Feminism in the Bedroom

I was involved in a conversation at a recent literary event in which I found myself discussing the three authors who formed the focus of my PhD dissertation. After mentioning the name of one (one of the much more well known of the three) someone at the table questioned “Oh, is she the one who slept with (insert name of well known Hollywood leading man)?”

I’m embarrassed to say that I thought nothing of the turn of the conversation until my boyfriend (who is sometimes so much more PC than me that after we’d been dating six months he actually asked if it was okay to call me “baby”) later pointed out how disappointing it was that a writer of such caliber, with so many accomplished publications and a successful teaching career in the literary faculties of ivy league universities, be reduced to only one claim to fame – the male celebrity who she presumably at one point had sex with. To make matters worse, it was an intellectually excellent woman who asked the question.

At a public debate last year on the topic “has feminism failed?”, I voted with a confident no, but now I’m not so steadfastly sure anymore. Despite all of their personal or professional achievements, women still often seem to gain notoriety by such referential means of who they have slept with, or other details of their sexuality. Who a woman sleeps with should not be more important than her career achievements – but it seems it still might be.

I’d never be one to say that women’s sexual history remain clandestine or that there is necessarily anything wrong with bedding a star or two if you want to – what is wrong is that something so irrelevant can be seen as so integral to women’s professional, or personal, identity. I’ll now admit that I’ve had a couple of liaisons with B (okay, maybe C or D) grade celebrities, and, when I think about it, for people who’ve known about this, it’s been of far more worth and interest to many of them than the fact that I have written a novel or been awarded my PhD. Which is why I only ever mention my latter academic conquests these days, and anything else remains cloak-and-dagger.

The personal is political line – so much the catch cry of 70s feminism and the Leeds Revolutionaries who published Love Your Enemy?, declaring that any true feminist must adopt political lesbianism – I thought had been thankfully left back in the eras before my birth. I’ve always thought, or at least hoped, that women can and should feel free to express themselves freely, sexually with whomever and whenever they please, without any impact on their reputation or career, but maybe feminism has failed women in this regard and the personal is still as political – and has as much impact on their professional lives – as ever.

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