It’s a big thing in mainstream feminism to be sex positive, and it’s not hard to see why. Women in particular have been getting a bad deal with sex essentially since time began. Having “too much” or “too little” sex is still(!) grounds for all kinds of abuse. The kinds of sex people like to have are under heavy scrutiny. Sex positivity is a pretty simple idea:
“The philosophy that all consensual expressions, or non-expressions, of sexuality are good and healthy.”
That sounds pretty great! It’s simple, inclusive, and equitable. It’s a strong statement against the endless torrent of hostility and shaming people get for how, when, why and with whom they have sex. Unfortunately, while the principle is nice, sex positivity in practice often fails, shames, and excludes.
Sex sells, and sex positivity knows it. The movement is proliferated by passing out sex advice, by promoting workshops, by urging people to figure out and communicate what they want in bed. It’s popularized by making sex and its many varieties an approachable topic of discussion. All this is fine, great, on its own, but as a strategy pushing a movement, it causes problems.
Sex positivism, in its admirable fight to make all forms of sexuality accepted and celebrated, has resulted in a fandom-like culture where everyone is assumed to want to have sex and experience it in as many ways as possible. This climate leads to a lot of “you’ve never _______? Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!” It excludes asexuals, who don’t experience sexual attraction, and sexual people with a lower drive. Generally, it makes the true point of sex positivism “Sex is great, have sex, look at all this fun sex stuff,” instead of “Don’t be an asshole about other people’s sex lives,” the latter of which is pretty much steamrolled by the former.
Everyone wants you to give anal a try, and if you don’t like it, well, you probably did something wrong. Read this helpful guide on how to do anal the right way. Everyone thinks men need to get over their macho bullshit and just let someone put stuff in their butt already. Sometimes it dips into outright shaming and makes you out to be a shitty partner if you don’t do oral or aren’t open to your partner’s fantasies.
There’s a big emphasis on exploring and being open to new pleasures. Exploring is fine! You should feel free and unashamed to do that! And it should be fine for people to express their fondness for pegging, or whatever unorthodox sex act. And, yeah, some peoples’ skepticism about pegging does come from homophobic bullshit. But it’s one thing if someone says “receiving anal is for women and gay dudes.” You can criticize that mindset all you want. It’s another issue entirely that they just don’t want to do it. Sex itself is not liberation or empowerment. The freedom to do what you want is.
An atmosphere that actively pushes sex this way lends itself to unwanted sex. Not necessarily rape, as sex positivity is big on consent, but sex that one or both parties regrets during or after. Sex positivity’s focus on consent is good, as it’s always good to prevent rape. On the other hand, the way it treats consent, (ie “consent is sexy”) both trivializes and even fetishizes it. It turns consent into a sexual act, which, as we’ve detailed, is not the way to go. Instead of consent being part of a “should we?” decision, it becomes the answer to “can we?” And just because someone consents, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or that everyone’s going to be happy about it.
There isn’t much place for asexuality in sex positivism. Although it’s included in the general rhetoric, the reality of sex positivism is incompatible with people who don’t really care for sex. It also doesn’t work great for survivors of assault, whose relationship with sex may be much, much rockier than sex positivity assumes for everyone. Instead of pushing, over and over, the idea that sexuality is personal and not something to be policed by others, sex positivity is kinda just positive about sex. And to tell the truth, it’s mainly positive about certain types of sex.
This movement, whose mission statement makes it for everyone, is heavily focused towards white cis women and their men. Sex positivity is a subset of traditional feminism, so, given the shortcomings of its parent, this demographic should come as no surprise. Like feminism, this means sex positivity has a wealth of blind spots and areas of disregard. When your movement is the face of positive, healthy sexuality, it’s more than a little messed up to leave people out. There is a serious representation problem, and it not only excludes people, but works against them by not taking an interest in their circumstances.
Let’s take slutwalks as an example. Slutwalks are an opportunity for women to address the impossible societal limits placed on their sexuality. They dress however the hell they want, with as much skin showing as they care to show. Others call attention to the plain, non-sexual clothing they wore when they were raped. They reject society’s judgments and reclaim “slut” proudly, because it doesn’t actually mean a thing. They don’t care if society thinks it’s wrong, they’re going to be themselves and nobody can stop them. This is good, provided it actually works that way. But this is an avenue of reclaiming sexuality that black women don’t have. As opposed to, in our society’s view, sex dirtying up white women, black women have always been viewed not only as sexual, but as “sluts by nature.” Whereas white women are fighting harmful judgments on their behavior by attending a slut walk, black women may feel they’re simply reaffirming the racist status quo.
“Slut” is the default position of black women, so attempting to subvert the word or own it would only further root the false stereotype in place. “Slut-shaming” black women has not just been common practice — it’s been entrenched in public policy.
Thinking Critically About Sexuality is Discouraged
In their mission to keep sex fun and approachable, and make sure nobody is feeling bad about what turns them on, many sex positive people get their hackles up when they smell criticism in the air. Sex is a huge part of this world, and as such it’s tied up by and in a multitude of factors. It’s vital to examine these intersections. You can only get so far with being considerate and respecting others’ sexual mores.
Returning to the subject of consent, there are power dynamics in place that some argue make consent kind of meaningless. The old radical feminist idea people like to pull out, about all sex being rape? It isn’t so much about calling every man a rapist, as it is saying that until we’re actually equal, sex will always involve an imbalance of power that puts certain people at a huge disadvantage when it comes to making a decision. This position, while compatible with the spirit of sex positivity, opposes the movement. As long as consent is there, the movement is pleased. But there are situations tainted by an unfair dynamic, which deserve greater scrutiny. Not all consenting sex is necessarily alright.
Sex is considered by many to be sacred. Puritanical religion sees sex as sacred in that it’s something that should only be done a certain way, with a certain partner configuration. Sex positivity sees sexuality as an intensely personal thing that deserves to be protected from all outside questioning. A lot of the time, this is good—nobody likes to face harassment for what gets them off, and most questioning comes from people who are bigoted or closed-minded. But legitimate questions are shut down as well.
While it’s certainly possible to consent to and have a good time performing problematic kinks, it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing that the kink itself exists. For example, what should be done in the case of race fetishism? Preferring a specific race sexually is, we hopefully know by now, racist. That’s a heavy judgment on someone’s sexuality, but which is more important, everyone being treated with human dignity, or some people being free to fetishize whoever they want without being judged? Is it okay for a couple to carry out racist fantasies? If an interracial couple enthusiastically engages in black slave-white master scenes, is that really something we should just not talk about?
Also protected by sex positivity are pornography and the sex industry. Along with the obvious roots of people not being able to get their noses out of ladies’ business, anti-porn feminism was a catalyst for the rise of sex positivity. Where anti-porn feminists decried pornography as misogynistic and oppressive, sex-positive feminists argued that it provided women an avenue to express themselves and break out of patriarchal expectations for women. They could be right about that. But in the face of what pornography actually is, it might not be worth it.
“All my adult life I have been fighting corporate power and I have had a community of people on the left. But once I turned my attention to the porn industry, the left became as hostile as the right. In my book I ask why is that people on the left – people who understand corporate power – suddenly forget that the pornographers are capitalists and see them instead as guardians of our sexual freedom? Since when did capitalists ever care about our freedoms?”
-Gail Dines, noted transphobe
In the same vein, sex work is held up as a healthy way for women to exercise their sexuality. And, like, okay, but what about the women who are forced into it to survive, or women who are literally forced into it by human traffickers? What about the fact that these industries commodify bodies to be consumed by a patriarchal market? Just because some people happen to get something out of sex work and performing in porn doesn’t mean it’s good. While the workers engaged in these markets should be respected, it definitely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize the machinations of their industry.
Sex positivity is well-meaning, and a lot of its practices have helped to make people more comfortable with their sexuality. But its execution is flawed. Many are excluded or harmed by the community’s practices of the philosophy, and even the pure philosophy itself. Its monolithic identity means that if you take issue with sex positivity, you’re the stuffy patriarch enemy. The problems are such that sex-negative feminism has become a legitimate movement that, while it has its own serious problems, is just about as respectful of people’s sexual choices as sex positivity is. The message we should take from sex positivity, its lasting value, is the advice it should probably take itself: No one should presume to know what’s good for another.