labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
juillet / décembre 2010 - julho/dezembro 2010

Interview with SHEILA JEFFREYS

by tania navarro swain

Professor Sheila Jeffreys- University of Melbourne, Scholl of Social and Politics on Science -

She writes and teachs in the areas of sexual politics, international gender politics and lesbian and gay politics. She has written five books on the history and politics of sexuality. Originally from the UK, she cames to the University of Melbourne in 1991. She has been actively involved in feminist and lesbian feminist politics, particularly around the issue of sexual violence, since 1973. She is also the public officer of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia and on the board of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Asia Pacific.

tania navarro swain1-  What made you become a feminist? You are considered a radical feminist: what is radical feminism?

Sheila Jeffreys -I became a feminist in 1971 when I read Kate Millett’s book Sexual Politics whilst teaching in a girl’s boarding school. It immediately made sense, and I taught it straightaway in a discussion group for senior girls. I then decided to go back to a city to get actively involved in feminism and joined a ‘women and education’ group which was part of my teachers’ trade union in Manchester, UK.

Radical feminism sees the subordination of women as foundational to all existing social systems, all of which are male dominated. Whatever other forms of oppression women suffer, based on class or race, for instance, they are all identified socially as women and treated as inferior, susceptible to violence and abuse from men, expected to provide unpaid domestic labour. Women’s oppression starts in and is carried out mainly in the home. Whereas men suffering race or class oppression may find the home a haven, it is the very site of women’s oppression. Thus radical feminists, wherever they are in the world, are likely to concentrate on issues such as sexual violence, reproduction, women’s unpaid labour in the home, issues which involve direct oppression from men, rather than simply the subordination of women by the state or in the workplace.

   tns-   How were and are received your books among your academic colleagues and by the feminist movements around the world?

SJ -I am happy to say that, because my books are controversial, they are quite well known. In the academy radical feminism is not strongly represented. This is not surprising because universities are, in many respects, masculine institutions par excellence. Postmodernism was the most destructive development for academic feminism, committed, as it was, to the idea that women have nothing in common, i.e. against the universality of women’s oppression, and the notion that the term ‘woman’ was essentialist and not useful. I think the tide is turning against postmodernism, which is increasingly seen as self-indulgent, unrealistic and unhelpful at this time when the world and human societies are hugely threatened. Postmodern feminists have not liked my work. Liberal feminists have not liked my work either, seeing me as unreasonable for my criticism of the whole construction of sexuality, rather than just a few manifestations thereof.

I have been particularly criticized for my work on the construction of sexuality, prostitution, pornography, beauty practices and transgenderism by liberals and postmodernists, because I criticize the notion of ‘choice’ and look at how women’s experience is constructed by male domination. I have sometimes been called a ‘radical’ social constructionist, and I am happy with that.

My work is best appreciated by feminists involved in struggles against male violence, because they are realistic about the need for dramatic transformation of sexuality and the end of masculinity (I understand masculinity to be the behaviour of the male ruling sex class, it needs to end for their to be equality).

tns- How would you describe yourself?

SJ -I am a radical lesbian feminist. I am also a vegetarian and fundamentally concerned about the rights of animals to be protected from cruelty, such as being murdered so that people may eat them. In my understanding women and animals are closely related matters of concern.

tns -  As a feminist, could you make a few comments on the hyper-sexualization in social relations today and how it reflects on women´s behaviour and submission?

SJ -I consider sexualisation to be an unhelpful term because it suggests that ‘sex’ may be a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is the pornographication of culture and sexuality, and women’s bodies, or the creation of cultures of prostitution. The sex industry constructs a sexuality in which women are holes or canvasses for male ejaculation. It portrays women as naturally sexually subordinate and loving abuse. The codes of the industry, women as partially or completely naked, wearing slut pumps (high heeled shoes that are torture implements and excite men’s sadism), and wearing black leather, studs, piercings, extend now to the music, entertainment and fashion industries as porn becomes a hugely successful industry.

tns -  Among the many books you publised, I would like to choose “Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful cultural practices in the West”: what is its main thesis?

SJ - This book argues that beauty practices in the West such as high heeled shoes, makeup and cosmetic surgery, should be understood as fitting the United Nations concept of harmful cultural practices. HCPs are harmful to the health of women and girls, they stem from the subordination of women, are for the benefit of men, create stereotypical roles for the sexes and are justified by tradition or custom. Beauty practices which harm women, and are performed for the satisfaction of men, whose sexuality under male domination is constructed out of eroticizing women’s subordination, fit this concept very well. But they are understood to be about women’s choice, and the cultural force that makes girls and women wear higher and higher shoes that make walking impossible, for instance, is not recognized.

 ns-   What is your position in relation to invasive beauty practices such as surgeries (stomach stapling, labiaplasty and others), botox applications, liposuction and so on?

SJ - I understand these practices to be the beauty practices which are most harmful and which most clearly fit the definition because of their brutal and dangerous nature.

tns-  Don`t you think that changing-sex surgeries are reforcing “sex differences” which, in turn, are socially constructed?

SJ -Transgender surgeries are a product of societies in which gender differences are extremely pronounced and fundamental to the maintenance of women’s subordination. In the absence of these extreme stereotypes transgenderism would not make sense. Gender is a social construction and represents a hierarchy, a sex class system of male domination and female subordination. Without this system gender would have no meaning and transgenderism would not be imaginable, or satisfying, since much of the satisfaction of male to female transgenderism lies in sexual masochism and eroticises the hierarchy of gender. Transgenderism harms its victims very badly, in health and social functioning, and the ideology of transgenderism requires and supports the subordination of women.

 tns - Do you see a relation between heterosexuality and beauty stereotypes? Would there be any link between heterosexuality and women oppression?

SJ - The heterosexual nuclear family in the west is the worksite in which women’s unpaid labour is extracted. This labour is sexual, i.e. unwanted sex, domestic, reproductive (giving birth and caring for children), emotional i.e. servicing men’s self esteem and mental functioning at women’s expense, economic i.e. helping with the family farm or business without proper remuneration. The global economy is founded upon this labour by women, and heterosexuality, as an instititution is the necessary form it takes.

At some time in the future sexual expression may not be institutionalized, but presently it is, and lesbians are those who resist and exempt themselves from this system.

tns- Some people think that marriage between women and men is a form of prostitution. What is your opinion?

SJ - Marriage is based upon a contract that women’s bodies will be available for men’s satisfaction. This is no longer written into the law in the west where marital rape is recognized as a crime. In most countries women are still required to be prostituted in marriage, i.e. exchange sex for subsistence, with no right to withdraw their consent.

tns -Some feminists justify the existence of prostitution as being a legitimate “work”. Could you comment on this idea?

SJ- Prostitution cannot constitute safe and dignified work. It is usually entered in all countries by girls under 18. They forgo education, and job training which makes it very hard to get out of prostitution and ill prepared for a life outside. In prostitution they get very little income, average in Canada is 27, 000 dollars, and in Australia 29,000. This is very low pay indeed. Prostituted women suffer many physical and mental health risks. They suffer unwanted pregnancies and abortions, bruises and abrasions of vagina and anus, considerable pain during the acts of prostitution. From the disassociation they have to do to survive and from the daily harmful experience they regularly develop the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Prostitution arises from the subordination of women and depends on the use of women’s body parts. It could not survive if women had equality because men’s sexuality would have to change, fewer girl children would suffer the sexual abuse and privation that drive their entry into prostitution. Prostitution needs to be understood as so harmful that the male abusers are punished, and the prostituted women decriminalised.

tns -  In your book “Anticlímax: a Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution” what are the theses you are defending? And which reactions does it provoke?

SJ -This book argues that sexuality under male domination is constructed to eroticise women’s subordination for both men and women. For women it results in a masochistic sexuality and for men a sadistic and aggressive one which eroticises violence against women. I argue that the so-called sexual revolutions of the twentieth century, far from liberating women, created a severe form of women’s work in servicing men sexually, and made it very hard for women to refuse men’s sexual demands. Women’s equality is harder to conceive because it is seen as unsexy.

tns– In my research and work as a feminist historian, I maintain the possibility of the existence of a non-narrated history, that of societies where sex and sexuality would not have been a determining factor in social relations. That is what I call “history of the possible”, a human history where gender would not be a “natural” presupposition, as sex difference is itself a construction. Please, comment on this analysis. 

SJ - For women to have a sexuality of equality the subordination of women must end. I do not think this will happen in my lifetime at all, but expect that it will do at some time. In that time, ‘gender’ the behaviours of femininity and masculinity that construct male domination will not exist.

tns – Could you explain the position you took in your book “Unpacking Queer Politics”? Where do feminisms and “queer politics” are related one to the other?

SJ -I argue that queer politics is about gay men and subordinates the concerns and specificity of lesbianism. Queer politics privileges male sexual freedom, which for feminists who want to end sexual violence is a contradiction. Male sexual behaviour must change, not just in its object but towards equality. It cannot reasonably be celebrated.

tns - How do you see the present development of feminisms today?

SJ -I consider that we are in a new wave of feminism. Young women in their 20s to early 30s are getting involved and getting enraged about the pornographication of culture and pornography in particular. This is happening in the UK and in Australia, and I feel sure we are moving to the next stage of the feminist revolution.

The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of The Global Sex Trade.
London: Routledge 2009.

Beauty and Misogyny. Harmful Cultural Practices in the West, London and New York: Psychology Press, Brunner/Routledge (forthcoming).

Unpacking Queer Politics. A Lesbian Feminist Perspective, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).

The Idea of Prostitution, (Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 1997).