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Political lesbianism is the idea that in order to build a feminist society, women should voluntarily refrain from having sex with men. Unlike what its name suggest, it does not require women to be or to become lesbians, although it does require that they refrain or even stop completely from having heterosexual relationships with men. It is epitomized in a phrase usually attributed to author Ti-Grace Atkinson: "Feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice."
Although it is now commonly understood that sexual orientation is not a choice, this was not the case in the 1960s, when political lesbianism made its first appearance; but, like the homophobes who also believe that sexual orientation is a (blind) choice, today's advocates of political lesbianism have not moved with the times.
Political lesbianism originated among second-wave radical feminists who began to see a conflict between taking sledgehammers to "the Patriarchy" during the day and hopping into bed with men at night. For this reason (and, most likely, driven by their own hardwired sexual orientations), they argued that women should terminate their relations with men, sexual and otherwise, and thus become "political lesbians". Not only that, they believe that this is some sort of punishment to men, since all men apparently couldn't possibly live without their company (somewhat as in Aristophanes' play Lysistrata, but not as funny).
Since the main idea of political lesbianism is to separate from men rather than to join up with women, political lesbians do not have to actually ever sleep with, or even partner with, other women; they may instead be celibate or asexual.
Proponents may advocate political lesbianism on positive grounds, that it is an embodiment of solidarity with the fellow members of one's gender. Or they may advocate it on negative grounds, that if a woman sleeps with a man, she will begin to have a positive opinion of him, which is deemed entirely unacceptable since it is "a way of refusing to look at the fact that some men really do hate women",[notes 1] conforming to the very feminist idea that women are defined by their relationship with men.
At the back of many of the arguments in favor of political lesbianism lurks the sentiment that ‘political lesbian’ feminists are in some way — ideologically, morally, ethically, or tactically — superior to feminists who "choose to be" straight women and associate with men, while bisexual feminists, it would appear, do not exist at all.
Feminist singer Ani DiFranco, who has described herself as bisexual, was criticised by some of her (ex-)fans after she started seeing a man. So, apparently, she was supposed to put aside her feelings — however strong they may have been — and deny herself a relationship that she wanted to happen. (Score one for female empowerment, folks!) Thus, political lesbianism is seen to involve the same ugly and unrealistic choice as is faced by gay people in homophobic communities: conform their sexual practices to the expected norm or risk being ostracized.
Even among self-identified lesbians, the sentiments of political lesbianism can be problematic: the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, who identified as a lesbian, kept her marriage to John Stoltenberg something of a secret for fear of her comrades getting the wrong impression (even though Stoltenberg is gay).[notes 2]
An extreme form of political lesbianism is separatist feminism, the idea that feminists ought to have little to no direct contact with men at all. This may be conceived of either as a temporary strategy to help bring about a more feminist world, or as a permanent thing. Anarchist writer Bob Black drew parallels between separatist feminists and religious cults:
“”Separatism may be absurd as a social program and riddled with inconsistencies (scarcely any separatists separate from patriarchal society to anything like the extent that, say, survivalists do — and nobody intervenes more to mind other people’s business than separatists). But semi-isolation makes it easier to indoctrinate neophytes and shut out adverse evidence and argument, an insight radical feminists share with Moonies, Hare Krishna, and other cultists.
- Men Going Their Own Way — the rough manosphere/MRA version of this, albeit without the homosexuality (ostensibly).
- Female supremacy - bound to intersect with political lesbianism.
- Julie Engel, Ani DiFranco: Challenging Dominant Ideologies One Lyric at a Time. Archived from the original at www.webpages.uidaho.edu, c. 2005.
- John Stoltenberg, Imagining Life Without Andrea. feminist.com, 2005.
- Feminism As Fascism