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.