At The Haven Club, a Goth dance club, Goths adorned in black fetish wear, leather and Polyvinyl Chloride, dog collars and leashes gather weekly. While some men “gender blend,” wearing makeup and skirts, the women are dressed in sexy feminine outfits. The sidelines of the dance floor are populated by pairs and groups of people kissing, caressing, sucking on each other’s necks. This environment, Siobhan tells me, is “liberating.”
Drawing on interviews, participant observation, and Internet postings, this article analyses gender in a local Goth scene. These Goths use the confines of the subcultural scene, where they are relatively safe from outsider views, and the scene’s celebration of active sexuality as resources to resist mainstream notions of passive femininity. Sexually active femininity is not, of course, unique to the Goth scene: Contemporary young women in a variety of arenas use active sexuality to stake out gender independence. This emphasis on women’s emancipated sexuality reflects the substantive turn of postfeminism — what Anna Marie Quindlen has labelled “babe feminism” — a focus on women’s right to active sexuality rather than on broader issues of gender equality. In this article, I probe this Goth scene’s (sub)cultural contradictions to critically examine the possibilities and the limitations of strategies of active feminine sexuality in gaining gender egalitarianism.
Goth women and, to some extent, Goth men conceive of the Goth community as a neofeminist space. Although the women I encountered do not frequently use the term “feminist,” they draw on the language of feminism to describe the benefits of being a Goth. Specifically, they use the language of “choice,” “objectification,” and “empowerment.” These discussions, however, focus almost exclusively on sexuality rather than on employment or family concerns. In part, this focus is logical given the demographics of the community: Many are in college or employed in starter jobs, and most have not married or had children. It is also logical since much of the community’s activities take place within the sexualised space of a dance club.
Goth women engage in strategies of active sexuality (proactive sexuality, non-monogamy, and bisexuality) to create gender egalitarianism within the Goth scene. This approach has some benefits for Goth women: First, it allows them to be perceived as and to feel sexy despite physical self-presentations that are often not sexually validated in the mainstream culture. Second, it will enable them to engage in sexual play with multiple partners while sidestepping most of the stigma and dangers that women who engage in such behaviour outside the Goth scene frequently incur. Moreover, third, it allows them to see themselves as strong and independent women, as “feminist” in effect (even if they do not all use that term), and to see the Goth scene as a gender egalitarian, and hence politically superior, space.
Goth women’s sexual discourse draws on the position taken by sex radical feminists: They present themselves as sexual players who enjoy and experience a range of sexual partners and behaviours, portraying their uninhibited sexuality as a platform for personal empowerment. However, gauging the success of these strategies is a complex task. While widening their sexual space, Goth women’s attempts to use the sexual agency as an emancipatory tool are limited, both in their ability to create conditions of sexual equality and in their ability to transform broader gender inequality.
In their eagerness to cast the Goth scene in general and The Haven Club (the Goth night at a local club) in particular as gender egalitarian spaces, Goths do not see, gloss over, and reinterpret evidence of persistent gender inequality in sexual relations: The compulsion for women to dress sexily and to be sexually available, the continued objectification of women as recipients of predatory and critical male and female gazes, and the maintenance of gendered double standards in individual sexual relationships. The women’s significant transformation of sexual expectations is hampered by an overly narrow vision of gender egalitarianism that both obfuscates the broader landscape of gender inequality and blurs the reproduction of an ideological system in which romance trumps sex.
While Goths may scoff at commercialised romance, the Goth scene does not develop a critical analysis of the relationship imperative behind notions of romance. Instead, it tries to unpin separate notions of monogamous, “vanilla” (plain) sexuality from notions of “ideal” intimate relationships, suggesting, for example, that a person may be able to be involved simultaneously in more than one romantic relationship or that a person may be able to engage in sexual behavior with someone outside of the romantic dyad without undermining the emotional integrity of that pairing. These assertions attempt to expand the terms of romantic relationships without questioning their underlying validity. Indeed, they actively recharge romance as a morally and emotionally important goal. Moreover, claims about the queer-friendly Goth scene notwithstanding, most primary Goth relationships are heterosexual, while same-sex relationships (usually between women) are subsidiary. In the absence of a broader politicisation of gender relations, these heterosexual relationships repackage male entitlement.