Summer 1968: I lay on my parents’ king size bed reading John Updike’s novel, Couples. I was a 16-year-old writer-to-be and Updike was considered a literary god in those days, distinguished by his lush lyricism, his erudite patrician vocabulary. Couples had landed Updike on the cover of Time magazine with its daringly explicit depiction of adulterous sex among a group of disaffected middle class couples in New England.
Though it felt a bit incestuous to be reading this very grown-up book about Sex on my parents’ bed, their bedroom was one of the few rooms in our house with air conditioning, and it was a sweltering summer day, though not as steamy as the book itself. Within its first 15 pages, Piet Hanema, the protagonist, has already described his wife Angela’s “luxuriant pudendum.” “. . . [H]er throats, wrists, and triangular bush appeared the pivots for some undeniable effort of flight, but like Eve on a portal she crouched in shame.” Piet, himself, feels no shame as he fancies himself “a gentle lion bathing in her river.”
As I read Updike, I identified with his male protagonists without even thinking about it. And why wouldn’t I? They had the agency. While they possessed bodies; the female characters were theirs, their selves inseparable from their bodies, their bodies defined by their genitals. The very nature of those genitals rendered them passive, recipient, subordinate, the very word pudendum derived from the Latin for shame. The women in Updike’s books, in many books by male literary giants, tended to be bleeding wounds, slashes, gashes, rivers to be bathed in, territories to be possessed, blank screens for male projection. While the male lions forcefully ejaculated nearly magical semen from their magnificently powerful phalluses, women oozed, bled, cried, dissolved in shame.
Two summers later, I read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and it changed forever the way I read Updike, the way I read all literature that described sex and gender relations. Further, it changed forever the way I thought and felt about my own body, and the meanings that Patriarchal society had inscribed upon it.
In the idiom of the era, Sexual Politics blew my mind. Before Sexual Politics, I’d thought of what Updike wrote about simply as Sex. Even the most astute literary critic of the time was blind to what Millett saw so clearly: that the very act of sex had been politicized. What Updike wrote about wasn’t Sex, it was sex viewed through a very particular and inherently ideological and gendered lens. As Millett writes,“Coitus can scarcely be said to take place in a vacuum; although of itself it appears a biological and physical activity, it is set so deeply within the larger context of human affairs that it serves as a charged microcosm of the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes.”A charged microcosm. What Updike described was sex through the eyes of the king of a very particular jungle, a white man writing from a position of Patriarchal privilege. The way that he and the society that bore, bred, and favored him conceptualized the sex act itself, served to rationalize, justify, and reinforce those Patriarchal structures.
The body itself, women’s bodies, poor Angela’s pudendum, my own poor pudendum had been politicized. Kate Millet showed me in a way that I could not deny that the personal, even the very very personal, was political. And the political had to become our personal struggle as well. “Sex is deep at the heart of our troubles, . . . “ she writes, “and unless we eliminate the most pernicious of our systems of oppression, unless we go to the very centre of the sexual politic and its sick delusions of power and violence, all our efforts at liberation will only land us again in the same primordial stews.”
It’s hard to appreciate now the level of courage, audacity, vision, it took to write Sexual Politics. In 1970, Millett still had to use the male pronoun to stand in for all human beings in her Preface, had to couch her argument in polite self-diminishments, such as “much here, and throughout the book, is tentative.” Sexual Politics began as Millett’s doctoral dissertation in English literature, and professor George Stade, one of Millett’s academic advisers, was quoted as saying, “Reading the book is like sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker.” Men clearly took the book’s message personally, as well.
It’s also hard to recreate just how radicalizing it felt to read her brilliant, fearless, and humane voice, how freeing, how enraging, and at the same time, empowering. In Sexual Politics, Millett’s intellect dazzles, the breadth and depth and sheer bravura of her argument stuns. Male critics accused her of being “polemical,” an accusation often applied to defuse a woman’s arguments. Her voice never felt polemical to me. As I reread it today, it feels intimate, engaging, inspired. She can also be wickedly funny, a humor that appears to have been wholly lost on her male critics.
In Sexual Politics, Millett doesn’t take on Updike per se, only some of the other male literary giants who wrote a lot about sex, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, D.H. Lawrence. Of course, she doesn’t stop there; she also takes on the Bible, Freud, Sartre, as well as societally accepted but inherently sexist versions of history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology. Millett reveals the fallacies that these disciplines, under the influence and leadership of the Patriarchy, had presented as objective fact. She shows what sounds so obvious now, that dogma and ideology underlie even our notions of human biology and biological difference.
Sexual Politics begins with a close reading of a passage from Henry Miller’s Sexus, in which the narrator Val, describes his sexual conquest of his friend Woodruff’s wife Ida. His contempt for her is inextricable from his desire. Miller writes that she “pretend[s] to demur,”when Val asks her to prepare him a bath, doesn’t have time to “pretend to rebel” when he pulls her, partially clothed, into the bathtub with him. Millet writes, “Since the entire scene is a description not so much of sexual intercourse, but rather of intercourse in the service of power, ‘rebel’ is a highly changed word.” Once Ida’s in the tub, her feeble attempts at no quickly turn into an unspoken yes, as she becomes “just like a bitch in heat, biting me all over, panting, gasping, wriggling like a worm on the hook.” Val compares the woman he apparently desires, as dog and insect in one short paragraph. Her supposed sexual pleasure signals surrender, and Val’s triumph over her. As Millet writes, the protagonist has to “degrade her,” to “aggrandize himself.” Further, Millett points out, this sexual act is as much one of aggression against his friend, her husband, as it is an interaction with the woman herself, who is, in the end, an object of exchange between the men.
From Miller, Kate moves on to Mailer, who writes in An American Dream, “she was becoming mine as no woman ever had, she wanted to be part of my will.” The protagonist, Stephen Rojack, in this much lauded book of its day, murders his wife and then immediately rapes his maid. For Mailer, a woman (in the case of this passage, specifically her cunt) is often just a place for a man to reside – “a modest decent place, but its walls were snug, its odor was green, there was a sweetness in the chapel, a muted reverential sweetness in those walls of stone.” Of the book, Millet writes, “An American Dream is a rallying cry for a sexual politics in which diplomacy has failed and war is the last political resort of a ruling caste that feels its position in deadly peril.”
Within weeks of its publication, Sexual Politics had landed Millett a Time magazine cover (August 23, 1970) of her own. Male critics responded with overt attacks as well as dismissive condescension. In a commentary in that issue, social anthropologist Lionel Tiger, described as “an unchauvinist male” felt compelled to reassert the biological basis for the differential status of men and women. He also suggested that the very survival of the species might depend on women’s subordination. “One of the problems here may be that primates physically have intercourse with females that they can dominate. The phenomenon of sexual encounter depends on a sexual politic.” If a woman’s body wasn’t a passive and cozy place, the lion might be too limp to function.
Public intellectual Irving Howe, felt the need to protest way too much, accusing Millett of “comic ignorance,” “arrogant ultimatism,” and of being a “female impersonator.” But the latter attempt to disparage women and homosexual men in one fell swoop, only made Millett’s point: we were all being forced to impersonate some notion of femininity that had nothing to do with us though it had infected even the way we felt about our own bodies. Further, what Millett named “interior colonization,” led us to accept arguments that our oppression and subordination were somehow inevitable and biologically ordained.
Kate Millett did not set out to be the leader of a movement. She was quoted by Time as saying her attempts to simply show how “literature reflects certain sides of our life” led her to move from “culture criticism to . . . a political philosophy.” Kate Millett saw herself first as an artist, a sculptor, a painter, a writer. She questioned all dogma, and rejected essentialist arguments, even when offered by other feminists. She refused to believe that coitus itself was inherently an act of male domination, that sex had to be about power. Even when other feminists argued that to be true to the cause, one had to give up intercourse with men, Millett resisted. She rejected the doctrinaire, the Puritanical, the renunciation of pleasure. She refused any reading of the body that limited its potentialities.
For a while she was able to maintain an open marriage with the male sculptor Fumio Yoshimura and concurrent relationships with women, in particular her female lover, Sita, about whom she wrote a book. When her fellow feminists at Columbia University, demanded that she declare herself a lesbian to prove her allegiance to the cause, she felt forced to deny her own apparent bisexuality. “The line goes,” she wrote, “inflexible as a fascist edict, that bisexuality is a cop-out.”
If the personal was political, then reading Sexual Politics required me to look beyond literature to my own relationships with men. In 1970, my high school boyfriend was no Maileresque marauder; he was a nice Jewish boy from the San Fernando Valley, and I was a good girl. We did everything-but for a year. When we finally did it, on his twin bed in his childhood bedroom, his mother and older sister slated to arrive home any minute, it was a strangely comic and anticlimactic act. I remember wanting more afterward, but more what exactly? An orgasm, for sure, but not just an orgasm. I had expected that act which I had been indoctrinated to put off in order to maintain my status as a good girl, to feel more significant.
On the drive back to my house, I pushed him, to say something to resolve my sense of letdown.
“You’ve given me your virginity,” he said. I winced. Then, after reading Sexual Politics, and remembering the moment, I winced again. He’d been a virgin too, so why was it only the woman who was regarded as having given up something? Why, in the case of a woman’s virginity, was a value placed on the absence of experience? In all other areas of life, experience and expertise, were valued over “innocence.” Unless one was talking about objects; well, of course, a brand new object cost more than a used one. My virginity was clearly an object valued by the Patriarchy; my value based on my intactness – my not having been entered, inhabited, plundered, and/or torn asunder.
By college, the sexual revolution was in full swing and I wasn’t a good girl anymore. I needed sex as much as any man. Like Millett, I rejected essentialist arguments about men and women, not believing that penises were inherently weapons or invaders. Nor was my vagina a passive recipient. My multiple orgasms could shake the rafters; could send a shower of silver and blue stars behind my eyes, could leave men at least momentarily awestruck. So how did that equate to powerlessness? Nor did I believe that to be a feminist I had to forego the pleasure I often found in having sex with men. But after reading Sexual Politics, and becoming active in the feminist movement on UCLA’s campus, I also was becoming increasingly disturbed by my relationships with them. It wasn’t the sex act itself that troubled me so much as what I saw in their eyes while we fucked. The scorn, the fear, the dismissal. They seemed to believe that their job was to take something away from women and run. And despite my feminism, I often acted like a bleeding wound, becoming attached irrationally, too quickly, to men whom I thought I needed to be whole, to men whom I tried unsuccessfully to educate and turn into feminists.
And despite some disapproval from my fellow feminists at the Women’s Center at UCLA, I refused to abdicate the battle because of what Patriarchal oppression had made penises and vaginas mean. I could make them mean something else. I was sure of it. And I’ve never stopped trying.
After Sexual Politics, Millett went on to write Flying, a memoir of her ambivalence about the aftermath of Sexual Politics, and the nature of celebrity in America. Millett never saw the feminist cause in isolation, understanding from the beginning what some others didn’t, the interconnections between sexism, racism, and all forms of tyranny. She took on all those causes as her cause. She went on to write The Basement (1979), an account of the torture and murder of teenager Sylvia Likens in 1965. Coming to Iran covers her trip to Iran for International Women’s Day and her imprisonment there. In 1990 she published The Loony-Bin Trip about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and forced institutionalizations. In that book, she asks the same hard questions about the rigid definitions of mental illness and health, the civil rights of the “mentally ill,” that she first asked about gender-based oppression. In 1994 she wrote the Politics of Cruelty about institutionalized torture and its acceptance by supposedly modern societies.
I confess that before now, I never read the books Millett wrote after Sexual Politics. But I will always be grateful to her for the gift she gave me by freeing sexual relations from the ideological symbolism that constrained them. She gave me a new way of owning my body, not to mention a new way to analyze literature. In college, an English major like her, I wrote my first feminist literary analysis about Robinson Crusoe. I didn’t see Crusoe as some brave representative of western Christian civilization, or a testament to what even one man in isolation can accomplish; I saw him as a sexist, classist colonizer of the island which was portrayed as feminine. And then there’s his treatment of Friday, a native man of color whom Crusoe defines like a woman by his body, and makes instantly subordinate. My instructor at the time gave me an A-, conceding that the paper was well written and smart but “shrill and strident.” I recognized those words as the same ones regularly applied to denigrate feminist arguments. They were meant to put women back in their place. They’d used those same words about Millett, against every “women’s libber.” They were still using them against Hillary Clinton last year. I wasn’t deterred.
In the postscript to Sexual Politics, Millet concludes, “It may be that a second wave of the sexual revolution might at last accomplish its aim of freeing half the race from its immemorial subordination – and in the process bring us all a great deal closer to humanity. It may be that we shall even be able to retire sex from the harsh realities of politics.”
Clearly we are not there yet, when our now President loomed like an angry ape over Hillary Clinton in the Presidential debates, when she feared the reprisals of even asking him to get the hell away from her. When he reduced her to her body by making barely cloaked remarks about not enjoying the sight of her ass as he stood behind her on that stage. When he was elected as much because of his bragging about being able to grab women’s pussies as despite it. When he alludes to the size of his penis as some proof of his right to rule. And now we have Harvey Weinstein, or rather we’ve always had our Harvey Weinsteins, confounding power and sexuality. And close to 50 years after the publication of Sexual Politics, it still takes tremendous courage for women to even talk about it.
We have not freed gender, or sexuality from its politicization. We have not achieved anything approaching gender equality. We have not freed gender itself from binary definitions. Political action is clearly in order. But, as Millett argues, we shouldn’t have to give up sexual pleasure in the process. In the Loony Bin Trip, she offers a scene of sex with her lover (later wife) Sophie that counters and far outpaces Mailer, Lawrence, Updike and all the rest, in its sheer devotion to the polymorphous nature of sexual pleasure, in its transcendence over limited notions of dominance and submission.
. . . “the insatiable greed of our lust, our love, our tenderness, our rutting tenderness. We were unable to stop, one gratification only calling for another, the wildest improvisations, the never-finished copulation, . . . Fond of the same pleasures, fond of all pleasures, an infinite variety of subtle clitoral stimulation, hard vaginal fucking, anal invention, breasts, eyes, the never-satisfied mouth . . .”
Deborah A. Lott is the author of the recently completed Tell Me I’m Still Breathing: A Memoir of An Anxious Childhood which has been acclaimed by National Book Award winning poet and memoirist Mark Doty, among others. Her work has been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, the nervous breakdown¸Los Angeles Review, Salon, Cactus Heart, StoryQuarterly, Psychology Today, and other places. She is the author of the book, In Session: the Bond between Women and their Therapists, and the memoir (currently being shopped) Don’t Go Crazy without Me. Her family of origin was recently featured on an episode of This American Life. She teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University Los Angeles