Sexual Revolution: A Silent Invitation.
A report from the latest book tour - and a live transcript from the evening event in Bremen!
I lost my voice in Berlin. It was the end of a full week of interviews, speaking events and meeting friends and readers and writers and activists who were as excited as I was to be out in the world again, talking about ideas for fun and trouble, even amidst the horror and chaos rolling in relentlessly on the news.
Sexual Revolution has been disorientingly popular in Germany. Well, at least, my book of the same name has been- the rest, we’ll have to see about. But the event at the HAU theatre in Berlin was packed and buzzing, and I talked for hours through the event and the signing line, where I recognised, behind her rhinestone face mask, an old friend I hadn’t seen since San Francisco. As we walked back to the hotel together, catching up on how we’d steered through the weird rapids of recent history…I felt something rasp and catch in my throat. A motor in my throat kicking and stalling.
The next day, I woke up sounding like a haunted answerphone recording from 1986. By the afternoon, my voice was gone. Entirely. And there were five more events to go.
So there was nothing to do but improvise.
By the time I got to Bremen and up on stage with my brilliant co-host, Francis Seek, we had come up with a plan. I couldn’t talk, and after a random ankle mishap, they couldn’t walk. ‘Sorry,’ I croaked into the microphone. ‘We’ve been in the culture wars.’
I did the rest of the event, over the next two hours, entirely on text- live-typing, projecting onto the screen, thanks to some last minute wrangling from the technical team. Luckily, for whatever reason, I type coherently and extremely fast- and the audience got in on the spirit of it all. It was a little like being on MSN with all of them at once.
So what I’m about to share with you isn’t precisely the transcript of the event. In a very real sense, it IS the event- very lightly edited, just as I typed it, on stage in Bremen, over the course of two hours of dialogue. Welcome to the show!
I HOPE THE TEXT IS BIG ENOUGH. MAYBE WE CAN TRANSLATE LATER!
This is still incredible to me, to be honest. It’s very different to the U.K! it’s been amazing to talk to people on this tour - it makes me believe that there’s a world where feminism can be cool. Thank you for reading this in English, everyone - I know it’s a privilege to be able to come here and expect others to engage in a second language. I don’t take that lightly.
Francis asks: how did this book come together? What was the initial idea?
In 2017, I started to write a book about consent. I think the idea - what my publishers wanted from me, initially - was a how-to feminist guide to sexual consent. And then…
There’s a quote from Carl Sagan, where says that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you first have to invent the universe.
And the more I read and thought about it, the more it seemed that the problem of ‘how to do consent’ couldn’t be solved without unpacking and picking layers and layers of other structural problems. It’s entirely possible that within heterosexuality, in order for men and women to be able to have sex that is truly, meaningfully consensual, you first have to entirely re-invent gender, power and capitalism.
Which sounds fine to me.
So, this book is a lot broader than I had intended, and certainly a lot broader than the book I originally signed a contract for. I am so, so sorry to my English editors. Honestly, they didn’t ask for this.
Plus, and there was also - I don’t know if you heard about this over here in Bremen- a bit of a global pandemic. As a result, I ended up spending a lot of time in a small flat by myself reading obscure political theory and not getting enough sunshine. You may be able to tell.
Francis asks about ‘TERFs’, saying that the tendency is starting to taking hold in Germany.
I’m really sorry to hear that. We have a huge problem with TERFs - who prefer to be called ‘Gender Critical Feminists’- in the UK. I really think so much of this is our fault. Like Brexit but for feminism.
Anyway. There’s a really scary increase in attacks on trans people, particularly trans women, from a group of people who are, in many ways, feminists - but their arguments are being used by the far right, and by neo-conservatives, to push the idea that ‘gender’ is a dangerous idea in itself. When you hear the word ‘gender ideology’, when people try to ban discussion of gender from schools and universities - that plays straight into the hands of the far right. It’s not ultimately feminists who are pushing the idea that ‘gender ideology’ is evil. It’s right-wing despots, misogynists and religious extremists.
‘TERFs’ get very angry when you point this out to them, because nobody likes to think that they have been tricked, or that they have got it wrong.
It will be interesting to see - I’m just thinking this as I type- if that’s different here in Germany. Britain and America, I have noticed, are particularly sensitive culturally to the idea of being wrong. About anything.
We love to think that we are the ‘good guys’ of history. In school, studying History, I learned about WW2 almost every year between the ages of 7 and 18. And NOTHING about the British Empire. And now that the real, violent history of the colonial era is finally being spoken about, it’s causing huge cultural discomfort.
Anyway. I made the mistake, a few months ago, of pointing out that there are links between the far right and British ‘Gender Critical’ feminism - links that most actual feminists in that movement don’t really know about, or don’t want to. I took care to point out that most ‘Gender Critical’ feminists aren’t fascists themselves. It still went down worse than I’d anticipated. I’ve not been forgiven for that, or for coming out as genderqueer.
In the UK, there have been surprisingly nasty attacks on this book from Gender Critical feminists - attacks that have got, honestly, nothing to do with the book itself. They have been all about the fact that I am genderqueer, use they/them pronouns and think trans rights and women’s rights are part of the same struggle- which means that therefore I’m somehow betraying women. Also they have a sick obsession with my hair and sex life.
Yes, for some reason they’re really bothered by my hair.
Which I suppose means I have to keep it this way now.
And it takes ages to get it like this, and it stains the bathroom.
Francis asks an interesting question that I didn’t write down, which I’m pretty sure was about how the idea of ‘sexual revolution’ relates to trauma.
That’s a really interesting question and probably actually easier to answer in writing like this. Thank you.
So, briefly: when I say ‘sexual revolution’ in this book, I’m talking about a revolution that is already happening. A revolution that is the result of decades of social and economic change and a fundamental shift in power relations between the political categories of men and women. Put simply: women no longer have to love men for a living.
A lot of men are quite unhappy about that.
Some of them, violently so.
In the book, I say that we are in the middle of a revolutionary time - which means we are also in an unstable, uncertain, brutal time, even just when it comes to human sexuality. Although, of course, that also reflects the violence and uncertainty of the rest of the world.
And there are all kinds of ways for feminism to respond to this. Because I have been under attack by TERFs for around 6 years, but very seriously for about two years, I have spoken to many of them, including one on one in private - and I think one of the things that is true is that many of them are coming into feminism for the first time. They are women, usually, who have been through enormous trauma, and undrstanding that the world of patriarrchal violen..
Sorry my e key is sticky
And my r key
…They are people who have found liberation in feminist politics, and found a place where they can finally express anger and outrage at men. Which is right and proper, frankly.
In the UK, one of the largest ‘recruiting sites’ is Mumsnet - a community site aimed at mothers, particularly mothers of young children. And all extremist movements look to attract people who are uniquely vulnerable. And who is more aware of her own sex class, and the fundamental unfairness of gender relations, despite her best efforts, than a new mother?
But all of that energy is redirected towards a minority group, instead of being turned towards people with real power.
Francis asks: is there anything you’d change or update about the book related the COVID-19 pandemic?
Thank you. Great question. So, I managed to add a little about the pandemic towards the end of editing. And it does weave into the chapters on work, family and motherhood - because the economic bombshell of the COVID pandemic exposed the fundamental flaws in the Sexual Sontract.
But one thing I’ve been writing about a lot more recently is how the whole idea of what work is essential to life, and who exactly is supposed to do that work, has changed forever.
Ok, so - think about apocalypse movies. Disaster movies, ‘the zombie apocalypse’. For years, I’ve been hearing people talk about ‘what they will do in the zombie apocalypse’ - and more seriously, in many of the far-right, neo-masculinist movements I’ve been following and reading about, they’re just obsessed with the idea of civilisational collapse. So are many religious extremists. The general idea - and it is a very, very old idea - is that society is broken and needs a massive disaster to purify everything and make it clean and new. The fantasy is that in this ‘great unravelling’, men will have a new role, as strong protectors of women. Shooting the infected people at the fence. Mainly their plan seems to involve a lot of guns, tbh, and not a lot of long-term planning for strategic rebuilding or maintaining infrastructure. It’s mostly guns. And hoarding cans of beans.
But anyway. As it turned out, when the ‘collapse’ finally came - the giant sudden crisis that shook the whole world at once - the people who were essential weren’t the shouty men with guns. They were nurses, teachers, delivery drivers. Scientists. Logistics experts. People who knew how to organise relief at scale. They were doctors and carers and therapists and cleaners and parents, people who look after other people for a living. And a lot of the ‘essential’ jobs were the lowest paid jobs, done largely by women, particularly immigrant women and women of colour.
So the pandemic really changed what we think of as essential. It turns out we don’t need men to ‘protect us’ the way they seem to want to be needed. It turns out that ‘strength’ is a word that we’ve got wrong.
And that comes out in such crazy ways.
I spent 2020 in Los Angeles. No, not by choice! But in the US, you really saw people going nuts over the mask-wearing. And a lot of neo-masculinist figures are still saying the same- Jair Bolsonaro announcing that ‘masks are for pussies’. For example. Though you’ve got to wonder if he’s just confusing them with knickers.
Anyway, it’s the ultimate tragic expression of toxic individualism, this myth of ‘lone wolf’ masculinity - the idea that it is somehow weak and feminine to do the literal absolute bare minimum imaginable to protect strangers from a deadly disease.
Francis asks a question about class and work.
Ooh - can I say one more thing first about the pandemic? Thanks! This is related to class, and work, don’t worry.
So. Viruses and infectious bacteria, as lots of us learned in school, evolve to exploit weaknesses in the host population. That can mean weaknesses in an individual body - or in the species as a whole.
Cholera evolved alongside the growth of major cities - it’s a disease that adapted to exploit a major structural weakness of the industrialising world in the 19th century. Namely- that millions of people were suddenly eating and shitting in close quarters, and we had not yet invented the modern sewage system.
COVID-19 is a disease that exploits other, more modern weaknesses. And in the process it can help identify those weaknesses, those strategic vulnerabilities. One of them is that we live in societies that are very interconnected and unequal, where we share physical space, and travel easily and quickly - but where social infrastructure is lacking. That means the degree to which we can all affect each other vastly outstrips our capacity to care for one another. And that’s a massive problem.
The weakness that COVID exploits is, essentially, neoliberal capitalism. If you force people to go out to work with a contagious airborne disease, that disease will spread quicker.
An audience member asks a question about how love and family and the desire for a ‘normal’ life fit in to the idea of ‘Sexual Revolution’.
That’s for the next book - but honestly, part of the point here is to make it clear that the things we think of as normal, and unchangeable, and ‘natural’ about the way society is currently organised, and the way work and love are currently distributed - all of that is either deeply abnormal or just a straight-up lie.
Take the idea of the ‘nuclear family’, for example. In the UK and the USA there’s a huge focus on the two-parent, 2.5 children, straight, monogamous married couple who own and live in a single-family house - that’s the ultimate social ideal.
And we know that that isn’t the reality of most people’s lives right now. But not only that - there was only ever a very brief historical window when it ever was many people’s reality. That was in the 1950s and early 1960s in England and America.
And even then, those ‘nuclear households’ were supported by the labour of Black and brown women, and some working class white women, as maids and household ‘help’.
So the ideal of the white American family has always relied on the invisible, marginalised labor of Black and immigrant women.
But many people don’t know that. They assume that this fantasy gold standard of the straight, white, prosperous nuclear family is normal. And today so many heterosexual women are wearing themselves out trying to run a household more or less by themselves, on top of paid work ‘outside the home’.
And in the pandemic it became clear just how unsustainable that was. How exhausted and overburdened so many women were, and how somehow they were the ones who felt like failures, when in fact it’s our economic system that has failed and continues to fail.
That’s true of a lot of millenials I know, to be honest - we internalise the failures of capital and culture because we’ve been told that all problems are individual. But it’s particularly true of women and LGBTQ people. In my experience, at least.
Francis asks a question about individual versus collective action within feminism. Can a Sexual Revolution be about more than just personal liberation?
So. You’re right that a revolution is, properly thought of, a collective endeavor. And that’s the whole point of this book - to make it clear that changes that seem to be happening on an individual level are in fact happening collectively. Social media is helping to make that visible.
Women are already walking away from heterosexual partnerships with lacklustre men in record numbers. Women are also simply not having children in the numbers they once were, because the conditions for parenthood are untenable. And that’s a huge, huge problem for the world economy.
Naming structural problems is revolutionary in itself. Social media makes collective consciousness raising both feasible and FAR faster than it once was.
But your question was about other ways of living - about thinking other ways of living outside the oppressive structures of white supremacist patriarchy. I get most of my ideas on that from science fiction, to be honest. Seriously!
And I think some of those alternatives are already emerging organically. We’re just not allowed to claim them as actual alternatives - not if there’s only one form of family, or love, or pleasure that is sanctioned.
Some of us are living those alternatives already.
How many people here have roommates they care about?
Lots, right? Well, in what way is that not a form of family? You live together. You divide your labour and share your resources. You take basic care of each other and argue about laundry and annoy each other. That’s family, to me. But it doesn’t count as family. Why not?
So how do we think outside the ‘normal’ ways of ordering work and family? What ways of living are we not allowed to imagine as ‘valid’ or ‘adult’?
This question of where and how we are going to live - it connects to everything. For me, right now, in London, the city I live in and am from - many people I know are struggling to pay their rent, and just like here in Germany, energy bills are going up. It’s harder and harder for many of us to afford to live in single-person or single-family households. Resources are not being effectively shared. But part of the reason house prices in London is so high is because since 2008, London housing has been used as a reserve currency for the global super-rich. That’s what the Tories relied on to keep Britain out of recession. We have an eye-watering amount of cash stored in property and institutional access by Russian oligarchs….that’s a long potential tangent right there. Time is ticking. See, even laryngitis can’t shut me up.
It’s your turn! Ask questions!
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(Someone asks about my throat)
Thank you! It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt much
An audience member asks a question about the Russian attack on Ukraine. How does the patriarchal backlash link in there? Is it significant that the first people to speak out against Putin on the world stage were Pussy Riot?
Interestingly - well, horribly, but also interestingly - a few days before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin said something to Zelensky, a provocation, a Russian saying which is, I am told, a ‘joke’ about marital rape.
It translates in English as ‘my beauty, it is your duty’.
I think there is a huge connection between the logic of extraction and exploitation on an intimate level and the logic of conquest and domination by strength on an international level - and there always has been. Our current ideas about gender, sex, family and power were formed in the early centuries of colonial expansion and the industrial revolution.
And every totalitarian state in recent history has quickly focused on controlling women’s bodies, the family, sexuality, birth rates. It’s used as a justification to invade and claim territory - either on the basis of ‘protecting our women (usually white women)’ or ‘liberating’ women from foreign oppression.
But it’s also an obsession with every far right leader. The hypermasculine, aggressive, dominant, I think very sterile sexual affect; the obsession with controlling women’s reproduction. It’s not just Russia that has cracked down on abortion rights, gay rights and ‘gender ideology’. It’s happening in Poland, in Hungary, and of course in the United States, in Republican-run states like Texas.
This is why an art project like Pussy Riot was able to make such an enormous impact. It would not have had the same impact if Putin and his regime had been less fragile. But they just could not bear being teased by a group of young women in day-glo balaclavas. I was once lucky enough to meet and interview some members of Pussy Riot, and they are incredible thinkers.
An audience member noticed that in the back of my book I talk about Leslie Feinberg’s work ‘Stone Butch Blues’, which is an important and very moving and romantic book for them. Can I talk about why?
It’s a wonderful book - it IS a romantic book! Thank you so so much for a sweet and wonderful question (and thank you to the previous questioner also!)
I have not read Stone Butch Blues for some years, and honestly what I find most inspiring about Feinberg’s work is the approach to weaving political theory out of the personal, the appreciation of romance in every sense of the word.
This is true for so many of my most admired writers today. If you have not read Lidia Yuknavitch, Ijeoma Oluo, adrienne maree brown, Mia Mingus, Jesmyn Ward- you must.
The question was about the connection with trans and queer history. I’m very flattered by that question, because what pioneers like Leslie Feinberg went through in the 20th century, when it was harder even to find words for the experience of what it meant to be trans or queer- that’s very difficult for young (er) trans and queer people today to know in our bones. But that’s part of the point. They did that work of naming and discovery, often at incredible personal risk- and as a result, some things are easier for us. But in many ways, the work of feminism and queer politics today is still the same - it’s about naming, and living withing new definitions of what life and love can mean. And obviously, there’s a backlash to all of that.
I am interested to know if in Germany, like in the Anglosphere, that backlash has the same obsessive focus on words. For us, conservatives literally want to stop people using words like ‘gender’ or pronouns like ‘they’ - because if we don’t have those words, we are not able to live the lives they describe.
A question about the draft in Ukraine- and what feminism has to say about men and boys being coerced into the military. Don’t I think that’s unfair to men?
I saw those videos, of the young men being pulled off the buses. It’s absolutely horrific. It’s not feminist to send ANYONE TO DIE IN A WAR.
But actually, the question of the draft - even just historically - often comes up when feminists talk about what men and women are supposed to ‘owe’ to society, and to the state in particular.
The idea is that women have one duty: to raise and bear children. Men have another: to be prepared to die in a war if called on. I think those things are connected in the collective imagination, still- so it’s an important issue that you raised.
For a start, it’s a sign of how, actually, patriarchy is about making almost everyone expendable. It’s not ‘the rule of men’. It’s ‘the rule of fathers’. It’s a small number of powerful, usually older, wealthy men versus everyone else. During the First World War, over a hundred years ago, in the British army at least, men of the officer class - aristocratic men - still went to war, but they were protected. Way behind the lines. It was the working class young men who were sacrificed.
When people tell me that actually it’s men who have it hard, because it’s men who protect the country in wars, presumably from ….other men.
The answer is - yes, this is why patriarchy is a violent and broken system, designed to collapse repeatedly under its own contradictions. The draft is evil, and wrong. Of course I think so- I’m an anarchist. I think it would be just as wrong if people of all genders were called up to fight in wars. But either way, I don’t think the state should be able to annex anyone’s body on the basis of sex or gender. That’s just fucked up.
An audience member who says that they are in their teens points out that they appreciated hearing that it was okay to identify problems or talk about injustice without having all the answers yet.
I’m really glad.
Thank you so much for saying so.
You don’t have to save the world all by yourself. I’m really sorry literally everyone apparently expects Gen Z to do so.
I think my lot, Millennials - many millennials in the audience? Say hi? Yeah, hi!
…It’s our job to be big brothers and sisters and try and make it a bit easier and say it’s okay to not know all the answers yet. Because, I mean, fuck, it’s not like the actual adults in charge of all of us know what the hell they’re doing.
Sometimes, truly, I think it’s one of the most important things in politics to be able to say ‘I don’t know’.
Apparently it’s shameful not to know things. You see entire communities and nations spiral into a sort of mania, culturally, because people are unable to admit to just getting things wrong, or not knowing the answers, or being a tiny bit ignorant or having more to learn. And I hear critics say ‘they’re all acting like teenagers!’
Actually no, they’re not. They’re acting like spoilt angry babies. Most teenagers I know are far more sensible and kind. I’m just so sorry that you have had to be.
Thank you all for coming.
And thank you all for reading.