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.

Why I Identify as Sex-Postitive, Despite Seeing Sex as Neutral

Author’s note, August 2015: This is an old blog post that no longer reflects my current views. I no longer find it useful to identify as sex-positive, especially in asexual spaces, although many of my political views still align with the goals of sex-positive feminism.


I regularly see asexuals saying that they don’t identify as sex-positive because they don’t see sex as an inherently positive thing. They often feel alienated and attacked by people who identify as sex-positive, because sex is good and people who aren’t interested in having sex therefore must have something wrong with them. But while I know that people who say this do exist, I think they’re wrong about what being sex positive actually means.

Sex is not inherently positive. It CAN be positive. It CAN be a fantastic, mutually enjoyable experience. It can even be something that inspires feelings of transcendence in people. But it isn’t always. A lot of sex is painful, coerced, deeply terrifying and traumatic. And sometimes sex that feels good at the time can bring all kinds of awful consequences.

The point of sex positivity is acknowledging that sex isn’t inherently negative. It’s not saying that ALL sex is positive. It’s saying that it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how Carol Queen, one of the leaders of the movement*, defines it:

It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity, which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous. Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationships structures, and individual choices based on consent.

Emphasis in original. This quote is from wikipedia, as access to the original interview is restricted.

There are cultural forces out there that are strongly anti-sex. To people who buy into them, sex is seen as inherently bad, dirty, and shameful. It is only acceptable within a very narrow set of circumstances. That set of circumstances is seen as being narrower or wider according to different people, but it’s all relatively narrow. Primarily, the people who see it this way are religious. It makes sense, right? They want to make you feel guilty for sex you will still be having anyway**, so that then you’ll feel the need to keep coming back to confess your sins to them.

Sex positivity is a response to that. It’s a philosophy that says that, hey, there’s nothing wrong with having sex before marriage, or sex with someone of the same sex, or a million other kinds of sex, as long as that’s what you both want. Consent is key. And so is the idea that everyone is different, and it’s totally okay for different people to want different things.

If you don’t want to have sex, then don’t have sex, because having sex that you don’t want is bad for you. That is what a sex-positive person should be saying.

“Yeah, I’m totally ace-positive … You’re aromantic, ew that’s unnatural.” From here.

So those nominally sex-positive people who say that everyone should want sex, because sex is good? They’re doing sex positivity wrong, because they’re forgetting about both consent, and the tenet of individual preference.

I see these people as a breed of Disingenuous Liberal, essentially. These are people who have thought about sex positivity just enough to start labeling themselves as such, but not enough to have actually thought through their positions and arrived at a reasonable, logically consistent conclusion. These are people who are still having knee-jerk reactions against religious conservatives saying that sex is inherently negative, and as such, their reactions lack nuance. They are basically saying, “NUH UH, SEX IS GREAT!” without considering how it isn’t always the best thing for everyone. They have challenged whatever sex-negative attitudes they previously held enough to start identifying as sex-positive, but not enough to actually stop telling other people how they should feel about sex.

These are the people who tend to assume that asexuality is the same as being anti-sex. These are the people who are likely to equate asexuality with a “purer than thou” religious attitude towards sex, and attack it on that basis. They are still fighting their own battle with sex-negative conditioning, so they assume we are saying that we’re somehow “better than” them, for not feeling sexual attraction.

These are the people who are most likely to say we’re “just repressed” and push concern-trolling ideas like how we should go get our hormones checked.

But, as Natalie Reed said yesterday, people who see themselves as liberated and enlightened can easily fall into the trap of thinking that they are much more so than they actually are, and stop actually examining their words and actions, because of course they are so enlightened that nothing they say can actually still be enforcing sex-negativity. They have fallen for the Dunning-Kruger effect, and they genuinely think they know our feelings about sex better than we do.

But sex positivity is about cultivating positive sexual experiences, and reducing harmful ones. Pushing asexual people to have sex that they don’t want is pushing them to have harmful, deeply negative sexual experiences. Telling us that we’re “just repressed” is an aggressive attempt to frame any conversation about asexuality through a lens in which we don’t actually exist. It’s an attempt to marginalize us based on our different sexual preferences. It is not an act that is in any way sex positive.

Then there are other disingenuous liberals, like this recent commenter, who insist that they think that asexuality exists, but that our definition of asexuality is wrong, because it’s “too broad.” This is still an attempt to marginalize. It’s still a direct attack on someone’s identity, despite her attempt to cloak it in the abstractions of semantics. When you’re the signified, discussing how the signifier is wrong to include you is still pretty personal. And, unsurprisingly, she replied once and then after that didn’t bother to come back to see what else I said. This isn’t someone who is actually interested in interrogating her own biases. This is someone who is only interested in telling me how I’m wrong.

Like I said to her, it doesn’t matter whether you see a need for someone to identify as asexual or not. What matters is that THEY see that need. And asexuality is not only entirely compatible with sex positivity, but sometimes understanding yourself as asexual is what it takes to be able to have positive sexual experiences.

Before I realized I was asexual, I was celibate, and completely closed off to the idea of having sex until such time as I started spontaneously wanting to have sex (which has still never come even though I’m in my mid-twenties, because I’m not a “late bloomer”). Realizing that I’m just not attracted to people in that way has allowed me to think about whether or not I wanted to have sex anyway, and under what circumstances. When I had a partner who didn’t accept me as asexual, the sex was bad. Like, the stuff of nightmares bad. But when I met C, she actually listened to me and tried to understand what my experience was like. She didn’t pressure me. At times I still felt like our relationship was moving too fast, but we always negotiated what was and wasn’t okay sexually, and we’ve been able to have some very positive, mutually enjoyable sex.

Sex isn’t for everyone, though. Some people just don’t want it. And that’s okay.

Sex positivity is all about recognizing that different people have different preferences, and that’s okay. It’s about recognizing that sex isn’t always bad, but not all sex is good sex, either. Sex has to be entirely consensual, or it won’t be any good, and people also need to understand and have access to ways to prevent negative consequences of sex like STIs and pregnancy. Sex positivity is about recognizing that when those criteria are met, sex has the potential to be very positive. Living a sex-positive life means finding ways to have a positive relationship with sexuality in your personal life, even if that means saying, “Hey, it can be great for other people, but it’s not for me.”

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* Several years ago, DJ interviewed Carol Queen about asexuality and the sex positive movement. There are two installments, and it’s well worth a listen.

** Researchers have found that religious people have sex at the same rates as non-religious people. Abstinence-only sex education is ineffective. There are plenty of studies about this, but one particularly interesting one compares the sex lives of secular people with those of religious people.

Baseball is Creepy!

The baseball metaphor, that is.

While messing around on the intarwebs tonight, I came across this article about finding a positive sexual metaphor. I’d highly recommend that everyone go take a look! In the first part of the article, the author examines baseball as a metaphor for sex in American culture, and just how insidious this metaphor really is:

Baseball is fundamentally oppositional. Both teams can’t win. One team wins and the other loses. As sex, that’s about one partner “gaining” something, and the other partner “losing” something. In our culture, women tend to lose status when they have sex, and there’s a lot of hubbub about women “losing” their “precious virginity.” Men, on the other hand, gain status and respect from sexual experience. This aspect of the model also serves to reinforce gender stereotypes, which are rarely conducive to safe, empowered and satisfying sexual encounters.

Could this have had anything to do with my own fairly intense fear of rape? I was born into the losing team, after all. And the message that I will lose out if I have sex is everywhere, as is the message that the “opposite team” is out to get me–to force or coerce me into having sex without regard for my own feelings about it. In a lot of cases, that really does happen to people, and when it does, doesn’t the baseball metaphor for sex provide the perfect excuse for the assailant? After all, it’s just how you win the game. No wonder there are so many rape apologists!

In its literal sense, baseball can be a fun game, but unlike its literal counterpart, when we’re talking about sex as baseball, there is almost never a switch-up between which team is batting and which is on the field–there is not supposed to be; you are born as either a batter or an outfielder, and that’s where, at least in theory, you stay.  That takes all the fun out of it, doesn’t it? Because if sex happens, somebody loses, and that loser is determined before the game even starts. It’s a predictable, rigid social role. To win the game says nothing about whether the sex was enjoyable for either party. It’s just about whether or not it happens.

This underlying way of thinking has shaped my experiences with heterosexual men, and that’s not to say that they all thought that way themselves, but that this unhealthy power dynamic exists at all has made me extra wary of dealing with “the opposite team”–to the point that I, for the most part, choose to simply opt out of dealing with them entirely, and instead I generally only play with the queer team. It just removes that whole level of uncertainty, that vague sense of wondering whether this person is playing against me, that sense of always having to be vigilant, just in case. Queer people can’t play the game like everyone else anyway; they aren’t allowed to be included in it in the first place.

The article goes into a lot more detail about that, and also proposes an alternative metaphor for sexuality: eating pizza. It’s definitely a much more ace-positive model, since nobody assumes that everybody must eat pizza; while they may be rare, there are just some people who don’t, and that’s fine.

I do think, however, that the metaphor starts to break down a little here:

Eating pizza with a partner is also not a radically different experience from eating pizza alone. The pizza model deflates the myth that masturbation is a lesser sexual experience than partnered sex. Eating pizza alone encompasses the complete pizza-eating experience, just as masturbation is a complete sexual experience. When we do it it with someone else, the fullness of the experience doesn’t change, we simply add communion with our partner(s) to the experience. What’s different is the companionship, intimacy, variety, and possibly the fun of having someone feed you for a change.

I am not sure whether we should classify masturbation as a purely sexual experience. After all, there are plenty of asexuals who masturbate but do not necessarily consider the experience sexual. To some, it may be. To others… the very reason it might be considered okay is because it seems to be a lesser sexual experience (though even then, many find it bothersome). It really isn’t all that involved, when compared to partnered sex, whereas when eating pizza, aside from the initial negotiation of toppings, the actual act of eating the pizza is not different when doing it alone or with a partner. More is required of the person who is having sex with a partner, as opposed to the person who is masturbating. In many cases, a lot more is required. I just don’t think the difference translates well, when we use this metaphor as a vehicle for expression.

I guess the question is really about whether we consider something to be sexual based on sexual appetite, or whether we consider it to be sexual based on which body parts are involved. It seems that people define things as sexual using both of these determinants in different situations. For example, some people think that kissing is sexual–for them, perhaps, it arouses a sexual appetite. But then, to continue the metaphor, people can still eat something even if they have no appetite. Is it the physical act of sex that defines it? If so, which physical act(s) are we talking about, here? Or is it more about the mental aspect of it, the desire/appetite? In some cases, it’s clear how to define it, but in other cases, like this one, it really isn’t.

I also usually have a problem with food-based metaphors for sex because of the idea that having sex is a need, in the same sense that it is a need for humans to eat. I will admit that there is a need for people to procreate, but it is not an individual need, it is only a collective need. Every individual member of a species does not need to procreate in order for the species to survive. However, every individual must eat in order for the individual to survive. So you really have to be careful not to take a comparison of sexual desire with hunger too far. In this case, though, I think the metaphor of sex as eating pizza works okay, on that level, because it refers only to a specific kind of food, and not to food in general. People who don’t eat pizza can thoroughly enjoy other foods, and that’s not weird at all. Likewise, people who don’t enjoy or engage in sexual activities can get plenty of fulfillment from other activities in life!

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Edit from the future: For further reading, check out this post by figleaf.