Woman with a Butterfly at a Pond with Two Swans (1894), Jan Toorop. Public Domain.

Reactionary Feminism Rejects the Premises of the Social (and Sexual) Contract

I enjoyed Kate Phelan’s thoughtful critique of Feminism Against Progress. She is well-read in corners of feminism with which I am less familiar, and I learned a lot in weighing how best to respond. Unfortunately, I get the sense that we’re arguing past one another, since we disagree at the level of fundamental priors.

Phelan’s central disagreement with my thesis rests on premises that I reject outright, not least the notion that the social fabric comprises “individuals who agree to be governed.” Pop-liberalism today, inasmuch as it engages with this idea at all, routinely assumes all human adults are “individuals” who have, or should have, the same standing when entering into this “agreement.” Phelan rightly challenges this simple modern liberal understanding, pointing to a sexed asymmetry that has been discernible within this order as far back as it’s been theorised, including by its philosophical originators at the beginning of industrial modernity.

Phelan draws from Carol Pateman and C. B. Macpherson to offer a theoretical corrective. The core asymmetry in these fundamental relations emerges, she argues, because the “agreement” is not social but sexual: men premise their equality in relation to each other upon an equal right to proprietorship of a woman, including sexual proprietorship. Because women are unlikely to assent to this arrangement, we must infer that it’s agreed upon by men who then impose it upon women. Within this account, women are always already framed as subordinate and secondary, for we exist not as persons in our own right but as enabling conditions for the personhood of men—on terms decided by men, for men. From this vantage-point, she suggests, any argument I might seek to make concerning interdependence, solidarity, embodiment, and so on will be compromised from the outset by the hierarchies baked into this “sexual contract” masquerading as a “social” one: hierarchies that, in reality, frame everything we do.

Phelan’s argument is coherent and forceful, provided you accept these premises. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think the “sexual contract” is an immutable and objective reality, any more than the notion that “individuals” can be said to “agree to be governed.” Rather, this is a political framework—indeed, one that plays a central role in the liberal accounts of history and human relations I set out to critique.

Rejecting the Premises of the Social Contract

The “contract” hypothesis that Phelan modifies here, for her account of primordial patriarchy, emerges with the early theorists of liberalism: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Space does not permit a detailed treatment of the variation within these thinkers’ presentation of the idea, but in very broad outlines, all three posited that the human social order comprises individuals who opt in, on a contractual basis, to shared norms and systems that constrain them in limited ways in order to forestall worse outcomes that would obtain should they remain atomized.

Phelan (and presumably also Pateman, though I am not familiar with her work) are right to note that in its original form this just-so story excluded women. Indeed, a central driver of liberal feminism has been the desire to challenge this exclusion, and to remedy it. But the “contract” hypothesis is itself contingent. So, too, is its correlate: the hypothetical individual (whether both sexes, or just men) who is imagined to be in some sense able to “agree” the manner of his (or sometimes also her) governance.

These hypotheses emerged from the specific political and material conditions of early modernity. They both shaped and, over time, were shaped by modernity’s evolving story. This is, of course, my story too, and the liberal hypotheses of atomized individuality and a putative opt-in social contract have shaped me too. Phelan is right that the aspirationally egalitarian order this describes remains obdurately sexist. Still, I am unconvinced by critiques of this reality that still hew to the “social contract” itself, even in a modified “sexual” form.

One of my core aims in Feminism Against Progress was to try and bracket, or at least historicise, the moral narratives that legitimise the onward march of technology and the market. An underlying premise of my book was the historicisation not just of contemporary debates over sex dimorphism, but also that of liberal subjecthood in toto. In my view, there exists an outside to this frame altogether, in which sex differences have, in other ages, been accounted for very differently.

To gesture in this direction, I drew on Ivan Illich’s grounded, anti-universalist account of how different cultures negotiate sex asymmetry, and how this was disrupted by the transition within modernity from “vernacular gender” to “economic sex”: an order that both promises freedom from embodied difference but also re-inscribes it as structural sexism. From this vantage-point, liberal subjecthood appears inextricable from entry into the market, within industrial and later post-industrial modernity. This entry corresponds to the creation of homo economicus, an entity whose nominally sexless nature Ivan Illich reveals to be in truth inescapably sexist. If Illich is right, seeking women’s freedom in terms of liberal subjecthood will serve inexorably to entrap women in the revolt against sexed duality that underwrites the twin histories of sexism and modernity.

To put it more plainly: the notion that the social fabric represents some kind of “contract,” the atomised individual, and the narrative of “progress” are all doxa within the same white-labelled religious faith that orders all of modernity. My argument is that you can’t hang onto these and also escape sexism. You can only strive fruitlessly in that direction by attempting to technologise away sex.

Phelan seems to misunderstand me as accepting these premises and seeking only to quibble over the standing of women within the modern catechism. But I question the premises themselves. Phelan, meanwhile, appears to accept the liberal subject without question, along with the “sexual contract” within which this creature is presumed to exist (however asymmetrically), opting to antedate her account of its sex-asymmetric origins in an account of ancient history drawn from Pateman.

The Impact of the Pill

This perhaps contributes to certain ways Phelan may have misread my argument on the Pill, as suggesting that I have in some sense disregarded women’s right to agency where sex is concerned. I have indeed argued that the Pill, in rendering those women who take it sterile by default, so radically lowered the stakes for women on pregnancy risk that acceding to sex became far more common—including in many contexts where consent was at best ambivalent. Phelan paraphrases this as my saying that “women lost the ability to refuse” and asks pointedly “Why does ‘not wanting to’ not register as a reason?

Why should women ever need to feel as though they need to explain why they don’t want to have sex? As they say on Mumsnet: “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Yes, indeed. Phelan and I agree that this is as it should be! But my point is not that women lost an ability to refuse. Or, at least, I would not feel confident in asserting that women’s theoretical ability to refuse sex was reduced in any absolute sense by the arrival of the Pill. When we consider that forced sexual activity within a marriage was not made illegal until 1992, we might argue instead that women’s ability to refuse sex has not so much been attenuated over the latter half of the twentieth century, as redistributed. This is a point on which I agree with Phelan, though we may disagree on why.

I don’t believe either in progress or decline. Rather, I see the impacts of new technologies such as the Pill as always-ambivalent change, rather than a directional narrative with moral qualities either good or bad. In this sense, what the Pill changed was firstly the wider social environment within which women exercised their ability to refuse sex, and secondly those embodied grounds (and motivations) on which women themselves might weigh a decision to consent or refuse. That is: both the individual and the social motivation for encouraging women to be intensely selective about their sexual partner, and to prioritise long-term monogamy, was radically attenuated by a technology that sharply reduced the likelihood of a sexual encounter resulting in pregnancy.

This change had, as I set out, a great many upsides. It also had, as I have argued in the book, some under-counted costs, asymmetrically borne depending on social class. In this context, I view redistributing the risk calculus of sexual consent as a far less significant consequence of the Pill than the entry it prompted into a transhumanist medical paradigm. For, downstream of this change, human bodies—especially women’s bodies—have inexorably been opened up to the market, in a manner that trumpets “freedom” but is increasingly evidently anti-human, and especially anti-women.

Common Ground—and Common Cause

On overarching frameworks, Phelan and I will have to agree to differ. Both of us are arguably looking at the same phenomena and accounting for them differently. Perhaps we are, like the blind men in the fable, each seizing hold of a different part of the same elephant and disagreeing over whether it’s a tree, a snake, or a wall when in fact it’s none of the above. Perhaps she is right, and I am wrong.

In any case, sex realists from both the radical feminist tradition and others can surely agree on this: men and women exist. Although we may disagree on what that means, we have in common a profound concern over the consequences for women (and especially for mothers) of pretending our bodies are more fungible than they are.

In this larger dispute over the ontology of sex difference, and the political salience of female embodiment and (particularly) maternity, there is a great deal that we can achieve together. In that spirit, it remains my sincere hope that there is space for us to pull in broadly the same direction, regardless of the metaphysical or political meaning each of us accords to these enduring asymmetries.