Feminism / Health / Sex

Are You Being TOO Sex Positive?

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.

Compulsory Sexuality

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.

Shut up, IDIOT.

You know, like that.

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.

White Heteronormativity

"I'm so glad we can finally do this without anyone raising a fuss!"

“Oh, Blake, I’m so glad we can finally do this without anyone telling us it’s wrong!”

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.

Fotolia_4680806_Subscription_L

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.

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14 thoughts on “Are You Being TOO Sex Positive?

  1. Pingback: Unpopular Opinion: I’m a Sex-Negative Feminist | Be Young & Shut Up

  2. So this article deserves a more thorough critique than I can currently give it, but let’s start with this sentence: “Also protected by sex positivity are pornography and the sex industry.”

    The sex industry is not sex positive. There *have* been efforts to create more sex positive porn— usually by independent, women-and-queer-run companies, or solo individuals, but that’s still far from the norm.

    Like, how do you feel about series like, say, Crash Pad (http://crashpadseries.com/)? They make an effort to show a multiplicity of body types, races, genders, and ranges of play– specifically in order to push back against the anti-fat, mostly white, primarily hetero sex industry. How do you feel about people like Furry Girl (http://furrygirl.com/) who has been making all her own porn for 11 years?

    I can name many more pornographers that I would call “sex positive”, but they’re still far from being the porn mainstream. When did “sex positive” become a blanket term for the sex industry itself, as opposed to something that was created to counter the heterosexuality and terrible working conditions that plague the *rest** of the sex industry?

    • But I didn’t say the industry was sex positive. I said that sex positivity protects the industry. There’s plenty of critique of porn within sex positivity, and I’m aware of (and in support of) porn sites like those and others that go for a wider spectrum of representation and have a focus on consent, respect, etc.

      Even with all this, though, there’s kind of a blanket support for porn. Sex positivity implicitly states that porn as an institution is a-ok. If it were otherwise, I feel that there would be more debate within the sex positive community around whether or not porn as a whole is alright.

      As it stands now, certain types of porn are definitely criticized, but they’re regarded as “bad apples” or something that keeps porn from being good. This is an accurate way of looking at it, but if sex positivity didn’t protect porn the way it does, there would also be the popular viewpoint that porn, despite its good apples, is bad and should be done away with as much as is possible.

      Same goes for sex work. While there’s room for positive experiences in prostitution and dancing, etc., that viewpoint also tends to gloss over people who have it bad within that framework. “They’re victims of the bad side of prostitution, which can be a positive experience.” But even if the majority of sex workers were there because they really had a choice and made it, does their positive experience make sex work an okay thing to even exist? This is a question I feel sex positivity ignores, in favor of fighting for the dignity of sex workers (which is absolutely really important!!).

      Sex positivity was BORN to protect sex workers and pornography. And these are really complicated issues, so it’s probably good that sex positivity is around, but for one to take solely the sex positive view is not excellent.
      I’m not assuming you feel one way or the other, especially since you only addressed porn, just explaining what I meant. To be very clear, I’m glad sex positivity exists; I think it does a lot of good. It just has issues that should be considered.

  3. Interesting article. I also enjoyed Emily Birnbaum’s article on porn that you linked. I guess I’m a little confused, though, particularly after reading your response to Molly Ren above.

    You say, “Does [a portion of sex workers’] positive experience make sex work an okay thing to even exist?” I’m all for discussions about what people think the best place for porn in our lives is, and the same with the rest of the sex industry. But are you just asking that this relatively newer rush of sex-positivity not drown out the discussion, or do you actually think sex work shouldn’t exist? Why? I can agree that the existing state of the structures we have right now is far from ideal. But I don’t think it means porn or sex work in itself is fundamentally flawed, and it’s hard to nurture the good stuff (which is very much worth it, in my opinion), and make blanket statements about porn being bad with few exceptions, when, well, everyone else seems to think these sex-positive and sex-negative feminists are nuts altogether.

    I guess I look it as a similar situation with stay-at-home moms (speaking more specifically about sex work now). Yes, it’s a choice steeped in a history of sexism that didn’t really used to be much of a choice, and sometimes, it’s still not a choice made entirely willingly. Maybe some stay-at-home moms do contribute in passive ways to stereotypes that harm women who would make a different choice (or maybe not). But I’m not going to tell a woman who wants to stay at home and raise a kid that she can’t do that until kyriarchy’s nonexistent. At some point, I think, we have to accept that things will never be in a vacuum, so consent may always be tainted in some way by existing dynamics, even a small way – call me a pessimist – and then letting these women determine things for themselves. I think a huge part of feminism (to me) is making sure that women have real choices, mitigating coercive elements, and then supporting them in those choices. So when I hear, “Do positive experiences make the existence of sex work okay?” it’s not so much the amount or existence of positive experiences that make it okay or not okay in my book. It’s the idea that we get to decide if what these women do with their bodies is okay, and if their consent is good enough for our standards. That’s my concern, I guess.

    Agreed on many other points though, despite my choosing to associate with sex-positive feminism. Intersectionality seems to be a continual struggle for feminism in general, and I think more visible education about asexuality wouldn’t be amiss. Just riffing, here, and not even in a particularly intelligent manner without caffeine, so pardon any blatant misunderstandings! Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • I wrote this piece rather unacquainted with politically sex positive people, and was mainly responding to the culture of sex positivity I see on the internet. As such, sex positive feminists who know what they’re doing took it as flamebait or a bunch of strawman arguments (not to say you’re doing this now, just clearing up). Like I said in the response to Molly, I’m glad sex positivity’s around, and it’s overall a force for good. This is a criticism of how I see it being applied, or what I see being called “sex positivity.”

      To answer your question: I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone they can’t go ahead and be a sex worker/dancer/porn star. I also think these are legitimate choices for individuals. But often, I see the industries themselves being defended by people who either claim to be or act out the sex positive philosophy.

      There’s a distinction I read about last year between concepts called micro- and macro-problematic. On an individual level, I don’t want to dictate what job people can have. As long as they’re only really affecting themselves, it should be their business. On a structural, macro level, all three of these industries are fucking awful. I guess that’s my issue with a lot of the talk I see about porn and prostitution. It goes beyond respecting workers’ choices and experiences and ends up legitimizing industries that have dire exploitation issues.

      I don’t know that this is a problem with sex positivity itself. A ton of people simply don’t think critically enough. But, since sex positivity deals with these areas, I feel it’s important for the movement to be more proactive in addressing the conflict between worker choice and abusive industry.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  4. Pingback: Want to Have Sex? Sign This Contract | pundit from another planet

  5. Pingback: Links 42 | High on Clichés

    • That was just to acknowledge that Gail Dines is a TERF, as people take issue with her name being invoked anywhere near the words “good point.” I think a lot of her thought is useful, but I don’t want to give the impression I idolize her. I could probably articulate that more elegantly inside the article, but oh well.

      • Yeah, you could not stab the backs of women whose points you use.

        Is it that important to state your allegiance? Insult a woman so the folks won’t be mad at you? Because it is an insult. What is this, some sort of sad, “they-are-always-watching” tribalism? Are you afraid they will cast you out if you don’t insult her every time you mention her?

        • “Transphobe” is not an insult, dude.
          I could have and probably should have added a few sentences directly addressing Dines’ shitty aspects, but it isn’t like violating some rule of trust to remind people that she is a TERF while using a good point she made.

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