong to pursue freedom for women. These answers are to be found in Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, a book that cautioned feminists against embracing liberal ideals some thirty-five years before Harrington wrote Feminism Against Progress.

An Alternative Origin Story: The Sexual Contract

The Sexual Contract provides a new origin story of the modern liberal state. An origin story, in the liberal context, is intended to answer the question: why do individuals agree to be governed? Why do they willingly relinquish a state of absolute freedom for one of subjection to a political authority? The standard origin story is that of the social contract: individuals agree to be governed in exchange for protection of life, liberty, and property.

As feminists have long noted, the individuals in this story are husbands and fathers. John Locke expressly noted that conjugal society preceded civil society. In other words, men and women lived together as husband and wife in the “state of nature” before the liberal state existed. And his friend James Tyrrell wrote that it was the husbands, the “Fathers of Families,” who formed civil society, “since Women, as being concluded by their Husbands, and being commonly unfit for civil business . . . had no reason to have Votes in the Institution of the Government.” The “individuals” who agree to be governed are male individuals, and these male individuals are governors (husbands) of female individuals (wives).

Refusing to accept that women would naturally agree to be governed by men, Pateman suggests that the social contract is a fraternal pact: men agree to be governed on condition of the right to proprietorship of a woman. Following Adrienne Rich, Pateman calls this “male sex-right.”

But why is this particular condition necessary or decisive? In other words, why is protection of life, liberty, and property insufficient reason to agree to be governed? Why must men also have a sex-right over women, or at least a single woman? Another political theorist, C. B. Macpherson, provides a clue. This clue is his observation that individuals will agree to be governed only if they see themselves as equal in some respect more important than all the respects in which they are unequal. In Pateman’s story, men agree to be governed on condition of the right to proprietorship of a woman. So, equality in the respect of insecurity of proprietorship of a woman must be more important to men than the respects in which they are unequal. And, indeed, it is.

The paradigmatic adult male human being is, I submit, the proprietor of a woman. Consider two facts. First, it is the sex act, in the minds of most people, that marks a boy’s transition into manhood. Second, the sex act is conceived as an act of possession—for a man to have sex with a woman is for him to have her. Taken together, these facts suggest that it is in having sex with a girl that a boy becomes the proprietor of her, and that it is in becoming the proprietor of her that he matures into a man. This explains why, historically, it was sex that consummated the marriage contract, constituting a male person as a husband, the master (Mr) of a mistress (Mrs), a man. The promise of sex-right is thus, for the man, the promise of equality in the most fundamental of respects: security in his status as a man. As such, it is the promise of an equality that compensates for and renders tolerable all other inequalities—of wealth, of status, of political power. It is a promise that provides men with a reason to acknowledge the liberal state. The social contract, Pateman argues, is therefore conditional on the sexual contract.

If the individuals who enter the social contract do so on condition of the right to proprietorship of a woman, then “the freedom of the individual,” as ratified by the social contract, is tacitly “the freedom to possess a woman.” This reveals two features of freedom within the modern liberal state: first, it belongs to a man; second, it entails the subjection of a woman. Thus, the price of freedom is a woman’s subjection.

Harrington is right: the individual can be free only while another exists to attend to his needs, and this other must be a woman. But, contra Harrington, it is not the male and female body as such that dictates this; it is the political status of these bodies.

The Male Sex-Right

Should my talk of sex-right strikes the reader as implausible, conjuring as it does a caricature-ish image of men aggressively demanding sex from women, I ask that you consider the following points, illustrated with quotations from women, gathered by researcher Nicola Gavey in her book Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape.

First, men need not assert their sex-right so long as women perform their duty. In that case, male sex-right will manifest in women’s sense of duty (“if . . . I couldn’t have sex twice a week, you know, I felt guilty, I felt bad about it. I’d, I would make myself sort of want to do it, or, or no I wouldn’t want to but, you know, I would feel bad if it didn’t happen twice a week”) and in men’s expectation that women will perform their duty. Recall Harrington’s father: he does not command his wife to clear the table, he simply leaves it, acting on the assumption that she will clear it.

Only when women prove reluctant to perform their duty might men then remind them of their right, at first subtly—persisting (“he’d come in and he’d kiss me . . . I would only let those go on for, sort of thirty seconds or so and then I’d back off . . . Well, if he was feeling like being difficult about this he wouldn’t let me back off”), cajoling them (“So, so after maybe an hour of, um, saying, me saying, ‘no,’ and him saying ‘Oh come on, come on’ . . . I’d finally think ‘. . . for a few hours rest . . .”), expressing disappointment (“[He] [p]leaded. And wanted to have sex with me. And so I’d land up feeling sorry for him”)—and then more forcefully—becoming annoyed (“He actually said, you know, “you’ve come over here and, if you didn’t want to make love, why did you come,’ and, a lot of stuff like that . . .”), finally imposing their will (“‘he said all these things, and he, you know, started undressing me and I just, you know, gave up, I suppose”).

I cannot help but wonder whether it is only because women so obligingly perform their duty, so little test male sex-right, that the reality of this right remains obscured. Perhaps this is what Germaine Greer meant when she said, “Women have no idea how much men hate them.” However I may sound, the fact is that the scenes I have described are terribly commonplace. How does Harrington account for this? And why does she imagine that they will not take place in the world that she envisions?

Second, individual men may not act as women’s proprietors. But my point is not that individual men do; it is that in the modern liberal state the position of men as men, the position of which they may avail themselves, the position that women disrespect at their own peril, is that of proprietor.

Third, like every right, the male sex-right is necessarily limited. It is not the right of a man to do with any woman whatever he wants. As men must respect the sex-right of other men, it is the right of a man to do with a particular woman—a woman who is his property (his wife), a woman who as yet has no proprietor (a woman without a male partner), or a woman who is the property of all men (a prostitute)—whatever he wants. It is not, in principle, the right of a man to do with a particular woman whatever he wants. I say “in principle” because in practice it seems as though a man can do whatever he wants: he can rape a woman and be virtually assured of (although not guaranteed) non-prosecution, he can murder a woman and claim sex games gone wrong.” This suggests an answer: men can do whatever can plausibly be considered sexual. The more a man’s treatment of a woman resembles “violence, not sex,” the more it exceeds the scope of sex-right.

Harrington’s Mistake

In response to the errors of liberal feminism, Harrington proposes a “sex-realist” feminism: a feminism that respects the reality of our sexed embodied-ness and interdependence. Such respect requires “re-wilding” sex, adopting the premodern model of marriage, and reinstating single-sex spaces.

But Harrington mistakes political difference for sexual difference. That is, she mistakes the political status that the social/sexual contract confers upon male and female—namely, master and subject—for male and female itself. Consider her proposal that we re-wild sex. As the Pill became widely available, she argues, men became freer to make sexual demands of women, while women lost the ability to refuse. As a solution to this problem, Harrington proposes that women reject the Pill.

I am taken aback by Harrington’s failure to ask why women must provide reasons for their refusal, and why the only valid reasons are excuses. Why can women refuse only by counterfactually consenting (“I would, were it not for the possibility of becoming pregnant”)? Why does “not wanting to” not register as a reason, either in Harrington’s minds or in women’s? Why must women explain themselves at all? Why can they not simply say, “No”? Why does it not even occur to them to do so?

The answer to these questions is: because women are the subjects of men. As such, they have a duty to submit to their demands. They cannot refuse; they can only seek exemption from their duty, and they must have good reasons for doing so—the possibility of pregnancy, having their period, or feeling unwell. In proposing that women reject the Pill, Harrington takes for granted the political position of women: subject of man, obligated to submit to his demands, in need of a good excuse if she is to be released from this obligation.

Similarly, Harrington makes the bizarre claim that re-wilding sex will restore the natural “darkness and danger” of sex, the desire for which has found “twisted expression in depraved fetishes and sexual violence.” What? Harrington seems to think that, when men can have sex without worrying that the woman will become pregnant, they find sex boring, and they try to make it exciting again by spitting on, slapping, and choking women. But was sex with reproductive consequence ever really dangerous for men, who could simply abandon the pregnant woman? Is choking women dangerous for men? Why must sex be dangerous for women to be exciting for men? Is spitting on women dangerous, or is it simply degrading?

The story that I have told yields an alternative account: if the paradigmatic adult male human being is the proprietor of a woman, and sex is the act in which boys become proprietors of women, then sex is, by definition, an act in which a man conquers—masters—a woman. But because the social/sexual contract secures male access to women, modern sex is too easy. On this account, men reach for violence in a desperate attempt to deceive themselves that they are engaged in conquest and thus earning their status as men.

What Do Women Gain Here?

Along with rejecting the Pill, Harrington proposes that we adopt the premodern model of marriage. In this model, the household is the centre of family and economic activity, where men and women raise children and work together.

I want to ask: what have women (re)gained, exactly, in the world that Harrington envisions? Primarily, I think, commitment from men as husbands and fathers. And to what problem, exactly, is commitment the solution? The problem that men demand obligation-free sex from women.

Harrington, we can now see, conceives the problem as the current terms of the sexual contract, not as the sexual contract itself. Thus, she conceives the solution as a renegotiated sexual contract, not as the elimination of it. Having naturalised male sex-right, Harrington cannot envisage a world in which women are not the subjects of men, in which men are not entitled to make demands of women and women are not obligated to submit. She can envisage only a world in which women continue to be obligated to submit but gain something in exchange for doing so.

It is tempting to think that this world is, though not ideal, better for women than the current one. On reflection, I am not so sure that it is—not meaningfully.

First, even if men agree to the terms that women propose, this agreement has no legitimacy. As women are the subject of (rather than aparty to) the sexual contract, they lack the authority to propose conditions on male sex-right. For men to accept the terms that women propose is for men to act with generosity, to indulge women, to exercise the privilege to grant that comes with the right to deny, a right that they retain. This acceptance is not contractually binding, as women often come to learn. If the situation of women in Harrington’s envisioned world is better, it is so only at the whim of men.

Second, only while men’s sex-right remains secure can they afford to indulge women, accepting their conditions. Which is to say, only while some women remain unconditionally available to men can men agree to the conditional availability of other women. The situation of the woman who enjoys commitment (the wife/mother) thus depends upon the situation of the woman who is unconditionally obligated to submit (the prostitute). Harrington fails to see this, because she focuses on the wife/mother in isolation from the other paradigmatic carer/subject of man, the prostitute. Consequently, the situation of women appears more secure, and more dignified, than it is.

Harrington rightly criticises contemporary feminism for sacrificing mothers. But her own “reactionary” feminism sacrifices prostituted women. “But if they reap the benefits of their vision, its costs are born elsewhere.” And, as the position of the prostituted woman is made by the sexual contract the legitimate position of all women, the position that were it not for male generosity all women would occupy, the sacrifice of prostituted women is the sacrifice of all women.

Harrington suggests that feminists abandon the ideal of freedom for an ideal of interdependence. I find this suggestion appealing. But the world that she envisions—a world in which women continue to need excuses to refuse men’s sexual demands, in which the most women can hope for is commitment from the men to whom they must, finally, when excuses run out, submit, in which sex remains dangerous—is not a world of interdependence. It is a world of female subjection.

Read Mary Harrington’s response to Phelan.