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Last Updated on September 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

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Sexual Politics is a nonfiction book written by Katherine ("Kate") Murray Millett (1934–2017). Millett was an artist, professor, writer, and activist who was especially concerned with feminist and mental health issues. Sexual Politics began as Millett's PhD dissertation, which she completed at Columbia University in New York in 1970. It is strongly influenced by Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 book The Second Sex, though it is distinguished from that work by the way it connects women's experience to the political realm. It is considered an important landmark in the history of feminist criticism and has been reprinted many times and translated into several languages. However, it should be noted that modern feminist theory has become significantly more nuanced in the years since the work of early feminist pioneers (such as Millett) was produced.

Summary

Sexual Politics begins with an analysis of the ubiquity of patriarchy—or the system of male domination in a culture—and shows how it permeates every aspect of society. The work is considered to be a central text of "second-wave feminism," a period that is often associated with the phrase "the personal is the political"—which ties the daily experience of women to systematic issues of gender oppression. Millett argues further that psychoanalysis is a systematic way in which culture attempts to perpetuate patriarchy.

Millett analyzes several twentieth-century literary works with explicit sexual scenes to show how male writers' descriptions of sexuality are infused with issues of power and, consequently, the subjugation of women—with masculinity associated with dominance and femininity with passivity. She identifies many patriarchal characteristics that were present in the sexually explicit scenes in works by Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and D. H. Lawrence.

The book's critique of sexuality as portrayed in literature then moves to a cultural critique and an examination of general ideological bias in modern Western society. Millett emphasizes a key distinction between anatomical sex and gender, the latter of which she argued is an ideological construct; she states that, while chromosomal makeup determines a person's biological sex and reproductive organs, the concepts of masculinity and femininity are socially constructed.

Millett analyzes how modern Western concepts of gender have evolved through history and argues that, because they are social constructs evolving from specific historical circumstances, we should now move beyond them and realize that people's abilities and characters are not determined by their assigned gender roles. She states that there are men who can excel in domestic roles and women who can be successful leaders, scientists, and creative artists—and she asserts that talent in any sphere should not be restricted by gender.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268

Kate Millett writes in the introduction to a revised edition of her feminist classic Sexual Politics that her purpose in writing the work was to restate and reestablish the fact of historical patriarchy in modern terms and for my generation, to see it as a controlling political institution built on status, temperament, and role, a socially conditioned belief system presenting itself as nature or necessity.

These goals exemplified the aims of the American feminist movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The movement sought not only to examine but also to combat a pervasive, persistent, thoroughly institutionalized and internalized patriarchy in Western society, which silenced women’s voices, distorted their lives, and universally treated their concerns as peripheral.

In the 1970’s, the canon presented to students in American universities was overwhelmingly male and decidedly from a male viewpoint; this viewpoint was often touted as universal. Millett’s Sexual Politics pioneered the field of feminist literary criticism through its systematic, evidence-based, and often in-depth examination of the work of many authors, illustrating through literary and cultural criticism that masculine viewpoints are not unbiased reflections of human nature, but rather support the patriarchal power structure that has existed since the beginnings of Western civilization.

Millett begins her study by dissecting descriptions of sexual intercourse written by men, specifically Henry Miller in his Sexus (1949) and Norman Mailer in his An American Dream (1965). Millett demonstrates how the language used in describing the sexual act speaks to the subjugation of women as persons, which in turn speaks to the larger issue of a patriarchal power structure. The politics of sexual activity—that is, the question of with whom and under what circumstances women are permitted to engage in sex—is an essential part of patriarchal power. In Millett’s terms, in such a power structure, women are never their own agents; they are commodities silenced by the freedom of men to sexually possess them. The tacit or outward acquiescence of women, in turn, works to define their selves in terms of men.

Building on the evidence of sexual politics in literature, Millett describes next a theory of sexual politics, transitioning from an individual, intimate view of the sexual act to the broader scope of political reference. She clarifies the connection between the individual and society at large by outlining several areas in which patriarchy wields its influence.

The first area of influence Millett terms “ideological”; human personality is defined as strictly “masculine” or “feminine.” A masculine personality shows “aggression, intelligence, force, and efficacy”; A feminine personality shows “passivity, ignorance, docility, ’virtue,’ and ineffectuality.” Millett further identifies the male/masculine role as typically involving leadership and ambition and the female/feminine role as involving domestic servitude and childbearing. Because masculine roles are valued over feminine roles, men are considered superior in status.

Following social conceptions of the masculine and the feminine, Millett next makes a distinction between “sex” and “gender,” arguing that sex is based on anatomy and that gender is a social construct; what it means to be male and what it means to be female are learned behaviors. In describing the learned nature of gender roles, Millett explains that “patriarchy’s chief institution is family”; it is the main area where gender roles are internalized and socially sanctioned. The husband/father is the head of the family and the wife/mother is the supporter, nurturer, and caregiver; these gender roles are consciously and subconsciously passed along to children. Millett also links the sociological sources of sexual politics to a discussion of what she terms “force,” explaining that patriarchy sanctions the threat of force, if needed, to subjugate women.

In a discussion of class, education, and economics, Millett likens the sexism of males to racism before the Civil Rights movement, when even the poorest, uneducated white person could claim socially sanctioned superiority over any black person. Millett further describes the effect of denying women the same economic privileges as men; because marriage is a patriarchal institution, wealth has always typically followed men. In addition to suffering economic discrimination, women have had their roles defined for them by educational systems and are denied the same access to education as men.

Millett next discusses the origin and reflection of patriarchal values in myth and religion, citing such diverse examples of the nearly universal fear of women’s menstrual cycles in primitive cultures and the idea of a woman’s virginity as a prized commodity. Millett further examines the socially sanctioned fraternities of sports teams and the military, both of which have traditionally denied women access. She also examines the creation myth of Adam and Eve, in which knowledge is relatively synonymous with sex/gender, thus setting the stage for the subjugation of women in religion. Finally, Millett describes how these factors add up in the psychology of both men and women and result in a subtle, pervasive internalization that can be difficult to recognize and nearly impossible to change.

Millett next discusses the idea of sexual revolution, given the term’s cultural currency at the time she wrote this book, and places it in context with her definition of sexual politics. She concludes that no sexual revolution, per se, has occurred. For a sexual revolution to occur, society would first have to realize the “end of traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos, particularly . . . homosexuality, ’illegitimacy,’ [and] adolescent, pre- and extra-marriage sexuality.” Any sexual revolution also would require a reassessment of what it means to be masculine or feminine.

Millett further notes that although there have been some major shifts in views of sexuality, none has led to a true revolution or to major shifts in patriarchal power. Her discussion also includes the Victorian era, the women’s movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, woman suffrage in the United States, and the somewhat relaxed views on sexuality that emerged in the 1960’s. In this section, too, Millett begins her examination of the responses to the sexual revolution in literature, examining writers and poets from diverse time periods, including the Brontë sisters, John Keats, Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin, George Eliot, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Millett concludes that the “sexual revolution” of 1830 to 1930 ultimately ended not in radical change but in slight reform. In turn, she argues, a counterrevolution emerged in about 1930 and remained until about 1960. Examples of this counterrevolution include, according to Millett, the rise of the hyperpatriarchal and hypermasculine Nazi regime and the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis.

In the final one-third of Sexual Politics, Millett examines in greater detail the works of D. H. Lawrence, Miller, Mailer, and Jean Genet. In Lawrence, she focuses especially on Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928). Although Lawrence’s portrayal of women is not overly sexist, sexuality is described in entirely male terms. She concludes that the novel is essentially a narcissistic ode to the phallus, and women are mere vehicles toward that narcissism. Lawrence, she argues, essentially manipulates the idea of sexual revolution to create a “new order of dependence and subordination.”

Millett next argues that although many readers and critics believe Miller displays in his work the “sexual freedom” of his times, he instead articulates “the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence, and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality.” Millett also describes how Mailer’s writing connects warfare and violence with sex, and she classifies his work as antigay. She concludes Sexual Politics with further discussion on the writing of Genet because of “the insight it affords into the arbitrary status content of sexual role.” Genet’s work directly counters the traditional gender roles Millett defines in such detail.

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