Sex-Positive Feminism vs. Sex-Negative Feminism

When I posted the reason why I identify as sex positive despite seeing sex as neutral, I specifically did not mention sex-negative feminism because I felt that it was a much more complicated issue that deserves its own post. It’s one that I think it would require a lot of effort and reading on my part to try to understand where sex-negative feminists are coming from (which frankly, I’ve never fully been able to do). I don’t have the time to write a deeply informed and detailed post about it, so this is not that. However, there are a lot of other writers who have written about it, so here is a link spam post, with some thinking out loud. I have an epically long, super important post full of practical advice for how to ethically have sex with an asexual person scheduled for later this week, but I figured I might as well pass these on in the meantime.

Lisa from Radical Trans Feminist: The Ethical Prude: Imagining an Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism. (If you have trouble reading because of the text colors at the link, like I do, Lisa was also kind enough to provide a link where you can easily change the text to a readable view. I had never heard of this website before, so this is a great find for me! Thanks, Lisa!) This is a really great article that shows how there isn’t actually a huge difference between sex-positive and sex-negative feminists. It’s more a matter of what kinds of things you emphasize than anything else. It’s long, but well worth a read if you have the time. I’ve been prude-shamed quite a bit myself, and if I were more on the repulsed end of the spectrum, I might consider trying to reclaim the label Prude for myself, too.

Framboise just posted about sex positivity and anti-asexual views within it. Quote:

“The other most prominent argument tends to dance with the No true Scotsmen fallacy. Simply, many argue that when asexuals experience various forms of oppression from sex positive feminists (including concern-trolling about how to “fix” their sexuality, accusations of being judgmental, or erasure) they are encountering people who are doing sex positivity wrong.  However, these experiences are common.  Far more common than asexuals receiving any sort of affirmation in sex positive spaces.  If the majority of people claiming sex positivism are doing it wrong what does that mean? Whose responsibility is it to fix?”

This is definitely a huge problem, and I think there are a lot of sex positive people out there who really aren’t doing enough to make sex-positive spaces safe for asexuals and people with low interest in sex. It’s perfectly understandable why asexual people would feel alienated from an environment where it’s generally assumed that people want sex. But I also think it’s important to point out that the majority of people, sex positive or not, are not sufficiently educated about asexuality to respond to it appropriately. There are some sex positive people who DO reach out to asexuals and truly try to embrace sexual diversity in all its forms, but they’re in the minority because people who accept asexuality are in the minority. It’s easy for someone who is uninformed to think that asexuality is somehow related to shame about sex, because they’ve probably never had that assumption challenged. Those people who do accept asexuality and consider themselves allies need to bring the issue up, and educate others about it.

I don’t think the No True Scotsman fallacy is applicable in this case, because we’re dealing with ideals and not facts like where someone was born. It would be applicable, if someone was arguing that because sex positive people value consent and sexual diversity, they never push sex or sexiness onto people who don’t want it. That’s a factual contradiction. But that’s not the argument. The argument is simply that they aren’t living up to their own ideals.

Here’s an analogy: the United States of America was formed with the idea of liberty and equality, but still allowed slavery and didn’t give women the right to vote. We still have problems with racism and sexism, even today. Despite the founders’ commitment to the ideals of liberty and equality, mainstream views at the time limited their egalitarianism to such an extent that what they enacted wasn’t true egalitarianism. I think we’re seeing a similar effect here: the mainstream view that asexuality is pathological is limiting even people who believe in the importance of embracing sexual diversity and the value of consent.

Does that mean that these people don’t genuinely see consent and diversity as ideals, and therefore aren’t allowed to call themselves sex positive? No. Does that mean that these sex positive people who don’t accept asexuality as legitimate aren’t truly, fully living up to their own ideals? Yes. They’re not taking the values of consent and diversity to their logical conclusion. Whose responsibility is it to fix that? It’s everyone’s. Even if you’ve talked about it before, if you haven’t talked about how sexual diversity includes people who don’t want to have sex at all lately? Do it again. Any time you mention sexual diversity, try to make it clear that it’s okay to not want sex, too. You may feel like that should go without saying, but it really doesn’t, and not mentioning it contributes to asexual erasure.

Emily Nagoski posted about anti-sex-positive feminism in response to this post by Meghan Murphy, which in turn quotes this post by Holly Pervocracy, and this post by Charlie Glickman. All of those posts are well worth reading. In particular, I want to quote Glickman:

The very notion that a sex act can be good or bad in and of itself is simply the current iteration of sex-negativity because it locates the value of sex in the activity rather than in the experiences of the individuals who do it.That’s like saying that sandwiches are good or bad without reference to the personal tastes of the people who eat them. It’s much more productive to ask how a given individual feels about what they do and make room for a diversity of responses, instead of judging the acts themselves.

This is why I think that it’s a misunderstanding to think that sex positivity is about saying that sex itself is good. It’s more that sex, in general, has the potential to be good. IF it’s done in a consensual way, but more than that, a way which values the satisfaction and emotional well-being of all participants. Consent is just the bare minimum requirement, but we need to aim higher than that.

One other thing I want to point out: I keep seeing sex-negative/anti-sex-positive feminists claim that sex positive people can’t handle critiques of sexism in porn and other mainstream parts of culture that enforce sexism. That’s not true. Yes, a lot of us will have defensive reactions to critiques of porn. However, the problem is not critiquing sexism in porn, but that the way in which the critique is framed either generalizes that all porn is bad, or that the sex acts themselves are bad, without recognizing that it’s possible to do those things in an ethical, consensual way that values the satisfaction and emotional well-being of all participants.

I dug up an old article by Greta Christina on this distinction, and how critiques of sexism in porn often miss it and end up engaging in kink-shaming. While we’re talking about her, I’ll also link another piece she wrote about sex work. She’s written many more excellent articles on sex positivity, and they’re all worth reading, but I’m not going to dig up every single one of them to link here.

I think ultimately, the main difference I’m seeing between sex-positive feminists and sex-negative feminists still comes down to how they feel about porn and sex work. The sex-negative folk seem to think that porn and sex work are both inherently abusive, while the sex-positive people (myself included) think that, even though there IS a lot of abuse in sex work and the porn industry, and we acknowledge it, we also think there’s a way to combat it without banning porn or sex work. I think prostitution should be legalized and regulated, for example, rather than criminalized and driven underground, where abuse can be much more easily perpetuated.

If I’m wrong about the way that sex-negative feminists view porn and sex work, though, feel free to correct me. A lot of the posts I read from sex-negative feminists only tangentially mentioned porn and sex work without making their views about it explicit, so I’m still thinking of the ones who did mention it that I read so long ago that I now can’t even remember where I read them anymore.

20 thoughts on “Sex-Positive Feminism vs. Sex-Negative Feminism

  1. sex-negative feminism does not exist. feminist who criticize sexualty do it so because they know that it is constructed in a certain way by the patriarchy and can (and must) be changed.

    • I think the feminists who are trying to reclaim the label sex-negative would disagree with you, there. I encourage you to read Lisa’s post.

    • sex-negative feminism does not exist. feminist who criticize sexualty do it so because they know that it is constructed in a certain way by the patriarchy and can (and must) be changed.

      As one of the few people using the label “sex-negative” to describe my own politics, I want to point out that I completely agree with you about sex.

      Personally, I’ve heard “oh, you’re sex-negative” one too many times and nowadays I say, “Eh, whatever. Fine, let’s call these politics sex-negative. Those words won’t scare me away. Now engage with me.”

  2. sex-negative feminism does not exist. feminists who criticize sexuality do it so because they know that sexuality is constructed in a certain way by the patriarchy and it can (and must) be changed

    • Why did you post this twice? Did you mean to comment with this name instead of the other? I can delete the first comment if you want me to.

  3. If I’m wrong about the way that sex-negative feminists view porn and sex work, though, feel free to correct me.

    You’re partially wrong. You’re right that radical feminism has a systemic criticism of prostitution and pornography, rather than thinking “some’s good, some’s bad”. But you’re wrong that the answer is to “ban” it, or to “censor” it, in the case of pornography.

    I can’t even begin to express how frustrating it is to be repeatedly misrepresented in this way. The article of mine which you link here even expressly contradicts this “banning” argument. Radical feminists can be forgiven, I think, for concluding that there’s no desire to engage with our position on these subjects because of how little effort it seems like people are putting in to understand it.

    • Well then, my sincere apologies! I must have glossed over that part when I read it. I’m not trying to misrepresent you, and I realize it’s really frustrating when people do so even when it’s just out of ignorance. There were a few people I saw years ago arguing for censorship/banning of pornography, and that’s an impression that unfortunately tends to stick because of the way that people keep arguing against it. Those people may not even have been proper feminists, but rather right-wing women co-opting the language of feminism, as far as I know. I wish I remembered where I saw it so I could look it up again!

      If I had more time, I would make more of an effort to go and read up on this stuff more, but unfortunately it’s crunch time at school for me right now. I’m finding what you have to say insightful and interesting, even though I don’t totally understand your perspective. What I’m not seeing is how it’s actually different from mine enough to warrant calling it sex-negative; it seems to be basically a difference of optimism vs. pessimism to me at the moment, a difference of perception only. Are there actually any places where our goals do diverge?

      If you wouldn’t mind explaining, what kind of action do you actually think should be taken about pornography?

      • The main historical approach taken by radical feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin – one I agree with – has been to fight for routes of civil litigation for women harmed by pornography. So, not “banning”, and not “laws against pornography”, but the ability for individual women to bring individual suits against pornographers to rebalance the power that the pornography industry has over the lives of individual women and over women as a class.

        It’s actually an approach that fits equally well whether the industry as a whole is irredeemable (as I and many other radical feminists think) or whether some parts of it are defensible (as some others think); the idea is that women will identify harm from – and bring action against – the harmful parts, and will keep doing so until there are no harmful parts left.

        For me, it’s an amazing example of the way that radical feminist theory both dares to name conclusions such as “Pornography, as a form of political action, is woman-hating” but also places its trust in women – not a vanguard of elite intellectual women, not women with a sufficiently raised consciousness, but women as a class – when it comes to acting against our own oppression.

        There’s lots more information here!

  4. I think it’s also really critical to recognize that sex and pornography do not exist outside of a patriarchal context – so while the intentions (specifically around pornography) may have been feminist or at least not woman hating at one point, the product is viewed in the context of violence, objectification and oppression against women which the product then is implicitly perpetuating. One can’t make the argument that pornography is not inherently “bad” until one can unlink porn from patriarchy which is impossible until after the revolution.

    • I think sex has certainly existed outside of a patriarchal context — I don’t believe that every culture has always been patriarchal, and we can expect that people in these cultures had sex…I can’t really speak to what that might mean and look like, but I want to acknowledge that the way things are right now aren’t universal.

      Also, I find your idea interesting… “One can’t make the argument that pornography is not inherently “bad” until one can unlink porn from patriarchy which is impossible until after the revolution.” I’m not really sure what I think about this, because currently in my life everything is linked to patriarchy, including my feminist discourse and the thoughts that might allow me to formulate a response. Interesting.

      • That’s why radical feminism makes it really clear that when they are critiquing sex, they are critiquing sex within the patriarchy. There are no feminists who are against sex happening ever.

  5. Pingback: Pornography in the Kingdom | Life on the Margins

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  7. There are no people who call themselves ‘sex negative feminists’. It’s literally made up by ‘sex positive feminists’ to have something to rally against and feel superior to.

    Personally I don’t buy into any of it. It’s nothing more than the age old madonna / whore dichotomy reframed for the 21st century. And what it has brought with it is ‘prude shaming’ in the absolute extreme which barely existed ten years ago. There was ‘cock-tease’ accusations and pressure but nothing to the degree that’s going on today like girls being prude shamed for not wanting a casual double anal penetration with their so-called ‘friends’ who want to post it on the net.

    Even the word ‘empowerment’ has completely lost all meaning and is being used as a descriptive word to describe feeling powerful in the moment as opposed to being used correctly as a verb. Empowerment means being able to do something one was previously unable to do. Eg. Getting paid from work empowers me to pay my rent and bills as an independent adult. Women have been empowered financially since entering the workforce.

    Honestly, some girl prancing around on stage in her underwear with pasties on empowers me to do squat.

    And this is why I can’t be f’d with sex positive feminists. My personal, private enjoyment of sex is not something I need to advertise, I don’t need male approval of my tits and ass to be a full human being who matters in the world and catering to the status quo doesn’t do anything to bring opportunity into my life for equal respect, equal work, equal pay, equal privacy, the right to say yes, the right to say no, the right to be attracted to someone, the right to not be attracted to someone. In fact ‘sex-positive’ feminism has made all these things go backwards.

    Not attracted to a guy? Used to be, if you were kind in your delivery, he’d say, ‘no worries’ and move on. Now, you’ll be faced with an entitled jerk who will outright ask you to blow him and if you refuse you’ll be faced with him and his mates loudly screaming, ‘hoe, slut, stuck-up cunt, whore’. Charming!

    I get that they’re trying to say women have rights but truthfully men were more respectful and women had more sexual rights a decade ago than we do now. Thanks to f’ing ‘sex-positive’ feminists.

    • Not attracted to a guy? Used to be, if you were kind in your delivery, he’d say, ‘no worries’ and move on. Now, you’ll be faced with an entitled jerk who will outright ask you to blow him and if you refuse you’ll be faced with him and his mates loudly screaming, ‘hoe, slut, stuck-up cunt, whore’. Charming!

      I would question whether that was ever something that really “used to be,” personally. I really don’t see evidence of that, and from my own personal experience, it seems to have gotten a bit better in the years since I started this blog to now. Anecdotes do not make compelling evidence from either side however, I know. Either way, I think there are other cultural forces besides sex-positive feminism to blame for things like that and it’s EXTREMELY reductive to blame ALL of that on sex-positive feminism—plus it assumes that these guys have any understanding of the difference between the two, which I think is a pretty dubious claim.

  8. I worry sometimes that a world that’s respectful for everyone isn’t really possible. I’ve come to this point of view from constantly finding myself in the minority within minorities again and again. I worry is it possible to create enough spaces for everyone to feel comfortable, especially when so many people have needs that conflict with each other. Sometimes these needs conflict at such a deep level its impossible to satisfy both groups. You literally have to pick a side and chose which rule set you are going to endorse.

    For example, My mother was sexually abused by her father (who may or may not have sexually abused me, my memories are too fuzzy), and she became extremely uncomfortable with a lot of forms of sex and unfortunately began for a while to believe that things like homosexuality and trans sexuality naturally would eventually lead to child molestation. She not only came to this point of view because of her own horrifying experiences, but also with the help of the specific vein of Rad feminism she was exposed to growing up and began to exhibit when she was raising me. So much so that she and my father felt personally responsible for raising me with an aversion to sexuality so that I wouldn’t turn into a child molester myself (they believed in the pop psychology of the time that argued that susceptibility to addiction is a genetic inherited trait). My own response to sexual, and emotional abuse was the exact opposite to my mom’s. I am an extremely sexual being, and the more abuse and oppression I face the more I NEED to express myself sexually. I’d argue that its the only way I can truly express myself. This caused a lot of friction between myself and my parents, and I’m sure many days we spent countless hours unintentionally triggering each other by trying to help each other understand our own points of view (probably not even realizing the other party was triggered, just thinking that the other person was being stubborn and unwilling to communicate).
    Sexuality and nudity are really really comforting to me. In fact the only way I could potentially live a trigger free life would be if I could walk around nude all the time (I hate clothing and especially as a fat trans woman feel that clothing hates and contorts my body in ways that effect my own levels of happiness not to mention pass-ability) and be completely as sexual as I needed to be both in public and private. Such a world would be a horrible nightmare to someone like my mom and many other people, so I wouldn’t wish such a world into reality. Yet, a world in which my mom could feel comfortable enough with herself and potentially overcome her own triggers and abuse issues would be horrifying to me. I’d be a hermit or kill myself in such a world. Yet a world where eveyone’s needs are only kind of sort of met isn’t any better either. And because systems aren’t simple binary gradients, simply trying to compromise in the middle will still alienate and hurt a great number of people.
    I guess I’m posting this because the discussion of sex-positivity vs. sex-negativity illustrates this worry I have so perfectly. Its wrong to assume that feminists on either side have an “incorrect” view of how the patriarchy interacts with sex, violence and power. Yet the two conclusions the sides seem to offer don’t really mix well either. Does that makes sense? Sorry for my ramble. Maybe I’m totally missing the core concept here… And apologies if I said something offensive unintentionally. I’m feeling completely hopeless and burned out and though I’m a sex positive person myself don’t think there’s anything specifically wrong with sex negativity in the way that Lisa described it in her article.

    • I feel the exact same way–that it’s kind of impossible to truly serve everyone’s needs. I felt that way when I was reading the link the the article that was saying that if you critique rough sex porn because it depicts rough or kinky sex–I feel like that link was kind of an example of using kink shaming as a silencing tactic–when people critique rough or kinky porn for being mysoginist, they are critiquing it for eroticizing violence against women which they think perpetuates rape culture and then you have people’s who’s kink is violence against women and if we assume both are true, we are stuck having to pick which is more important, addressing rape culture in all it’s forms or not kink shaming.

  9. I think in part it could be a difference of opinion on sex work–I kind of worry about how legalizing sex work might increase abuse in the form of human trafficking, but I also don’t think banning sex work will end sex work, I believe more creating a world were sex work is no longer needed and I kind of agree with the notion that without the patriarchy there would be no sex work.

    Something I noticed is that a lot of the sex positive posts you linked to, the authors all seemed to be of the opinion that the patriarchy had no effect on their sex lives and I think most sex negative feminists or sex positive critical feminists are of the belief that the patriarchy does effect their sex lives.

    Also for me, I have a very difficult and very negative personal relationship with sex and while I am probably of the sex neutral stance that sex has the potential to be both good and bad, I feel uncomfortable applying the term sex positive to myself because I don’t know if sex has the potential to be good for me.

  10. Pingback: When the answer is always no: Sex aversion and my sex-negative feminism | The Asexual Agenda

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