Sexual Politics

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Sexual Politics

Book excerpt

By: Kate Millet

Date: 1969

Source: Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

About the Author: Kate Millet is a feminist revolutionary whose groundbreaking theories and writings helped launch the feminist movement during the 1970s.


Kate Millet's Sexual Politics began as her doctoral thesis at Columbia University. The volume examines the various ways in which traditional gender roles have undermined women's power and roles in society, and how men have used marriage, family structure, wage discrimination, and sexual relations to keep women from attaining their true potential. Her criticism of the patriarchal society and her ideas about the rights of women, which were considered radical when first published, helped form the foundation for basic theories of feminism. Millet posited that natural differences between the genders had been twisted to imply superiority and inferiority, with men capitalizing on their greater physical strength to give themselves power. This structure carries over into male homosexual relationships, where one partner is traditionally considered the dominant, more powerful or "male" partner, while the weaker, less forceful or dominant partner is ascribed the "female" role. These labels are derived from the traditional structure of a male-dominated society.


Sexual Politics


Hannah Arendt has observed that government is upheld by power supported either through consent or imposed through violence. Conditioning to an ideology amounts to the former. Sexual politics obtains consent through the "socialization" of both sexes to basic patriarchal polities with regard to temperament, role and status….


Patriarchal religion, popular attitude, and to some degree, science as well assumes psycho-social distinctions to rest upon biological differences between the sexes, so that where culture is acknowledged as shaping behavior, it is said to do no more than cooperate with nature. Yet the temperamental distinctions created in patriarchy ("masculine" and "feminine" personality traits) do not appear to originate in human nature, those of role and status still less.

The heavier musculature of the male, a secondary sexual characteristic and common among mammals, is biological in origin but is also culturally encouraged through breeding, diet, and exercise. Yet it is hardly an adequate category on which to base political relations within civilization. Male supremacy, like other political creeds, does not finally reside in physical strength but in the acceptance of a value system which is not biological. Superior physical strength is not a factor in political relations—vide those of race and class. Civilization has always been able to substitute other methods (technic, weaponry, knowledge) for those of physical strength, and contemporary civilization has no further need of it. At present, as in the past, physical exertion is very generally a class factor, those at the bottom performing the most strenuous tasks, whether they be strong or not.

It is often assumed that patriarchy is endemic in human social life, explicable or even inevitable on the grounds of human physiology. Such a theory grants patriarchy logical as well as historical origin. Yet if as some ant hropologists believe, patriarchy is not of primeval origin, but was preceded by some other social form we shall call pre-patriarchal, then the argument of physical strength as a theory of patriarchal origins would hardly constitute a sufficient explanation—unless the male's superior physical strength was released in accompaniment with some change in orientation through new values or new knowledge. Conjecture about origins is always frustrated by lack of certain evidence. Speculation about prehistory, which of necessity is what this must be, remains nothing but speculation….


We are not accustomed to associate patriarchy with force. So perfect is its system of socialization, so complete the general assent to its values, so long and so universally has it prevailed in human society, that is scarcely seems to require violent implementation. Customarily, we view is brutalities in the past as exotic or "primitive" custom. Those of the present are regarded as the product of individual deviance, confined to pathological or exceptional behavior, and without general import. And yet, just as under other total ideologies (racism and colonialism are somewhat analogous in this respect) control in patriarchal society would be imperfect, even inoperable, unless it had the rule of force to rely upon, both in emergencies and as an ever-present instrument on intimidation….

Patriarchal force also relies on a form of violence particularly sexual in character and realized most completely in the act of rape. The figures of rapes reported represent only a fraction of those which occur, as the "shame" of the event is sufficient to deter women from the notion of civil prosecution under the public circumstances of a trial. Traditionally rape has been viewed as an offense one male commits upon another—a matter of abusing "his woman." Vendetta, such as occurs in the American South, is carried out for masculine satisfaction, the exhilarations of race hatred, and the interests of property and vanity (honor). In rape, the emotions of aggression, hatred, contempt, and the desire to break or violate personality, take a form consummately appropriate to sexual politics. In the passages analyzed at the outset of this study, such emotions were present at a barely sublimated level and were a key factor in explaining the attitude behind the author's use of language and tone.

Patriarchal societies typically link feelings of cruelty with sexuality, the latter often equated both with evil and with power. This is apparent both in the sexual fantasy reported by psychoanalysis and that reported by pornography. The rule here associates sadism with the male ("the masculine role") and victimization with the female ("the feminine role"). Emotional response to violence against women in patriarchy is often curiously ambiva-lent; references to wife-beating, for example, invariably produce laughter and some embarrassment. Exemplary atrocity, such as the mass murders committed by Richard Speck, greeted at one level with a certain scandalized, possibly hypocritical indignation, is capable of eliciting a mass response of titillation at another level. At such times one even hears from men occasional expressions of envy or amusement. In view of the sadistic character of such public fantasy as caters to male audiences in pornography or semi-pornographic media, one might expect that a certain element of identification is by no means absent from the general response. Probably a similar collective frisson sweeps through racist society when its more "logical" members have perpetrated a lynching. Unconsciously, both crimes may serve the larger group as a ritual act, cathartic in effect….


"Sexual politics" does not refer to any organized form of government or delineation along party lines, but to the power structure of relationships and how one group is controlled by another, in this case according to gender roles. Often, power is maintained through superior physical strength and the threat of violence, with sexual assault used as an extreme measure of force (either in actuality or as an implication). Even in societies where violence appears to have been eliminated, the threat is still implicit in that the more powerful person can always use force against the weaker. That idea itself is a motivator.

Historically, patriarchal societies have been the norm. While there have been female-dominated societies, they are traditionally small, agricultural peoples living in remote areas, such as the Nagovisi of Bougainvillea in the South Pacific or the Machinguenga of Peru. Because men have the physical ability to take power by force, they take the more dominant role as a matter of supposed right. Though this appears to be a natural advantage, there is nothing to say that physical prowess is more important than the qualities women possess, such as the ability to bear children. Nature has separated the roles of the sexes, but mankind has labeled certain abilities superior and allowed them to justify male dominance.

In modern society, men still maintain control over women, though their methods have diversified. Beyond purely physical superiority, men have established themselves in controlling positions in family, business, and the law. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, most women stayed at home and cared for their homes and family while their husbands worked, keeping women at the financial mercy of men. Even after they entered the work force in significant numbers, their salaries were kept low in comparison to their male counterparts, with men rationalizing that women were not required to support a family, and so were in less need of the money.

Though women took jobs similar to men, their work was often undervalued simply due to their gender and preconceived roles in society. As women spent more time in the work force, they found it difficult to earn promotions that were far more likely to go to men. The "glass ceiling", the point at which women ceased to climb the corporate ladder, became one more way to control women and make it impossible for them to gain power.

Reminders of male physical superiority appear in the media on a daily basis, through reports of violent crimes like rape and domestic abuse. Their existence promotes constant awareness of the possibility of violence, even in a society where women have grown more powerful. Outside the Western world, many societies continue to subjugate women, forcing them to stay in traditional roles, as well as less secure positions of prostitute, concubine, and so on. Some religious teachings help encourage male dominance and remove women from any part of the power hierarchy.

Many modern women have taken control over their lives with substantial jobs, financial independence, a voice in government, and raising children on their own rather than within the traditional family structure. But society as a whole is still patriarchal in nature, and in certain communities, male supremacy is not even questioned. Although arguments over traditional gender roles often center on natural capabilities and reasons why women deserve to choose their role in society on an individual basis, the underlying issue is power, and who will ultimately control the way society functions.



Koven, Seth. Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Web sites

Alice Paul Institute and National Council of Women's Organizations. "Equal Rights Amendment." 〈〉 (accessed March 16, 2006). Henley, Nancy, and Jo Freeman. "The Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior." 〈〉 (accessed March 16, 2006). Crawford, Leslie. "Kate Millet, the Ambivalent Feminist." 〈〉 (accessed March 18, 2006).

Women on the Verge of Power and Other Incredible Stories. "Matriarchy: History or Reality?" 〈〉 (accessed March 16, 2006).