For months now, I have been trying to think about what I want to say in defense of the sex-positive feminist movement. I have written this post many times, then erased it because it was too defensive, too mean, too vitriolic. I think what I've realized through all these many drafts is that defending a movement is the wrong tactic. The criticisms of the sex-positive movement are valid, and in order for it to move forward and evolve those need to be taken into consideration. But folks, I just don't think we can throw female sexual empowerment by the wayside, either. As someone who has experienced a lot of different kinds of sex, with a lot of different people, both consensual and not, I truly believe that fighting for equality surrounding the sexual rights of women is a vital component of the overall battle for equality.
For those of you not in the know, the sex-positive feminist movement is widely believed to have begun in the early 1980's as a response to anti-pornography feminists. The main idea behind it is pretty much what I said above: that women's sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom. From the start, there has always been other factions of feminism who believe that the patriarchal (male) control that society has over women's sexuality makes it impossible for women to have an authentic view of their own sexuality. The basic criticisms of the sex-positive movement, as I understand them, are that women who engage in open expressions of their sexuality are often just displaying internalized representations of male sexuality; that the sex-positive movement has not properly dealt with the complicated nature of consent and the fact that it is often not enthusiastically given; that it does nothing to address the fact that women are often degraded by the sexual representations of them in porn, advertising or other media, sometimes even encouraging degradation; and that sexual empowerment is often thought of as sort of "bimbo feminist" interest, or of interest only to privileged feminists who haven't given a lot of critical thought to the feminist movement overall. Today, most feminists in this faction either identify as sex-critical or sex-negative.
From my standpoint, these criticisms are all real and worthy of examination. The one I take the most challenging view towards it probably the idea that sex-positive feminism is somehow intellectually inferior, but I do still see the point about it being the backbone of privileged or less critical feminist rhetoric. However, through my own journey towards feminism I have found that is important to remain positive about my own sexuality, since it is one of the areas I am most often attacked for. Both by men but perhaps most primarily by other feminists.
I came to feminism through the sex-positive movement, as I think many feminists of my generation did. The reason for this is because, from a very early age, my sexuality was often frowned upon, shamed and erased. I think the last word I used there, erased, is the most important of all of them. While it is impossible to say whether or not my sexuality is "authentic," or is more a product of the male dominated society I was raised in, it is my own. And it is real to me.
Some examples of how my sexuality was erased by others during some of my most impressionable teenage years:
- As a chronic and early masturbator, I was the first woman amongst my group of friends to openly acknowledge I did it, and tried to encourage my friends to as well. I was told by many of them that what I was doing was gross, and that it was not something women did (even though we all had a health class where it was discussed as something that was OK to do, and that both girls and boys did it).
- When I tried to advocate for better sexual education at my school, asking for more information on how to have pleasurable and consensual sex, I was ostracized by my peers and denied access to this education by my teachers.
- I was told by one of my male friends in high school that I was less attractive than one of my best female friends because she was "innocent" while I was "promiscuous." It is worthy of note that at the time he said this to me, she was no longer a virgin and I had still never even kissed anyone.
- As someone who identified as probably bisexual, I was told both that I needed to choose a gender to be attracted to and that I was definitely not bisexual until I had sex with both a boy and a girl.
I don't fault any of the participants in my sexual erasure, because they are just members of this society as well. However, it was obvious to me from a very early age that patriarchal ideals of what female sexuality should look like were going to follow me throughout my life. And that made me mad. Real mad.
I was exposed to the sex-positive movement in my late teens and early 20's through the work of Nina Hartley and Betty Dodson, and my favorite magazine Bust. It fit, because the primary form of oppression I had experienced up until then was this sexual erasure. Yes, I was very much a privileged baby feminist then- one who had not yet formed a critical view of the role that consent played in my life, or the ways that catcalls and male possessiveness of my sexuality made me feel, or the ways in which my sexual fantasies actually were formed by pornography that was generated by men.
Now I am 33, and my eyes have been opened in a lot of ways. And yet, I remain positive. I still refuse to allow other people's views of my sexuality- whether they be men or women- to affect my own personal view of it. I have had negative experiences with sex, but the best way I have learned to combat my negative experiences is to build more positive ones. I am both critical of the control that this patriarchal society has over my sexuality, and I am patient with it (and myself) and want to continue to strive for something better. We can't achieve female equality and empowerment without acknowledging that sex is a basic human need and right. Some women crave a lot of sex, crave sexual attention, crave the ability to be able to express themselves sexually. We cannot continue to erase that.
Sex-critical and sex-negative feminists, you have a seat at my table. I hear you loud and clear, and I want to work together on making the future a better place to be both a sexual or a non-sexual female (and all the areas in between). But I have to ask you to stop trying to take away my right to enjoy sex however I see fit. We are all on a journey toward figuring out what our own personal sexual liberation looks like, and there is absolutely nothing unauthentic about an individual's journey toward a genuine expression of their sexuality.