Mar 252012

A reader sent me this link from a person who identifies with feminism but not with sex positivity. Theper shortest possible summary: sex positivity does the same thing Cosmo does, insisting that everyone be and do sex along the lines of young, thin, white, vaginally orgasmic fuckdolls on the covers of all magazines.

That’s not remotely what sex positivity is, of course – sex positivity is about DIVERSITY and rejection of the mainstream discourse as the only option for healthy, happy sex – and I confess I wasn’t even aware that there was any feminist argument against sex positivity (though really the post isn’t against sex positivity, because the person appears not to understand what sex positivity is).

So I checked out the links at the bottom of that post, and one of them was actually very helpful! Meghan Murphy is a ranter after my own heart, whose plea for EVIDENCE rings deep in my soul. She wrote clearly, in a way that none of the other anti-sex-positive links did, about the distinction between the individual and the culture.

Still, we disagree pretty radically on sex positivity. But at least she could say clearly what her position was, so that I could begin to understand!

It’s a long post that rewards a thorough reading, but I think the pivotal misunderstanding comes in this paragraph:

All of this leads up to the key point for Pervocracy, which is that: “it’s impossible for women to be accepted as human beings if we aren’t accepted as sexual beings.” Well, the problem is, of course, that women, in our society are often only viewed as sexual beings. Not whole beings, but things we use for sexual pleasure. Things that specifically exist as sexual objects.


Being “a sexual being,” per Pervocracy, is not even a little bit like being “things that specifically exist as sexual objects.” Pervocracy is advocating for sex positivity as a gateway to women’s sexual subjectivity, which I’m pretty sure Meghan would think is a good thing, right, women being at choice around their own sexuality, having the right to say YES, for real, not just because culture taught them they’re supposed to say yes?

I think Meghan would agree because what she follows up with is not “we’re NOT sexual beings” or “we shouldn’t be allowed to be sexual,” but “You’re SEXUALIZING us!” As in, women should get to choose whether or not they’re perceived as sexual.

Which I’m pretty sure Pervocracy would see as a good thing too, women being at choice around their own sexuality, and having the right to be viewed as PEOPLE, outside the context of sex.

Anti-sex-positive folks seem to feel that the sex positive folks are imposing sexiness on them, in the same way that mainstream culture imposes sexiness on them.

And that’s just not accurate. My view has always been that sex positivity is about building an alternative narrative around sexuality, a narrative that celebrates diversity, honors trauma, and supports individuals in carving out a sexual space for themselves OUTSIDE the grand narrative.

I think there’s a lot of common ground between the two camps, with the differences being more about what they pay attention to, rather than what they acknowledge exists.

Being in the sex positive camp, I perceive the difference this way: anti-sex-positive folks pay a lot of attention to the things that are wrong in our sex negative, patriarchal culture – and there are a LOT of things wrong. Sex positive folks pay a lot of attention to things individuals can do to untangle the knots in their own psychologies that result from the sex-negative, patriarchal culture, and to opportunities to build protected spaces – physical and psychological – for sexual exploration away from sex negativity, patriarchy, misogyny, heteronormativity, homophobia, shame, guilt, and all the rest of it.

I think the anti-sex-positive folks see the sex positive folks as having taken the bait, having fallen down the capitalist well of patriarchy masquerading as empowerment. Meghan writes, “[Feminists] are critical of the way in which sex and sexiness have been defined.” Defined by culture, she means, and mostly by men. She and her fellows object to patriarchal constructions of women’s sexuality being imposed on women as necessary in order for those women to be acceptable.

Well, I mean, me too!! Me too!! I believe women (and everyone) should get to be and feel sexy in their own individual way! I believe women (and everyone) should get to decide when and with whom they are sexy! See, c’z I’m SEX POSITIVE!

So. In the end, I have to reiterate what sex positive folks say over and over about anti-sex-positive feminists: they don’t get it. Meghan even points out that we keep saying they don’t get it, and then she says:

[Charlie] Glickman argues that ‘sex-positivity’ is “the idea that the only relevant measure of a particular sexual act, practice, or desire is how the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants are cared for.” And, yeah, I think we ‘get’ that. And we don’t agree. At all. We think it is much more complicated then individuals simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (though of course consent is a key part of sex, assuming that our intent is not to rape)

It’s difficult to say this gently, but: for a paragraph that’s supposed to show that anti-sex-positive feminists understand what sex positivity is, it exhibits a pretty stark lack of understanding. Right there, the Glickman quote includes more than “individuals simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no;’” it includes “pleasure and the well-being of the participants.” Ya don’t “get” sex positivity until you get that consent AND satisfaction matter.

There may seem to be a problem in the idea of satisfaction – can a person have authentic desire, pleasure, or satisfaction in a culture that teaches so many fucked up things about sex? – but I think the problem is made of straw. The only thing impeding our satisfaction with sex, or at least our willingness and opportunity to decide whether or not to explore pleasure and satisfaction, is SEX NEGATIVITY. Which is embedded in the culture. The patriarchal, misgynist, puritanical culture that says sex is gross and women who choose to have sex are sick, and the patriarchal, misogynist culture that says women are sextoys who must conform to a particular physical ideal and practice specific behaviors in order to be acceptable.

I take sex positvity very seriously. I think a sex educator and even sex researchers can’t be compentent unless they are sex positive. I take it further than others do: I say that the very nature of sex – its role in our evolution – is inherently sex positive, because the whole point of human sexuality is diversity.

Hence “radically sex positive.”

And it matters a lot in this election year when women’s sexual and reproductive rights are being attacked with a visciousness I would never have anticipated.

It matters a lot and it’s DIFFICULT. Even in communities where consent and satisfaction are pursued in highly organized and explicit ways, still people are using sex as a weapon against other people, and bystanders are remaining silent. Changing this is DIFFICULT. And SLOW. But it is IMPERATIVE.

It’s been a while since I wrote such a long post, but it’s a complex issue. I’ll probably end up writing more on it.

emily nagoski

  41 Responses to “anti-sex-positive feminism?”

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  1. Love this post! My favorite so far!

    It is both pithy and conceptually jam-packed.

  2. I recently posted about sex positivity on my own blog. I agree with you, pretty much. Except, as an asexual person, I don’t entirely agree with this:

    “Anti-sex-positive folks seem to feel that the sex positive folks are imposing sexiness on them, in the same way that mainstream culture imposes sexiness on them.”

    I think that ideally, sex positive people wouldn’t “impose sexiness” on others, as you say. But a lot of times, they still do. This post describes how sex positive people still make the assumption that everyone wants sex. A LOT of sex positive people are still so heavily influenced by mainstream culture that they DO still impose sexiness on others, instead of embracing diversity. I see it as similar to how the U.S. was founded on ideals of liberty and egalitarianism, but fell so far short of those ideals by allowing slavery and not giving women suffrage. The ideas are there, but often they are not examined fully enough, and are not lived up to. Hence, a lot of people feel too alienated by sex positive people to be able to embrace the label themselves, even if they actually share a lot of the same values.

    It’s definitely complicated, that’s for sure.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard from asexual folks who’ve felt alienated and unsafe in sex positive environments, because people are so busy celebrating sex that they aren’t creating space for folks who are celebrating NON-sex. I’ve written about it before (especially here: It REALLY bothers me when people say they’re sex positive and then don’t respect the experience of people whose experience of sexuality is really different from their own.

      It took most of a century to end slavery, a further 50+ years for women to vote, and we’re still working on the actual “equality” part, but we’ve made progress, right? We’ve make progress on the sex thing too, and we’ll make more.

      • I have a really negative experience with people who self-identify as asexuals being very intolerant of sexual people, going to great lengths to put themselves into situations where sexuality is being discussed and going on at length about their superiority and how nobody who has sexual needs as part of their makeup should be allowed to discuss them ever.

        • I suspect I have those experiences less often then I think I do, simply because most asexuals I interact with don’t bring it up.

  3. Well, it was on sex-positive blogs that I first heard about asexuality being a relatively common identity these days. I sure didn’t hear it on any sex-*negative* sites. So there’s that.

    Great post.

    • That’s true, and something I thought about bringing up to sex-negative asexuals, because from what I’ve personally seen, sex positive people tend to accept and discuss asexuality more often. But I ultimately decided against it because one person’s experience doesn’t make for very good evidence. It could be that I just don’t expose myself to sex-negative articles enough that I would have seen them supporting asexuality. (I have had some sex-negative people be VERY enthusiastically supportive of asexuality, though… but not for a reason that I actually support!)

  4. Sorry to be really nitpicky, but it’s actually spelled Pervocracy, not Pervocrasy. I was just bugging me a bit. Sorry!

    She writes a really great blog at:

  5. Emily, I have been reading your blog for awhile now, though I don’t think I’ve commented before this. As a counselor and a person who has friends who often confide in me, I find myself frequently pointing folks who are dealing with sexual issues and questions to your blog. I have found this a great resource, personally and professionally.

    This particular post was a bit of a disappointment, though. I’ve been reading some of those blogs that are critical of sex-positivity lately and I think they are making some really valid points that I had hoped that you, as someone on the sex-positive end of the spectrum, would address. Some of my biggest areas of concern are points that the post you linked to made, primarily about commercialization and commodification of sex, issues of sexual exploitation and rape in the sex trafficking and pornography industries, and the tendency to affirm BDSM unconditionally without any contextual analysis of the sexually abusive and exploitative culture in which it exists. I was expecting a respectful, thoughtful response from you when I saw the title of this post, but instead the summary takeaway I get from this post is “you’re wrong about sex-positivity. Sex-positivity is awesome and there is no need to look at it critically.” And, well, of course it’s your prerogative to have that opinion, but it just seems out of character compared to the rest of your blog, which tends to engage people and ideas with respect and critical analysis.

    • I think my post today, about “food positivity” addresses that question – being sex positive doesn’t mean welcoming everything that’s true about sex in culture today, it means creating a space where there is the possibility of something else.

      I don’t at all think that what I said was “there’s no need to be critical of sex positivity;” I think what I said was “sex positivity isn’t the thing you’re saying it is.” Sex positivity is anti-trafficking, anti-violence, and pro-woman. It has to be, because it’s about consent and satisfaction. It’s also anti-capitalist and pro-DIY.

      EDIT: To be more explicit, your “biggest areas of concern” are the same areas of concern that sex positivity is a way of ADDRESSING.

      And if there’s anything I said that was something other than respectful, please quote it to me! I mean, these folks ARE wrong and sex positivity IS awesome, but where do I say that there’s no need to look at it critically? Don’t I end the post critically?

  6. I’m basically inclined to be sex positive for a whole range of reasons, but I have found one or two counter-arguments that aren’t just a complete strawman version of sex positive feminism. One of the most useful to me for presenting the other side of the issue was this piece on the Ethical Prude.

    • Wow! I completely disagree with this person, but it’s REALLY HELPFUL to have something so clear to disagree with. It has absolutely helped me to figure out what I find so wonky about the anti-sex-positive arguments. It’s another example of thinking about sex at the sociocultural level WITHOUT any apparent interest in what it means for actual individual humans, with their biology and their emotions.

      Under the 5 tenants in this article… I mean, if I’m understanding it correctly, it means no woman can ever be free to experience her own sexuality, “pending the overthrow of the patriarchy,” and since the patriarchy will never be overthrown, we are all doomed to permanent sexual slavery. I just can’t imagine living in such a dark place, and I DEFINITELY can’t imagine inviting anyone else to live there.

      Apart from which, it’s just not true. I know for a FACT that sex is not a construct or a tool of the patriarchy. It’s a living, breathing element of every human’s organism; even asexual folks have genitals, and as such they have SEX. And no patriarchy can stop me from having genitals or from experiencing pleasure when I rub them or when I think about erotic things.

      Also, I believe it totally IS radical, maybe not to SAY that sex is nice, but to ACT as though sex is nice. It is RADICAL to embrace joyful, compassionate sexual experience as each individual’s birthright.

      • Hey. I wrote the linked article. :)

        I’d change your summary very slightly to read:

        … no woman can ever be utterly and completely free to experience her own sexuality, “pending the overthrow of the patriarchy,”

        Sex-negative feminism is a feminism which allows itself to contemplate the degree to which women are currently not free to experience our own sexuality.

        In particular, where you say:

        I just can’t imagine living in such a dark place, and I DEFINITELY can’t imagine inviting anyone else to live there.

        It sounds like you’re saying that it must be axiomatic that the world cannot ever be a dark place. I don’t believe that. Patriarchy exists. Should we believe it doesn’t affect our sex lives in the slightest?

        You say:

        I know for a FACT that sex is not a construct or a tool of the patriarchy.

        What, all sex? Never? Obviously you don’t think that, so obviously we agree that there are some problems with sex.

        Sex-negativity is the view which refuses to take it as axiomatic that there are not problems with sex, and even, that there are not serious problems with sex.

        In the article I make the argument for some of these problems, namely the extent to which sex contains violence and power, to which violence and power are eroticised, and to which sexuality is made compulsory via violence, power and cultural hegemony.

        I think that the article shouldn’t be disagreed with on the basis of, “… But that’s horrible!” or, “Sex can be great”, because I don’t think either of those things engage with the argument I made.

        • Hey, thanks for responding!

          I totally agree with the basic arguments about what’s wrong with the culture around sexuality. Sex positivity does NOT “take it as axiomatic that there are not problems with sex,” even serious problemss; by that definition, sex positivity and sex negativity are the same – see my “food positive” post – so there must be more to it.

          And really, truly I reread my post and I can’t see how you read it as sounding like I think there are no problems with sex. But I work in public health and my job and interest are in creating positive change. Sex positivity, as an alternative to the sex negativity most of us are raised in, is the gateway to change. I’m not just saying that, that’s the official opinion of the CDC and the American College Health Association.

          ACHA: “[Preventing sexual violence] requires a cultural shift that moves beyond mere prevention of violence towards a community that adopts healthy and caring sexual attitudes and practices…. This campus/community culture shift conceptualizes sexual activity as a choice and as consensual.”

          The CDC emphasizes “normalized sexual health framework” to reduce stigma and discrimination, which in turn increases prevention and screening.

          I imagine it doesn’t go over well when you tell women they are not and never can be completely free to give consent to sex, but what’s worse is that if you tell a woman she’s never free to give authentic consent, then how does she feel about getting contraception or asking to be screened for STIs? Not good. How does a a nice guy feel, pursuing a woman he’s sexually interested in, if he believes that she can never give authentic consent? His choices are to abstain from all sex with women or else assault or coerce someone; even if she seems into it, she can’t be free to experience her own sexuality? That’s nonsensical.

          I, for one, am free to experience my own sexuality. And if you’re going to say, “You only THINK you are,” then I put it to you that that’s the same as telling me I only THINK I was assaulted. If feminists can’t respect the self-reported internal experience of a woman, then we are NOWHERE.

          I know for a FACT that sex is not a construct or a tool of the patriarchy.

          What, all sex? Never? Obviously you don’t think that, so obviously we agree that there are some problems with sex.

          To begin with, the anatomy of sex – i.e., genitalia – is not a construct (though I know there are folks who would argue that it is; that just makes no sense to me) and is not in itself a tool of the patriarchy – though surely it can be and is used that way. And I think that’s the key distinction: as the dog whisperer says, it’s not the tool, it’s the energy behind the tool. Sex is one among many tools that are coopted by patriarchy to practice control over other people’s bodies. We layer meaning onto body parts, but the meaning (which changes with the culture) is not the same thing as the parts themselves.

          • I totally agree with you that some of the theory of sex-positive feminism doesn’t suggest that there are no problems with sex. There does seem to be an idea, though, that even if there are problems, they can be overcome, and that the important thing is to find ways in which sex can be empowering and everyone can be as happy as possible with the current situation.

            I, on the other hand, am interested in making people miserable. :) No, really. I think that the current situation is appalling. I can understand how appealing it is to not think that way, but the amount of rape and sexual violence in the world digusts me. And the amount to which culturally normative sex is intertwined with that rape and violence is a huge problem. I don’t think that the world can ever be ok while that’s a fact.

            Your nice guy, who doesn’t want to coerce or assault women – he should feel like shit. What’s he meant to do? It’s a really tough question. The situation he’s in is very, very difficult. I don’t want to tell him otherwise. He has to find a way not to use all the power to coerce which patriarchy is giving him regardless of whether he deliberately taps it or not. He’s going to have to work really hard to know as much as possible (never 100%, just like safer sex) that he’s not using that power to hurt someone. And he should never be complacent, and we can never write him a checklist, that, if he follows it, will make it 100% simple.

            Women, too, I want to tell the truth to. It’s difficult to find the right way to do that, because messages like “the world is full of rape and abuse” are so often used by sex moralists to control women and force them to make certain choices. This also isn’t simple.

            It still seems like you’re saying, on some level, that these things are wrong, must be wrong, because they are “not nice”. I don’t get that. Surely we should be more trusting of conclusions that are not nice, because the world is full of rape and abuse and where on earth is that all coming from, if not from something which is not nice? I agree with you that my conclusions are horrific; I don’t agree with you that this makes them wrong.

            I’m not saying there’s no place for finding out how to make the best of what we have and find ways to draw power from sex and love. Those things are great. But I refuse to do that without also drawing honest conclusions about the reality of “what we have”. Without doing that, any sex-positive practice I have is going to be false, and is going to hurt some people, often the most marginalised people.

          • Aha! I think I see the catching point:

            There does seem to be an idea, though, that even if there are problems, they can be overcome, and that the important thing is to find ways in which sex can be empowering and everyone can be as happy as possible with the current situation.

            There IS an idea that the problems can be overcome (it’s called “hope”) and it IS important to find ways in which sex can be empowering and everyone can be as happy as possible, BUT NOT WITH THE CURRENT SITUATION. The whole POINT of sex positivity is to CHANGE THE CURRENT SITUATION. The current situation is impossibly fucked up. It’s a shit show. I work with survivors of sexual assault, I work with unwanted pregnancies and STI infection and stigma and violence against non-straight identified people and non-binary gender-identified people; I am like *so* in tune with how broken the world is. But I’m also in tune with the ways change has happened and, moreover, with the weak points in the system, which can be leveraged for change.

            As Stephen Sondheim put it, in the mouth of Little Red Riding Hood, “Nice is Different Than Good.”

          • I am like *so* in tune with how broken the world is.

            If that’s the case, and you’re on board with all of the ways in which sex and power and violence are intertwined in the ways I laid out in the article, then I’m not sure any more what about the idea of sex-negative feminism you’re disagreeing with!

            I’ve taken great care not to outline it as “the one true way” to perceive patriarchy, and also not to paint feminists who describe themselves as “sex-positive” as not having a useful feminism.

            If your only objection is that everything described in the article already comes under the remit of sex-positive feminism, then I think there is a significant amount of house-getting-in-order required within sex-positive feminism, because I’m writing about these things precisely because I and many other people have found them ignored, minimalised or actively opposed by people working under the “sex-positive” banner, and with the endorsement of the mainstream within that tendancy.

          • I disagree with the idea that I not free (and that women in general can’t ever be completely free) to experience authentic sexuality; and I disagree that the problems can’t be overcome.

            Unless you agree that the problems can be overcome. Do you agree that the problems can be overcome? And do you agree that I, in my admittedly privileged position of a highly educated middle class white American cisgendered woman, who teaches about sex for a living, am genuinely free to experience my own sexuality in spite of the patriarchy?

            Because if you agree about those things, then it’s all just a giant miscommunication that probably has equal fault on both sides, related to everyone’s justifiable fear of being oppressed.

          • I wouldn’t say that you’re “not free to experience authentic sexuality”. I’d say that patriarchy’s like sand; it gets everywhere. I find it really difficult to believe anyone when they say that they experiences their sexuality 100% totally absolutely without any influence whatsoever from patriarchy. I doubt, really, that’s what you mean – you’re just saying, right, that you feel like you’re free enough as the remainder makes little difference here or there?

            I’m sure there are people who manage to get far enough away and do enough self-work and have enough privilege and are in a supportive enough community that they can get free enough that patriarchy isn’t all that much in their beds. So if you say that’s you, I believe you.

            But I don’t think it’s useful to center those people – for example, you – in conversations about what sex does to women en masse. Most people aren’t like that. Hardly any people are like that. I don’t know anybody like that offline, and I know some of the most badass feminists imaginable. Seriously. So if you’ve managed to find anti-patriarchal heaven, that’s great, but I don’t think that means anything for political discourses around sex besides meaning that patriarchy is 99.99% effective instead of 100%. It doesn’t need to be 100%, though; it functions as a system, en masse, and if it can get 99.99% of the women, that’s cool. Radical feminists – sex-negative feminists – talk about the function of patriarchy as a system, on bodies of women (har har, I made a pun).

            I do think the problems can be overcome. If we smash patriarchy. Even Dworkin said that even the problems with intercourse can be overcome. Because no radical feminist – or “sex-negative feminist”, in the context of this conversation – believes that any of this shit is inherent to human beings. It’s inherent to a social order which hates women, and if that order is destroyed, it’s gone.

          • Awesome! Good! Okay, so how, from a sex-negative feminist perspective, do we create change? I’m truly asking, because my point of view is that sex negativity is the PROBLEM that sex positivity is trying to solve, so it seems like a contradiction in terms. How does it work, where does the change come from?

          • As I wrote in my article, I think that sex moralism is the problem you’re trying to solve. There’s no need to ‘solve’ the existence of a feminist comprehension of the deep intertwining of power, violence and sex; in fact, that comprehension is essential to fight the other problem with sex apart from sex moralism: the problem of compulsory sexuality and rape culture.

            Sex-negative feminists fight compulsory and rape culture through:

            * Establishing shelters for survivors of abuse and sexual violence

            * Organising support groups for survivors of abuse and sexual violence

            * Fighting the objectification of women under rape culture

            * Organising consciousness-raising groups for women

            * Creating, maintaining and advocating for a firm theoretical understanding of patriarchy

            * Taking the hits from, and standing in the front line against, male hatred of feminism

            * Fighting for the right for women to organise as women where that is their preferred method of organising (which is what ‘right’ means as opposed to ‘compulsion’)

            * Arguing against compulsory sexuality in all its forms, including the disproportionate and coercive celebration of sexual behaviour in queer spaces and the demonisation of “prudish” women and others (see also: asexual objections to some queer spaces and to many spaces branded as ‘sex-positive’)

            * Maintaining a consciousness of patriarchy as a society-wide power structure rooted in gender roles which cannot be overturned by anything short of comprehensive society-wide change

            * Accepting the utility of smaller, tactical victories along the way such as legal changes which help restrain the activity of patriarchy

            I could go on and on! These are the activities which have been undertaken by radical feminists since the birth of the second wave and which still continue today.

          • No I agree, “a feminist comprehension of the deep intertwining of power, sex, and violence” isn’t what needs to be solved; that’s totally part of the solution! (There’s so much agreement between us on all this, I’m struggling to discover the place of disagreement, which is disorienting because we the disagreement actually seems really big, yet really difficult to name.)

            What needs to be solved/changed is the social construction of sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, as, ya know, all the things we agree it is. I call that cultural construction “sex negativity,” with all its ideas about sex not belonging inside the bodies of the humans who experience it, being used as a weapon, as a tool of patriarchy, etc etc. I think there might not be 100% overlap between what I call “sex negativity” and what you call “sex moralism,” but the bulk of it sounds the same.

            And all those things you listed, sex positivity does that too. All of that, no exceptions. Totally 100% on board, actively doing that work every day for a living. Right on.

            So it must be a difference in HOW, not what. And it sounds like there are some differences in “why.”

            As a health educator, I’m wondering if maybe the “how” is the biggest difference, and most of the time when people disagree with the “how” of health educators, it’s when we do harm reduction. Sex positive health education involves contraception education, teaching skills to communicate with a partner, increasing awareness and acceptance of diversity, and promoting access to effective affordable contraception, educational and economic opportunities for women, and teaching girls ways to measure their worth other than their sexual desirability to boys, along with teaching boys to think about and treat girls like people. I think all those things line up with what you named.

            It often involves NOT teaching about patriarchy, not making people feel bad or guilty or ashamed – not even the nice boys. People don’t learn when they feel those things;l they shut down and tune out, unless they’re at a really advanced level. So maybe it’s a difference between what’s true and how we teach it? We agree about what’s true, but not about how it’s taught?

            Also, I’m thinking now about whether or not I believe that sex without any moralism, without any cultural “shoulds” or “oughts” or “wrongs” and “rights” is possible or even desirable. (My gut says no to both, but…) It it did exist, wouldn’t that be “sex neutralism” rather than sex negativity?

          • It sounds a bit like you agree with some of the things that radical feminists say and do, but you’re not calling those things radical feminism (a feminist view frequently criticised as ‘sex-negative’, which is why I’m shrugging, hey, let’s go with that), and you’re representing them as sex-positive feminism.

            I note that sex-positive feminists seem, on average, to have hated the work of Dworkin, MacKinnon et. al. for decades and I’m not really formulating any ideas which are new compared to theirs. Perhaps, if you’re looking for the point of disagreement between us, you could find it in their work?

            That said, I think that what you do is more important than what you call it, and since I am a big fan of the approaches to patriarchy-smashing which for me are something I’ve learned from those incredible women and my other radical feminist sisters, I’m glad to hear that you practice them.

            I don’t have any opinions about how sex should be taught since I’m not a sex educator or anyone with any knowledge on how to do sex education. I’m sure that radical feminists who are sex educators are sensible women who use a variety of tactics to achieve the best possible result, and if that requires going softly softly, I’m sure they are wise enough to do that.

            To all the people using phrases like “sex-neutral”, “sex-critical”, I say let’s wait for the day when ‘sex-positive’ isn’t met with cheers and ‘sex-negative’ (or ‘radical feminist’) with derision and insult, and when men don’t selectively and self-servingly embrace sex-pos over sex-neg viewpoints every chance they get. Until then, I’ll fight for the right to be negative.

            (And on sex without morals, though I think this is off-topic, a friend of mine repeatedly makes the point that she thinks we shouldn’t have ceded the word ‘moral’ to the Right. I get where she’s coming from but I think that’s another conversation. ‘Moralising’ is a good word to pivot thoughts on for this subject, though.)

  7. Hey, just wanted to say that your blog is definitely one of the highlights of Internet. I’m learning new things about being human, and I’m very impressed by the neutral and compassionate way you write.

    I think you are awesome. Thank you so much for making the world a better place to be.

  8. Wait, this used to be two different posts, right? I’m confused!

  9. Honestly, I’ve yet to see a critique of sex positivity that isn’t actually critiquing a straw man. “We should be sex positive because EVERYTHING ABOUT SEX AND SEXUALITY IN OUR CULTURE IS PERFECT AND AWESOME” is definitely a strawman version of sex positivity.

    On the other hand, declaring that sex is in general “problematic” and “a tool of the patriarchy” does nobody any good, except perhaps the people who want to see women suppress their sexuality. It’s very difficult to change such an ingrained system from the outside.

    On an unrelated note, we have a mutual friend! Lisa Currie works in the health promotion & wellness department at my school. I saw that you commented on her Facebook and I was really happy. :)

  10. I’m really not trying to be a wiseass with this, but one might say, re: sex negative feminism, that French theory on “the subject” (the individual) offers ways to think about the relationships between power (the State, the social, History) and the individual. Off the top of my head I’d recommend Ladelle McWhorter’s book on Foucault, “Bodies and Pleasures.” The parallel I see (and this is where I’m not meaning to say “these are the same”) is that much of this theory was written about the inconsistency of oppressive power (often capitalist power) after 1968 and the so-called “failure of the revolution.” This might be comparable to “rape culture” or ideas from MacKinnon/Dworkin such as “porn is the theory, rape is the practice.” Not liberation rhetoric, but places to be a subject who is not imbricated in “the system,” whatever system it is.

  11. I read this entire thread with great interest, because men, in aggregate, view feminism in general as “sex positive for women, sex-negative for men” in a lot of ways. Indeed, the most telling part of the whole discussion for me was this:

    “How does a a nice guy feel, pursuing a woman he’s sexually interested in, if he believes that she can never give authentic consent? His choices are to abstain from all sex with women or else assault or coerce someone; even if she seems into it, she can’t be free to experience her own sexuality? That’s nonsensical.”

    Yet that is precisely the place that feminism — regardless of its emphasis on sex as positive or negative — have placed all men for the last thirty years. We’ve been told over and over that “no means no” — and I’m denying the truth of that.

    But at the same time we’ve been told by feminists that “women can never truly give their consent to a man” and been faced with such ideologies as “all men are rapists” and “all acts of penetrative sex are rape”. To even pursue a woman a man is sexually interested in is so fraught with potential liabilities that the “nice guys” Emily speaks of are cowed out of the running. They’re turning away from dating in general in disgust and indulging in casual sex via the hookup culture, or pursuing third-world brides instead of college-educated American women, who are screaming “where have all the good men gone?”.

    To many (perhaps most) men, all feminism has become sex-negative for dudes. At the very least, its gynocentric attitudes and ideologies are highly suspect.

    • Okay, so what percentage of modern feminists are arguing that all sex is rape? Even in the 1970s, that was only being presented in certain heavily contextualized scenarios: e.g., in the case where marital rape was not a concept recognized by law, feminists pointed out that within such a warped context wives’ sexual consent to their husbands was robbed of its proper meaning. But the problem they were talking about was was with the law, not with non-rapist husbands.

      • This is very helpful to me, Irene! It clicked on a little light in my head! I think what’s happening is that when I hear “women aren’t free to give authentic consent,” I hear a statement about the limitations of WOMEN, like women are too stupid or too weak to give consent, and when an anti-sex-positive person SAYS it, they actually mean it to be a statement about the fundamental toxicity of the culture. A woman can’t give consent because the culture won’t let her, type thing.

        I still think it’s bullshit, since cultural definitions are not pertinent to individual-level experience, and I definitely will never, ever teach that kind of paradigm to any but the most advanced student, but at least I feel like I have a better understanding.

        • Glad I could help! One thing, though, that I don’t quite get in your response: how can a cultural definition NOT be pertinent to individual experience? I can see how it might not affect some people’s experiences, but if it didn’t affect a heck of a lot of people, it wouldn’t BE cultural.

          • Excellent question. Cultural is long-term and large-scale; it’s about the behavior of populations. The individual, making day to day decisions in their individual life, is shorter-term and smaller-scale; it’s about the behavior of just one person within a population. If an individual goes, “Wow, look at all of us behaving as though X is true; I think X isn’t true, so I’m just not going to act that way,” does not, in itself, impact the behavior of the population. It would be like a single sheep in a flock, stopping or walking in a different direction. Difficult, and the sheep’s progress will be impeded by all the sheep going with the flock, but it can totally happen.

            If I want to change the culture – the flock – I have to change the environment in which it’s behaving. But if I want to change me, all I have to change is me.

            So when I say that cultural definitions are not pertinent to individual-level experience, I mean that describing the behavior of a flock of sheep is not the same things as describing the behavior of an individual. “A woman can give consent” can be true at the same time as “Women can’t give consent.” One is a description of the individual sheep. The other is a description of the flock.

            This should be a blog post.

        • A woman can’t give consent because the culture won’t let her

          Incidentally, this is the kinda thing I talked about in these two articles, though warning, put together they’re just as long as the sex-negative one. ;)

      • Figleaf’s written about Dworkin a number of times: see for instance .

  12. First off, I almost totally disagree with the “feminism is sex-negative for guys” comment, although I do agree with most of the actual CONTENT of that comment. I’d parse it this way: there has been a lot of bullshit use of feminist rhetoric about consent, but I don’t think that that rhetoric is *itself* bullshit.

    Example: assuming that Irene’s link on Dworkin is accurate, then part of the “sex with force is rape” comment is directed toward a basically legalized marriage-rape situation. HOWEVER, detach “sex with force is rape” from that context (as happened) and you get things like Carole Vance’s “Pleasure and Danger” conference, where kinky lesbians were basically criticized by anti-porn feminists for being, well, “men.”

    Or, more personally, you get my long-term-date-rape-survivor ex, who used Dworkinesque rhetoric not just to say “no” (when actual “no” would have done just fine) but to “defend herself” against a “man” who “wants her to do things” (i.e., rapist ghosting flashbacks) and called me a rapist (pretty much) for being a desiring partner.

    In a twisted world like that, where powerful rhetoric becomes detached from the historical context in which it had positive meaning, I would agree that men cannot gain consent from women, perhaps not even when “sex,” “force” and “rape” are again grounded in historical practice.

    And with women (my ex an example) who never reach the point of (or can’t trust) a straightforward “no,” the whole idea of “yes/no” remains corrupted with flashback power dynamics where “no” doesn’t work and “yes” was only an option when she wanted to adopt the mantle of the objectified slut.

    But I’d argue that ALL of that is patriarchy at work, from the original marriage rape context through the date-rape incidents and up to the problems that that situation raised for consent.

    If feminism has worked to make men conscious of consent-as-necessary (and perhaps so much so that some men feel consent can never be achieved), it also needs to affirm “no” for women who feel they have no access to “no” (and that may be both a case-by-case thing and a cultural thing). Or perhaps this isn’t feminist politics’ task, but that of some pro-feminist therapy and healing.

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