Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism

Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism

Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism

Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism


Is it time to take a break from feminism? In this pathbreaking book, Janet Halley reassesses the place of feminism in the law and politics of sexuality. She argues that sexuality involves deeply contested and clashing realities and interests, and that feminism helps us understand only some of them. To see crucial dimensions of sexuality that feminism does not reveal--the interests of gays and lesbians to be sure, but also those of men, and of constituencies and values beyond the realm of sex and gender--we might need to take a break from feminism.

Halley also invites feminism to abandon its uncritical relationship to its own power. Feminists are, in many areas of social and political life, partners in governance. To govern responsibly, even on behalf of women, Halley urges, feminists should try taking a break from their own presuppositions.

Halley offers a genealogy of various feminisms and of gay, queer, and trans theories as they split from each other in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. All these incommensurate theories, she argues, enrich thinking on the left not despite their break from each other but because of it. She concludes by examining legal cases to show how taking a break from feminism can change your very perceptions of what's at stake in a decision and liberate you to decide it anew.


Over the last twenty-five years the U.S. Left has produced a rich range of theories of sexuality. These theories differ a lot, partly because they were made by people involved in a context of deep internal critique, debates so intense that they were sometimes experienced as “war.” the result is a wide array of incommensurate theories of sexuality and of power.

This book argues that the splits between the theories are part of their value. It proposes an alternative to the normative demand to harmonize them, reconcile them, and smooth out their clashes. I argue here for a politics of theoretic incommensurability. I think it will be better for the Left—we will make better decisions about what we want, and possibly even win more conflicts with the Right—if we lavish attention and appreciation on the capacity of our theory making to reveal the world as a normatively fraught, contradictory, conflictual place, a place where interests differ, change over time, and come into zero-sum conflicts, a place where all our decisions—even our decisions to abstain from deciding—shift social goods among highly contingent but pressing, urgent, vital interests.

As part of this argument, I also argue that theory making has been crucial to left-of-center politics of sexuality. What people have done theoretically has changed reality for them, has changed them so deeply it has shifted their very beings; and it has changed their political situations. and as their political life has changed, the demands they bring to theory have shifted; the desire for theory has been a political desire.

I assume here that human beings operate according to the maxim “I'll see it when I believe it”—or perhaps more accurately, “I'll see it when I can and do theorize it.” and so I'll argue that . . .

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