- If only it actually were that simple.
- 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.”