The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism

Introduction

“A slut is a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you,” write Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy in The Ethical Slut: A guide to infinite sexual possibilities.

In doing so, they create space for every sexual possibility except for one: the possibility to consider whether sex may not be nice.

Some might suggest this space exists, already populated by woman-haters, given the shame, hatred and violence on offer for women who dare to have sex on their own terms. But these moralistic right-wing views don’t hold that sex is not nice – they hold that women who have sex (and others who are seen to be treated as women in sex) are not nice.

As such it is both progressive and radical to say that sex is not shameful for women, and that a woman should not be punished for her sexual choices; radical, because shaming and punishment are both commonplace.

But in the present day it is not radical to say that “sex is nice”. If anything, it’s tautological. Sex, for all practical purposes, is defined much of the time as only “that which is nice” – in many feminist discourses, if it is not nice, it is not sex.

This precludes certain ways of thinking about sex. I would like to look at the things we are able to think when we allow ourselves to criticise not just singular sex acts but the ‘niceness’ of sex under patriarchy as a whole.

We will describe sex-negativity as a worldview or mode of analysis, not a belief system or a system of morals. The goal is not to determine that ‘sex is bad’ – though the analysis does not preclude this conclusion – but to use this way of thinking to better understand sex and sexuality under patriarchy.

Trigger and Content Warnings

Trigger Warnings: This article discusses the intersections of sex, violence and power. It discusses rape and, tangentially, prostitution and pornography. It reproduces (in order to criticise) date-rape apologism. It uses the word ‘fuck’ a lot, in the carnal sense. There is one graphic description of the sex/violence/power overlap which is warned for in the text and preceded by a link to skip it.

Content Warnings: This article talks about the violence and power relations inherent in heterosexuality and in intercourse. It touches on the ways in which under male supremacy the receptive partner in intercourse is considered to be demeaned. It describes compulsion into heterosexuality and into sexual power relations reflecting heterosexuality.
Continue reading

Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent, Part Two: “Yes”

This article is a follow-up to Under Duress, Part One: “No”, which discussed “no means no”, ambiguous sexual requests, implicit refusals and drunken consent.

Trigger Warnings

This article contains discussions of rape, rape apologism and narrative examples of the ways in which multiple systems of domination can be used to put pressure on sexual consent. It contains a fictional account of retraumatisation after abuse.

If, after reading this, you feel like you would like to talk to somebody about personal experiences of non-consent:

Summary

When rape apologists are using our models of consent to defend rape and to deflect feminist analyses, it’s at least worth considering the limitations of the models. This article is part two in a two-part series of articles examining the issues.

Part One: “No”: Understanding consent as a binary is powerful because it allows us to say that “no means no”, a statement which has had and still has incredible power to change attitudes about rape for the better. However, it can make it more difficult for us to conceive of what else might mean “no”, as well as to distinguish between different kinds of “yes” given in different contexts. It can be used to victim-blame. It doesn’t always accommodate some of the complexities of communication (although we should beware, because “miscommunication” is a shield rapists often like to hide behind). And admitting “no always means no” seems to mean that we must also admit “yes always means yes”; this can conflict with the subtleties of a fully radical feminist analysis of rape culture.

Part Two: “Yes”: Modern feminist views on consent have often been in conflict. One way to resolve that conflict may be to look for unified models of consent which takes into account ideas from multiple feminisms. Here I suggest a non-binary power model of consent, which looks at systems of domination such as patriarchy, and the pressure they enable people to place on consent. In this model, “no” still means “no” but “yes” should be understood as a statement meaning, “I choose to say ‘yes’, understanding the consequences of saying ‘no’”. A focus on systems of domination – plural – allows us to consider other dynamics of rape beyond men raping women without moving away from fifty years of feminist work on rape and consent.
Continue reading