“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.
- Trigger and Content Warnings
- A Note On Intersectionality
- Why Reclaim ‘Sex-Negative’?
- Tenets of a Sex-Negative Feminist View of Sex:
- What Is Not Sex-Negative Feminism
- Sex-Negative and Sex-Positive Feminisms and Popular Woman-Hating
- The Ethical Prude
A Note On Intersectionality
Throughout this article, sexuality will be discussed in terms of how it is structured by patriarchy and heterosexual normativity. Since patriarchy and heteronormativity are dominant orders, by definition they have significant power to determine what it is that sex means.
From reading, and from conversations with friends, I feel sure that racist and imperialist systems such as colonialism and historical and present-day slavery also have the power to structure sexuality. I don’t feel able to write meaningfully on these subjects, or even widely-read enough to signpost the reader to the relevant arguments. So I acknowledge that this article will be deficient twice-over in the way it addresses power, violence and compulsion within sexuality.
First, because in omitting the ways in which the above systems influence sexuality, this becomes effectively a piece on white sexuality. Second, because it is not even that: white sexuality does not exist outside of colonialism, in that the white woman is in fact the colonial woman, the white man’s power built on stolen lives and stolen land.
Against these significant omissions, I hold the risk of attempting to cram an analysis of colonialism into the structures of feminism I practice today, in misrepresenting and framing the arguments of non-white feminist, womanist and other progressive women, in erasing one voice through platforming another. I acknowledge that this is not an inescapable dilemma and that the solution is for me and other white feminists to learn more on these subjects, something we must do consciously or it will never happen.
For now, I feel the right thing to do is to admit the significant gap in my analysis and to continue to read and grow as a feminist before I can learn whether it is useful for me to write on these subjects. In the meantime, I will eagerly include links to any articles readers may suggest which compliment this article from a postcolonial perspective, or address ways in which the white-centric, gender-centric approach I have taken here may erase other dynamics. I would be especially grateful for suggestions of books or theories it could be useful for me to study.
I shall primarily use “woman” in place of “white woman” through the remainder of this piece (likewise “man”), because I don’t think that none of these issues affect non-white women. But I would ask the reader to remember the disclaimers above and to not read this as a total theory of the experience of all women. It is one part of the puzzle, no more.
Finally, as a lesbian woman, I feel as if I need to justify my focus on hetero sexualities. I do this because I am painfully aware that heterosexuality influences the mainstream more than lesbianism. In discussing the sexual norms of society primarily in terms of the sexual oppression of women by men, this article does not mean to suggest that other sexualities and sexual dynamics do not exist or do not matter – it means that they do not matter to the mainstream, that they do not have the same power to change the way in which society thinks about sex.
Why Reclaim ‘Sex-Negative’?
When many feminists call an act ‘sex’, they are often careful to distinguish it from other acts which may appear superficially similar, acts during which one partner violates another’s boundaries. They call the latter ‘rape’ instead of ‘sex’ and treat the two categories as mutually exclusive. In doing so they rely on an analysis of rape which understands it as an act of violence, power and hostility. By implication, sex is none of those things.
This analysis places them in a minority. In a rape culture, rape is also called sex, even though it is not nice. Sex acts under coercion are called sex. Sex within marriage is called sex. Pornography does not depict (at best) a kind of genre theatre of power and vulnerability centred on the image of the woman-as-whore, it it said to depict sex, even though the actors are likely to find the paycheck (if there is a paycheck) much nicer than the sex. Sex over unnegotiatable power gradients and sex over severe power gradients in which no effort is made to offset power – it’s all called sex.
Feminists do not own the word ‘sex’. It will not mean what we define it to mean. It will, pending the overthrow of patriarchy, continue to mean what it has always meant.
This particular feminist separation of sex and power/violence is beneficial in that it allows feminists to conceive of the kind of sex we would like ourselves and others to have the opportunity to have. The cost of thinking in that way is that we can forget how, out in the real world, rape, power and sex are experienced at best on a continuum and at worst helplessly intermingled.
If we do not use our own special language, in which sex is what is nice, and everything else is not sex, it should be plain that we must at least consider the possibility that sex, as it is typically experienced, is often not nice.
What other recreational activity is defined like this? It’s neither radical nor prosaic to say that rock-climbing is intrinsically nice; it’s just a bit odd. You can love it, I can hate it, but that does not give it an objective value. Someone who doesn’t like it is not wrong or bad, they’re simply not invited rock-climbing.
But there are words for people who criticise sex. If an individual states or implies that they do not like sex for themselves (whether they are asexual and/or whether they have personal reasons to criticise sex) they are called a prude. They may also be called frigid or damaged or be accused of being gay (when turning down sex from people of a different gender) or straight (when turning down sex from people of a similar gender). But it is when an individual articulates a political criticism of sex that the heavy guns are wheeled in. The name used for this kind of person and their politics is sex-negative.
Who would be sex-negative? It’s like being anti-choice, or pro-death. It’s practically being anti-nice! The words are meant to stop us in our tracks, and to some extent they have. But I would like to brave those words to look at what we might mean by an authentic sex-negative feminism (hereafter: sex-negative feminism).
Not the opposite of sex-positive feminism, and not the woman-policing of the right. A feminism which articulates a radical critique of sex and which dares to consider the proposal that sex may not, inherently, be nice. And perhaps, in much the same way as Easton & Hardy set their sights on ‘slut’, we might reclaim that bad word ‘prude’ while we’re at it.
Tenets of a Sex-Negative Feminist View of Sex
A sex-negative feminist observes:
- That society is male-supremacist and that male supremacy extends into every aspect of experience, including sex
- That, under patriarchy, sexuality is invested with qualities of power and/or violence, as exercised by men, or male proxies, upon women, or female proxies
- That, under patriarchy, power and violence – and apparent vulnerabilities to power and violence – are in turn typically invested with sexual qualities
- That, under patriarchy, men are considered to have a right of sexual (and otherwise) access to women, a right which it is compulsory for women to grant and for men to exercise, the burden of meeting this compulsion falling unequally on women
- That a sex-negative feminist must stand against these issues and may be proud to be called a prude, if she does not shame other women
The remainder of this article will discuss each of these tenets in turn and end by contextualising sex-negative feminism alongside other views of sexuality, as well as clarifying some of the bad press which sex-negativity as a mode of analysis and a politics has received.
Male Supremacy Structures Sexuality
Radical feminists believe that male supremacy – a belief in and a condition of the supremacy of men over women, codified in part as ‘gender’ – is and always has been fundamental to the society in which we live. As such, it should be no surprise that societally approved sexualities are male-supremacist.
In Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, MacKinnon defines a relation between gender and sexuality as follows:
Stopped as an attribute of a person, sex inequality takes the form of gender; moving as a relation between people, it takes the form of sexuality. Gender emerges as the congealed form of the sexualization of inequality between men and women.
For this essay, the key phrase is ‘sexualization of inequality’: the cultural value which holds that the unequal power dynamics between women and men are hot. In case this sounds satirical, let me be clear: I believe that most if not all of us are to some extent trapped within this dynamic. I know that I am.
Sex Is Power
In her famous work, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Susan Brownmiller made the critical observation that rape is an act of power. She used this observation to draw a line between sex and rape, one widely referenced in feminist discourse, most simply summed up in her assertion that:
… rape is a deliberate distortion of the primal act of sexual intercourse – male joining with female in mutual consent…
– Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (Ballantine Books, 1993), p369
Note the description of intercourse as definitively consensual. Intercourse is consensual and nice. Rape is not. This can be seen earlier in the book where Brownmiller first quotes the Freudian psychiatrist, Dr. Guttmacher:
Apparently, sexually well-adjusted youths have in one night… committed rape…
[Guttmacher’s] chilling passing observation that rapists might be sexually well-adjusted youths was a reflection of his Freudian belief in the supreme Rightness of male dominance and aggression, a common theme that runs through Freudian-oriented criminological literature. But quickly putting the “sexually well-adjusted youths” aside…
As sex-negative feminists, we may wish to dispute Brownmiller’s analysis and the ease with which she sets aside Guttmacher’s assessment.
Not because we disagree with her that rape is an act of power. What we may dispute is the assumption that sex is not an act of power. Nobody could consider rapists to be “sexually well-adjusted”, per se. But we may ask: well-adjusted to what? If we consider whether Guttmacher’s “youths” might be better described as sexually normatively-adjusted, we find ourselves in agreement with neither the latter-day Freudians or with Brownmiller. The normal culture they are adjusted to is, of course, rape culture.
A great amount of sex takes place over the power relation of sexism, existing not only between men and women as classes but between individual men and individual women as power-over; we can observe that in most cases, that power relation goes unacknowledged. Unchallenged, it is not separate to the sex act, it is integral to it.
MacKinnon makes this point in Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State, where she writes that:
The point of defining rape as “violence not sex” or “violence against women” has been to separate sexuality from gender in order to affirm sex (heterosexuality) while rejecting violence (rape). The problem remains what it has always been: telling the difference. The convergence of sexuality with violence, long used at law to deny the reality of women’s violation, is recognized by rape survivors, with a difference: where the legal system has seen the intercourse in rape, victims see the rape in intercourse. The uncoerced context for sexual expression becomes as elusive as the physical acts come to feel indistinguishable. Instead of asking, what is the violation of rape, what if we ask, what is the nonviolation of intercourse? To tell what is wrong with rape, explain what is right about sex. If this, in turn, is difficult, the difficulty is as instructive as the difficulty men have in telling the difference when women see one. perhaps the wrong of rape has proven so difficult to articulate because the unquestionable starting point has been that rape is definable as distinct from intercourse, when for women it is difficult to distinguish them under conditions of male dominance.
I thoroughly recommend reading the entire piece, which makes this and several other points far more clearly than I ever could. While doing so, note that analysis such as MacKinnon’s is impossible without discarding or suspending the predicate of ‘sex is nice’ – as MacKinnon does – to consider the alternatives.
“Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” is a powerful motto for those for whom sex has been nice, or for those who would like to experience it as nice. It is less encouraging to those who have experienced sex as violating and/or unwanted; simply telling them that what they experienced was not sex, or the offer of sex, is small comfort when it appears indistinguishable from what the rest of the world calls sex, and when the rest of the world insists that it was sex.
Catharine MacKinnon also addressed this subject in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law:
Men who are in prison for rape think it’s the [most stupid] thing that ever happened… It isn’t just a miscarriage of justice; they were put in jail for something very little different from what most men do most of the time and call it sex. The only difference is they got caught. That view is nonremorseful and not rehabilitative. It may also be true.
We need to be able to admit that what perpetrators do is what the world calls sex, and that it is not nice, and that it is not the fault of survivors and its other casualties for not finding it nice but is in fact due to the nature of sex under patriarchy.
Sex-negative feminist analysis holds this nature in the foreground and uses it to ask, “What does this allow us to understand?”
As an example, we can apply this kind of analysis to the case of date rape, or so-called “grey rape” (as described in Lisa Jervis’ article, An old enemy in a new outfit: How date rape became gray rape… and why it matters, published in the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape; the article is discussed in this interview).
When Whoopi Goldberg suggested that the actions of rapist paedophile Roman Polanski were not really “rape-rape”, there was a feminist outcry. Rightly, feminists made the point that there is not a class of rape which is ‘rape lite’. And yet Goldberg is expressing a mainstream viewpoint. Many feminists recognise that part of the problem is that rape is not taken seriously. But it takes sex-negative feminism to understand precisely how date rape apologism actually functions.
To the date-rape apologist, it is not “rape-rape” because the script for date rape is close to the script for sex, and because sex is nice (or at least socially sanctioned). If sex is nice, then a script for sex cannot be a script of power. If a script for sex is not about power, then a script for date rape is not about power. If date rape is not about power then it is not, cannot be “rape-rape”: not like violent stranger rape, real rape.
The entire argument is predicated on “sex is nice”, but we dispute this premise. The sexual scripts followed by people of all ages are scripts of power. Power and violence are not even just qualities of sex acts in the same way as sexual positions, forms of touch and the romantic/erotic connection are qualities of sex acts. They also precede and follow the act, coercing participation and silencing women who only understand a sex act as rape after the event, as touched on in Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent, Part One: “No”.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that sometimes those scripts lead to something nice, and that sometimes they enable rape. If anything, it should be a surprise that they lead to sex which is nice as often as they do. Insofar as scripts of power are experienced as ‘nice’, that offers us an important clue to the extent to which power, violence and coercion are experienced directly as erotic; the subject of the next section.
Power is Sexy
If qualities of power and violence are integral to sex, as argued above, we can also observe that qualities of ‘sexiness’ are integral to many depictions and experiences of power and violence. That is to say, power and violence are culturally invested with sexual qualities; they are eroticised. As MacKinnon puts it, again in Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State:
Rape is not less sexual for being violent; to the extent that coercion has become integral to male sexuality, rape may be sexual to the degree that, and because, it is violent.
In Zack Snyder’s film, Sucker Punch (I won’t apologise for the spoilers, it’s a terrible film), the female protagonist is institutionalised and retreats into a fantasy scenario in which she is prostituted along with a number of other women. Each time she is offered to a john, the film depicts her as dancing for him (‘dancing’ – there’s a euphemism) before it cuts away to a second layer of fantasy in which, dressed in a variety of fetish outfits, she participates in a series of sequences of stylised videogame-esque violence. Why violence? Because violence satisfies the sexual urge of the male viewer. It is not analogous to the sex act; it is the sex act.
(Potential Trigger Warning: The next paragraph is graphic and intended for readers who find it difficult to accept the argument that power and violence are eroticised. Readers who have no problem accepting this and would rather not read about it in detail may wish to skip to the next paragraph.)
Violent women are sexy, violence is sexy, women are sexy, sex is violence, violence is death is sex. In part this is because the scene is a scene of women, and all actions taken by women are symbolic stand-ins for sex, whether they are shooting Nazis or jogging down the street wearing sweats. The twist: because violence is traditionally done to women (coded as a sex act) the male viewer who knows this (all male viewers) can fantasise about a world in which he is not guilty, because he does not have the monopoly on violence – all the while enjoying the sexualised violence she performs, her long legs kicking, her clothes tight, blood on her body. Violence is adrenaline, dizzying fast motion, pain and women in danger; a pornography of the body in extremis, ending in deaths, la petite mort or otherwise. After the violence/sex act, the protagonist is sweating; exhilarated; and the john is satisfied: money well spent – a sentiment not shared by the critics, who prefer to have it known in public that they prefer a little more plot with their rape.
Before we leave the subject of Sucker Punch, I may as well share this analysis of the film by TumblinFeminist (trigger warning for the link, for all the above plus the treatment of women in institutions):
I think this is a rather acurate representation of what many survivors of sexual abuse and dissasociative dissorders go through, myself included.
If it is, it is by accident, or via the stumbling-on of a hidden truth. Snyder is no crypto-feminist; the gaze in Sucker Punch is the rapist’s gaze, not the survivor’s gaze. If the film is a film about the process of survival, then it is dissassociation performed as pornography, a second-order thrill for those who eroticise not just violence but the act of surviving violence itself.
Moving on, this kind of sleight-of-hand in which power and violence are substituted for sex can also be found in sexual media produced for women.
Most UK and perhaps some other readers will be familiar with Mills and Boon novels. For those who are not, as well as those who do not make the connection between power and sex in Mills and Boon’s Harlqeuin ‘romances’ (and those scare quotes! as if there is a true kind of romance which does not eroticise power, a ‘nice’ romance unbracketed by quote marks and taking place outside of patriarchy), I offer the writing guidelines from their own website, covering two genres, ‘Harlequin Presents’ and ‘Harlequin Desire’:
When the [Presents] hero strides into the story he’s a powerful, ruthless man who knows exactly what – and who – he wants and he isn’t used to taking no for an answer! Yet he has depth and integrity, and he will do anything to make the heroine his.
The Desire hero should be powerful and wealthy – an alpha male with a sense of entitlement, and sometimes arrogance. While he may be harsh or direct, he is never physically cruel.
The men are not sexy solely because they are physically attractive, or because they appear to be good lovers; or rather, they are sexy to the extent that they demonstrate the characteristics associated with male lovers under patriarchy, namely that they are confident in wielding power. And the sex in these books does not begin with “passionate lovemaking” (quote sourced from the guidelines); each time the male romantic exercises power, that exercise of power does not just contribute to the reader’s “blistering sexual anticipation”; it is experienced directly as sex by the female protagonist. As she experiences male power, she trembles, she flushes, she falls in love; her world is penetrated and violated by the male presence.
The romance genre also offers us a clear understanding of the woman’s role in such a story. Again, from the ‘Presents’ and ‘Desire’ genres:
Though she may be shy and vulnerable, [the Presents heroine] is also plucky and determined to challenge his arrogant pursuit.
The Desire heroine is complex and flawed. She is strong-willed and smart, though capable of making mistakes when it comes to matters of the heart…
The woman must be available to the exercise of male power: “vulnerable” for the Presents heroine, “flawed… and capable of making mistakes” for the Desire heroine. But she must also be worthwhile: “plucky and determined”, “strong-willed and smart”.
Unlike the heroes, though, the women’s strength is not directed towards living their own lives:
Beneath his alpha exterior, [the Desire hero] displays some vulnerability, and he is capable of being saved. It’s up to the heroine to get him there.
Her goal is to save the man, and the Presents heroine above is described as ‘determined to challenge his arrogant pursuit’, that is, to resist the man. Needless to say, the Desire heroine succeeds, the Presents heroine fails, but both of them direct their “plucky” energy entirely towards the hero.
(Do we need to discuss his so-called “vulnerability”? These novels do not depict male vulnerability. They depict a woman-sized gap in a man’s broad-spectrum exercise of power on the world around him, a place which she can occupy to take the force of his power upon herself rather than have it used on others. She is not just expected to take this place and to try to ‘save’ him and those around him; she actively longs to. What else is a woman for?)
What is ‘sexy’ in romance novels is male power and independence, operating against the vulnerability of a woman whose world is centred on that male power. This is the dynamic of heterosexuality under patriarchy, a dynamic in which we are indoctrinated from birth as compulsory, and one from which non-hetero-sexualities must differentiate themselves or be subsumed. The compulsory nature of hetero- and other sexualities is the subject of the next section.
Sex Is Compulsory
In preparing this section, like any good essayist, I searched for definitions of compulsory sexuality using Google. The results were disappointing, so I’ve prepared my own definition:
‘Compulsory sexuality’ refers to a set of social attitudes, institutions and practices which hold and enforce the belief that everyone should have or want to have frequent sex (of a socially approved kind).
Compulsory sexuality differs from sexuality in that it is imposed from without, whereas sexuality is discovered from within. Compulsory sexuality states: “You must have sex, you must want sex”, but sexuality arises from a dynamic between people in which they reach a mutual recognition that, “We would like to have sex”.
The two are not entirely separable as compulsion becomes internalised. Thus, our sexualities are twisted into knots such as, “I want to want sex”, or, “I want to want the sex I am having”; conformity to the compulsion becomes the normative sexuality, deviation from it is experienced as pressure from within as well as without.
As this section covers a number of different expressions of compulsory sexuality, I’ve split it into sections on heterosexual, queer, asexual and “unfuckable” people, ending with a section on the way in which value is assigned to people based on the extent of their visible participation in sexuality.
Compulsory Sexuality For Heterosexuals
As a dominant sexual order, patriarchy ensures that the above definition is not neutral with regard to gender. Compulsory sexuality is strongly linked with compulsory heterosexuality, defined by Adrienne Rich in her definitive piece on the subject, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, as an ideology which preserves:
Male right of physical, economical, and emotional access [to women].
I retain Rich’s term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ despite the fact that women of many sexual orientations have sex with men, and that men of many sexual orientations have sex with women, and that people of other sexes and other sexual orientations also have sex with men, women and people of other sexes. I do so because patriarchy will sanction the sexual behaviours of those people to the degree to which it considers their sexual practice to resemble heterosexuality, and punish them to the extent that it considers them to diverge.
Put more simply, this all means: in the eyes of patriarchy, “men gotta fuck women”. If you are a woman not being fucked by a man, you are doing ‘woman’ wrong, and if you are a man who is not fucking women, you are doing ‘man’ wrong. (The consequences of doing ‘woman’ wrong are, of course, significantly more punitive than doing ‘man’ wrong, because women are always closer to consequences under patriarchy.)
In mainstream culture, “gotta fuck” is channelled into morally constrained paths. Thus it is “gotta fuck in marriage”; except we all know that the “in marriage” clause applies more to some than others. Andrea Dworkin describes in detail the ways in which systems of laws and morals are used to best preserve male right of sexual access in several of her books (all an essential read for the budding sex-negative feminist); this quote is from Right Wing Women:
All of the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus, including the prohibition against male homosexuality, are rules for effectively upholding the dominance of a real patriarch, the senior father in a tribe of fathers and sons. The controlling of male sexuality in the interests of male dominance – whom men can fuck, when, and how – is the essential in tribal societies in which authority is exclusively male… The heinous crime is in committing a sexual act that will exacerbate male sexual conflict and provoke permanently damaging sexual antagonism in the tribe among men.
Among other things, the ‘sexual antagonism’ Dworkin refers to is the disruption of male sex-right and the possible subjection of men to male sex-right.
Compulsory Sexuality For Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay People
The Dworkin quote above also suggests that compulsory heterosexuality might be incompatible with non-heterosexual communities. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Patriarchy is flexible, adapting to fit its circumstances, and many non-heterosexual spaces have taken this “gotta fuck” mandate and created their own versions.
Those revisions could be described in non-hetero, homo/bi-normative terms such as “men gotta fuck men”, “women gotta fuck women”, “people gotta fuck people”, etc. But patriarchy can’t be prised from our minds or bedrooms that easily. It’s MacKinnon again, this time in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, who supplies us with a pithy definition of the male-supremacist meaning of ‘fuck’:
Man fucks woman; subject verb object.
Male-supremacist heterosexuality is more than just the man-woman relationship – at its most basic, it is the subject-object relationship. To understand how compulsory heterosexuality affects non-heterosexual spaces, we must ask who are the subjects of the fuck and who are the objects of the fuck? Are the subjects masculine or assertive or enthusiastic or popular or experienced or on top or otherwise privileged? Are the objects feminine or passive or reluctant or unpopular or new to the scene or on the bottom or otherwise marginalised?
There is a reason why heterosexual people are obsessed with asking similar-sex couples, “So, who’s the man?” They want to know who fucks and who, as it were, is fucked. Because sex is power – specifically, the exercise of male power upon women – then any time power is exercised, it invokes the spectre of male and female roles. When sex is defined by power, determine who has the power in the fuck and who does not, or who gains social status in the fuck and who loses it, and you will discover who must compulsorily be fucked by whom.
This is one way in which heterosexuality can be said to be ‘compulsory’ even to non-heterosexual people. Another is the way in which non-heterosexual sexualities may be coopted into the service of male right of sexual access, as described by Kathy Miriam in Toward a Phenomenology of Sex-Right: Reviving Radical Feminist Theory of Compulsory Heterosexuality:
… it’s important to note the extent to which lesbianism itself has been refigured by heteronormativity today as central to the heterosexual norm, that is, for the pleasure of men… there is a great likelihood that today, the sexual agency of lesbianism, rather than simply foreclosed by heteronormativity, is refigured in terms of men’s access to women.
(Miriam goes on to give several examples of this, which can be found in her article, but are not the main point of this piece.)
The impact of compulsory heterosexuality on bisexual people was covered in a special issue of the Journal of Bisexuality on “Bisexuality and Queer Theory: Intersections, Diversions, and Connections”, in the article, “Compulsory Bisexuality?: The Challenges of Modern Sexual Fluidity”, in which researcher Breanne Fahs found that:
Women frequently reported that they felt pressure to accommodate their male partner’s sexual fantasies that they engage sexually with other women; further, all of the young women reported that they were aware of, and had witnessed, some form of performative bisexuality either on television or in person. Pressure to perform as bisexual appeared for heterosexual-identified women and for bisexual and lesbian-identified women, though heterosexual women reported more pressure from their sexual partners whereas bisexual and lesbian women reported feeling pressure from men who were strangers and/or nonpartners.
Compulsory heterosexuality, however challenged by increasing acceptance of, and performance of, bisexual behavior, is still alive and well. This fact is notable in women’s descriptions of minimizing the significance of their same-sex feelings, attractions, behaviors, and experiences, and it exists when describing the ways in which same-sex eroticism often requires the literal and figurative presence of men in the sexual exchange. Women may engage in same-sex sexual behavior, but this often occurs in the presence of men, with men’s approval, and for men’s sexual arousal. Women are classically heterosexual even while performing as bisexual.
For all queers and other non-heterosexual people, I believe that compulsory heterosexuality is not just a displacement of sexual activity towards heterosexual expression. It is a coupling of sexuality with the “gotta fuck” power structures of heterosexuality which then enables power to be exerted according to those structures, compelling more sexuality than if the coupling did not exist. Queer people are cool if they are “getting some” or “putting out”, and the ‘coolness’ of those two positions derives from the value assigned to men and women participating ‘correctly’ in compulsory heterosexuality.
Compulsory Sexuality for Asexuals
As I understand it, there is an ongoing debate in asexual communities about whether compulsory sexuality and its message of “gotta fuck” is a cultural force which structurally oppresses asexual people. Most seem to agree that if it does, it does not do so exclusively or in a unique way. The subject is discussed in issue #18 of AVENues, a bimonthly newsletter/magazine featuring submissions from the asexual community. In the lead article, ‘The (A)Sexually Oppressed?’, MANDREWLITER writes that:
Being able to portray asexuals as oppressed appeals to people’s moral feelings and can be useful in making allies and doing visibility… Clearly, there is a real need to increase visibility and understanding of asexuality, but if we view ourselves as oppressed – and especially if we view ourselves as victims – there is the danger of the sense of the “unassailable moral superiority” that comes from such a self-perception.
Despite it seeming to be representative of prevailing published views on asexuality, I am a little uncomfortable including this quote as, in my opinion, reducing concepts of oppression to a “victimhood” model can be a mistake. Many of the above arguments have been made about feminism, a movement which clearly has a place and which clearly fights a structural oppression. As a relatively new movement, it may be that there has not yet been time for a sufficient diversity of asexual activists to find their voices, or it may be that there are simply no systems in which asexuals are oppressed qua (as) asexuals.
EDIT: On the subject of that ‘diversity of activists’, Framboise commented with a different analysis (click to jump to the comment):
Women [in the asexual community] nearly universally perceive structural oppression, nearly every asexual woman I know has received some form of sexual harassment and violence up to and including corrective rape upon disclosing their asexuality or just a disinterest in sex. Coercion towards sexuality for women seems to come not only from the wider culture, but from within the asexual community.
Regardless of the oppression issue, it seems clear that compulsory sexuality in its capacity as assumed universal sexuality (that everyone must be sexual) marginalises and erases asexual identities. If everyone is sexual then asexual people do not exist, or have simply not yet found the right context in which to be sexual. And in its efforts to ensure that all women are objects of the male fuck, compulsory sexuality would act against asexual women qua women, except that for asexual women there are even fewer desirable outcomes to an unwanted proposition.
Compulsory Sexuality and The Unfuckable
Some people are apparently non-consensually placed outside of “gotta fuck”. This includes some trans* women, fat women and racialised women (three groups all of which are also sometimes stereotyped as hypersexual, another way of denying that we are capable of being discriminating sexual actors as well as something used to explain away others’ rape of us), some disabled people, some older people (‘older’ typically used in a relative sense, i.e. seemingly sufficiently older than the person or group which is making the determination of age) and others (this is also touched on in my article, Significant Othering).
But this is in appearance only. To be outside of “gotta fuck” is not to be free of it. Firstly, people in all of the above groups are still targetted for rape and other forms of sexual violence, sometimes moreso via the horrific suggestion that they should be grateful that somebody deigned to fuck the unfuckable. Secondly, those perceived as unfuckable, or incapable of fucking, are lesser in a world where the distorted object-value of human beings is partially predicated on fuckability or the amount of fucking performed. This is a very specific definition of ‘lesser’, of course: when sexual attention consists of the exercise of male power and violence, for people of any sex to be sexually lesser in the eyes of men may be no bad thing.
(And if you’d like to read about the intersection between fat positivity politics and compulsory sexuality, there’s an article at Fat Body Politics discussing the subject.)
Compulsory Sexuality And Object-Value
This leads to our last definition of compulsory heterosexuality: whether you are seen as one who fucks, one who is fucked, or whether the way you are perceived is fluid based on the spaces you are in and the ways you present, your value is perceived as higher if you participate in the system of “gotta fuck” than if you do not – shaming, hatred and punishment notwithstanding.
A man who has too much sex is a horndog. But a man who has too little sex is a virgin who lives in his mother’s basement, explicitly still a child, failing to perform manhood. A woman who has too much sex is a slut. A woman who has too little… it can go two ways. She can take the route of deferred sex, saving up her sex for the ‘right’ man, all of which is still really sex, it is just considered elaborate foreplay. The practice is acceptable insofar as it eventually leads to sex. But women who truly remove themselves from or deprioritise the possibility of sexual relationships are monstrous, dried-up, man-hating, a threat to civilisation itself.
Of course, patriarchy hates all women, including sluts. But who would it prefer if it had to choose?
Is all compulsory sexuality derived from compulsory heterosexuality? Or are there other compulsions towards sexuality which operate in hetero/non-hetero spaces? I actually don’t know. But I know that if compulsory heterosexuality was eliminated or reduced, the question would become much easier to answer.
To sum up: wherever you go, whatever your sex and sexuality, compulsory sexuality is always in the room. It can be queered, channelled, refused or denied but it is present. Compulsory sexuality is sex without the joy. It is doing something that you’d love (if you love it at all) but with the boss standing behind your shoulder, criticising or praising you according to standards you do not create. It means upholding those standards if you fuck the way he says, and dealing with his censure if you fuck differently or not at all.
What Is Not Sex-Negative Feminism
As with any reclaimed term, others have reached this ground ahead of us. We can’t fully detail what sex-negative feminism is without addressing a few misconceptions as to what it is not:
Sex-negative feminism is not a repudiation or even a rebranding of historical and present-day radical feminism. It is, to all effect, that same radical feminism – I am simply interested in whether we can take back the label of “sex-negative” by clearly setting out what it stands for.
Sex-negative feminism is not the political activity of Right-Wing Women, described by Dworkin in the following quote from the book:
From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be.
This strategy requires each woman to submit not only to her husband/warden, but to wide-ranging and restrictive moral rules for women, enforced on women by both men and other women. Women who do not meet this code are ‘ruined’ and are understood to have brought any consequences on themselves. If they had followed the code, then – according to the view of right-wing women – they would be men’s wives, in an arrangement of marriage sanctioned by the State: as safe as women may be.
Which brings us to our second ‘not’: sex-negative feminism is not moralism. If there is a critique to be made of sex – which I believe there is – then feminists must make it on political, not moral grounds. Sex is not wrong, or nasty, or shameful, or dirty. Sexual desires are not immoral. The eroticisation (as found in sexual cultures such as BDSM and much of heterosexuality) of systems of domination and submission is not morally wrong (although this should not stop us from identifying and criticising where appropriate the political characteristics of public celebration and perpetuation of eroticised views of those systems).
An exemplar of criticism that is not moral but political is the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance drafted by Dworkin and MacKinnon to allow anyone injured by pornography to fight back by filing a civil lawsuit against pornographers. Dworkin and MacKinnon differentiate clearly between moral and political opposition in the explanatory book, Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day For Women’s Equality (the following quote is from the subsection named, ‘Pornography and Civil Rights’):
Law has traditionally considered pornography to be a question of private virtue and public morality, not personal injury and collective abuse. The law on pornography has been the law of morals regulation, not the law of public safety, personal security, or civil equality. When pornography is debated, in or out of court, the issue has been whether government should be in the business of making sure only nice things are said and seen about sex, not whether government should remedy the exploitation of the powerless for the profit and enjoyment of the powerful. (emphasis mine)
Whatever you may think of the approach (personally, I am in full support) you must distinguish it from the view that “pornography is dirty”. As Dworkin and MacKinnon address the issue, it is the injury and abuse of women that are “dirty” (this is, perhaps, an understatement); pornography and the industry around pornography are understood to enable (or embody) this injury and abuse; and they must be fought on those grounds.
Sex-negative feminism is not the opposite of sex-positive feminism. While it’s true that many present-day sex-positive ideas were formed in response to the second-wave critiques of intercourse and pornography, the fundamentals of sex-negative feminism are not a reaction against that reaction. While some sex-negative feminists may fail to distinguish between right-wing anti-sex moralism and our political criticism of sex, we do not need to oppose them simply because they are mistakenly opposed to us. Women are not our targets.
The sex-negative/sex-positive divide will be examined further in the next section.
Sex-Negative and Sex-Positive Feminisms and Popular Woman-Hating
Having described sex-negative feminism in detail, I would like to contextualise it alongside other feminisms and other cultural forces.
While thinking about this subject, I’ve found it useful to think of there being four primary forces which interact in primarily-White Western discourses around sexuality. I’m going to borrow a little bit of postcolonial theory at this point and say that this is not intended to be used as a map. Maps are for those with a god’s eye view, those who believe that their limited perspective can be totalised and used to describe the terrain. This is a viewpoint. Particularly, it is a view up from where I stand, up through the layers of feminisms and anti-woman philosophies which loom over the sex-negative position. As a viewpoint, not a map, it makes no pretence of being complete, but I’m sharing it in case it can illuminate.
- Sex Moralism is hegemonic, historical and contemporaneous, misogynist and anti-sexual-“liberation”. It is the controlled right of male sexual (and otherwise) access to women, in which people acting sexually outside of that controlled system are considered shameful and dirty. It is the sexualisation of feminine vulnerability but it is also coercion of women into motherhood, observance of codes of female ‘decency’ and heterosexual marriage. In the ideal state of sex moralism, all visible, primarily-white women are virgins or mothers to most men and sluts and mothers to the one man who selected them, and the prostituted class is invisible.
- Compulsory Sexuality is hegemonic, modern, capitalist, misogynist and post-sexual-“liberation”. It is the universal right of male sexual (and otherwise) access to so-called “liberated” women. Pornographic, it is full-spectrum sexualisation of all women, and of all objects and products as substitute women. It is pinkwashing and cooptive of lesbian and gay movements (and to a lesser extent, bisexual and trans* movements), as long as those movements will agree that women and female proxies must be fucked. In the ideal state of compulsory sexuality, all women are simply sluts.
Taken together, compulsory sexuality and sex moralism form a partial philosophy of women. (Not a complete philosophy: neither of these forces fully describe the situation of slaves or colonial subjects, for example.) They work together to control women, in and out of marriage, in and out of the bedroom, in and out of the brothel. The two systems are not as different as they appear, since they share a comfortable common ground: they both hate women. Even when they appear to be in conflict, you can guarantee that they will settle their differences over women’s bodies.
You could argue about which is actually more powerful; while compulsory sexuality has been in ascendence in the West since the 1960s, in many parts of the world (and indeed parts of the West) sex moralism is still a more potent force.
- Sex-Positive Feminism, as I frame it, is a marginalised, progressive force which is present-day. It is a feminist tendency which aims to fight the shaming of women and a woman’s right to independence as a sexual actor. As such, its obvious enemy is sex-moralism, which it directly opposes. And its subtle enemy is compulsory sexuality, which may easily coopt it. The job of fighting sex-moralism is straightforward if not easy. The job of resisting cooption by compulsory sexuality is extremely challenging and requires sisterhood and cooperation with sex-negative feminists. Unfortunately, many sex-positive feminists conflate sex moralism with sex-negative feminism and fight them both, leaving them wide open to being coopted into the service of compulsory sexuality.
- Sex-Negative Feminism is a marginalised, progressive force which dates from the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and continues to the present day. It is a feminist tendency which speaks honestly about the hard knot of sex, power and violence formed by male supremacy and which aims to liberate women from sexual violence and compulsory sex. As such, its obvious enemy is compulsory sexuality, which it opposes openly. Sex moralism appropriates some sex-negative feminist language in its abstinence and anti-sexualisation advocacy but sex-negative feminists do not support the way it uses the language to make antifeminist arguments. Sex-negative feminism’s most complex struggle is with sex-positive feminism, which does not need to be an enemy. As sex-negative feminism does not advocate shaming or controlling women, sex-positive feminism does not need to oppose it on these grounds. But when sex-positive feminism is coopted by and advocates for compulsory sexuality, sex-negative feminism must resist, as compulsory sexuality under male supremacy is compulsory violence against women.
As I have outlined them here, neither sex-positive or sex-negative feminisms are totalising systems. Many women’s feminisms embrace elements from both categories, in that many feminists know that women must neither be shamed for sex or forced into it.
If one thing motivated me to write this article, it was this: to give a heartfelt invitation to feminists who centre a sex-positive analysis to stop fighting with and to listen to sex-negative feminist insight. Sex-negative feminists are not the political right-wing. We do not hate women. We are sisters who have a deep analysis of sex, violence, power and compulsory sexuality and have been trying to share it for over half a century. If you do not listen, your feminism risks becoming (or may have already become) rape culture in disguise.
But sometimes, there is less distance between us than we think:
We didn’t have backgrounds that one would normally consider anti-sex. We had liberal backgrounds, liberal parents, liberal educations. Why were we so attracted to the idea of taking a year without sex? I thought about it a lot, and I concluded this: We felt like we didn’t own our sexuality. We felt like our sexuality wasn’t for us. Or at least, that’s how I felt. So many things about the way I was having sex seemed to have nothing to do with me. And if sex had nothing to do with me … then why was I doing it?
When I start to think of the number of times I have been cajoled, pressured, or forced into sex that I did not want when I came into “the BDSM community”, I can’t actually count them… I realized I didn’t feel traumatized because it happened so bloody often that it was just a fact of being a submissive female.
Women as a class and as individuals, overwhelmingly, are oppressed sexually in numerous ways and that our sexual oppression is yet one more rock on the giant pile of many we’ve been stoned with that keep us down, AND hyperfocus on the sexual, or sex-as-entry to being able to bring up feminism at all is part of that… and radical feminists – those most often arbitrarily labelled as against sex and sexuality – KNOW this.
Whose are these radical, sex-negative feminist voices? They are Clarisse Thorn, Kitty Stryker and Heather Corinna (each name links to the relevant article), all three of whom are well-known writers and activists in sex-positive feminist circles.
I would like to think there is a new wave of dialogue between sex-positive and sex-negative feminists on this subject. Of the three writers quoted, Stryker is beginning to consider whether “sex is neutral” rather than ‘positive’, and while people widely call Corinna “sex-positive”, she has never described herself in that way.
In part, this article is participation in that dialogue from the ‘other’ side, and where possible I’ve favoured reaching out a hand, hoping to be met.
The Ethical Prude
Before I end this essay, I would like to touch as promised on the figure of the Ethical Prude.
If Easton and Hardy’s Ethical Slut is “a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice”, then the Ethical Prude lives her* life politically according to the radical feminist proposition that the thing called ‘sex’ under patriarchy is not nice. In ethics (ironically enough), we distinguish ourselves from sex moralism and in prudery, from compulsory sexuality.
(* I say “her”, as I invite men who identify with this statement to describe themselves as pro-prude, or sex-negative feminist allies, rather than taking the label for themselves. Men may support the radical feminist movement but it remains an autonomous women’s movement; sex-negativity, likewise.)
‘Prude’ is another word I would like to see reclaimed, and one I am beginning to use for myself. Reclaimed, since it is already in use, as ‘loveisinfinite’ comments on a Holly Pervocracy article about geek social fallacies of sex:
… the idea that feeling that sex actually IS a big deal makes someone a prude is far too rife in many spaces I frequent.
In our reclamatory definition, then, the Ethical Prude – from prudefemme, a wise, proud and virtuous woman – is named as such by her peers for her fearless opposition to the conflation of sex, power and violence and to compulsory sexuality. Patriarchy attempts to divide her from her friends by using her as a figure to make them feel shame, but she undermines this tactic through her fierce love for fellow women and the solidarity they have formed. Understanding sex-negativity, her friends do not allow themselves to become separated from her but recognise patriarchy in the urge they feel to turn away, and defy it.
She supports survivors who have been hurt by patriarchal sex, and other women support her, not letting any one woman buckle under the trauma of looking rape culture head-on. Spinster, feminazi, sex-negative, lesbian, witch; she is called every name but answers to only one: sister.
If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett, you might want to consider the Ethical Prude as the Esme Weatherwax of feminism. Pratchett’s “Witches” books contain three witches: the maiden (Magrat Garlick), the mother (Gytha Ogg), and the… other one. Weatherwax is the other one. She dresses for warmth and practicality rather than to foreground sexuality. She walked away from her childhood sweetheart in order to pursue her life’s work of witchery. She’s hard-headed, has a sarcastic sense of humour and she doesn’t stand for any nonsense. (And Weatherwax as sex-negative feminist also suggests who might be a good stand-in for sex-positivity…)
I can already see the comments now – is this a demand of celibacy? Is it a return to 1981’s politically lesbian politics of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group? If you’re wondering the above, first answer this: do you think that Easton and Hardy intended the Ethical Slut to be read as a demand for every woman to commit the remainder of her life to sex and only sex? (Seriously, though, Love Your Enemy is an incredible book. You should find it and read it and then share it with all your friends. Then you should become a separatist. :))
So: who is going to organise the first PrudeWalk?
Under patriarchy, sex is power, power is sexy, and sex is compulsory. That is to say, the sex act is attractive in a way that is conditioned by its qualities of power and violence. And that coercion is not just a property of individual sex acts, it is a property of sexuality at a social level; we are not just coerced into sex, we are coerced into sexuality, most specifically into heterosexuality, or into reproducing subject-object dynamics within our non-hetero-sexualities.
In sharing the concept for this essay with friends, one suggested that she felt we needed to overcome the binary between sex positive/negative. I hesitantly disagree. I think that binaries (and ternaries, and other models) are useful as long as we don’t mistake them for reality. Both sex-positivity and sex-negativity, if applied correctly, are useful lenses through which we can understand different aspects of patriarchy, such as sex moralism and compulsory sexuality.
It is vital that the phrase “sex-negative” stops being an insult, or at least that more feminists develop an understanding that sex is not above criticism. Not bad sex, not sex gone wrong, not the sex that other people have. Our sex, real sex, what we call sex – it must be criticised. We can find male supremacy within it and within our own heads, and if we put it beyond reproach then we are putting aspects of patriarchy beyond reproach, beyond feminist analysis. It is not; sex-negative feminists show us how.
And last: it would be traditional to end this essay with an assurance that I do, in fact, love sex, and that all I want to do is to make it better. As an Ethical Prude, I won’t write such an assurance, even though I feel under almost overwhelming pressure to do so. We’d do well to reflect on the nature of that pressure.
Lovely essay, this really captures and expands a number of topics I have been considering of late, most especially the idea of re-claiming the term prude. I would love a prude walk but fear there is a lot more discourse with sex positive feminists needed before it would be taken well.
I wanted to address one very specific point you made about asexuality and compulsory sexuality:
“As I understand it, there is an ongoing debate in asexual communities about whether compulsory sexuality and its message of “gotta fuck” is a cultural force which structurally oppresses asexual people.”
As an asexual woman, it has been my observation that this debate is a strongly gendered one. Women nearly universally perceive structural oppression, nearly every asexual woman I know has received some form of sexual harassment and violence up to and including corrective rape upon disclosing their asexuality or just a disinterest in sex. Coercion towards sexuality for women seems to come not only from the wider culture, but from within the asexual community. After a fairly brief time on the AVEN forum (so my perceptions may be biased and incomplete) I gave it up as an unsafe space after witnessing many discussions where people (but almost always women) were encouraged to “compromise” by having sex they did not want with their (almost universally male) partners, under the assumption that sex was “owed” or necessary if the woman wished to not be dumped. The discussions surrounding compromise often made the assumption that sex is consensual as long as the person ultimately says “yes” regardless of structural or interpersonal coercion, which I don’t accept, and that the primary value a woman brings to a relationship with a sexual individual is that of a sex object. I ultimately never posted because the general discourse was deeply unsettling to me.
@Framboise: I agree with you about prude walks. The idea came up at a party last year with several feminist friends, but I also felt that some more discourse would be helpful first. This article is a culmination of my thoughts on the subject and hopefully contributes to that discourse!
What you describe about asexual women’s experiences is horrible, but sadly it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I’m sorry that you were driven out. I had hoped to find some women’s voices on the subject of structural oppression done by compulsory sexuality towards asexual people, but I guess as usual this “driving-out” is part of the reason why those voices are difficult to locate.
To partially rectify that, do you mind if I make a hyperlink from the article body in the asexuality section, down to your comment?
Oh, not at all, feel free.
I liked this article, Lisa. (By the way, I need to add you to my link hoard :))
I think a ‘sex-positive’ and a ‘sex-negative’ feminism should be one and the same. In an ideal world(one without patriarchy) females* would be able to have sex as they wish. I do think that many apsects of the ‘sex-positive’ current in feminism is actually damaging and is often co-opted by males* seeking to force women into sex. As Framboise points out, ace females are expected to have sex where ace males ave the ability to walk out. The ace community can be really great sometimes, but as it stands it is infected with patraiarchy too. (As you know, I am a demisexual and share some of the same issues as an ace might).
What I think is symptomatic of patriarchy is this assumption that just because I don’t think things like BDSM or poly are inherently wrong(ironically I’m kinky and poly) and that it’s right for some people does not mean I think every single person must engage in kink or poly. Not to mention in some religious(usually pagan) communities there are serious issues regarding what sexual roles people in general must have.
Awesome essay with loads to chew on, thanks!
Have you read Pornography and the doubleness of sex for women, by Joanna Russ? [TW for discussion of rape and sexual coercion.] I thought of it a couple of times when reading this.
@Lilka: Thank you! That was an amazing read! And again, from twenty years ago. How disappointing; that material two decades years old can still be a revelation and has not become part of our feminist fundamentals. There’s so much to do. But thank you for unearthing this for me.
I really like your identification of compulsory sexuality. Many people feel that they need to signal “I like sex and want to have it” as an “admission ticket” to discussions about sexuality and gender relations.
Do you think there’s a difference between an individual’s sex-negative feminism that comes from being asexual or having a low sex drive, and hence not wanting sex of any kind right now, and sex-negative feminism that comes from the recognition that sex in this society can’t be divorced from the horrible attitudes to it?
One thing I’m not sure about is that you describe sex-negative feminism as an autonomous women’s movement, and ask men to identify as allies instead – but where does that leave people who identify as neither male nor female?
@David: I think that political sex-negativity and asexuality are very different, yes. I don’t really see how they’re similar.
As mentioned in one of the introductions, where I use ‘woman’ on this blog I’m usually referring to people treated politically as women, that is, people who are identified by patriarchy as and oppressed as women, and who also identify their class interests as being women’s class interests.
Oops, I haven’t checked blogs in a couple of days and thus I almost missed this gem. I’ll admit, as a FAAB person of marginalized gender/sexual identity who has an extraordinary libido and a strong preference for radical(ized) kink, I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this— though I also have pretty much always had objections to the common formulations of sex-positive feminism that have been co-opted by the patriarchy for bizarre arguments like “watching Sex in the City is an inherently feminist act” or “choosing to wear makeup is an inherently feminist act.” On the one hand, sex isn’t just nice for me, it’s absolutely awesome, and within a monogamous context I’ve grown very adventurous with it over the past couple years; on the other hand, I have still experienced very not-nice sex, which I will not call rape but which went together with actual sexual abuse and rape-narrowly-avoided. I don’t know how any sex act, any sexualized act, or any gendered act can be inherently feminist at all, whether that means being as “slutty” as possible or as “prudish” as possible. And yet! Your post here has synthesized and harmonized my own divided views into something that, in my opinion, really works quite well. The crucial part is toward the end where you suggest the battle that sex positivity primarily wages against sex moralism as only SECONDARILY against compulsory sexuality (while being at risk of co-optation in that case), while on the flip side sex negativity primarily battles compulsory sexuality and only secondarily sex moralism. I think you’ve fantastically summed up how these two “different” feminisms don’t actually have to be at odds, they’re just focused on distinct issues within the broader spectrum of patriarchy.
I think this article is really, really excellent, and I definitely agree with your analysis.
I have one thought to offer about where it might go from here. Thinking about the prospect for some sort of synthesis (or accommodation, or alliance, or something?) between sex-positive feminism and sex-negative feminism, I am reminded of Nancy Fraser’s article ‘From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a Post-Socialist Age’ (link: http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=1810). Briefly, Fraser argues that oppressed groups experience two different types of injustice: socioeconomic injustice and cultural/symbolic injustice. These two kinds of injustice have different remedies. Socioeconomic injustice requires redistribution, which involves countering the idea that the oppressed group is any different from anyone else. Cultural/symbolic injustice requires recognition, which involves affirming the distinctive identity of the oppressed group, resisting its degradation, marginalization or erasure. These two remedies, then, pull in different directions, but many groups (e.g. women!) experience both types of oppression. Fraser then goes on to offer a suggestion as to how this ‘redistribution-recognition dilemma’ could be resolved, which she describes as ‘transformative’. Basically, the idea is to disrupt the dilemma by challenging the underlying social structure that generates the injustice in the first place (e.g. through socialism and the deconstruction of the gender binary).
This is a very sketchy summary, but basically my thought is that this might be relevant to your discussion because the recognition-redistribution dilemma might map onto the 4-way map you gave of sex moralism, compulsory sexuality, sex-positive feminism, and sex-negative feminism (sex moralism and compulsory sexuality as the two injustices, sex-positive feminism and sex-negative feminism as the two remedies). So the idea would be that women are subject to two different injustices in the form of sex moralism and compulsory sexuality, and they have to find a way to resolve the apparent tension between the two different remedies to those injustices (sex-positive feminism and sex-negative feminism). For what it’s worth, I think Fraser’s solution to the redistribution-recognition dilemma is rather good, and I think if it was applied here it might nudge us towards a ‘sex-critical’ feminism that emphasizes the ‘transformation’ of current structures of gender.
Hmm. I’m not sure if that really makes sense, but anyway, it was a thought I had. Thanks very much for the article!
@feministphilosopher: In general I like the ‘transform the territory’ approach to the whole ‘normalising vs. identity activism’ problem.
I think that, in feminist terms, ‘transform the territory’ often just means doing radical feminism. 🙂 Radical feminism’s the only feminism I know which is advocating the complete uprooting of gender.
Specifically in the realm of sex, though, I don’t know. Destroying gender would probably do it, but I think there are other transformations to look at as well. Not instead of destroying gender, but possibly until we destroy it, and even maybe doing them may give us some clues / tactics for destroying gender.
Something I’m planning to do in my next article is to try to sketch out what some transformative alternatives to sex (if, for the sake of this sentence, I cede that word entirely to the patriarchy) might be…
I’m a sex-positive feminist; I see sex-positive feminism as the place where people are trying to create better sexualities, imperfect though they might be. I came here via my sister’s facebook. After reading this, I’d go on a PrudeWalk. I’m glad to add this lens to my ways of looking.
This is amazing. I feel utterly ridiculous for never having considered that an alternative to sex-positivity might not necessarily be a bad thing. Thanks for supplying much food for thought, and for setting out your framework so clearly at the beginning of your essay – as an academic I appreciated that very much!
Lisa – Yes! As ever, Doing More Radical Feminism is most definitely The Solution. Love it.
I think we would need to transform both gender and also sexuality, which of course are two aspects of the same power dynamic (love MacKinnon’s moving/congealed thing on this) but this process might look different depending on which aspect, gender or sexuality, we foregrounded when we analysed it.
I think the way you configure sex-negative feminism is such a profitable line of thinking. Looking forward to the next article.
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This is fantastic. I am a law student and just shared this with my feminist criminal law professor, who relies extensively on MacKinnon in her critiques of rape law. I am interested to see if she will read it and comment.
As someone who identifies with “slut” in the polyamorous sense, and found The Ethical Slut to be very liberating and affirming, I appreciate this essay *just as much* as I did that book. Particularly, I find the insistence that we recognize that the nice, feminist sex that some of us may be enjoying is NOT the reality for the majority of female bodied people, or anyone, for that matter.
Thank you for this refreshing reminded that all decisions re: sexuality are, when arrived at through one’s own free will and reflection, just as respectable as any other.
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Wow, so much food for thought! So many books to check out! As usual, I’ve gotta read three of four or ten more books before I have something to contribute really. But in brief, I am one of those sex-positive feminists who has mistakenly believed myself at odds with sex negative feminists in the not so distant past. Yet I’ve also considered the implications of compulsory sexuality coopting sex positivity, and I’ve also been accused of *being* sex-negative when I approach intersections of sex, desire, power, violence, and control with a critical eye. I’m behind on my theoretical reading, but light years ahead on the fiction front. From that standpoint I’d rec Luisa Valenzuela, and most especially the collection ‘Cambio de Armas’ trans as ‘Other Weapons’ and Diamela Eltit + Paz Errazuriz ‘El Infart Del Alma’ recent trans is decent, tho unfortunately titled ‘Soul’s Infarct’. Thanks for the awesome breakdown!
This is the best article I have read in such a long time.
Kudos to you.
@ David: I have a very strong libido, but I also count myself as sex-negative. I like my head to rule my body, and I rather think critically about what society needs compared to what society tells us *we* need.
Plus, it means I get to be a threat to civilisation itself. How flattering!
Wow, finally got around to reading this and really enjoyed it. It gave me comfort as it cements a lot of what I have felt intuitively and felt uncomfortable with, because it conflicted so much with what many people around me were saying.
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I’m quite a new feminist who would ordinarily indentify as sex positive and as such reading this has left me with mountains of questions.
I don’t know if you’re still responding to this so I’ll keep it brief: how would this translate into action/behaviour? The ethical slut obviously feels no guilt/remorse for any sexual exploits that she undertakes of her own choosing and I think it would be wrong to say that sex negative feminist would be the direct opposite of this and both avoid and heavily criticise herself and others for their sexual behaviour? I get that sex in itself in this view is seen as an agent of the patriarchy (to use a horribly overarching term) but I’m confused how this translates into the day to day.
Thanks and it was a really interesting article!
@olli: Don’t think of sex-positivism and sex-negativism/radical feminism as opposites. When sex-positive feminism’s functioning correctly (and it’s often a problem that it’s not, and that it’s pushing compulsory sexuality on the side, but that’s a side note) then it’s doing its work taking down sex moralism, like you describe. Sex-negative feminism, on the other hand, is about tackling compulsory sexuality. So that means always bringing in the critique of social patterns, never letting the statement, “Well, I didn’t feel very coerced that one time, so thus there is never any coercion for anyone!” creep in to her politics, asserting the political in the personal at every step.
So how do these politics translate into the day to day? They translate by understanding what sex means under patriarchy and then attacking that. Some day to day things you could do would be to support survivors, e.g. learn more about abuse so that you can help people who’ve experienced abuse, or if you’re a survivor yourself work on your own healing, you could write articles like this one, you could – well, there are all kinds of feminism to do!
The majority of them don’t mean having sex. I don’t think that having sex is necessarily a fundamentally revolutionary activity. It’s actually very difficult to have good sex when you really look unflinchingly at what sex means in this society. But it is possible. The next thing I’m planning to write here will be more about that, so stay tuned if you’re interested. 🙂
Oooh, this is a very interesting post. I haven’t had time to digest it thoroughly and am not sure I agree with all of it, but some bits had me jumping up and down and I think it may have spurred an epiphany on what connects various issues I’ve been harping on about forever.
I do want to make a point on the asexuality thing: “As a relatively new movement, it may be that there has not yet been time for a sufficient diversity of asexual activists to find their voices, or it may be that there are simply no systems in which asexuals are oppressed qua (as) asexuals.”
I think the issue is that we’re out there but pretty much invisible? Like, very roughly speaking I would split up the asexual/asexual spectrum community into the bits that are mostly concerned with increasing visibility, the bits mainly concerned with building community and the ones that are mostly concerned with activism (in the “talking about oppression” sense). With obvious overlap. AVENues, which you quote, and AVEN, which Framboise quotes, I’d stick more into the first category – and there are some very problematic attitudes at play there (I am at both appalled and sadly unsurprised at Framboise’s experience of the AVEN forums…), and I and other people who are more of a social justice bent have been pretty frustrated by the “but we have no problems really!” attitude that often gets promoted, among others.
On the activist side of things, there’s an ace blogosphere and some other places online – the asexual tag on tumblr often gets this sort of discussion when it’s not utterly besieged by people who hate us. The main issues seem to be that people outside our communities don’t realise we exist, and that when they do we get hit with a lot of backlash and hatred. I’ve seen people trying to address the question of “are asexuals oppressed qua asexuals” and then *sexual people jumping in furious with rage at the idea that we claimed to have any problems at all let alone be marginalised compared to them. (There was an attempt at a *sexual privilege checklist on tumblr about ten months ago. It didn’t end well.) I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t the only ace on the more activist side of things who now tries to dodge that question entirely and instead tries to describe ace oppression as a specific presentation of heteronormativity.
Er and that had next to nothing to do with your post! I just got a bit grumpy at what I saw as a misrepresentation of my community.
On topic – your idea about tearing down this dichotomy we’ve built up between “sex” and “rape” set off fireworks in my head. Because, mm, there are a few things I keep harping on about regarding ace issues and this ties them together. Things like how compulsory sexuality leads to a lot of ace people being pushed into having sexual encounters they may find uncomfortable/unpleasant all the way to traumatising, but in ways that don’t necessarily fit well into the usual rape/sexual assault narratives. (And that doesn’t have to mean pushed by specific people.) Or how the model of enthusiastic consent that I frequently see pushed as the end-all be-all of consent models doesn’t really work very well for a lot of ace people. (Some readings leave us unable to consent to sex at all. This is not helpful and kind of insulting.) Or, generally, how a lot of the dialogues I’ve seen about sex and sexuality assume “sex is inherently a good thing” in ways that are both alienating and mean they can’t actually address many ace issues – because for many asexuals all sexual encounters have a negative component and that has to be addressed without demanding all of us be celibate forever. I think this even ties in with the demonisation of asexual people in sexual relationships you see a lot, huh.
Hey, Kaz. Thanks for the comment!
When I wrote this piece, I had a strong intuition that compulsory sexuality must have strong effects for asexual people, but despite asking around as best I could, I couldn’t find anybody who’d written about it. It sounds like some of the selective privileging of voices and the silencing you’re talking about might be partial reasons for that.
But at the time, I felt that I mustn’t speak on behalf of asexual people so I ended up with the compromise you see in the article. I’m sorry that it misrepresents the community. It was my best effort at the time, but of course, that’s never an excuse when trying to represent marginalised views!
Anyway, since then, I’ve followed pingbacks to a whole bunch of amazing ace bloggers who’ve written very clearly about compulsory sexuality as oppression, and I’ve got some good links now to include in anything I write on this subject in the future.
Also, I’m really sorry to hear that some ace activists have felt forced to dodge the issue entirely because of the pressures exerted on them. I hope that my article has have provided a few more ways to open up a crack in compulsory sexuality so that this kind of thing can be talked about more openly.
What you say about the model of enthusiastic consent not working well for a lot of ace people is something which hadn’t even crossed my mind before I started to become aware of these conversations over the last few weeks, but now you say it, it makes perfect sense. I don’t like the model myself – I much prefer to talk about consent as a process which happens best when there’s as little coercion as possible in the room, and that one can point fingers to the people who need to do the work to reduce that coercion.
I talk a little more about that model in this article on consent, which is also the same place I began developing the ideas of compulsory sexuality explored more thoroughly in the article here. I’d love to know what you think about it!
Have you read this??
“The reality is that people who don’t like sex, or don’t like having sex with strangers, or aren’t sexually oriented toward the gender of the clients they see, or don’t like doing sexualized performances, work in the sex industry every day. And it is just that parenthetical ‘attractively high [fee]’ that is the reason for their actions. For the majority of people who work in the sex industry, money, not sex, is the driving factor. […]
Emphasizing sex and pleasure harms the sex workers who aren’t firmly in the self-defined population of being sex positive and sexually educated, by unintentionally shaming them for not being enthusiastic participants in the sex they have at work. […] [This] makes it more difficult for people who have negative experiences to speak openly about their truths with sex work or sexuality more generally.”
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Some articles leave you feeling, albeit unexpectedly, that you have read something of great personal or historical importance.
As someone who had always been a (conflicted) sex-positive feminist in the sex-moralist society of Pakistan, I’d like to say: thank you for writing this.
@Sex realist: Thanks for the link. I had read it, but I wasn’t sure about reposting it. I think it does weave into the same conversation, though (as well as having parts where it doesn’t overlap).
@F: Thank you! Have you read Dworkin’s ‘Intercourse’?
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I am wondering, on reading this ( http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/jamesons_archaeologies_of_the_future/ ), whether you’d ever encountered the semiotic square before: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotic_square
It seems a bit unclear and obscurantist, and possibly misapplied by Jameson r.e. the first link for all I know, but it could fit yr. schema:
s1 Sex Moralism
s2 Compulsory Sexuality
~s1 Sex-positive feminism
~s2 Sex-negative feminism
Not certain this is in any way immediately helpful, but thought you might find it interesting!
I love this post – fantastic in so many ways. Takes a lot of guts to talk about this since the sex-pozzie crowd is quick to jump on any critique.
@Boner Killer: Thanks! I really appreciate your writing too.
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powerful and interesting! many thanks for this.
this in particular i think is one of the best articulations i’ve seen of a constant problem:
>> And its subtle enemy is compulsory sexuality, which may easily coopt it. The job of fighting sex-moralism is straightforward if not easy. The job of resisting cooption by compulsory sexuality is extremely challenging and requires sisterhood and cooperation with sex-negative feminists.
but i do think you let many sex-negative feminists (in this reclaimed positive sense) off the opposite side of this hook a bit too easily, especially in navigating relationships to state power. while it’s certainly true that “sex-negative feminists do not support the way [sex moralism] uses their language to make antifeminist arguments”, there’s a large gap in the radical feminist tradition around resisting exactly that form of cooptation. and, i’d argue, it’s exactly the necessary reciprocal sisterhood and cooperation that have been lacking.
the problem of solidarity between sex-positive and sex-negative feminists *is*, in many ways, the shared problem of cooptation. for sex-positive feminists, the dynamic centers on the corporate sphere of media & cultural production; for sex-negative feminists, on state power and its alliance with organized religion.
(which, parenthetically, makes me wonder about the political lineages of the feminist radicals who developed and/or influenced the two traditions – is this divide partly a split between the traces of a state-oriented socialist lineage, with its tendency to slide into dogmatic prescriptive moralism, and an anti-state anarchist lineage, with its danger of curdling into laissez-faire individualist libertarianism?)
@rozele: I think there are two different things here.
One is that powerful forces (e.g. compulsory sexuality, sex moralism) will use any language they want, including borrowing from the language of feminism, and that feminists can do very little to affect that in any way. Certainly, this has happened to both feminist tendencies.
But the other is that sometimes, feminist groups can end up actually doing the work of those powerful forces. This is where I criticise sex-positive feminism in practice, but I don’t accept a symmetrical criticism of sex-negative feminism, i.e. radical feminism. While I’m sure it’s not possible to ever be 0% co-opted, most claims of co-option I’ve seen have been exaggerated, ill-informed or plain false.
In particular, the accusation that radical feminists have been “in bed with the right wing” has been circulated for decades. In MacKinnon’s essay, The Roar on the Other Side of Silence, printed in the introduction to In Harm’s Way, she describes this as a tactic of the right and suggests it originated in a New York Times article, later reprinted almost word-for-word in the Village Voice. The same accusation was regurgitated by Ariel Levy in her slanderous introduction to the 2007 edition of Intercourse, written at a time when Andrea’s body had barely cooled, just one year after her death.
Likewise, most people today repeat as if it was fact the accusation that Dworkin and MacKinnon aimed to achieve state “censorship” of pornography. And I’m not aware of a time when the state hasn’t been strongly opposed to radical feminism and radical feminists in almost every way.
The radical feminist movement certainly arose from the left, but it was the revolutionary left, and in particular, it was in the left’s complete failure to speak to the needs of women. I know less about the origins of sex-positive feminism, but if it does have one foot in anarchism, as you say, the other is firmly in liberal reformist camps.
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The intensity here makes it hard for me to read in depth but I think I like the concept of the ethical prude, so long as it coexists and doesn’t contradict the existence of the concept of the ethical slut.
Feminism as I see it is claiming our right to do whatever the god-damn we feel like, and I think we want to realise we’re free to *have* sex and we’re free to *not have* sex. Either one of these is done on our terms (in combination with our partner’s terms of course – we’re talking about free and non-manipulated consent).
I’m a proud slut and a big believer that a free female sexuality will help heal a lot of the rifts in our collective being. I also know that sexual “extroversion” varies a lot, and I will fiercely defend anyone’s right to be as prudish or asexual as they like.
I think you’re taking it as an individual thing. It’s not. It’s about being against massive systems of coercion. As I describe ethical prudery, it has nothing to do with being “as prudish as I like”. You see the problems with sexual coercion of women under patriarchy or you don’t; if you see them, you should be against them, unlike the dudes who love them. “Ethical prude” isn’t an identity, it’s a description of a political position based on a political analysis. And women – all women – will only have our right to do what we feel like when we can get patriarchy and other systems of domination the hell off our backs to give us space to even know what we feel, let alone the freedom to do it.
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This is just an excellent piece, and you should be proud of it. I’m going to recommend it to some of my acquaintances. In the online feminist fora I frequent, there is definitely a majority of sex-positive feminists mistaking sex-negativism for moralism. Overlapping with the sex-positive group, there is an even larger majority who are trying to make feminism all about individual choice, but I see a big problem in that, because systemic injustices just don’t have individual solutions. So I most definitely see the world from a sex-negative radical feminist perspective, although – or even because – I like sex very much and would like the opportunity to have a whole lot of it; the kind that’s consensual (which only has meaning if every person’s non-consent is respected 100%).
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A well written essay and am glad to understand this an similar viewpoints a little better.
One thing though. I feel the infographic is missing a relationship.
From a sex-positive point of view I felt that, like Sex-Pos does for Sex-Neg and moralism, Sex-Negative Feminism sometimes mistakes Sex-Positive Feminism for Compulsory Sexuality. This seems to occur when peoples desires and choices are discarded by Sex-Neg because they are percieved to be coerced by cultre.
Many who are sex positive feel this is effectively putting words in their mouths.
Personally I consider individual autonomy to be ultimately something of an illusion. But if our choices and desires really are down to cultures influence on us then nobody should be in a position to discount anothers choices/desires as we are all produces of our experience of culture no matter how seeminlgy counter-cultre an individualls opinions are.
Where Sex-Neg and Sex-Pos are definitely in agreement is in broacasting critiques of cultural norms so that choices influenced by culture can become informed ones. For me the hope is that as a group everyone who makes a different decision of their own accord naturally reshapes cultrue and what is percieved as normal.
@Jordan: I’ve approached this topic before in one of my previous articles. I’ve not seen this happen in a case where a woman making a choice fully acknowledges the coercive contexts surrounding that choice as well as the relative privileges she possesses which enable her to make that choice, and doesn’t attempt to minimise the impact either of those contexts on other women, or of her privileges on her perception of her and others’ situations. Please bear in mind, sex-negative feminists understand there to be a lot of coercive context!
I’ve seen it happen a lot when a woman claims that her choice erases coercive contexts, perhaps for herself, more problematically for others. And what I’ve seen most of all are women who take general criticism of coercive contexts as personal criticism of their choices when aligned with those contexts. It’s understandable; if you don’t believe a general context exists, personally is the only way to take that criticism. But that isn’t a reason why sex-negative feminists who accurately perceive those contexts should stop talking about it.
People of all feminist tendencies need to get to the point where we’re talking about “shitty choices”. A “shitty choice” is between a bad option and a worse one. Choosing the bad option is a very different kind of “choice” to choosing something you actively want to do. Conflating the two creates this kind of confusion. Sex-negative feminism argues that the majority of sexual choices for women in a patriarchy are this kind of “shitty choice”. To paraphrase Sheila Jeffreys* in Anticlimax, outside of a patriarchy “we cannot yet be sure what women would choose”.
Your entry is amazing. What I am not quite clear on is, where is the line between compulsive sexuality and sex-positivity? It seems to me that one flows naturally into the other, or perhaps this is merely a result of the co-optation that has been going on. Are liberal feminists in one or the other, or both? Or is sex-positivity strictly defined as people who agree with the Ethical Slut concept?
I think that line is for people who describe themselves as sex-positive feminists to embody and demonstrate. There’s sex-positive writing out there which sets it out, in a variety of different ways, and which I read and nod along to. Is there “an authentic sex-positive feminism”? In theory, certainly. But for me it’s reached the point where I need to see it done, by a wide range of people, across a wide range of complicated issues (like pornography).
I see the liberal/radical split differently, more like MacKinnon puts it in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, as being more about whether people think difference in gender opportunity is an irrational difference which, once it’s more generally realised as irrational, will go away, or a rational strategy and system – rational, that is, for men.
Part of the problem with who “identifies” as sex-positive might just be that the coopted form of sex-positivity has the good press, and that many women aren’t allowed to discover any other feminism, or are too heavily attacked if they try to explore it. My experience has been that the camp called “sex-positive” contains a lot of women who leap at any real chance to understand what I’ve called “sex-negative feminism” here, and also radical feminism.
So looping around, “is there an authentic sex-positive feminism”? When women identifying as sex-positive have had the chance to genuinely encounter sex-negative feminism, and then continue to explore women’s liberation through affirming women’s sexuality while demonstratably taking sex-negative feminist insight into account: yes, then there’s an authentic sex-positive feminism, but not before.
So there’s no specific ideology right now that you think embodies the sex-positivity label as you’ve defined it?
I’ve tried not to define it too clearly. And I think the ideology exists in spades. The question is with the practice, and I think you’re better off putting that question to those who identify their feminism within sex-positivity, not me!
Yes, I suppose you’re right. I don’t gravitate in those circles, so I’ve never met such a person. Thank you again for this great entry. I look forward to your ongoing series.
How one sexually identifies is not relevant to the scope of compulsory heterosexuality’s effect; rather it affects all women regardless of sexual orientation. We are all indoctrinated from birth into compulsory heterosexuality, and compulsory heterosexuality is a system, in which lesbians are punished for not acquiescing to heterosexuality, or are subject to hegemonic influences in which a phallocentric sex around the use of dildos and penetration, thought to be synonymous with sex, is adapted. Having identified as a biromantic asexual for various years I know I was coercively broken into heterosexuality with a boyfriend years ago – who considered his mission to make me ‘enjoy’ sex and thus convert me. Since I had identified as bisexual but am still largely asexual – but that change didn’t come about of any positive process. In fact my boundary to re-stating my asexuality for the most part, is the predicted isolation or disregard I’d receive, or worse, more damn heterosexual missionaries trying to ‘convert’ me. That said I’ve had ex-boyfriends who tried to deem me ‘straight in practice’ and negate my dykiness because I was in a relationship with them.
@Jas: I agree, compulsory heterosexuality tries it on with everyone. The tactics and the effects of the tactics can be different for women in different positions, though. All I’m really trying to do with that section is show the effects of rape culture for a variety of different groups, including in situations where, like you say, sometimes it’s about appointing proxies for men. In particular I wanted to pick out how, for example, lesbians who don’t have sex with men haven’t managed to get ourself off patriarchy’s radar – it might seem obvious but we’ve probably all heard a lot of, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about any of that (feminist critique of sexuality in a patriarchy), I’m a lesbian…”
I’ve only just recently been able to sit down and read this and respond to a few things!
“Pornography does not depict (at best) a kind of genre theatre of power and vulnerability centred on the image of the woman-as-whore, it it said to depict sex, even though the actors are likely to find the paycheck (if there is a paycheck) much nicer than the sex.”
I would be very, very careful about defining the experience of sex workers blanketly. I think there’s a way to critique pornography and what’s going here without defining for sex workers what their experiences are and how they feel about their monetary compensation. I feel like as well we put different standards on sex work than we do regular work. Like with a regular job it’s okay to hate it sometimes or hate certain aspects of it. That work is still “okay” (of course, it has to be in a capitalist society), but sex work has to be 100% positive at all times in order to be considered valid or “okay”, if that makes sense?
“Feminists do not own the word ‘sex’. It will not mean what we define it to mean. It will, pending the overthrow of patriarchy, continue to mean what it has always meant.”
I have a problem with giving the power toward a patriarchy to define a term. It almost seems as if we don’t own any terms then. Do the terms “men” and “women also only mean what the dominant narrative have defined them as? I realise that an identity is different than a concept, but I think that the reason a lot of feminists have for defining sex the way they do has less to do with the delusion that they believe they can change what sex has meant retroactively and more pushing for the idea to differentiate an enjoyable experience from an experience of violence and abuse.
I can’t speak for all abuse survivors, but in my own experience maybe the act of what I did while abused in all it’s physical trappings matches what I do now when I have “sex”. Indeed, quite a lot of what I did when I was being sexually assaulted was exactly what I do now when I have “sex”. But for me, the experience of having what I call sex and being sexually assaulted was radically different, to the point of night and day.
I’m not doubting and do personally know people have had sex under duress for fear of repercussions whether they be physical or just a horrible reaction from someone. For me, most of my experiences with assault happened before I reached a double digit age, so I have a clear separation in my mind physically between my assaulted body and the body I have now. Perhaps for the people who have assault or rape experiences more close or more recently, they feel different about their experiences. I can only speak for myself. But I just feel like… I refuse to call what I went through “sex”. It wasn’t sex, and not just because it wasn’t “nice”, but because I do feel a strong need to distinguish with words the emotional experience of what I call “sex” and my “abuse”. However, I’m aware that some people can’t always make that distinction in their experiences.
But what I went through was so different to “sex” that calling it identical just because they have physical commonalities… it’s like for me to say that sticking my hand in a holographic representation of a glove is identical to putting my hand in an actual glove. Redefining sex doesn’t make me forget that we live in that culture. I remember it every day. I remember it every time I have a new sexual partner and I have to disclose my abuse. It’s pretty impossible for me to forget. Perhaps what you’re seeing is less of people forgetting that they live in a world of rape and power, but instead seeing a lot of individuals who want to characterise their sexuality, their sexual being, and all of that through a lens of reclaiming sex for a positive, because for so many of us it has been very negative.
“Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” is a powerful motto for those for whom sex has been nice, or for those who would like to experience it as nice. It is less encouraging to those who have experienced sex as violating and/or unwanted; simply telling them that what they experienced was not sex, or the offer of sex, is small comfort when it appears indistinguishable from what the rest of the world calls sex, and when the rest of the world insists that it was sex.
I disagree with the dichotomy you’ve put forth here.. It’ can be a powerful motto for those of us who have spent our lives battling with the assumption that sex or anything involving our genitalia is inherently related to our abuse. I feel compelled to share my personal experience, which you may or may not be interested in.
[TW: Specific discussion of sexual assault] I spent the vast majority of my life as what I would describe as “sex phobic”. I experienced sexual assault when I was three years old, but I did not fully even comprehend that what happened to me was sexual assault until I was much older. Without being too graphic, I’ll say that people who have the genitalia I have (and maybe other people who have variations on it, I can’t say this for certain) experience a very particular type of pain when being violated. In my experience, this pain is different than any other sensation I’ve experienced in my life. I would only realise for sure that that pain was that pain when I was older and began sorting out my own body on my own terms. But it took me a very long time to do that because of the experiences that I had. I was also assaulted when I was 5 and again over a period of months when I was 7.
[/End of specific discussion]
All of this created the environment where I was terrified of my genitals. All genitalia and any discussion of sex or anything like it became tinged with the subject of my abuse. It permeated everything to the point where I actively avoided anything involving sex, despite having an interest in it. I had some experiences growing up with young girls that were coercive in that I was so young I didn’t have within me the full agency I do now to say “No” if put in the same situation, but I don’t describe them as abusive. Because as much as I was subject to peer pressure, there was a huge difference for me between those slightly coercive experiences and the times when I was abused. Because those men who abused me, the entire relationship I had with them was coercive. They constantly physically threatened me or hurt me on purpose, so even though a few of the men who assaulted me were also young when they did it, because our entire relationship was built on an unequal power dynamic in which I always experienced pain as a result of their cruelty, I characterise those experiences as abusive. Whereas, the experiences I had with my female peers were coercive not because they intended to coerce me, but because all relationships with my peers were somewhat coercive because I wanted them to like me. So, I’ve had a sexual experience that wasn’t necessarily “nice” but wasn’t abusive or what I would define as “rape” or “assault” either. And those experiences that I would define as “rape” or “assault” I don’t define them as such because of their “niceness” factor, but because of the nature of the relationships between me and the assailants.
It was the experience of my assaults though that created a sex phobia for me. For a long time I was terrified of it or any discussion of it despite my curiosity. The breaking point came at two ages, when I was 16 and when I was 18. When I was 16 I had a lot of queer friends who discussed sex in the way that younger kids do, but it was positive. My friends didn’t shame themselves for being interested in masturbation, which was mostly what we talked about. And that was radical and new for me. I grew up in the South where not just women who want sex are bad, but I would argue that in the South sex itself very much is. Of course, the more heterosexual, the more vanilla, the more white your sex is, and if you’re male you get far less punishment, but sex itself is seen as bad. Masturbation doubly so because it’s sex without the purpose sex is supposed to serve, which is procreation. So to have that environment where sex wasn’t inherently seen as something bad or wrong was a new thing.
When I was 18, I was introduced to what I would argue was “sex positive” discourses. I had a sex 101 course introduced and taught by people from Good Vibrations, a women owned sex store in San Francisco at my university. And this completely changed how I saw my body and how I interacted with it. Reclaiming sex in positive way became a way of interacting with my body on my own terms. Instead of being terrified of it because genitalia always represented abuse and negativity, it allowed me an avenue of redefinition, of being able to relate to my genitals in a way that didn’t make me think about what I’d gone through, in a way that didn’t trigger me or make me worry. That said, especially with regards to your points about compulsory heterosexuality, I will say that the bits of sex positivity which reaffirmed heterosexuality were always the easiest to access. Sure, I accepted myself as a sexual being at 18 and was able to explore that, but I didn’t come out or give myself the freedom to see women as a possibility until later. So, that’s worth noting.
But, some of us who have experienced “sex” as negative want to have the space to reclaim our own bodies in a way that’s positive. I’m not saying it’s the same for all survivors, because it isn’t. But I’m just saying that… it’s more than just a “small comfort”. It is incredibly encouraging to finally be able to see sex in a way that isn’t intrinsically abusive and terrifying. I think you’re not disagreeing with that, but you’re rather just saying that there are cases in which “sex positivity” is just another arm through which this force we already know is reaching at us with.
I do definitely disagree with the concept that “sex is nice”. I definitely think that’s problematic. Especially since in my experience an understanding of abuse is so frequently about hindsight. And it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. When you’re experience abuse, I think it makes a lot of sense in terms of survival for your brain to say, “What you’re going through is totally normal. You are fine.” I don’t think your brain wants you to realise what’s going on fully in the moment because you might have a serious problem if that happens. Quite often, it takes me to go back and break down what happened for me to realise that there was something seriously wrong. That’s why I find friends so important to run things through. Rape and abuse are so normalised in our culture that I think so many people experience rape and abuse without understanding what it is because a.) no one wants to think they’ve gone through that and b.) they don’t realise, because of the problem you’ve pointed out that “sex is nice” and “rape is not nice” are not always true. Case in point, one of my coworkers joked casually about how he had an experience in an all boys school where one of the bullies there once backed him into a corner and ordered him to do something sexual. He laughs it off as a hazing ritual, but I was horrified. What he experienced was sexual assault, but he didn’t define it that way. Maybe because he doesn’t want to think he’s been assaulted, because he believes the dominant discourse in that men can’t be raped, or… a lot of complex reasons.
The construction and binary of “Sex is nice” and “rape is not nice” also made it incredibly difficult for me to call my sexual assault experiences what they are. Because all of my experiences were non-violent. In all of them I never said no. I never fought. I never stopped myself from doing anything I was ordered to do. Yes, in one of them I experienced a physical sensation, but I had understood the definition of sexual assault to be so narrow that it couldn’t possibly include my experiences because “rape is not nice” ergo, my experience couldn’t have been what they were.
So, in summation, yes. I really totally disagree with the idea that “Sex is nice” and characterising rape so that it’s only defined by it’s not niceness. But I think in terms of your interpretation of sex positive feminism as either “forgetting” that we live in rape culture or as not accessible to people who are survivors… I would really rethink that. Because a lot of the most sex positive people I have met are also survivors and I myself feel like sex positive discourses have helped me redefine my sexuality in ways that weren’t so centred around my abuse which has been overwhelmingly positive for my life.
Now, that all said, I have intense problems with some “sex positive” outlooks, especially when it seems very coincidental that women “reclaiming” themselves as sexual creatures ends up serving the interests cis heteropatriarchy. Sort of like what you were saying with performative bisexuality there seems to be a sort of trend that I witness in some sexually based communities where there seems to be quite a few 20-25 year old “sex positive feminist” women who’ve “reclaimed” their sexuality (and I’m not putting that in scare quotes to discount their own experience, but rather to illustrate a point about how cisheteropatriarchy consumes female sexuality in whatever form it presents) and then there’s a load of 30-50 year old men who conveniently reap the rewards of that without doing any challenging of their own power structures. While the cultural contexts are fairly different, it really reminds me of the huge problem within the gay male community of older gay men acting predatory towards younger gay males, preying on their lack of self confidence and the oppression they face as gay men to lure them into “introducing” them to gayness, which usually entails getting them to make unsafe choices about condom use and giving them drugs. I definitely want to give women and queers the agency to define their sexuality in whatever way that we’d like, but to assume that is beyond criticism is what bothers me. And yes, it seems like there’s a lot of push back from “sex positive” crowds when you start analytically looking at things. I guess, having been on both sides of that fence, I’d make these points:
– Yes, some of the choices I make and some of the things I sexually identify with may stem from rape culture influences.
– Yes, I should examine even desires that I feel are innate and inescapable, think critically about them, and perhaps even decide to make choices about what I do and don’t do based on that analysis.
– Yes, I should continuously examine my desires and there isn’t anything inherently problematic about rethinking or looking over my desires.
– No, you cannot assume that I have never had any analysis of that and am just choosing or doing what I do because I am a victim or misguided.
– No, you cannot assume that I sign off on cisheteropatriarchy always with the choices that I make.
The hugest problem for me is when people seem to ignore or deny my own agency in not only analysing what I’ve been through. But likewise I feel it is equally problematic, which some “sex positive” discourses encourage, to say that my sexual desire exist within a social vacuum and can never be critiqued or examined without that critique or examination somehow being rooted in Puritain, sex hatred or that a critique is somehow “yucking” someone’s “yum”.
I also wanted to add though that like… everything about compulsory sexuality really hits home for me. I wouldn’t describe myself as asexual and have a hard time with the demisexual label but… suffice to say I very rarely find myself sexually attracted to people or romantically attracted to people. My orientation is a bit of a mystery to me. I can’t really pin down quite what it is that makes me attracted to people. But it doesn’t happen very often. And I DO feel a sort of pressure to prove how sex positive I am by either sleeping with more people or being open to things like sex parties and such which… for several reasons I’m not very comfortable with. Like, I’m usually not that comfortable at large parties but with compulsory sexuality in the mix, it’s like it’s okay for me to be uncomfortable at large parties but if they involve sex than my uncomfortableness clearly comes from Puritan influences! In general, I’m just more comfortable being sexual with people I have had a lot of social interaction with and feel very comfortable with. But when sex positivity because compulsory sexuality it’s like, that on some level isn’t okay. My position isn’t moral. I’m not doing what I’m doing believe I believe it’s “right” or that people who do differently are “wrong”. It’s just how I relate to others and my own levels of comfort. So I totally feel what your saying with regards to sex positivity becoming compulsory sexuality.
And yes, sex SHOULD be critiqued. Most definitely. 🙂 Especially when anything which reaffirms cis heteropatriarchy is easily consumed and used. Just think about the ways in which feminist critiques of pornography have been co-opted and used by moralists, which you’ve already referenced. It can happen in “positive” ways too.
I hope all that made sense.
This sounds to me like the “reclaiming a word” debate. We can acknowledge, even as we work to reclaim, that systems like patriarchy have already appropriated – without our consent – the power to control what words mean to most people most of the time. “Sex” conjures something. To most people, most of the time, what it conjures looks a lot like power and violence, even as they’re unable to name that power and violence because the surface meanings of “sex” don’t admit those qualities.
In response to a number of your points: I’m criticising sex-positivity as and when it falls into the mistake of blanket “sex is nice”. Sometimes it doesn’t make that mistake, in which case, it’s not what’s being critiqued in this article, in fact, at multiple points I’m talking about the value of sex-positive politics which doesn’t make that error. The Ethical Slut is an example of something which, imo, makes that mistake. I think it’s one which every person calling themselves sex-positive should be trying not to make. I’m not sure everybody succeeds.
If I had to boil this article down into just two points, it would be:
Now how could I with a reclaimed word as my moniker argue against that? You make a really valid point. For as much I wish most of the world didn’t think things like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey were romantic or decent representations of human relationships, unfortunately we live a world where many, many do. Thank you for pointing that out.
That’s understandable. I’m not disagreeing with your points, I’m more or less looking at how things are worded and the way I read them. Like the dichotomy between people who have experienced sex as not so nice and the people who promote “sex positivity”. I think unfortunately quite a lot of survivors are under The Ethical Slut branch, and I think your larger point is strong enough without having to make this dichotomy, if that makes sense? Especially since the point about alternative spaces being also a place of compulsory sexuality (this so much!) is I think something that people really, really need to get on board with. Especially survivors. Because I feel like as a survivor, I wanted to reclaim my own sexuality in a positive way so strongly, it was perhaps MORE easy for me to fall into any alt sex type of group that made me feel good about myself – until I realised that some of the same pressures I felt in mainstream groups where there just as much in the alt sex groups. But survivors like myself can sometimes be particularly vulnerable to wanting to be accepted and understood, and it’s precisely that type of compulsory sexuality you were talking about that can make you go along with it.
I definitely don’t disagree with you and I hope you didn’t find my response overwhelming or difficult. I’m just trying to give you my own perspective on how I read it, that’s all. 🙂
I think the key word for me here is “unfortunately”, which I bolded. “Small comfort” was maybe the wrong way to put it, because you’re right, the rape/sex dichotomy can be experienced as a big comfort. I even support people who use that idea as a comfort, since every survivor is entitled to survive in (almost) any way possible. But I don’t support people who market it, i.e., the active (re)construction of sex as nice in a way which invisibly incorporates power and violence. I think sex-positivity has the potential to be more honest than that.
So I should have said here something more like:
So the action that’s being criticised is “insisting to [survivors]”, not survivors’ own use of dichotomies in self-defence. Do you think that’s better?
I just discovered your piece through Kitty Stryker’s link on the anarchist book fair site. Thank you to Kitty for referencing your article, and to you for this insightful treatment– I think your words were perhaps the most salient thing to appear in the whole book fair kerfluffle… and also offer a pertinent analysis of the dynamics at work in that debate. The deep division between those arguing for a “sex-positive” understanding of the kink.com location, and those arguing that it perpetuates the rape culture the event might hope to work against, makes much more sense seen in the light of your article. Your article also points to the places where those two perspectives might find common ground.
I wonder, though, whether there is also another dynamic at work in these sorts of debates– another point of departure between what you’re terming “sex-positive” and “sex-negative” that also fuels some of the hurt feelings and rancor? You are careful to point out, rightly, that a “sex-negative” perspective in no way falls into a moralistic shaming of women or sex, nor does it discount women’s pleasure, or the possibility that women– feminists– might choose multiple sexual partners or encounters, or enjoy pornography… etc. A sex-negative perspective does not work against the storied work of feminists to reclaim a sexual activism. (I do think, though, that your article goes a long way in explaining how, without a countervailing “sex-negative” assessment, that work has helped enable a culture in which women feel near-constant pressure to be sexualized, even from a young age. Something as simple as choosing a non-sexualized Halloween costume now seems like a radical act of prudery.)
My question, though, is whether there’s a conundrum when it comes to the question of agency. At the same time that the “sex-negative” understanding, as you present it, allows for a non-judgmental view of women and their varied sexual choices, it still sees those choices as framed within the context of a patriarchal structure that simultaneously controls them. And of course this is so– yet, what does this do to a woman’s agency? If all sex involves power, and usually acts out, and is acted upon by the dynamics of patriarchy– and if, in that model, a woman is in some way defined by her submission to power… then where is the possibility for a woman to define herself as something other in sex? Can this only occur after the removal of patriarchy, or in rare instances– or can a woman feel agency in sex *at the same time* that we recognize the patriarchal power structures in which that sex takes place?
I don’t at all have any answers– but I do think this central question is at work in arguments like the one happening over the book fair venue. When someone tells a sex worker– or whatever that person chooses to call themselves– that sex work is always exploitative, by it’s very nature… a “sex negative” understanding may recognize this to be true, but it is also true that such an understanding defines that person as devoid of power and agency. (And perhaps this is the question the commentator is asking above, in regards to ceding the terms to patriarchy.) If a person who has suffered sexual abuse defines healthy, consensual sex as something other– I don’t think this is merely using an illusory understanding to feel safe. It may be that those encounters also take place within the power structures of patriarchy– but, at the same time, to say that there is no difference except one of scale also takes away that woman’s power and awareness of choice. I think these types of assertions can also feel traumatizing (I know they feel so to me, at least.) If one allows that all sex involves patriarchal power, and will do so until patriarchy no longer exists, then isn’t this also in some way an argument *for* patriarchy? By which I mean, an argument against the possibility that women *already have* agency?
Is it possible to see the ways in which a place like kink.com operates in, advances, echoes, and conjures the power structures of patriarchy, and at the same time respect the individual agency of those women acting within it? Can “sex negative” allow for agency, even under patriarchy? I’m not sure, but I think so, and I think this, paradoxically might also allow more space for women to share the ways in which they *do* feel uncomfortable– as there wouldn’t be the constant pressure to resist one’s own representation as a powerless victim in need of rescue. Or, the trauma of being seen as a person without sexual agency.
We’ve all got to play the hand we’re given as best we can. Radical feminism just observes that the hands we’re given are shit. The game is rigged.
PS: thanks for explaining where all those extra hits came from today. I couldn’t figure it. Do you have a link back I could follow?
Yes– the link is: https://m.facebook.com/events/315726928523586/ (Though you may need to be a Facebook subscriber to access the page? If the link does work, just scroll down for Kitty Stryker’s comment, and link to your article.)
A warning that, although there is some genuine attempt at productive discussion sprinkled throughout– as with the reference to your article– there’s also a lot of the usual dynamic of Internet comments, including meanness, misogyny, misunderstanding, a minefield of potential triggers, and lots of other ‘m’s to boot. Enter at your own risk!
…Also, I just wanted to respond to the above (while acknowledging that I am probably completely unqualified to do so. It has been years and years since I’ve been involved with academia– and when I was, my approach came through literary criticism, and a feminist response to the deconstructionists– through writers like Irigary, Cixous and Kristeva. Which probably puts my background about in the Jurassic Age.) I did, though, want to say that in talking about agency, I meant something more than how one chooses to play with the hand one’s dealt. I agree that we are all born into a game where the rules have already been written, and that the rules generally bite (not just, of course, in regard to gender and sex.) Still, I always feel that there is a “but also” involved here… something more than just working against, or trying to overthrow the proscribed rules (which, as Foucault suggests, is also another way of playing within the same game.) I think one can recognize, examine, and work against the shittiness of the rules, *but also* experience another kind of agency– one that allows for playfulness, creativity, inspiration, empathy, and a sense of otherness… and that this can, in some way, also allow a transcendence of the dominant frameworks, while simultaneously acknowledging that those frameworks are ever-present. Maybe this sounds wishy-washy, but I don’t feel it to be so. And the argument that we are all *merely* trapped within the destructive rules of patriarchy (and racism, colonialism, class…etc.) has always felt somewhat nihilistic to me. Which is not to say that we *aren’t* trapped, just that there is also the possibility for something other. The nihilism of denying this other form of agency– again to me– in regard to sexual politics can feel like it has echoes of the trauma it seeks to examine and dismantle.
I see now, though, that in your other articles here, you are working toward and imagining what another kind of relationship, or agency, might look and feel like (and I know that this is true of many other thinkers and writers as well) so I apologize if my reading simplified your perspective!
Yeah, we can definitely do all that stuff, and of course women’s situation is created out of two things: oppression that presses us into a limited space, and limited agency within that space, reaching out of it in some ways, being pushed back in others, creating a distinctive set of cultures of resistance (though ones which are still limited by oppression).
I think we have to start by acknowledging the shit, though. You can’t quickstep past/around that. I see the shit minimalised/ignored/denied a lot. I wrote this article to a) name it, b) defuse a particular tactic (“you’re just sex-negative”) used to prevent it from being named.
I understand that most people won’t choose to “identify” as sex-negative. Honestly, I think they’re misunderstanding the point I’m making, but that’s fine. As long as, as a radical, I can hold open the boundaries of debate and ensure that the shit can’t escape notice.
Thanks for acknowledging that I’m also doing other kinds of work. But I think the simple step of pointing out that there is shit on the lemon is a valid kind of work in and of itself, as long as people are saying that there’s not.
Very much agreed! And especially agreed when it comes to a more theoretical “sex-positive” dogma, which can be silencing in a way that feels coercive in its own right. (As you point out.) I was more reacting to that debate over the proposed site of the anarchist book fair– in that debate, I just felt that some of the “sex-negative” commentary could be criticized, not on the grounds that it is moralizing or judgmental, but for the fact that it also seems to incorporate some of the patriarchal dynamics it’s ostensibly critiquing– for example, talking about “rescuing” sex workers. I just wanted to point out that, when these discussions include sex workers, or survivors of abuse (and I would include myself in the latter category), who are, of course, *keenly* aware of the shit, looking at and naming the shit can be extremely important– but in that naming it’s equally important to delineate and respect what I would call the boundaries of agency. (The rescue fantasy being one example of obscuring those boundaries, or ipso facto seeing patriarchal power structures at play where a woman may feel that she is pleasurably playing *with* those structures… and I think, too that sometimes when people speak of a woman being objectified in a sexual situation, there can be a tendency to speak *about* her as if, through that objectification she *has* been made an object. There can be an othering, even in the language of this critique, if that makes any sense.) I don’t mean to say you’re doing this, and I don’t at all mean to jump past the shit! In truth, I would be inclined to align myself with what you’re terming a “sex-negative” position. I was just musing about another possible source of misunderstanding in these conversations.
I tried clicking through to that conversation but couldn’t really follow it. Given how many people seem unwilling to distinguish between radical feminism and sex moralism I always take reports that women are being sex-moralistic with a pinch of salt, though I take them more seriously from people with a visible (to me) track record of work against violence and power and the eroticisation of domination and submission.
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Reblogged this on Gender Equality and commented:
Please read in full.
1) I love the theme you chose. I may use it!
2) I am so glad you wrote out a long, well thought out piece. I have no problem with sex as an act, but people must remember that sex is more than an act. Sex can be used to for good or for bad. Sex is not something that lives in a vacuum and has no consequences whatsoever!
Though I agree with the premise of the article and several parts of it made me think, I’ve always just defined this by saying I’m sex positive but distance myself from the “Ditzy” side of sex positivism that oversimplify the mechanic of consent. Do I have to say I’m sex positive with sex negative tendencies now? “Sex Critical” would be a better word. I understand the need to reclaim sex negative but I do not think it should be the flagship of it. Also, I feel the article does skip over the sex moralism that comes from feminist camps to a degree.
I feel parts of the article were off putting too, the note on intersectionality was excessively long for what it was trying to communicate. You could have probably researched and written a small piece about this subject in the same amount of space. The whole article felt longer than it needed to be and I had to skip over some sections(and didn’t feel like I lost anything) due to my ADHD.
May I also make the point that in avoiding the humourless image of what people call a “prude”, that perhaps a certain wit may be required when addressing this subject? I understand this is a Manifesto of sorts, but such a piece could be useful.
I might write an article in response. I’m not really good at quoting feminist authors and the like(again, ADHD makes it hard for me to read long, serious
@Roseweave: A number of people have gone to “sex critical”, a phrase I prefer to “sex neutral” (what does that even mean?). I’m not so sure myself. If it’s done right, the sex I’m negative about is a different thing to the sex “sex positive” is positive about. In the end “sex” is too small a word for what it describes, and even the ways of describing and understanding it are contested. My view is that “sex negative” is a useful hat to wear and gives important insights. I stand by it.
You’re quite right that the piece could be smaller. That is, having written it, I could probably re-write it shorter. But at the time I wrote it, I was struggling to, as the title says, imagine an authentic sex-negative feminism. When writing on the edge of imagination, I think it’s natural for me at least to be a little less concise, even to hedge my words around with more disclaimers and more “distanced” language than I might use for an old, familiar topic. That said, you are following the blog in which I put my thoughts most formally. If you’d like a more informal tone, you can follow the tumblr, which contains posts like the parable of the shitty lemon.
Humour’s definitely a good communication tool, but if you’re criticising this piece for being too humourless, you should bear in mind that others have criticised it for being too frivolous. My hunch is that women can’t win, especially us nasty prudes. Our work is interrogated from so many different directions, often in bad faith, that it can’t possibly stand up to all of them. The best we can do is to write our thoughts in as best a form as we can, and hope that some of them are communicated to some people, an’ it harm none. I’m generally satisfied that I achieved that in this piece, regardless of its failings.
If you write a response I’ll look forward to reading it!
(PS: I think the end of your comment got cut off? Happy to edit it in if you make another…)
Maybe this is also a great article which shows how Sex Moralism and Compulsory Sexuality are actually two sides of the same coin (marital rape as a man’s right), because I have seen how poeple are still tending to divorce both from each-other or seeing them as antonyms.
It also shows what sex/penetration actually means under patriarchy and how the sex roles are creating/shaping the gender roles:
”When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.
This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.”
I always think that there is a difference between penetration and integration, monologue and dialogue, fighting and cooperation, grabbing and touching, plunder and intershare etc. In german we say ”eindringen” (verb) for penetration which is also used as a synonym for housebreaking, breaking in, the very meaning of the word ”eindringen” is actually transgression and it is also used to define invasion. Moreover ”Eindringling” (noun) means intruder, infiltrator. I don’t think that this is a coincidence that we have this kind of hostile an warlike language when we are talking about sex and it is so normalized that people are not recognizing it. I mean why we are not using words with a more integrative and reponsive vibe?
But what I find strange is that people can become very angry at feminists when they are analysing those kinds of dynamics of the sex based hierarchy/discrimination but they won’t say nothing when men are using sex and their sexuality as an expression of hostility and defeat over and against women.
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This was such an important article for me to read, as it is the only thing I’ve been able to find anywhere which attempts to bridge the gap between the different warring camps of feminists. I have been trying in my mind to articulate the sadness I feel at the inability of feminists to get together with a common cause, and here I find everything I was looking for, especially in your lists of BOTH sex-positive and sex-negative stances as being potentially positive positions.
While investigating other blogs, I’ve seen that radical feminists actually really are shaming sex-positive feminists. They call them funfems and idiots and insist they are stupid and don’t understand feminism, and that anyone who dances burlesque for instance is a victim and a loser who has fallen prey to the male gaze, not to mention sex workers . They also tell men they can’t be feminists and bully and are mean to men who are trying to get involved. I also have seen sex-positve feminists claiming there is no such thing as sex trafficking and dismissing the most horrible male behavior and celebrating the most debasing pornography etc. I have been very sad about all of this and I’m now going to try to read everything on this blog. I agree that sexual expression can’t really be transgressive unless women are informed about what they are doing and what the context is. But do you think that this applies to sexual performance such as burlesque, or would you agree with those other radical feminists that such expressions are always already a patriarchal form of entertainment?
Men can’t be feminists and I am mean to men. So if that’s something you’re not into, you’re going to need to reconcile that with whatever liking you have for this blog, because that’s something fixed.
I personally don’t perform in or watch burlesque and I’m not a lawmaker or an omnipotent goddess so I don’t see what burlesque and I have to do with each other, or burlesque with my feminism. I’m not advocating for more burlesque in order to overthrow patriarchy – as you can tell by the lack of articles saying that – so is that what you’re asking?
I also have problems with the pressures and restrictions which patriarchy puts on women with regard to what are acceptable ways to act, what kinds of attempts at activism get recognised, etc.
But if you’re asking for some overarching pronouncement you’ve come to the wrong place!
I’m not looking for overarching pronouncements. Your answer was just what I was looking for. I don’t think I expressed myself very well, as it was late and I was tired, but I was just very moved and excited by your post so I wanted to write something. And I have only just now discovered this blog, so I haven’t had time to read through your other posts yet. I guess I was trying to understand what your relationship to sex-positive feminism is – if what you mean by sex-positive is what its advocates mean and what it has historically meant in the sex wars, or if you mean something different (your own definition of what can be positive about sex). What I was really responding to was this definition of sex-positive feminism:
” It is a feminist tendency which aims to fight the shaming of women and a woman’s right to independence as a sexual actor.”
If you’re calling this type of feminism progressive, and you’re allowing that it even IS a type of feminism, then you’re departing from the other radical feminists whose work I’ve read (unless of course by sex-positive you mean something different). I don’t watch or perform in burlesque either, but I thought it might be an example of what you meant when you described sex-positive feminism and its tendency to get co-opted by compulsory sex.
I have thought of myself as a feminist because my work has been directly an attempt to work out the problems of visual pleasure in narrative cinema for women after reading Laura Mulvey, and I’ve found along the way that a lot of what presents as honesty and truth in my personal sexuality is messy, regressive, masochistic, and confused. So I’ve tried to present that in my work, not as a manifesto of how anything or anyone should be, but as an attempt to bring female lived experience into my cinema. Because I include sex in this total experience people have defined me as a sex-positive feminist. When you are a woman and you present sexuality, you get heat from all sides – men trying to see it as being for them, women making a sex-positive manifesto out of it. So my work partly got co-opted into the sex industry. That really depressed me because that was not my intent and I started to read more radical feminist texts. What I’m really interested in is this messiness of sexuality for women, the doubleness that’s described in that excellent article by Joanna Russ linked above and your own re-definition of sex as something that isn’t always nice.
I have this suspicion that many of the women who fight over definitions really do want the same things. Your writing seems to be on the cutting edge, because it acknowledges that women who are at war with each other often want the same things.
I’m sorry if I offended you with my comment about being mean to men. I understand the political importance of certain definitions and of owning spaces that are not invaded by patriarchy.
I guess too, in re-reading some of the text above, I’m interested in burlesque because I don’t see it as falling into that “shitty choice” paradigm you mention, and because radical feminists sometimes seem to be shaming burlesque artists and adopting a moralist stance towards them. I also think that how men may respond to the performances is given way too much importance.
I thought this was a wonderful article, incredibly well-said. There was something in your response to a comment (about half-way through the thread?) that I particularly thought was important to emphasize, because I’ve often heard sex-negative feminism discussed as if it were simply let’s-not-pressure-people-to-have-sex-if-they-don’t-want-to, rather than more broadly critical. (I think this is maybe a way sex-negative feminism gets swallowed into sex-positive feminism.)
“As I describe ethical prudery, it has nothing to do with being “as prudish as I like”…“Ethical prude” isn’t an identity, it’s a description of a political position based on a political analysis.”
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I very much like what you have written here, appreciate the clear critical analysis and agree with much of what you have said.
I will never identify as sex-negative or as sex-positive. To me, it automatically sets up an oppositional dichotomy that is a reframing of the age old Madonna/Whore dichotomy. Both labels also have loaded words, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ which are associated with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ despite both words origins in electrical and magnetic current of equal necessity and neither good nor bad. Associstions colour view whether we like it or not. That included sex-negative and sex-positive being percieved as diametrically opposed irrespective of truth.
I also think re-labelling critical analysis of sexuality, sex dynamics and sexual situations as sex-negative feminism is playing into patriarchal status-quo structures equally as sex-positive feminism because as feminists we’re not all about the sex. We’re about equality in its true undestanding; meaning equality and identitical are not synonymous. Equality is of percieved value. Different but of equal value. So, I call myself a feminist. I do not qualify or quantify my feminism beyond that of addressing issues of inequality with a primary focus on the one’s that effect women.
When looking at issues of sex and violence, I am still a feminist, neither negative nor positive.
I respect your right to choose your own labels for yourself though do take issue with defining all critical analysis of sexual violence as sex-negative. In association, I percieve this analysis as a positive step toward respect and equality.
Hi. I’d love to give you my opinion of burlesque. I am a choreographer and have worked with burlesque performers and I DO take issue with burlesque catering to a singular femininity that aligns with male fantasy.
This specific femininity is soft, pink, fluffy, feathery, languishing, slow, the look of sensuality and posing for visual effect. It is a PART of femininity but nowhere near the whole story. It can feel very sexy and the performer can feel a temporary sense of power relating to her femininity and her sexuality. The performer can also have agency. On this level there is a feminism within burlesque.
However, there is another side. The limited understanding of femininities means catering to the status quo of pin-up, glamour modelling, sexual availability, object for visual pleasure and pressure to conform to this male defined form of femininity. The most obvious type of femininity that’s missing is the fierce, passionate femininity of wild abandon. Though this is not the only type of femininity missing.
This is not the first resurgence of burlesque. The early 1980’s had a modernised resurgence thst was called ‘flash’. Flash had three phases to the dance; art, fierce femininity and abandon. The art introduction was highly choreographed to be as unique and themed as possible. The fierce femininity was highly sexual in nature, with high agency and an in-your-face quality. The abandon ending to the dance relaxed the controlled movements to identify with the audience as a little goofy, a little quirky, as a woman. The moves became more like what could be seen on a dance floor rather than a stage. The idea being to represent an idea of every woman when the self-consciousness is let go of.
I was very lucky to see many filmed versions of flash. There is only one pop-culture film that I know of with examples of flash. Aptly named, Flashdance.
I hope I’ve provided some food for thought whether agreed or disagreed with.
All the best.
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Oh, I just read your FAQ and you’re not radical feminist. I will look around here more, I do identify as radical feminist but I don’t want to be transmysogynistic, I am still learning I hope I didn’t cause any offense.
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Fascinating and eye-opening. Lots of knowledge here, stretching my mind ever further.
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Thank you so much for all of this. I am a young seventeen-year-old woman, and my feminism has recently developed to be much more radical and very sex-negative. I find there is no-one around me who feels similarly to me and that others cannot understand why I find heterosexuality so frightening. You have articulated my thoughts so clearly. Principally, I would like to thank you for being a trans* voice talking about radical feminism. I do not personally know any transgender people and I have often felt confused, seeing famous transgender people as the only examples, about transgender people and my personal experience of gender as something extremely conditioned. Reading your writing has made me realise lots of things. I look forward to reading more of it and learning more from you.
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