19 Comments

FAQ: Isn’t the existence of the term “sex-positive feminism” effectively an admission that many feminists are anti-sex?

  1. If only it actually were that simple.
  2. Sex-positive’s opposite is not sex-negative. The terms sex-positive, sex-pos etc came about as a movement in opposition to the feminist anti-pornography activists of the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Let’s spell it out: Pornography does not equal all sexual behaviour.. Prostitution does not equal all sexual behaviour. Consensual sex play that eroticises power and powerlessness does not equal all sexual behaviour. Anyone deploring/approving one subset of sexual behaviour is not therefore deploring/approving all sexual behaviour.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t dichotomy and consequent acrimony in feminist theorising about various sexual behaviours, both commercially exploited forms and private behaviours. In the early 1980s, these extreme positions led to a long series of acrimonious essays and debates about sexual behaviour and feminist theory summed up as the “Feminist Sex Wars“, arguing whether pornography and sex work were/were not inherently degrading to women and whether censorship would in the long run be more damaging to the feminist movement than to the pornography industry. The echoes still linger.

However, because sex-positive feminism is largely reactive, responding to various other movements which are perceived to threaten freedom of sexual expression, it is hard to define sex-positive feminism simply. There is no one ideology or agenda on which every feminist standing under the sex-positive agenda will agree. The Wikipedia entry referenced above notes five major issues for sex-positive feminism – pornography, sex-work, BDSM, sexual orientation and gender identity – a feminist might identify as sex-positive in solidarity on only one or some of these issues without having a particular interest in the other issues at all, and these five issues hardly cover all sex-positive concerns either.

Away from the extreme sexpos/antiporn/radfem stances the basic tension is between embracing sexual freedoms/liberalisations as essential to women’s autonomy and viewing the results of sexual liberalisation with some suspicion as having been bastardised (into an expectation of sexual permissiveness that has increased the objectification of women as part of “raunch culture” without increasing women’s general experience of egalitarian sexual satisfaction). As with many other feminist and progressive political views, for many proponents this is a Both/And argument about the tensions between free will and the systems of power over others in the social hierarchy, not an Either/Or position.

[updated to add the links I forgot - oops]

Catherine McKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life & Law ( Ed. Catherine MacKinnon., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 136):

“It starts with the idea that people, even people who as a group are poor and powerless, do what they do voluntarily, so that women who pose for Playboy are there by their own free will. Forget the realities of women’s sexual/economic situation. When women express our free will, we spread our legs for a camera.

Implicit here, too, is the idea that a natural physical body exists, prior to its social construction through being viewed, which can be captured and photographed, even or especially, when “attractively posed” — that’s a quote from the Playboy Philosophy. Then we are told that to criticize this is to criticize “ideas,” not what is being done either to the women in the magazine or to women in society as a whole. Any critique of what is done is then cast as a moral critique, which, as liberals know, can involve only opinions or ideas, not facts about life. This entire defensive edifice, illogical as it may seem, relies utterly coherently on the five cardinal dimensions of liberalism; individualism, naturalism, voluntarism, idealism, and moralism. I mean: members of groups who have no choice but to live life as members of groups are taken as if they are unique individuals; the social characteristics are then reduced to natural characteristics; preclusion of choices becomes free will; material reality is turned into “ideas about” reality; and concrete positions of power and powerlessness are transformed into relative value judgements, as to which reasonable people can form different but equally valid preferences.

What I have just described is the ideological defense of pornography. Given the consequences for women of this formal theoretical structure, consequences that we live out daily as social inequality (not to mention its inherent blame-the-victim posture), I do not think that it can be said the liberal feminism is feminist. What it is, is liberalism applied to women.”

Susie Bright, The Prime of Miss Kitty MacKinnon (originally published in the East Bay Express, October 1993.)

“MackKinnon has picked up a drum to beat that is already as American as apple pie, the-devil-made-med-do-it bandwagon, where every erection is a threat, where sex is men’s domain and women’s suffering. It’s puzzling why she thinks this is radical or iconoclastic. Her work dovetails nicely with the most right-wing fanatics in the country.”

Andrea Rubenstein aka tekanji (Shrub.com): Sex-positive does not mean misogyny-friendly!

“Engage with the argument, engage with the issues, but do not label us all by what you have seen in your limited research. That is no better than the kind of stereotyping all feminsits get from anti/non-feminists. Like the feminist movement as a whole, sex-positive feminists are not one trick ponies. We have different takes, and different interpretations, on pornography and sexuality.”

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19 comments on “FAQ: Isn’t the existence of the term “sex-positive feminism” effectively an admission that many feminists are anti-sex?

  1. [...] came to symbolize frivolity (FAQ entry) and reinforce the myth that feminists are against sex (FAQ entry) and hate men (FAQ [...]

  2. So in these posts:

    http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2007/05/12/she-said-i-know-what-its-like-to-be-dead/
    http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2007/05/16/the-new-page-of-consent/

    arguing that society should make all heterosexual sex criminal, is not in fact anti-sex? And lets not mince words, the concept that a person cannot consent by legal document and is assumed to not consent, is in fact making the act illegal.

    How is describing heterosexual sex as having “horrific personal and political implications” anything less then hostility?

    Or how about telling people what they can and can’t do in the bedroom?

    http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2006/06/14/judgemental-sex-pedantry/

    None of this is hostile to sex? This post conveniently words things but dodges its own title, and attempts to deny a very real group because it is politically inconvenient.

  3. Twisty is one very unusual person, let alone an unusual feminist, and gets plenty of criticism from within feminist blogging. However, she simply is not saying what you present her as saying. Much of Twisty’s material is presented in Swiftian mode, although not entirely in the first two posts you mention.

    The first two posts are hostile to rapists, not to sex. In both of them Twisty emphasises that women who want to have heterosex could have as much as they liked, just that a change in the legal system regarding rape would change the current emphasis on the woman proving that she said “no” to one of the man proving that she said “yes”, or better yet taking nitpicky arguments about consent and the withdrawing of consent off the table altogether in favour of “did she want to leave and did he prevent her from doing so?”.

    You’ve cut the context of dominance from the quote about horrific implications, too.

    The third post was Twisty self-admittedly trolling her own blog for the sake of the “impassioned arguments defending [mentioned sex practice]“. Is the language provocative and insulting? Yes. How else do you troll for flames? She also got plenty of criticism for it.

    Finally, even if individual feminists are, for their own reasons, personally anti-sex, that doesn’t make those reasons feminist reasons.

    • “The first two posts are hostile to rapists, not to sex. In both of them Twisty emphasises that women who want to have heterosex could have as much as they liked, just that a change in the legal system regarding rape would change the current emphasis on the woman proving that she said “no” to one of the man proving that she said “yes””

      But sorry, this is insane.
      In a world in which people (including women) didn’t lie, there probably wouldn’t be rape- and vice versa.
      Unfortunately, neither is the case. Just like there are people who rape, there are people who lie.
      No, I’m not saying “If she didn’t fight him off , it’s not rape” or “If she’s a ,slut’ it’s not rape” or “Rape doesn’t exist” or something. But yes, some people can, do and will lie.
      A society in which the accused has to prove he hasn’t done it is a witchhunting society. I a modern democracy, all accused, whether of rape, murder or petty theft, are innocent until proven otherwise.
      Seriously, while rape does occur most sex happening is consensual, especially in industrial nations. There is a proof needed for assuming it’s not.

  4. TD, your response to this which continues to argue with Twisty’s words has been deleted. The place to argue with Twisty about Twisty’s posts is on her blog. Good luck.

    The term “sex-positive feminism” was coined in response to differences of feminist opinion about the sex-industries of prostitution and pornography, and by implication casts its opponents as “anti-sex” rather than the more accurate “anti-sexual-exploitation”. (“Anti-pornography feminism” also implies an over-simplification of the opposing position, of course.) That is what the FAQ is about. Please stay on topic.

  5. So in a debate about whether there are in fact anti-sex feminists, to point out feminists who are in fact anti-sex is not considered germane? You don’t see anything a tad odd about that?

  6. Anti-sex claims about feminism appear to be fallacious arguments. In almost all cases these assertions are no more than ad hominem attacks peppered with sweeping generalizations.

    http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

    There is not one iota of objective evidence to support this anti-sex assertion. How about subjective evidence? In essence, prove to me that compared to non-feminists, feminists dislike sex, or have less sex, or have worse sex. Good luck.

    Feminist stances on things such as reproductive legislation appear to contradict the feminist anti-sex generalization.

    Furthermore, the same criteria people are using to call feminists anti-sex can be extended to homophobes, religious conservatives, people who don’t like condoms, monogamists, and my cat, among others —i.e. to anyone who takes issue with ANY aspect of so-called human sexuality.

    For example, as much as I disagree with homophobes and religious conservatives, I would be missing a bigger picture if I simply dismissed these folks as anti-sex; it definitely takes critical thinking to step back and look at the motivations and the context (cultural, social, historical, etc) surrounding any belief.

    And lastly: Anyone who wants to critique an act that for most people requires the intentional suppression of one’s gag reflex (which is actually a physiological safeguard to prevent choking) and the subsequent blockage of the airway— is OK in my book. Tell it!

  7. [...] Also to read is this awesome post at Feminism 101, Isn’t the exitense of the term “sex-positive feminism” effectively an admission th… [...]

  8. Radical feminists want to denaturalize and politicize sexuality. They take a social constructionist stance on sexual behavior and critque it in relation to the ways in which it is a product of and serves the interests of patriarchy. In the case of pornography in particular, this often extends to a critique of capitalism. Radical feminists are not so much ‘anti-sex’ as they are opposed to the eroticization of domination and subordination.

    With regards to sexuality and oppression, ‘pro-sex’ feminists tend to be classical liberals in sense that they argue for a separation between private life and civil society. Radical feminists, on the other hand, argue that politics saturates and constructs all aspects of human activity and subjectivity, including one’s sexuality.

    For example, many pro-sex feminists believe that critiquing or banning the multi-million dollar pornography industry impinges on women’s autonomy, since many women choose to use or make their living from pornography. In contrast, radical feminists tend to view pornography as economically and sexually exploitative for the majority of women involved, and as impinging on all women’s freedom to develop their own autonomous sexuality.

    The distinction is more nuanced than what I’ve been able to describe here, but I think you get the picture. The distinction is about how feminists understand key concepts like ”autonomy” and ”sexuality”, rather than whether they are pro- or anti-sex.

  9. [...] to accept and embrace the label. I want to add my voice to the feminists who feel similarly. The sex positive feminists. The feminists who embrace human equality and human [...]

  10. Is sex-postive the same as sexual liberals?

  11. “Sex-positive’s opposite is not sex-negative. The terms sex-positive, sex-pos etc came about as a movement in opposition to the feminist anti-pornography activists of the late 1970s/early 1980s.”

    Um, sorry but I find that rather hard to believe. Or, rather, that sounds more like a confirmation of this than proving its opposite?

    If it arose ‘in response’ to anti-porn feminism, surely by the very choice of that name they were implicitly labelling those feminists as anti-sex? Very convenient (and successful) way to discredit feminists in a very typical patriarchal way. While sex- positivism has made valuable contributions in complicating notions of oppression, in the sense that autonomy is complex, and has rightly drawn attention to the moral validity of removing the livelihood of sex workers, I think it goes way too far and is a bit of a cop out to be honest. And, I have heard plenty of said sex-positivists use the term sex-negative and a noted tendency to label anyone who critizes them as oppressive and or antifeminist. Not cool.

    Bearded Lady: exactly my gripe with this term. It changes the argument into something else and creates a straw man of radical feminism

    • Rididill, the FAQ is saying that while the originators of the term “sex-positive” may well have meant it (at least partly) as a way to label anti-pornography activists as anti-sex/sex-negative, that this framing is not legitimate.

      So I think you are in furious agreement?

  12. I am in furious agreement with that. Though, I’m not sure if I just didn’t read it properly the first time or whether it has been edited, because that seems a lot more clear now that it did when I read this the first time round.

    ‘Away from the extreme sexpos/antiporn/radfem stances the basic tension is between embracing sexual freedoms/liberalisations as essential to women’s autonomy and viewing the results of sexual liberalisation with some suspicion as having been bastardised (into an expectation of sexual permissiveness that has increased the objectification of women as part of “raunch culture” without increasing women’s general experience of egalitarian sexual satisfaction). As with many other feminist and progressive political views, for many proponents this is a Both/And argument about the tensions between free will and the systems of power over others in the social hierarchy, not an Either/Or position.’

    This cuts to the core, obv.

    But if the framing is not legitimate, why continue to use a label which misrepresents pretty much everything about it?

    • Because not everybody who uses the term is thinking about the anti-pornography movement? (eta – Sexual desire is, after all, a good thing – why not be “positive” about it?)

      For example, the SlutWalk marches currently occurring are using the term “sex-positive” in opposition to the tradition of slut-shaming against overt sexual behaviour by women of any kind. It’s not just about people in the sex industry, it’s about all women who refuse to be ashamed about acting on their sexual desires, and who refuse to be blamed for “attracting” rapists by Doing Something Wrong (as if being Demure/Modest/Respectable/Careful Enough is any real barrier against a determined rapist).

      Like many words, it’s slippery and contains complicated contextual layers. It requires some thought and analysis to establish just how different groups might be using the word at different times. That’s exactly why anti-feminists who attempt to rigidly define the term so as to paint all feminists as boner-killers like to over-simplify it. It’s a rhetorical trick to deflect rigorous examination of the challenges the word presents.

  13. ‘That’s exactly why anti-feminists who attempt to rigidly define the term so as to paint all feminists as boner-killers like to over-simplify it. It’s a rhetorical trick to deflect rigorous examination of the challenges the word presents.’

    Um, not really. I don’t think it’s the antifeminists who are doing that personally, I think the phrase does it all by itself. The phrase ‘sex-positive’ is a rhetorical trick to obscure what it represents. In the case of the sex industry and BDSM, that is, which as far as I know, is still the most common use of the term.

    And why SHOULD a word present such rigorous examination as a necessity (and make itself such an easy target for antifeminists, as you put it)? doesn’t that imply it’s rather failed in its mission as a word, to express something clearly?

    Fair enough if the slutwalkers want to use it in that way, that’s a much better usage of the term at least. But it still remains that this was not the original meaning, which did intend to paint other feminists as sex negative, and many who use it still do that.

    Of course there are arguments to be made about whether it’s original or current usage that matters. I think ‘sex-positive’ actively invites what you call a misinterpretation. All it does is claim that you are positive about sex and therefore whoever you are saying it against is anti-sex.

    Actually even in terms of the slutwalk it obscures the issue. Cos those opinions aren’t about being anti-sex either, they’re about a double standard for male and female sexuality. I’m sure there are some twisted fucks who would argue that rape is pro sex and therefore sex positive.

    My opinion – people like to use it cos it looks good (at face value) and is hard to argue with until you think it through to its logical conclusion. Who wouldn’t want to be positive about sex? But when you actually come to think about it, it tries to win by pretending the movement is something that its not. And IMHO that tends to undermine you in the end. ‘how’ groups are using it is one thing, and is not the same as ‘why’ they are using it, and looking at the effects of using something that invites misinterpretation.

    The only use of the label that makes sense would be against religious puritanism that actually says that sex is sinful.

    • @Rididill, in the context of this FAQ it is the anti-feminists who are attempting to use the very existence of the strand of “sex-positive feminism” as some sort of PROOF that the rest of feminism is absolutely resolutely “anti-sex”.

      That there are problems with how “sex-positive” has been framed by some of the people who use it is part and parcel of how the anti-feminists can claim such an outrageous untruth, certainly. But the fact remains that the simple existence of groups identifying as”sex-positive feminists” does NOT mean that all the other feminists are “anti-sex”.

      • Nah, it just means that some feminists are calling other feminists anti-sex, which is different I suppose.

        The question of whether this ‘proves’ anything about feminism is a bit of a moot point to me, sounds like a pretty dumb thing to say. I guess I came to this forum from a different perspective, as a feminist with a problem with other feminists using this term in, I might add, rather sanctimonious ways.

        Thanks for the input, I appreciate this forum is not trying to answer the questions I am asking.

      • No worries, Rididill. I do attempt to keep these threads fairly strictly 101, because that is the point of the place -hammering away at the most basic of principles in response to the vast sea of wilful ignorance and overt hostility out there against even the simplest expressions against sexist injustice. I have seriously seen the argument made along the exact lines as expressed in the title of this post many, many times.

        There are far better forums around for more advanced questioning of conflicting feminisms/womanisms.

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