Trigger warning for discussions of rape, sexual assault/abuse, internalized objectification.
As we all know, there is a prevailing stereotype of feminists left over from the second wave of feminism, the tumultuous era of the 1960’s and 70’s. Many believe that feminists are man-haters and bra-burners, lesbians who hold covens to destroy Miss America and wear National Organization for Women buttons. One of the prevailing stereotypes of the era is the anti-sex and anti-porn stances taken by many feminists during the sex wars of the 70’s and 80’s, which holds that heterosexual sex and pornography is inherently oppressive to women.
Opposing viewpoints on the subject brought about a faction known as sex-positive feminism, which takes the opposite position that sex and pornography can be liberating for women, that anything anyone consents to is good sex (including the much-debated practice of BDSM). The advent of sex-positivity in conjunction with queer feminism ushered in the third wave of feminism, which began in the 90’s.
To look at it from a very simplistic standpoint, sex-positive feminism isn’t nearly as cut-and-dry as Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti would like you to believe with the sex-posi Bible Yes Means Yes! The sexi-positive movement’s motto of consent–that yes means yes, and no means no–has garnered criticism from a lot of feminists, particularly those of the queer, trans* and rape/sexual abuse survivor variety.
One of the most important arguments presented, and one I identify with strongly although I identify as sex-positive, is the movement’s propensity to sexualize people without their consent, or to place sexual value on everyone when claiming that sex is great and natural and feels good when, in fact, sex does not feel great and natural for everyone. In the definitive article on critical sex-negative feminism, Lisa from Radical Transfeminist discusses those who aren’t interested in sex without going into too many details about why–because there are as many reasons to not be interested in sex as there are reasons to be interested in it.
It’s this issue that becomes sticky in sex-positive discourse, which has long been criticized for being exclusive (and even abusive) to asexual people (the often-forgotten “A” in the LGBTQIA spectrum). In overlooking those who experience attraction and sexuality differently, the sex-positive movement has been criticized as everything from boring and commodifying to being as much of a lie as the free-love movement of the 60’s.
The discourse surrounding sex-positivity, with the SlutWalk movement of 2011 as it’s coming-out celebration and “consent is sexy” as one of its taglines, has gotten me thinking a lot about the goals of the movement, the valid points raised in criticism of it, and what it really means to be sex-positive. Just as many of us rejoiced and then recoiled after the fake “Pink Loves Consent” campaign, I’ve caught myself wondering with regularity–is focusing on consent enough, or the right method at all?
There are some basic facets of sex-positivity that I find indisputable: that only “yes” means yes, and only when that yes is given freely, enthusiastically and completely uncoerced. That sex can be and is great when its between people who are into it, who want the same things or are willing to try new things together. That wanting and seeking any kind of sex, particularly as a women, is normal, awesome, and a source of pride for many (myself included). But in these discussions about sex (dare I call it a preoccupation?), I often feel an instinctive twitch that tells me that the propensity for self-objectification here is great. It’s the argument, however flawed and convoluted, made by Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs–that the attention paid to “free” female sexuality as depicted in Sex and the City furthers the goal of objectifying and defining women for their sexualities rather than liberating them from the patriarchal confines of sex. This view, too, is simplistic, and doesn’t take care to narrate the many threads within sex-positive discourse–a discourse which often is outspokenly anti-rape and pro-queer. But it does speak volumes about the complexities and nuances of sex in the lives of modern women, queer and trans* folks, and feminists.
One common theme among sex-positive activists in their critiques of sex-negativity show far more solidarity with their chosen ideology rather than with other feminists. The bloggers I use as examples here appear more interested in defending their movement rather than analyzing, responding to or even considering the criticism many who prescribe to sex-negative feminism of their movement. It’s here that I take the most issue with the sex-positive movement–this lack of willingness to engage with other activists whose views aren’t so far removed from their own, if they’d give it more than a cursory glance before feeling the need to defend.
There are certainly a lot of misunderstandings about the “other side” on the parts of both sex-positive and sex-negative/anti-sex-positive feminists. This communicates a lack of understanding of the nuances of sex and sexuality, the mixed and confusing feelings of individuals regarding their own sexualities and experiences and the tendencies to fall back into patriarchal modes of being when it comes to sex. And here, I side with the sex-negative feminists when I direct these criticisms at other sex-positive feminists. It’s not Us vs. Them, and if we are ever to achieve true sexual liberation (to have as much or as little sex as we want), we can’t do it when so divided.
Written by Noor Al-Sibai