Sex/Gender Distinction! No, no, no…
So, the new Girls Aloud single is pretty awesome. I can’t think of any other pop group who have sung so many songs about not having sex.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, in which she takes Joan of Arc as a hero for exemplifying “militant virginity.” This is part of a series of intriguing but, as far as I can see, untheorized, valorizations of bodily integrity, privacy, and autonomy. The continuing slippage between the bodily and the political is interesting; even more interesting, however, is the way this valorization of autonomy proceeds. Dworkin writes of the connection between Joan of Arc’s virginity and her virtue:
Joan wanted to be virtuous in the old sense, before the Christians got hold of it: virtuous meant brave, valiant. She incarnated virtue in its original meaning: strength or manliness. Her virginity was an essential element of her virility, her autonomy…. Virginity was freedom from the real meaning of being female.
What I find so surprising here is that, far from objecting to this connection between autonomy, virtue, virility and manliness, Dworkin seems to embrace it. I’m reminded of Mary Wollstencraft, who argues explicitly in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that the problem with the virtues advocated by (patriarchal) society is not the virtues themselves, but the fact that women are excluded from this sort of virtuousness. But Wollstencraft is more consistent, because less insightful, than Dworkin. Much of Intercourse is taken up with a discussion of the harmful effects of virility and masculine autonomy; yet these same qualities become praiseworthy when exhibited by a woman.
What seems to be lacking is a structural critique; there is no account of the structures of gender, no account of why men oppress women in the way they do. Such oppression is simply taken as a tautology, and thus naturalized, no doubt against Dworkin’s intentions. If gender isn’t defined structurally, how is it defined? I think Butler is right to say that it is defined solely by contrast with biological sex, which ultimately, in a disavowed form, depends on an appeal to biological natures. Gender construed in this way makes it difficult if not impossible to see how effective resistance could ever take place; this is, it seems to me, the value of Butler’s critique of the sex/gender distinction.