Love is all you need? 1

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.

Wendy Langford reflects on the relationship between feminism and love over the last 50 years and argues that the radical feminist critique of love is as relevant today as it ever was.

During the course of the 20th century, major changes have taken place in respect of couple relationships. Social, religious and legal dictates which aimed to uphold the ideal of a formal (heterosexual) marriage that was hard to dissolve have been eroded. A more liberal climate has emerged where, more than ever, the existence, content and duration of couple relationships are determined not by overt regulation, but in accordance with individual desire. This change is reflected in, and supported by, such developments as the liberalisation of divorce laws, the advent of ‘shameless’ cohabitation, the decrimi­nalisation of homosexuality, and advancements in contraception. At the same time, social life in general has undergone a process which sociologists term ‘privatisation’: we live in smaller and smaller units and centre our lives on a few ‘special’ relationships. The ideal basis of these relationships is held to be emotional attachment. Perhaps the most ‘special’ relationship of all is seen to be the couple, formed through mutual attraction and falling in love. Indeed the very term ‘relationship’ has come to be synonymous with coupledom; we do not think it odd when someone who relates to many people nevertheless declares that they are ‘not in a relationship’ at the moment. The ‘bond’ between a couple is seen to provide the basis for everyday companionship, emotional satisfaction, sexual fulfilment and a sense of personal security. We hope that being part of a ‘loving couple’ will meet our most important human ‘needs’.

How should we view this ‘culture of intimacy’? The prevailing view is that it is progressive. We tend to believe that in contrast to the ‘bad old days’ or to societies which practise arranged marriage, individuals in modern western societies are ‘free’ to love — no longer oppressed by outdated economic, religious or moral dictates. It is true, of course, that the regulation of love is, and has often been, cruel and repressive, and has represented patriarchal and hetero­sexist values. However, does the shift to ‘free’ love imply that we really are free to love happily, intimately and equally ever after?

The radical feminist critique

There has been surprisingly little critical reflection on romantic love. One striking exception is the radical feminist critique which has fundamentally questioned the association of love with freedom. Feminists have argued that, particularly for women, ‘falling in love’ is more likely to lead to a damaging self-denial. A landmark in the feminist analysis came in 1949 with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. De Beauvoir argued that romantic love is ideological in that it helps to reproduce and maintain gendered forms of consciousness which underpin patriarchal societies. Love appears to offer women a possible way to go beyond the limitations of feminine conditioning and give our lives meaning and significance. It is a compelling strategy because, at first, it appears to work. Love’s ‘transcendence’, however, is an illusion. What happens is that women project our longings for freedom and self-determination onto an idealised other and then ‘merge’ with them through falling in love. This can feel wonderful and liberating but, paradoxically, it involves giving up the possibility of a free and self-determined life. We fall in love partly to escape from ‘feminine’ anxieties concerning autonomy and, once we are ‘in love’, we do not want to see how love reproduces dependency and self-sacrifice. So, rather than face up to the dangers and limitations of love relationships, we get caught up in all kinds of manipulative and self-deceptive behaviour in the effort to avoid taking full responsibility for the direction of our own lives.

Two features of de Beauvoir’s analysis are of particular importance. Firstly, she stresses how love reproduces women’s complicity in patriarchal social relations. Love relations operate in the power mode, not simply because women are victims of male dominance — although men often are domineering — but because of women’s own deep investment in love. In order to try and get what she wants, a woman ‘will humble herself to nothingness’ before her love (p653). ‘If need be, she herself tyrannizes over herself in the lover’s name’ (p660, my italics). Secondly, women’s complicity operates at the level of desire. Rationally, of course, it is quite easy to see that liberation is not to be attained through servitude! Desire, however, comes from the more unconscious parts of our experience. Attraction can be powerful and irrational and lead us to act blindly — to engage in what de Beauvoir terms ‘bad faith’. Thus love itself is not innocent and power is not something imposed from without. On the contrary, while following our heart’s desire may appear to set us free, it ultimately leads us to reproduce whatever we hoped to be liberated from.

From the late 1960s onwards, throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, romantic love and sexual relationships were central themes in the western Women’s Liberation Movement. Feminist writers developed de Beauvoir’s argument that love stopped women from seeing the truth about their lives. Love was deemed to be a predominant form of ‘false consciousness’ which serves to obscure how gender relations operate as power relations. Love, Ti-Grace Atkinson wrote in Amazon Odyssey, is nothing more than ‘a special psycho-pathological state of fantasy’ which operates as a response to gendered power relations and also supports them through the delusion that it is ‘the most desirable state for any woman to find herself in’ (p43-44). While some writers stressed how love can obscure power relations, others stressed how it constituted them. The New York Radical Feminists, for example, saw male power as operating at the psychological level through the ability of the male ego to have power over the female ego. Central to the maintenance of these ‘politics of the ego’ is love, which acts as a kind of:

emotional cement to justify the dominant-submissive relationship. The man ‘loves’ the woman who fulfils her submissive ego-boosting role. The woman ‘loves’ the man she is submitting to — that is, after all, why she ‘lives for him.’ LOVE, magical and systematically unanalyzed, becomes the emotional rationale for the submission of one ego to the other. And it is deemed every woman’s natural function to love. Radical feminism believes that the popularized version of love has thus been used politically to cloud and justify a oppressive relationship between men and women, and that in reality there can be no genuine love until the need to control the growth of another is replaced by the love for the growth of another. (New York Radical Feminists 1971: 442)

The radical feminist analysis of love had many strands including an incipient critique of privatisation and individualism. It was argued that once women’s energies become focused on the exclusive project of ‘our relationship’, they lose sight of their wider political and social situation. They fail, especially if they are heterosexual, to develop and value their friendships with women. They do not put energy into working co-operatively with other women. And they stop looking for ways to develop their own potential. Such concerns appeared in many influential texts of the 1970s — feminist writers like Germaine Greer, Shula­mith Firestone and Andrea Dworkin all saw love as divisive and destructive for women. Their views were, however, in sharp contrast to those of ‘male­stream’ sociologists who responded to the developing ‘culture of intimacy’ by portraying a rather ‘romantic’ picture of the (heterosexual) couple as an increasingly ‘symmetrical’ and humane relationship between intimate equals.

Feminists did not suggest hat love was inevitably destructive, merely that women need to ask themselves crucial questions and answer them honestly: were their love relationships in any way demeaning, possessive or draining? Relationships having these characteristics were seen as undermining and therefore as hindering the feminist struggle. The radical questioning of love and sex opened up whole new areas of debate in the pursuit of sexual relations which were not, as The Feminists put it in 1973, ‘programmed to support political ends’ (p376). The desirability of monogamy was debated. The importance of friendship was stressed. Lesbian relationships were redefined as a positive option for women. And, in sharp contrast to the ethos of the emergent ‘sexual revolution’, some feminists argued that celibacy should be seen as an important political option for women.

The feminist critique loses impetus

The 1970s were heady times for the women’s movement. Anything seemed possible. Women, so it appeared, were no longer prepared to be constrained by social conditioning and feminists dreamed of what might be achieved if women’s resistant energies were channelled into effective personal and political transformation. It was no accident that the question of love was a central concern at this time. Collective feminist struggle depended upon harnessing women’s resistance. Falling in love is also a form of resistance, a reaction to conditioning — an expression of the desire to escape from suffering and attain freedom. Feminists were right in identifying love as a crucial threat. Women can’t change themselves and the world if their aspirations are channelled into the individualistic and self-abnegating delusion that freedom can be won through falling in love. But can freedom be won through feminist politics?

In this respect there are important lessons to be learned. The resistent energy which had expressed itself in revolutionary optimism and radical questioning dissipated in the 1980s. Romance as a cultural form continued to be subject to critical analysis within the academy , but feminists lapsed into silence on the question of ‘actual’ love. No sooner, it seemed, had a whole range of crucial and insightful questions been raised, than the will to answer them became inhibited. There were probably several reasons for this, including deep tensions within the women’s movement itself which were there from the beginning. Feminists aspired to forms of politics and knowledge which were grounded in, and informed by, women’s lived experience. Yet at the same time the development of divisive ‘identity politics’ made it increasingly difficult for women to be open and honest about what that experience was. Patricia Mainardi, for example, lamented that even in the early days of US feminism, ‘the movement no longer looked for the truth about women’s lives’. To suggest one wanted to end inequality within relationships with men ‘was to open oneself to ridicule and condemnation’. Thus heterosexual women feminists hid their private lives and made excuses, while ‘lesbians portrayed their lives with all the reality of a 1950s movie’. By the 1980s, writers such as Hilary Allen and Bea Campbell told of how the open and honest exploration of love had become impossible. Radical feminism became caught up in essentialist theories which limited rather than developed understandings of the relationship between love and power.

These feminist conflicts should not be viewed in isolation from wider social and political trends. The shift towards individualism and privatised social life undermined all collective political struggle and the questioning of love was not easy in a culture which increasingly emphasised an ideology of personal fulfilment in ‘intimate relations’. Meanwhile, the belief that freedom can be attained by following the path of desire was given a massive boost by the ‘sexual revolution’. Radical feminism was often in direct contradiction to these trends. Dana Densmore, for example, warned feminists to maintain independence from the sexual revolution and to remember that all desire arises from conditions of social inequality. Many feminists strongly opposed individualism, promoted an ethic of sisterhood and sought to establish women’s collectives. However, at the same time as feminists questioned the politics of ‘special relationships’, compelling historical currents produced an equation of women’s liberation with sexual liberation and supported the view that freedom and happiness are best pursued through cuddling up with someone special. These powerful trends were bound to have an effect.

The personal and political shifts of the 1970s and 1980s were mirrored in the small ads of Spare Rib feminist magazine: listings for women’s consciousness-raising groups all over the country grew and then dwindled. At the same time, ads for one-to-one relationships appeared and then proliferated. It seemed as though the Women’s Liberation Movement — a movement which had produced one of the most radical critiques of love in the 20th century — had itself succumbed to the ‘culture of intimacy’.

In the 1990s the feminist silence on love as experience began to be broken. Stevi Jackson bravely declared that ‘even feminists fall in love’ and some feminists finally admitted, if somewhat sheepishly, that they had been doing it with men all along. The time had come, it seemed, for some mature and honest reflection on the nature of the relationship between love and power. But was the radical feminist analysis still relevant? Just as in the 1970s, prominent social theorists in the 1990s were claiming that love is no longer characterised by domination. They argued that the ‘success’ of the women’s movement, combined with an increased emphasis on intimacy, has led to the ‘democratisation’ of couple relationships, which are now more intimate and equal than ever before. Has everything really changed? Some of us are not so sure.

Fur-ever yours?

One thing can certainly be conceded. Love may often appear innocent enough. Indeed, in some respects, love could hardly appear more innocent. For example, while the 1980s and 1990s have seen a proliferation of explicit sexual imagery, imbued with gendered fantasies of domination and submission, the same period has also seen a boom in rather less ‘adult’ expressions of desire. I speak here of the veritable army of bears and bunnies, piglets and hamsters who declare their love publicly yet anonymously every Valentine’s Day; of chains of high street shops bursting at the seams with cute soft toys marketed with ‘grown up’ love in mind’; and of greetings cards for every occasion bearing pairs of cooing, snuggling creatures. It would be easy to overlook the ‘fluffy bunny phenomenon’ as a mere expression of trivial and sentimental consumer culture. But what might it tell us about the nature of love relationships at the end of the 20th century?

I did some research on this topic and what I found was startling. While for some couples ‘Teddy’ and ‘Fluffy’ may simply be superficial nicknames, for others they are well-established identities or ‘alter personalities’. Some couples project these identities onto soft toys which serve the function of puppets and ‘act out’ some aspect of the ‘real’ couple’s relationship. Other couples do not use puppets but simply conduct their relationships under the guise of their alter personalities. They create private and exclusive ‘cultures of love’ with their own vocabulary, codes and customs and may even cease to have a ‘human’ relationship at all. I got to hear about several such relationships, both lesbian and heterosexual, and was also able to carry out a small number of interviews. One committed feminist told me of how she spend much of the 1980s living as a ‘gerbil’ with her ‘bear’ partner and another, during the same era, busied herself playing ‘Piglet’ to her partner’s ‘Pooh’. The secrecy and sworn pledges of confidentiality surrounding these interviews are testimony to the reluctance of alter personalities to ‘come out’. In more than one case at least, this was probably due to the ‘double burden’ of being both heterosexual and a soft toy.

So what do ‘alter relationships’ tell us about the ‘culture of intimacy’? What are they like? Why do they start? What is their function? And what relationship, if any, do they have to the question of power? In two previous articles I put forward some thoughts on these questions. To begin with, the alter personalities I came across differed from their ‘hosts’ in that they did not seem to actually fall in love or commit themselves to a relationship. Rather, the alter relationship developed at some later stage, when the human couple had already come into being. Another difference was that they were not explicitly sexual. Rather, bonding takes the form of the mutual creation of a more or less elaborate imaginary world which the couple ‘inhabit’. A wonderful insight into this is given by Virginia Woolf in her short story about a couple who spend their evenings together as ‘King Lappin’ (a wild male rabbit) and Queen Lapinova (a shy female hare). As they sit by the fire, the ‘alter couple’ talk about their exciting adventures roaming the woods and fields of their ‘territory’. The antics of such alter personalities appear as playful and light-hearted. Their imagined worlds are full of magic and innocence. They have more fun than their ‘hosts’. They subvert adulthood and collude against a mundane and oppressive ‘real world’ which does not understand them or their ‘childish’ desires.

Alter relationships then are ‘underground’ relationships — refuges from a disenchanted and hostile world. This is reflected in experiential accounts, in literary representations, and in Valentine’s messages. All convey the pleasures of snuggling up in burrows, nests, caves, dreys and dens. Alter worlds are safe and warm. Their pantries are well-stocked with honey, nuts, acorns and other nice things to eat. Their inhabitants look after one another and protect each other from the uncertainties of the big cold world outside.

The affection and friendliness shown by bears and bunnies often appears in stark contrast to the strains of human love. Conflict is not a feature of alter-worlds. Piglets and squirrels do not have ‘talks’ about ‘the future of our relationship’. They just know their love to be timeless and lasting. The contrast between furry beings and their hosts appears particularly striking in the case of males. Literary and empirical examples reveal human males who are distant and unloving, unable to reconcile adult masculinity with the demands of ‘intimate coupledom’. These difficulties seem to evaporate, however, once the persona of a cuddly bear is adopted. This was the case, for example, with ‘Furball’ the feminist ‘gerbil’ I mentioned earlier and her ‘bear’ partner ‘Monster’. Their ‘loving relationship’ continued for years beyond the time when their human love had become untenable.

Such alter relationships are not a new phenomenon. Literary references in the work of famous writers such as Henrik Ibsen, Virginia Woolf and John Osborne suggest they have been a feature of coupledom for more than a century. However, although we have no way of knowing for certain, cultural evidence suggests a proliferation and intensification of these private cultures of love. Why might this be? And what conclusions can be drawn? What is perhaps most striking about alter relationships is how they approximate to the ‘new romantic ideal’. They epitomise ‘privatized’ social life, offering personal identity, a sense of ‘intimacy’, existential security, everyday companionship, somewhere to belong — everything, indeed, that modern coupledom is meant to provide (with the probable exception of hot sex). Bears and Bunnies do not have rows. They do not cheat on their partners. They do not get divorced. Alter relationships appear to be ‘democratic’; they are negotiated through their mutual constructedness. And they do not appear to involve violence or the exercise of domination; some creatures may be big and scruffy while others are little and squeaky, but no-one wants to hurt anyone in Hundred Acre Wood. In all these respects, alter relationships appear most successful. The only problem is… they are not, well — real.

So what is real love like? Is it really so impossible for adult humans to achieve the romantic ideal that they are driven to such regressive measures as living in hollow trees and eating acorns? During the 1990s, I carried out a study on women’s experiences of heterosexual love. Even from the very brief account I have room for here, it will be easy to see that ‘real’ love involves tendencies which distinguish it sharply from the kind of democratic union enjoyed by Tigger and Heffalump. The main reason for this is that ‘real’ love is not ‘real’ at all.

Revolutions of the heart

At the rational level, most women in the study rejected outright any idea that they needed a partner in order to be happy. Yet the desire for love was compelling and underpinned a powerful conviction that life is more secure, more meaningful and less lonely for those who have an intimate relationship with someone who thinks they are ‘special’. And when women described their experiences of falling mutually in love, it was clear that their lives did seem to change for the better — quite dramatically. They described how they ‘found themselves’ and felt confident and vital. One woman described how love made her feel like ‘the most wonderful person on earth’.

Having found such a love, it is not surprising that a person would decide to make it a central focus of their lives and try their best to ‘make the relationship work’. But what is it that we want to ‘work’? While love feels utterly real and very crucial, it tends to be an experience which is also quite mysterious and hard to explain. This is because most of what causes our powerful emotions remains unconscious. One useful way of trying to explain how love works is through the concept of ‘projection’. We ‘project’ onto another person all the qualities that are repressed or undeveloped in us — all the things that, unconsciously, we ourselves would really like to be. As a result we feel a strong attraction to the other person. If they respond we may ‘fall in love’ and experience a powerful sense of bonding or merging with them. This creates the illusion that we have ‘become ourselves’ at last. Our inner tensions are resolved and we feel confident and self-expansive. In particular, falling in love can involve the ‘realisation’ of aspects of ourselves that our gender conditioning normally inhibits. In my study, it was significant that some women described how love, quite ironically, had made them feel confident and so independent and that they could ‘do anything’ without the need for a partner! Women also described men in love who appeared very different from what men were normally like — tender, devoted and emotionally open.

If love has such good effects, does it matter if it is all based on projections? Well it does if we want to ‘make it last’. This is where the problems really begin. Because our projections are unconscious, we make the mistake of thinking that our experience of happiness is caused by the fact that we have found someone very special, someone who loves us for who we really are. It may be true that both we and the other person are nice and, in our own ways, special. But this is not the point. The point is that to the extent our feelings are due to idealisation based on our own projection, we do not really love the other person for who they are at all — even though we may feel certain that we do.

In the beginning, love can seem easy enough. There are lots of positive emotions flowing in both directions and we feel generous and warm-hearted. But what happens when a gap begins to appear, as it inevitably must, between reality and illusion? What happens when the other person starts to seem less than perfect, or less interested in spending all their time with us? What can happen is that our new-found sense of well-being starts to falter and we may begin to feel anxious about ‘the relationship’. After all, we do not want to ‘lose’ what we have ‘found’. We may begin to feel dissatisfied with the other person: they are not behaving how they should! They may begin to feel dissatisfied with us for being dissatisfied with them. Initially, having a great deal invested in the relationship, we may repress or cover up such feelings. But already, perhaps quite subtly at first, and almost certainly unconsciously, each lover may begin to try and close the gap between the reality they experience and the way they thought things were in the first place. This is where the power struggle begins.

There are two basic methods of control and manipulation: domination and submission. Domination is usually the most obvious and straightforward: various means are used to override the other person’s point of view and get them to conform to your view of how things should be. Submission is usually a less obvious attempt at control. It can even appear to be the opposite. Nevertheless, the hope is that if you don’t assert yourself, if you override your own point of view, you won’t upset the other person and they will therefore give you what you want. Both domination and submission undermine the possibility of real intimacy. Intimacy is only possible to the extent two individuals are confident in expressing their point of view and are able to recognise the other person’s point of view. If you attempt to dominate someone, you are not recognising their point of view and you make it difficult for them to recognise you either. Domination undermines your own confidence anyway — it hardly confirms your point of view if you suspect someone is only going along with it because you have forced them to. Submission is equally problematic. If you submit to someone, you undermine your own confidence and you are not really recognising the other person’s point of view — merely going along with it in the hope of getting what you want. Again, it should be stressed that we may be very largely unaware of these motivations. Each of us will probably simply think we are being ‘reasonable’. With submissive behaviour, we may even claim that our deferral to the other person is for their benefit — evidence of how ‘loving’ we are.

Domination and submission are not essential qualities of men and women. Everyone has the capacity to employ either strategy, depending upon the circumstances they are in and the strength of the particular habits which their conditioning has produced. In my study of heterosexual love, the development of domineering and submissive tendencies was very apparent and, not surprisingly, there was a strong polarisation along gendered lines as relationships became established. While love initially felt equal and intimate, women complained that men soon began to ‘back off’ and become distant. They stopped talking about their feelings, hid their vulnerabilities and became less affectionate. They evaded women’s attempts to ‘talk about the relationship’. If women did express their point of view, male partners might dismiss it or overtly disparage it, arguing that it was ‘irrational’. Men’s ‘withdrawal’ had a demoralising effect on women. They felt abandoned and hurt. However, women’s accounts also showed that the development of their partner’s domineering attitude was paralleled by their own progressive self-denial. In order to try and close the gap between the love story they wanted to believe in and their partner’s ‘non-compliance’, women developed an exaggerated sensitivity to their partner’s emotional state. In the effort to ‘work him out’, they actively silenced their own point of view, made efforts to please him, put up with things they saw as unfair, colluded in avoiding conflict and took undue emotional responsibility for ‘keeping it all together’. And the reason they did all of this was because they wanted to make love more like it was in the beginning, when it had ‘made’ them feel happy and confident.

In my study, then, love appeared quite tragic. The more that partners tried to make love into what they had thought it was in the beginning, the more they destroyed the possibility of the happiness and intimacy they sought. In some relationships, where power struggles became intense, the results were very destructive. Men tended to express their growing aversion by becoming very distant indeed and adopting an abusive or coercive attitude to their partners. Women tended to turn their frustration inwards and become depressed and even more overtly submissive. In short, while love disposed men to tyrannize over women, it disposed women, as Simone de Beauvoir observed, to tyrannize over themselves.

Like most earlier radical feminist critiques, my study looked specifically at heterosexual love. It might be guessed that studies of power in gay or lesbian love would show more varied, less predictable, patterns. There is clearly much scope for important and interesting research in these areas. What can be stressed here, however, is that since power dynamics are fuelled by love itself, by our own attempts to ‘live happily ever after’, the question is not whether any love relationship is a power relationship, but how and to what extent.

Treacherous desire

Given the trials and tribulations of trying to ‘live happily ever after’, it is no wonder that we devise some interesting strategies to delude ourselves about the nature of our relationships. Some truths are very hard to bear. One possibility, as we have seen, is to abandon human adulthood altogether and retreat to somewhere safer and kinder. After all that relationship trauma, what a positive relief it must be to snuggle up and share a pot of honey or two. Personally, I find the prospect most appealing… However feminists must remember that the personal is always political. Fun and respite are important and we may find all kinds of creative responses to the frustrations of love. But we must not allow ourselves to become trapped by our own forms of escape, whatever they may be.

All forms of escape run the risk of merely recreating or sustaining the very conditions which they are meant to end or transcend. There is nothing of which this is more true than romantic love itself. There can be few of us who have not experienced feelings of loneliness, insecurity and self-doubt or felt at times that our lives are mundane and limited. Then, even if we are cynical about love, the possibility of ‘romantic transformation’ can have a powerful emotional appeal which is only intensified by deep feelings of hurt and disenchantment left over from previous loves. When we feel strongly attracted to someone, we really want to believe (often against our own better judgement!) that this could be the relationship where we really can ‘be ourselves’, to which we can look for friendship and companionship, and where we will be cherished and cared for — a love that will be equal, intimate and lasting.

In the current ‘culture of intimacy’, there is little to counterbalance our compelling desires. On the contrary we are only encouraged to assume that the most important and valuable kind of human connection is the one we make when we fall in love, and to build upon it an exclusive world where we will be safe and happy. Few alternatives present themselves — how else can we be happy? But it is this very emphasis on love which makes it so dangerous, for it creates the ‘hothouse conditions’ where love will have its worst effects. The more it appears that our salvation lies in finding someone ‘special’ and ‘making it work’, the more likely it is that love will prove destructive. The more we look to love for a sense of ‘security’, the more likely it is that love will make us feel insecure. The more we look to one ‘special relationship’ to be the mainstay of our social life, the more likely we are to end up distanced from the person to whom we are ‘meant’ to be closest. The more we look to love to give us a sense of value, the more likely it is that we will end up feeling worthless and undermined. The more we look to love to make us feel vital, the more likely it is to drain our energies and make us feel depressed. The more we look to love to make our lives meaningful, the more likely our lives are to feel mundane and uninspiring.

It is not that love is all bad. Love can, temporarily, make us feel very happy and excited and give us the exhilarating illusion that all we ever wanted has come to pass. The problems lie with the strength of our desire to see this illusion as real and our powerful tendencies to resort to habitual modes of control and manipulation in the effort to ‘make it last’. Rationally, the dangers and limitations of love may appear obvious; to expect happiness, security, personal value, self-fulfilment and a meaningful life from one relationship seems optimistic! But our investments in the romantic ideal are not rational.

The feminist analysis of love has had its ups and downs over the last 50 years, but it stands as a cogent critique of the romantic ideal. Perhaps the most crucial insight of all is that it is our very desire for radical transformation that we focus on love. It is the vital energy we need to enact that transformation which is temporarily liberated when we ‘fall’ and which is channelled into the reproduction of all that love was meant to overcome. The current view that intimacy and equality come with the ‘freedom’ to pursue our heart’s desire is false. It merely helps to obscure how the most insidious exercise of power comes, not from love’s repression, but from love’s expression. And while our desires and our energies are tied up in the treacherous effort of trying to ‘make the relationship work’, we may have little left over for the most important question of all: How can we begin to realise a world where human relationships do not operate on the basis of domination and submission? One thing is certain; we won’t get too far if we spend all our time ‘cosying up in the love nest’, however seductive the prospect might appear.


Wendy Langford’s book Revolutions of the Heart: Gender, power and the delusions of love will be published by Routledge in May 1999.


Hilary Allen ‘Political Lesbianism and Feminism — a space for sexual politics?’ m/f  Issue 7 pp 15-34 (1982)

Ti-Grace Atkinson Amazon Odyssey (Links Books 1974)

Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex (Pan Books 1988)

Beatrix Campbell ‘A Feminist Sexual Politics: Now You See It, Now You Don’t’ in Feminist Review (eds.) Sexuality: A reader (Virago 1987)

Dana Densmore ‘Independence from the Sexual Revolution’ in A. Koedt, E. Levine and A. Rapone (eds.) Radical Feminism (Quadrangle 1973)

Andrea Dworkin Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (Harper and Row 1976)

The Feminists ‘The Feminists: A Political Organization to Annihilate Sex Roles’ in J. Hole and E Levine (eds.) Rebirth of Feminism (Quadrangle 1971)

Shulamith Firestone The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (The Women’s Press 1979)

Germaine Greer The Female Eunuch (Granada 1970)

Wendy Langford ‘Snuglet Puglet Loves to Snuggle with Snuglet Puglet: Alter-Personalities in Heterosexual Love Relationships’ in Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey (eds.) Romance Revisited (Lawrence and Wishart 1995)

Wendy Langford ‘Bunnikins I Love You Snugly in Your Warren: Voices from Subterranean Cultures of Love’ in Keith Harvey and Celia Shalom (eds.) Language and Desire (Routledge 1997)

Patricia Mainardi ‘The Marriage Question’ in Redstockings (eds.) Feminist Revolution (Redstockings)

New York Radical Feminists ‘1969 — Politics of the Ego: A Manifesto for New York Radical Feminists’ in J. Hole and E. Levine (eds.) Rebirth of Feminism (Quadrangle 1971)

Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger (eds.) Heterosexuality: A Feminism & Psychology Reader (Sage 1993)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “Love is all you need?