Following Hannah Thompson’s Review of The Ethical Slut in this months Re, Sophie Lewis continues the debate.
Certainly the personal is—has always been—political. Yet you can’t actualize revolution by fucking better, differently, or not at all. In many ways, however, the present historical conjuncture regresses to a point far behind even the most simplistic insights of our second-wave forebears. Popular self-help titles like The Ethical Slut, in advocating anti-politically, that is to say, at the level of individual choice, for romantic-sexual pluralism and “alternative” family structuring, actually reinforce that trend. Liberal feminisms have gained the upper hand over the sixties’ and seventies’ more radical utopian critiques of familiality, which hoped to articulate conditions of possibility for non-proprietorial experiences of intimacy. What most prevalent ‘polyamory’ discourse certainly does not envision is the transformation of capitalist social reproduction as a totality. As a result, gendered divisions of labour in every sphere—from sexuality to parenting to domesticity that’s rooted in the institution of private property—go relatively unquestioned by the new “relationship” ethicists.
Easton & Liszt’s vintage text is rightly criticized as “Kool-Aid” by materialist feminists of my acquaintance for its you-can-have-it-all euphoria: an explicit exaltation of “sex” and an all-but-explicit grounding of sex/dating calendarizing tips within a lifestyle of bourgeois comfort and considerable “leisure time”. One common-sense backlash against this arises from a simple pessimism about (primarily, time-) scarcity: self-declared utilitarian Queste Demarais, blogging for Poly Means Many on “the ethics of due diligence” in non-monogamous commitment-making, asserts: “the capacity to love can be infinite but the other resources required to sustain a relationship are certainly not.”(1) Another, to my mind more important objection comes from quarters such as Lies (vol.1), which seeks to “disrupt the attachment to sex as it has lived in feminism and popular imagination”. Sex, here, “is not as an enemy to be polemically confronted, but an overwhelming relation demanding examination, where the pain and weight of gender are more immediate”. (2) This doesn’t get us anywhere, it’s true, but it serves as a reminder that bucking off norms via displays of individuality does not constitute ‘resistance’; that neither experimental fucking nor refusals to fuck “crack the material basis of patriarchy”. (3)
My claim, in this short blog I’ve been invited to contribute, is only really a modest one. In my four or five years of meaningful experience, I have learned very little to convince me of a generalizable emancipatory valency of non-monogamy, “slutty”, “ethical”, or otherwise. I seek only to make visible a paradox of passing interest at the heart of ReInhabit‘s object of curiosity, Ethical Slut-ism. Clearly, there is nothing inherently evil about the relation of sex—nor anything inherently goo
d. Reactionary forms of sexual shame, and institutions that bore millions (marriage and other ‘exclusivity’-based fidelities included), obviously warrant dismissal. Such a political programme is not advanced, however, by the phenomenon of Slut book-sales or Slut conversion. Social struggles that dream of sharing the earth in common, of free associations between equals inside and outside their homes and beds, basically have nothing to do with how some people enjoy some, even most, of the fucking they do (and train themselves to disclose and thus sustain that fucking inside ‘alternative’ private formations of more than two).
A world of reproductive tasks, a world of gendered misery in which we still have no clue how to raise children or eradicate domestic drudgery, is never touched upon by the poly lifestyle manual, useful as its basic reasoning against the proprietary tyranny of interpersonal jealousy is, no doubt. At the same time, sex needs to be understood as work in its economic and political milieu; work, insofar as it is crucial to creating the individual or ‘self’ of capitalist society that purchases ‘identities’ like the ethical slut in the first place, and thereby reproduces the self-managerial and high-consuming neoliberal worker. Easton & Liszt, for all their surface affiliation to the individual’s duty to maximize her “pleasure”, completely naturalize the management—i.e. the work—of sex.
The paradox, then: in doing so, they re-inscribe a moral hierarchy that is so close to the ‘conventional’ one as to be basically identical to it. Namely, they devalorize movements of bodies not so committed to (the hard work of) finding love, or, for that matter pleasure. In ‘Polyamory and its Others’, Christian Klesse (2006) argued that polyamory’s dominant deﬁnition of itself as “responsible non-monogamy” has potentially negative repercussions for the representation of more sex- or pleasure-centred forms of non-monogamy.(4) But I want to re-phrase this very insight for him: these “responsible” Sluts now in fact give rise to a negative disciplinary framing of less pleasure-centred practices. If you aren’t seeking the self-realization of their euphoric healing vision—and going on Slutwalks to boot, to vindicate your ever-freer subjectivation—then, I feel, their logic implies, you aren’t valuing yourself enough or putting the hard work in towards finding your self. Hence the enduring value of “I would prefer not to”. Besides the cult of individual sexual liberation, there might be struggles, movements, and politics of collective compassion, including sex-pessimism and solidarity, that do not seek to shy away from the pain of gender relations, nor kid themselves that ‘poly’ plurality successfully abolishes the couple form. As so-called marriage equality struggles in the US and across the world gain salience, the re-emergence of certain moral sexual standards via the back door—not least, this duty to ‘resist’ heteropatriarchy by being ethically slutty—surely warrants critical attention.
(2) Lies, vol. 1 pp15-16: http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/20075901/LIES%20Final%20Download%20Single%20Page.pdf
(3) Ibid p.40.
(4) ‘Polyamory and its Others: Contesting the terms of non-monogamy’, Sexualities, 2006.
Image from: http://london.indymedia.org/articles/12969