Sex is one topic never far from the lips of society. Sex sells, and nearly every aspect of our culture is trying to sell itself. Feminists sometimes try to sell the movement under a “sex positive” flag, but it more often than not uses the same oppressive, misogynistic methods that we should be dismantling.
Sex-positive feminism is, on the surface, a fine idea: Feminism that doesn’t shame women for having or enjoying sex, well that’s obviously a plus, right? I agree that slut shaming is not an acceptable practice, so shouldn’t I be a sex-positive feminist? If only it were that simple.
There are a lot of problems with sex-positive feminism, and I’m sure I’ll forget to touch on some of them. That said, I’m going to try to tackle a few basic problems with the movement:
Heteronormativity – Sex-positive feminism focuses on supporting and promoting sex between DMAB men and DFAB women. It ignores trans* and intersex people and same-sex couplings. This is largely because it’s trying hard to appeal to straight men. Sex-positive feminism tries to convince the world that feminists aren’t the anti-sex, man-hating prudes many think us to be, and it resorts to heteronormativity to try and accomplish this.
PIV (penis in vagina) sex is the flavor of intercourse most men consider under attack by the feminist movement, so it’s the one sex-positive feminists rush to defend. PIV sex is discussed as the norm, the default. This leaves many trans* folks, intersex folks, and same-sex-partnered women on the fringes, once again ignored by a culture that already paints them as deviant.
Justifying unjustifiable kinks – “Kink shaming” is a phrase sex-positive feminists like to lob about, accusing anyone who disapproves of certain kinks of being prejudiced against kinky people. This prevents them from examining the problematic nature of some of those kinks. Any activity can be claimed a “kink” and basically be given a get-out-of-misogyny-free card. Rape fantasies, male dominance, everything gets blanket coverage under the theory that you can’t help what your kinks are.
But some kinks deserve criticism, some kinks really are just harmful misogyny, and we shouldn’t be forced to accept them just because somebody gets off to the subjugation and abuse of women. Sometimes kinks exist for toxic reasons, and they can be dismantled and replaced with healthy sexual practices if the person involved is willing to examine their motivations. Not every kink is created equal, and ones that rely on the oppression of a minority should be questioned, challenged, and rejected.
Ignoring the complications of consent in a patriarchy – MRAs like to quote feminists who’ve called all PIV sex “rape.” But they do it to villainize all feminists without bothering to recognize the actual point that’s being brought to light. It’s not that every man forces every woman down bodily and ravages her while she screams protest, it’s that consent within a patriarchal society is difficult, sometimes impossible.
One such difficulty lies in the distinction between requesting sex and coercing it. Coercive sex is rape, and a huge amount of PIV sex is based on subtle or overt coercion of the woman involved. Even the wheedling “Come oooon”s of a husband at his wife claiming a headache are coercion, and constitute rape. If consent is not 100% free of social and cultural manipulations, it’s not really consent, and it can be hard for women to be free to offer that sort of consent.
Women in our society are inundated with the message that we should consent to sex when a man demands it of us. (This is ironically juxtaposed with the insistence that we not have too many partners so as to be considered “slutty” by the man currently making the demand.) Women who use “excuses” to deny sex–headaches, being tired, wanting to go on more dates first–are deemed “frigid,” those completely legitimate reasons discarded and ignored. This is when a woman’s relenting “okay” becomes coercion. If the answer starts out “no,” it should remain that way, but men are trained not to take “no” for an answer.
Sex-positive feminists ignore these complications, and delegitimize the experiences of coercive rape victims. They support the normalization of that sexual persuasion that turns women’s “no”s on their heads, that makes those women believe their own reply is less valid than that of the male making the request. Sex-positivity focuses on exactly that: The positivity of the sex itself, not that of the humans participating in it.
Support of the sex industry without support for its victims – The sex industry is a wide net to cast, consisting of sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography, and everything that falls on that spectrum. Sex-positive feminism ignores many of the complex negativities of these industries in favor of normalization and acceptance.
For example, sex-positive feminism often argues in favor of legalizing prostitution, without turning a critical lens on how even legal prostitution still victimizes women. Women in the industry have often been the victims of childhood sexual abuse, partner abuse, or drug addiction, making even voluntary participation the result of abuse or manipulation. Their profession also puts them at increased risk of violence from the men who hire them, risking everything from rape to robbery to homicide.
While sex-positive feminism doesn’t explicitly support sex trafficking, it ignores how that practice is unavoidably tied to those aspects of the sex industry that it does support, like prostitution. Many women who wind up prostitutes have been trafficked into that lifestyle against their will. Legalizing prostitution will do nothing to stop this abuse, it will only give glancing consent to it. This also crosses into racism, as women of color are trafficked into Western nations from foreign countries.
It also supports pornography, which is another misogynistic institution. Women who participate in the porn industry often have similar abusive, addictive histories to those involved in other sex trades. Even if a woman enters the industry sober, abuse-free, and of her own volition, the industry itself still caters to men, and thus thrives on the degradation of women. The very sex acts performed are designed for male consumption, heedless to the lack of pleasure it would bring about from the women involved. The end result is almost always male orgasm, often through the abuse of women.
Even “soft core” porn contributes disgustingly to rape culture, and it’s impossible to support these institutions without supporting misogyny. Likewise, you can’t support the sex industries without disenfranchising its victims, those women who are raped, assaulted, driven to addiction, and otherwise harmed.
Shaming sex-negative rape victims – The very notion of sex-positivity relies on a rejection of sex-negativity, which is sometimes a valid reaction to sexual assault. An insistence on sex-positivity shames rape victims who have painful, negative associations with sex as a result of their assaults. It forces those women to try and “get over” their negative associations with sex before they may be ready, all in the name of not seeming anti-sex to men, the very people who victimized them to start.
Not all rape victims respond to their attacks with negative associations to sex, but it is a common response, and one that’s painful enough without our “allies” there to shame us. And imagine trying to reestablish a positive relationship with sex within a culture that supports rape kinks.
It’s not right to build the feminist movement around men, and that includes creating a sex-related form of activism designed to appeal to straight, cisgendered males. Feminism by definition is supposed to be about women, but sex-positive feminism is inherently male centered.
In all, I suppose I almost have to consider myself a sex-negative feminist. Not because I’m actually anti-sex, but because I’m against the culture of sex as it currently exists. I have sex (currently with a cisgendered man, even) and I enjoy it and believe my consent to be legitimate. But my sexual interactions have not always been so healthy, and I’m still grappling with the reality of that.
Sex-positive feminism is an oversimplified approach to very complex problems. It takes the oppressions mainstream feminism is already too apt to overlook–those of women of color, trans* and intersex people, and queer women–and completely sweeps them away. It silences victims, supports victimization, and encourages misogynistic behavior. In short, it sells out the roots of the feminist movement, in favor of male approval.