The Dialectic of Sex
|The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution|
The 1993 Quill edition, showing a portrait of an anonymous young woman by Edgar Degas.
|Published||1970 (William Morrow and Company)|
|ISBN||0-688-12359-7 (William Morrow and Company edition)
978-0-374-52787-7 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition)
The Dialectic of Sex is dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir, whose 1949 work on the oppression of women The Second Sex is the explicit starting point for Firestone's own theory of women's oppression. Firestone applies the notion of class to biological divisions, so that biological reproduction becomes the focus of patriarchy. In her view, sex class, unlike economic class, is based directly upon a biological reality: though the physical difference between men and women did not by itself necessitate the development of a class system, the reproductive function of the differences did. The biological division of labor in reproduction is the root cause not only of male domination but of economic class exploitation, racism, imperialism and ecological irresponsibility. Sexual inequality is "an oppression that goes back beyond recorded history to the animal kingdom itself": in this sense, it has been universal and inevitable, but the cultural and technological preconditions now exist that make its elimination possible and perhaps necessary for human survival.
The idea of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are modified by Firestone, who describes her approach as a form of dialectical materialism more radical than theirs. Firestone believes that in their preoccupation with economic processes Marx and Engels failed to perceive "the sexual substratum of the historical dialectic." Unlike Engels, she maintains that male domination is biologically based and as such existed long before the institution of private property and the monogamous patriarchal family which private property produced.
Male domination, in Firestone's view, is the result of the "biological family', whether matrilineal or patrilineal, and the inevitable dependence of women and children within the family upon men, for protection if not subsistence. Firestone rejects the existence of ancient matriarchies (societies ruled by women), and argues that the apparently superior status of women in matrilineal cultures is due only to the relative weakness of men. Whatever the lineage system, women's vulnerability during pregnancy and the long period of human infancy necessitate the protective and hence dominant role of the male. This dependence of the female and the child on the male causes "specific psychosexual distortions in the human personality", distortions that were described by Sigmund Freud.
Firestone reexamines Freud's ideas from a radical feminist perspective. She argues that "Freud's genius was poetic rather than scientific", and that Freud's ideas are more valuable as metaphors than as literal truths. Firestone considers Freudianism a misguided version of feminism. She believes that Freud recognized, at the same time as modern feminism, that sexuality is the crucial problem of modern life, but that unlike feminism Freud failed to question society's values.
Freudian "metaphors" such as the Oedipus complex are interpreted by Firestone in terms of power relations within the family. In her version of the Oedipal scenario, the father of the family has the power, and the boy shares his oppression and dependency with his mother, whom he therefore loves. She cares for him and loves him unconditionally, whereas his father is the agent of punishment and conditional love. The boy sees his father bully his mother, and from this concludes that sexual intercourse is an act of violence perpetrated on the female by the male. Boys feel contempt for their fathers and sympathize with their mothers but, "They 'repress' their deep emotional attachment to mother, 'repress' their desire to kill their father, and emerge into the honorable state of manhood." Firestone likewise interprets what she calls the Electra complex of young girls in terms of power relations.
In Firestone's view, while young boys may desire their mothers, they cannot desire to sexually penetrate them, since they probably cannot imagine how such an act would be performed. Firestone quotes Freud's views on fetishism ("The object is the substitute for the mother's phallus which the little boy believed in and does not wish to forego"), and calls them embarrassing, arguing that boys are not likely to have ever seen their mothers naked or to have observed the differences between male and female genitals. Firestone finds what she calls Freud's "literalism" to be absurd. She proposes to abolish the incest taboo, arguing that incest should be welcomed.
Juliet Mitchell argues that Firestone misreads Freud, and misunderstands the implications of psychoanalytic theory for feminism. She notes that while Firestone, like de Beauvoir, attributes the term "Electra complex" to Freud, it was actually coined by Carl Jung. She believes that for Firestone, the only kind of reality is social actuality (the generic experience or accidental experience of the individual), and that in this respect Firestone's work closely resembles that of Wilhelm Reich. In Mitchell's view, Firestone's interpretation of Freud reduces his psychological constructs to the social realities from which they were reduced, thereby equating the Oedipus complex with the nuclear family.
Firestone's work has been much criticized for its perceived reductionism, biologism, historical inaccuracy, and general crudity, for example, by Mary O'Brien in her 1981 book The Politics of Reproduction. However, Firestone's general approach has been of lasting significance in reviving interest in the control of biological reproduction, fertility, or even sexuality as possible bases of patriarchy.
Feminist and author Susan Faludi has stated that although criticized for its radical restructuring of social beliefs, some of the basic tenets of The Dialectic of Sex have been of "lasting significance". The proposal to reproduce children outside of a women's uterus in order to free the woman of the "means of reproduction" was a scientific impossibility at that time but components of this are routine in medicine today. "Predictably, the proposal stimulated more outrage than fresh thought, though many of Firestone’s ideas—children’s rights, an end to “male” work and traditional marriage, and social relations altered through a “cybernetic” computer revolution—have proved prescient."
- Hearn, Jeff (1999). Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-36694-1.
- Mitchell, Juliet (2000). Psychoanalysis and Feminism: A Radical Reassessment of Freudian Psychoanalysis. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-027953-9.
- Warren, Mary Anne (1980). The Nature of Woman: An Encyclopedia & Guide to the Literature. Edgepress. ISBN 0-918528-07-0.