The Subject of Desire

Cover pic - The Radical Notion, Issue 7

I always hate it when a “sexuality” question turns up in all those random forms you have to fill in. Even when you get past “do I want to tell you this,” you still have the problem of what to put – is a bi woman lesbian when she has a female partner? Is she het when she’s with a man? Is there anyone who doesn’t look doubtfully at her when she’s not with anyone?

And these days of course, you have a million other options to choose from, that all come with little flags, and remind me of how mysteriously fascinated teen girls used to be by all those ridiculous “Are you a [whatever]” quizzes in magazines. I came across a sexuality question when I was in a cross-grained mood recently, clicked on “other”, and typed “probably”. Once, back in the days of paper forms, I filled in that section with my eyes shut and when I looked, I found I had missed every single box. That was probably the most accurate answer I’ve ever given.

The Radical Notion (that women are human)

All the above is a roundabout way of approaching the mixed feelings I had when I discovered the latest issue of The Radical Notion is on the subject of desire. Having been a kid in the ‘60s, and a teenager in the ‘70s, I reached adulthood somewhat raddled by the intensity of the world’s never ending determination to find out “what women want”, then pester them to admit they want something else entirely. It was usually something pretty unappealing, in my view – but then, I am a bit “other.”

Do I want this?

I’ve spent decades rolling my eyes at blokes who know what women really want, profiteers telling women they want a world of glittery nonsense plus a whole menu of bodily improvements, and psychologists confidently telling us we really don’t want what we think we want. It was all of that thundering through my memory that made me pause, despite having read every previous edition of TRN with utter fascination, and wonder whether I wanted the one about desire, but I bought it, I started reading (dubiously) and loved it from the moment I noticed it was on the subject as opposed to the object of desire.

The Company of Women

Between leaving my all-girls school and blundering into the trans rights v women’s rights goings on, I lived around 40 years in which I’d had more male lovers than female, more male friends than female, and had developed a vague notion that men were easier to get along with – but then, as all the lefty groups ramped up their outrageously bad responses to women wanting to talk about their rights, a growing group of we women who’d got pissed off with our local Labour Party started meeting in my back room instead. The group included some women a bit older than me, women who’d been active as socialists and feminists in the 1970s (when I’d mostly been falling in love with British motorbikes and, if necessary, the attached blokes) and those women were now telling me the most extraordinary things.

I told my daughter I’d always thought I got along better with men, but that I now seemed to be most involved with women, and really enjoying it. She told me, “well, you’ve just found some women you get on with.” Oh yeah! … so what did these women have in common, that made them so interesting? Most obviously, they were the ones who didn’t say “oh, okay” when the blokes told them they didn’t want to talk about women’s rights, that’s what.

I’ve got desire

So in this issue of The Radical Notion that’s called the subject of desire are a load of those type of women, talking about why all that pestering women get about what they should want and what they really want and what desire is supposed to mean, tend to enter the adult world not only not knowing what they want but, unless they’re really insightful, not knowing that they don’t know it, and what’s worse not experiencing, or not recognising, anything they could really call desire except in the form of a clandestine determination to be desirable. Life may begin at 40 but apparently, it takes many women more than 40 years to find the private head space to work out what they want to say when asked about their sexuality. And then of course, they start thinking about what they dare to say.

Are bisexuals allowed?

Are political lesbians allowed?

How personal is the personal that’s political?

What is desire, what is it for and what are you supposed to do about it?

… and hang on, where do all those “supposed to”s come from?

All those questions get quite a lot of attention in TRN Issue Seven, and there is a courageous range of conflicting answers to pore over – best of the bunch in my view (which of course, on a topic like this, is entirely subjective) is a good, lengthy piece by Lynn Alderson about what political lesbianism means, told in the context of her own experience, having come of age in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the ‘70s, when women were experiencing such profound changes in their lives and expectations. Lynn was a founder-member of Sisterwrite and a part of an impressive range of women’s writing, publishing and archiving projects. More recently she has become known as an advisor to women setting up consciousness raising groups. This last is providing a much needed helping hand as we all discover there’s so much more to feminism than recent decades had led us to believe.

For me, the key point in Lynn’s article ‘The Company of Women’ is this:

“I can ask the question, ‘was my grandmother heterosexual?’ but I don’t think the question has any meaning when women’s lives were so economically and socially constrained.”

In fact, that might be the key point in the whole glorious collection in this magazine. I feel so sorry, now, for the women who’ve got involved in the sex-based rights campaign if it hasn’t carried them into a wider re-discovery of feminism. I’d say for most of us, the prevailing culture since the ‘80s has been hell bent on pushing women back into a place where they not only don’t know what they want but, baffled and over-faced by a constant maelstrom of problems financial, social, economical, political and sexual, many probably have to settle for being told when and why they feel desire, and what they ought to do about it. There isn’t time to find out, even after we reach 60, now so few of us stand a chance of ever actually retiring.

Tell you what, though – find the time to get hold of a copy of Issue Seven of The Radical Notion – it’s available from the website ( click here ) in paper or electronic form but, more importantly, find the time to read it. Not only is it a really important and fascinating read, all about you, in a way those teen magazines never really were (because the political is personal) but also it’ll help you work out what to do when faced with those stupid sexuality option boxes on forms (because the personal is political). One idea that came to me since reading TRN Issue Seven is to just say “oh fuck off, do I really want whatever it is I’m filling in this form to get?”


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