Susan Sontag: Androgyny Is the Future

True sexual liberation, the great writer argued, is about liberation from sex.
Photo: Jill Krementz

The following is an exclusive excerpt from On Women, a new collection of Susan Sontag’s seminal essays and interviews from the 1970s. The book’s release by Picador will be marked, next week at Pioneer Works, by a special launch event and conversation with three writers—Merve Emre, Sigrid Nunez, and Doreen St. Félix—whose work embodies her fierce intellect and resonance now.

In 1972, Sontag was asked by Libre magazine, a Marxist journal published in France, to respond to a series of questions on the aims and ideals of global feminism. The resulting long-form interview, “The Third World of Women,” was published in English, the following year, by the Partisan Review. What follows is one of the questions posed to Sontag by Libre, and her reply.

In the process of liberating women, do you give equal importance to economic liberation and to sexual liberation?

The question seems to me to reveal the underlying weakness of the very concept of “liberation.” Unless made more specific, “women’s liberation” is an empty goal—and one which blurs the focus and dilutes the energy of women’s struggle. I am not sure that the economic and the sexual are two different kinds of liberation. But suppose that they are or, at least, that they can be considered separately. Without more clarity about what women are being liberated from and for, it is meaningless to ask whether both liberations are equally important.

The notion of “economic liberation” can be used to cover up the real issues. That women have access to a wide variety of jobs outside the home for which they are properly paid is certainly a primary, unnegotiable demand. The key to women’s psychological and cultural underdevelopment is the fact that most women do not support themselves—neither in the literal (economic) nor metaphoric (psychological, cultural) sense. But it is hardly enough for women to secure the possibility of earning money through the opening up of more jobs, through the creation of free facilities for the care of young children. Work must not be merely an option, an alternative to the still more common (and normative) “career” of housewife and mother. It must be expected that most women will work, that they will be economically independent (whether married or not) just as men are. Without work, women will never break the chains of dependence on men—the minimal prerequisite for their becoming fully adult. Unless they work, and their work is usually as valuable as their husbands’, married women have not even the chance of gaining real power over their own lives, which means the power to change their lives. The arts of psychological coercion and conciliation for which women are notorious—flattery, charm, wheedling, glamour, tears—are a servile substitute for real influence and autonomy.

On Women book cover
Courtesy of Picador

Simply being able to work, however, hardly means that a woman is “liberated.” Large numbers of women already do work, and of these a minority already earns wages that guarantee economic independence; yet most women who work remain as dependent as ever on men. The reason is that employment itself is organized along sexist lines. The colonialized status of women is confirmed and indeed strengthened by the sexist division of labor. Women do not participate gainfully in modern work on the same footing as men. They play a supportive, backup role in the economy. What they do in “the world” tends to reproduce their image as “household” (serving and nurturing) creatures; they are considered unfit for large executive responsibilities. Thus, women cannot be said to be economically liberated until they perform all activities now performed by men, on the same terms (with respect to wages, standards of performance, exposure to risk) as men—thereby relinquishing the prerogatives of the fool, the child, and the servant. Their economic liberation is essential not merely to the psychological and moral well-being of individual women. Until they become important to the economy, not just as a reserve labor pool but because in large numbers they possess the major professional and executive skills, women have no means of exercising political power, which means gaining control of institutions and having an effective say in how society will change in the coming decades. Once again: liberation means power—or it hardly means anything at all.

The notion of “sexual liberation” seems to me even more suspect. The ancient double standard, which imputes to women less sexual energy and fewer sexual desires than men (and punishes them for behavior condoned in men), is clearly a way of keeping women in their place. But to demand for women the same privileges of sexual experimentation that men have is not enough, since the very conception of sexuality is an instrument of repression. Most sexual relationships act out the attitudes which oppress women and perpetuate male privilege. Merely to remove the onus placed on the sexual expressiveness of women is a hollow victory if the sexuality they become freer to enjoy remains the old one that converts women into objects. The mores of late, urban capitalist society have been for some time, as everyone has noticed, increasingly more “permissive,” penalizing women much less than before for behaving like sexual beings outside the context of monogamous marriage. But this already “freer” sexuality mostly reflects a spurious idea of freedom: the right of each person, briefly, to exploit and dehumanize someone else.

Without a change in the very norms of sexuality, the liberation of women is a meaningless goal. Sex as such is not liberating for women. Neither is more sex.

The aim of struggle should not be to protect the differences between the two sexes but to undermine them.

The question is: What sexuality are women to be liberated to enjoy? The only sexual ethic liberating for women is one which challenges the primacy of genital heterosexuality. A nonrepressive society, a society in which women are subjectively and objectively the genuine equals of men, will necessarily be an androgynous society. Why? Because the only other plausible terms on which the oppression of women could be ended are that men and women decide to live apart, and that is impossible. Separatism does remain plausible as a way of putting an end to the oppression of “colored” peoples by the white race. Conceivably, the different races originating in different parts of the planet could agree to live quite separately again (with the habits and mentalities of each strictly protected against all incursions of cultural as well as economic imperialism). But women and men will undoubtedly always cohabit. If, therefore, the answer to sexism—unlike racism—is not even conceivably separatism, then defending the distinct moral and aesthetic “traditions” of each sex (to preserve something equivalent to “cultural plurality”) and attacking the single standard of intellectual excellence or rationality as male “cultural imperialism” (to revalidate the unknown and despised “women’s culture”) are misleading tactics in the struggle to liberate women.

The aim of struggle should not be to protect the differences between the two sexes but to undermine them. To create a nonrepressive relation between women and men means to erase as far as possible the conventional demarcation lines that have been set up between the two sexes, to reduce the tension between women and men that arises from “otherness.” As everyone has noticed, there has been a lively tendency among young people in recent years to narrow and even confuse sex differences in clothes, hairstyles, gestures, taste. But this first step toward depolarizing the sexes, partly co-opted within capitalist forms of consumership as mere “style” (the commerce of unisex boutiques), will be denied its political implications unless the tendency takes root at a deeper level.

The more profound depolarization of the sexes must take place in the world of work and, increasingly, in sexual relations themselves. As “otherness” is reduced, some of the energy of sexual attraction between the sexes will decline. Women and men will certainly continue to make love and to pair off in couples. But women and men will no longer primarily define each other as potential sexual partners. In a nonrepressive nonsexist society, sexuality will in one sense have a more important role than it has today—because it will be more diffused. Homosexual choices will be as valid and respectable as heterosexual choices; both will grow out of a genuine bisexuality. (Exclusive homosexuality—which, like exclusive heterosexuality, is learned—would be much less common in a nonsexist society than it is at present.) But in such a society, sexuality will in another sense be less important than it is now—because sexual relations will no longer be hysterically craved as a substitute for genuine freedom and for so many other pleasures (intimacy, intensity, feeling of belonging, blasphemy) which this society frustrates. ♦

On Women by Susan Sontag; edited by David Rieff. Published by Picador, May 30, 2023. Copyright © 2023 by The Estate of Susan Sontag. All rights reserved.

Change the frequency.
Subscribe to Broadcast