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Returning fire

Cathy Young, author of Ceasefire, a fresh challenge to American feminism, talked to Jan Macvarish about why the personal should be anything but political

From feminist texts to popular psychology, the apparent 'war of the sexes' has become a theme impossible to ignore. So why does Cathy Young's controversial book Ceasefire stand out? Her American feminist peers hate it for its refusal to see the 'war of the sexes' as a concerted attack on women by men - Young has found herself labelled a traitor, a sop for patriarchy and most bizarrely, a man masquerading as a woman. And unlike popular psychology, Young's interest is not in the everyday tensions and conflicts that arise in intimate relationships. 'When it comes to treating one another badly on a personal level, men and women generally give as good as they get', she says.

Young is concerned with the sex war being waged at the level of feminist theory and how it impacts upon academia, legal reform, education, health and family policy, and popular culture. She claims that feminist ideas have converged with traditional, conservative ideals to reinvent old-fashioned sex-role stereotypes, in which women are seen as victims of a naturalised male brutality. This has institutionalised the idea that there is a fundamental clash of interests between men and women which, as far as Young is concerned, can only be harmful for relations between the sexes.

Young came to the USA from the Soviet Union in 1980, assuming herself to be a feminist and with expectations of a liberated, modern world. But she found American feminists to be more preoccupied with gender differences and 'essential' masculine and feminine values than even the conservatives. By then, feminism's original equality-based perspective had been superseded by a woman-centred perspective, in which the struggle for equality - women's ability to make it in a 'man's world' - was seen to deny the qualities apparently inherent to women. So 'manhood', and the qualities associated with masculinity, were denigrated and pitted against the assumed virtues of womanhood. Issues such as violence against women - seen as the product of peculiarly male behaviour - moved to the forefront of the debate, recycling the traditional stereotype of the brutal man and the vulnerable woman through the language of feminism. Now we are facing the consequences.

When men and women are seen as intrinsically different biological, intellectual and moral creatures, personal relationships are inevitably cast as a constantly negotiated détente at best, and a brutal battleground at worst. The petty conflicts inherent in personal relationships are recast as the result of fundamental differences that extend way beyond the particular characters of the individuals involved. But as Young says, 'we should be very careful to avoid the assumption that any time a man treats a woman badly, it's a manifestation of patriarchy. Lovers in same-sex relationships treat each other badly. So do same-sex siblings, or parents and children. There are all sorts of issues in relationships - issues of power, insecurity, intimacy or conflict - that may have nothing to do with gender'.

Ceasefire is particularly concerned with how campaigns around domestic violence and rape have politicised these private conflicts. In contrast to the old feminist slogan, Young argues, the personal is not political and attempts to make it so have a destructive outcome for privacy and personal relations. 'The very concept of privacy becomes suspect, merely a smokescreen for, in Catharine MacKinnon's words, "the right of men to be let alone to oppress women one at a time".' In Young's view, what is needed now is 'a restatement of equality and a resistance to the politicisation of the personal'. But she is aware that the peculiar climate of today may make this goal rather difficult to achieve.

Young may focus her fire on feminism, but she admits that feminist ideas have a resonance because of broader social and political atmospherics. There is, she says, 'a tendency today to want life to be risk-free, and therefore to want protections not only from danger but from unpleasantness - naughty jokes in the workplace, verbal abuse in marital conflicts, being asked to go out by someone you don't care for'. In the clumsy rough and tumble of interpersonal relationships, women in particular are easily cast in the role of victim - of domestic violence, date rape, cheating men or sexual harassment. In this way, the messiness of everyday relationships tends to be elided with the brutality of truly abusive ones. As Young puts it, 'people, especially men, can get arrested for pushing and grabbing' and 'a drunken sexual encounter' can be labelled 'rape' after the fact.

Today's tendency to emphasise the hidden dangers of private life and to give primacy to assumed victims' account of events has made it necessary to accept increasingly subjective definitions of wrongdoing. In Ceasefire, Young presents the logical conclusion of this kind of subjectivism. 'If traffic laws were modelled on harassment policies, there would be no stop signs or speed limits; you could be fined for failing to stop when someone expected you to, or going at a speed that made another driver uncomfortable.' Yet key concepts of law and justice have already bent under the weight of subjective definitions of sexual crimes, creating a situation where, according to Young, the apparently disempowered victim is actually endowed with 'new and often perverse kinds of power - such as being able to falsely accuse a man of rape or domestic violence'.

The irony is that this new 'sex war' takes place at a time when women and men enjoy greater equality than ever before, and are freed from many of the old constraints of sexual morality. Yet this liberation, when defined and regulated through feminist assumptions of male brutality and female vulnerability, has become a moral quagmire at least as destructive and confusing as anything that went before. When, as Young says, 'the debate about proper sexual norms has been framed as a debate about rape', we know we are living through a time when men and women are incredibly uneasy with each other, and where suspicion of intimate relationships has become the norm. This is where the ceasefire needs to start.

Jan Macvarish is co-director of Sex Wars, at which Cathy Young will be speaking in February.
For further information, see http://www.sexwars.org/

Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000



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