Several of the people in our book club who disliked Tricia Sullivan’s Maul said they were disappointed by the fact that it was billed as “feminist SF”, because they didn’t consider it to be particularly feminist. Certainly not in the ways of older feminist works that explore gender politics and imbalances in societal power. In contrast, I thought it was quite feminist, but in a more internal way.
Sex has always been a part of feminism. Obviously sexual agency is paramount to all humans, but there has been some disagreement as to what sexual agency really is. There are a number of leaders who believe that women shouldn’t ever go out of their way to be pleasing to men – that this cheapens and demeans them. After fighting so long and hard to be viewed as more than simple sex objects, it’s a travesty to choose to objectify oneself.
But the thing is – being objectified can be fun. When you feel safe and you like the people around you, it is pleasurable to know that they take pleasure in looking at you. Sometimes it’s exciting to be used as an object for someone else’s sexual gratification (yes, only with consent). I find that pleasurable, and I know many others who do as well.
I struggled for a long time with the fact that what is sexy (objectification, submission, machismo, etc) is also intellectually unpalatable. We’re supposed to respect each other and treat each other as equals at all times, right? This was part of the discourse as well – Dworkin once stated that all penetration is violation.
Ultimately, respecting someone includes respecting their desire to be objectified in certain settings. (Or as Daphne Greengrass would say “girls should be allowed to pursue boys in whichever way they please”). Treating each other equally means acknowledging that someone has the mental capacity and maturity to decide what they’re attracted to and how they want to fuck. It means being able to draw a line in life, saying “This is how we act in the real-world, because all people deserve this respect and dignity. And this is how the two (or three or however many) of us act in the bedroom, because we deserve to enjoy the sex we have.” Acknowledging that how we fuck has no impact on who we are outside the bedroom, and has no implications for how we deserve to be treated, is a fundamental part of fixing the sexuality issue.
If we want to rip off our clothes and twerk on some guy’s crotch on stage, that’s how we roll. It doesn’t mean we have any less rights or deserve any less respect. We can still own property, get married to each other, and should be paid as much as anyone else in our skill-level.
I consider Maul to be a feminist book because it explores these sorts of issues. Sun (teen girl character) is deeply chagrined that what is sexy doesn’t seem very liberated. It was refreshing to watch someone going through the same struggles I did at that age.
Even better – in the future-timeline story, women control all the power in society, and men are very rare. In that world, the average woman is left without any male sex partners, or any ability to procreate. Meanwhile the rich and powerful women at the top have dick-on-tap. All the dick they can handle, and in 31 different flavors. Moreover, all of society has simply come to accept that macho, arrogant, risk-taking behavior is sexy in men, and therefore the males all have to over-exaggerate these features and display them for the women. Even when it’s all a charade. The women, OTOH, don’t care what they look like or bother to spend much time appealing to what men desire. It’s a beautiful reversal of current society, where women are prized for the features that most men find sexy and women display and exaggerate those. It reinforces that it’s not what is considered attractive that’s the problem, it’s the failure to divorce sexuality from other non-sexual concerns.