Like The Handmaid’s Tale shows us, women’s sexual pleasure threatens the patriarchy
This one word, uttered by June Osborne in the second episode of The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season, may seem small and insignificant, but there is a lot of power behind those three letters. They’re said during a steamy sex scene between June and Nick in the abandoned offices of The Boston Globe, in between plenty of biting, hair pulling, and euphoric facial expressions — most of them June’s. After what appears to have been a lengthy lovemaking session, Nick tells June he can’t go again; she breathlessly whispers that one little word, “Try.” Suddenly, for the first time since we’ve met her, June is in complete control — not just of the situation, but of her body, her sexuality, and her pleasure. It’s through that sexual pleasure that she has finally been able to access her agency again. It is perhaps one of the most subtly powerful moments in the entire show.
Like the Margaret Atwood novel it is based on and following the first season of Hulu’s adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 tackles a lot of heavy issues, from sexual exploitation, to religious extremism, to reproductive rights, and beyond. At the center of it all is the fight over women’s body autonomy — and that includes their right to pleasure.
Like the women in Trump-era America, the women in Gilead are at war with a patriarchy threatened by their sexual satisfaction. And like the women in Trump-era America, they aren’t giving up without a fight.
In Gilead, nothing is more threatening to the system than a woman’s sexuality, or more accurately, her sexual pleasure.
In the fictional but all too real theocratic society of the series, LGBTQ men and women are executed for Gender Treachery or sent to the Colonies for toxic manual labor that will eventually kill them. All pornography is destroyed, strip clubs and brothels shuttered. Revealing clothing is banned, and women of every station are required to adhere to a specific modest dress code.
Sex is all but forbidden outside of the Ceremony, a reproduction ritual where high ranking members of Gilead rape their handmaids with the help of their wives. Troublesome or rebellious women (like Ofglen/Emily) who don’t follow the Republic’s strict laws can be punished with female genital mutilation. The ultimate goal is to keep sex and sexual pleasure in two separate boxes: sex is where children are made in a Biblical ceremony, while sexual pleasure is rife with sin and immorality.
And yet, despite all of these Puritanical laws and regulations — and despite the extreme, violent lengths that the Republic goes to in order to squash female desire and erase pleasure — men at the top of the government still freely seek out sexual pleasure. Commanders, including Fred and Warren, have affairs with their handmaids outside of their ritual attempts to conceive. There is even a secret sex club, Jezebel’s, where certain women are forced into prostitution and raped by Commanders. In Gilead, men are able to seek and find sexual satisfaction; women, on the other hand, are forbidden from even thinking about it.
Access to birth control and abortion are not the only rights on the chopping block in 2018 America — so are women’s rights to seek sexual satisfaction. It’s not hard to find chilling parallels between modern U.S. politics and the Republic of Gilead’s punishment and near elimination of women’s sexual pleasure.
All across the country are outdated, anti-sex laws and regulations that target women and LBGTQ residents — including anti-sodomy laws, indecency laws, and laws against fornication (sex between unmarried individuals). There are even laws prohibiting the sale, purchase, and possession of sex toys. Despite the fact that teen pregnancies and abortions are at an all-time low, conservative activists and lawmakers are working double-time to create stricter birth control regulations. On May 11th, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a six-week abortion ban into law, making it the strictest regulation in the country. Flying under the radar is Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services, which is quietly pushing forward an anti-science agenda that will end teen pregnancy prevention programs in favor of abstinence-only education.
Why are these legislators trying to upend all of this progress?
It could be backlash from the last eight years of improved women’s rights or a volatile reaction to the wave of modern popular feminism. It could be a Handmaid’s Tale-style fear over historically low fertility rates, coupled with a lot of conservative propaganda and misinformation. Whatever the official reasoning conservative activists and politicians have, one thing is crystal clear: their agenda will impede upon women’s abilities to safely seek sexual pleasure, and hurting our fight for autonomy and equality.
"When it comes to pleasure, our political forces run the gamut from indifference to outright hostility, either ignoring any interest in feeling good or writing off pleasure as immoral, hedonistic, or lazy," Jill Filipovic explains in her 2016 book The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.
According to Filipovic, this adversity toward pleasure and fulfillment, specifically women’s pleasure and fulfillment, is actually one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of true gender equality. It may not appear to be as pressing as, say, the fight for the vote or our demand for equal pay, but hatred of women’s sexual pleasure is intertwined in many of the laws against our bodies.
Limiting women’s ability to enjoy sex without the fear of pregnancy — or by making it prohibitively expensive to do so — is an effective way to enforce the patriarchy.
There is a reason that The Handmaid’s Tale includes a chilling scene where June needs husband’s permission before she can legally get her birth control. Without access to contraception, or abortion for that matter, women’s financial freedom, education access, career opportunities, physical health, and mental health are all in danger. Though she did not heed her mother’s initial warning about the coming war against women, June is fighting back now, and so are many of the women in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. Their weapon of choice: pleasure.
For June, sex with Nick — pleasurable sex with Nick — is so much more than a physical act. It’s revolutionary.
It’s a chance for her to be in control, to choose what happens to her body, and why and how it happens. It’s also an all-too-rare opportunity to find a sliver of joy in a world full of utter destruction. For Moira, a hot but detached bathroom hookup at a nightclub is more than an attempt to recreate her old life — it’s a way for her to reestablish the sexuality that has been stripped from her. She can reclaim her body autonomy and her sexual agency.
“If we focus on what makes women’s lives happier, healthier, better, more fulfilling, and more pleasurable, Filipovic writes in The H-Spot, “many other progressive goals will naturally follow, and we will have a new language with which to frame and advocate for issues of fundamental fairness and egalitarianism.
For American women, the fight for pleasure and happiness is both personal and political. In the face of increasingly conservative political forces, feminists are demanding a country free from sexual harassment and assault in favor of one where consent and mutual pleasure reign.