Monday, April 7, 2008

Positively Ambivalent about "Sex Positive"

Sunflower has lately been ruminating on what, exactly, "sex-positive feminism" encompasses. Hint: it's a lot more complex and inclusive than celebrating Girls Gone Wild or Sex in the City. She distinguishes between sex-positivism - embracing sexuality in all its wonderful, messy variety - and "sexy feminism," which she rejects if it means she has to be a twentysomething Barbie doll flashing her boobs. I love the way she redefines sexy:
I'm definitely and emphatically a sex-positive feminist - the exploring I've been doing has strongly confirmed that, in all sorts of unexpected ways, that modifier is the right fit. Whether or not I'm a sexy feminist depends entirely on what the observer finds sexy - if one's taste runs to a strong-willed, outspoken, opinionated, obstinate, well-read, geeky woman with an excellent command of the English language, a snarky wit, and a mind like a steel trap, then I'm sexy as hell, with very little reference to media-driven conventions. And, bloody hell, if being able to be sexy in one's own, unique, individual way, entirely independent of conformity to some hypothetical standard, isn't part of what we've been fighting for, I'm in the wrong movement.
(Read more here.)
And now figleaf has put together a very nice list of the qualities that correspond to being sex positive and asked for others to comment on it. I'd sign on to pretty much his whole list, and yet I'm still wary of the label. First, here's figleaf's lovely list, and then my qualms. (His post is much longer than this, but I didn't truncate the list for fear of distorting it.)
Sex positivity:
  • Sexual behaviors are pleasurable, not just for procreation
  • Sex is for pleasure; it's a form of *play*
  • There's an absence of shame
  • No one makes another feel bad about *wanting* something sexual. (Whether they agree to engage is entirely separate.)
  • Agency not objectification for all parties
  • Everyone always has the freedom to decline
  • There's a gender and orientation-free perspective. (This doesn't have to mean you have to be polymorphous, just that you're accepting of those who are.)
  • No moral judgments about masturbation, virginity, asexuality, and celibacy
  • Sexuality is an element of health -- appropriate amounts are good for mental and physical well-being
  • Sex safety (a.k.a. "safe sex" or "safer sex") is strongly endorsed
  • Developmentally appropriate sex education is strongly endorsed
  • Contraception is strongly endorsed where pregnancy is a risk and is not desired.
  • Accepts porn under specifiable conditions
  • Uses inclusive language
  • Respects unique and individual preferences (what's true for you or me isn't universal)
  • Comprehensive definition of sexuality

And notes for what constitutes sex negativity:

  • shame and blame oriented
  • privatizing
  • prohibitions
  • controlling
(Read the rest here.)
The problem is that anyone who lived through the feminist sex wars of the 1980s recalls - vividly, painfully - how labels were thrown around as epithets. And it just seems to me that calling oneself sex positive can't help but revive those old divisions. Heck, there's still so much mistrust on these issues that maybe it's moot to worry about reviving the sex wars; they never really stopped, they just picked up and moved to the Internet. Still, I don't want to place myself firmly on one front or the other. I even deplore the term "sex wars" because it both escalates the political conflict and trivializes the horrors of actual war.

I really regret the feminist schisms over sex because I happen to think that both sides had valid and important points. And an important avenue of growth and critique just got nailed shut when the two sides stopped talking and started shouting at each other.

The critics of women's sexual objectification and exploitation are right that women's participation in exploitative systems can harm women as a class. They would set their sights on "Accepts porn under specifiable conditions" and argue that porn is always harmful, the conditions be damned. I'm not convinced of that myself but boy, it's hard to figure out just what conditions make porn okay, both within individual relationships and in society more broadly. Also, a lot of feminists who abhor porn don't necessarily feel that way about sex, and they understandably object to the implication that if you're not sex-positive, you're sex-negative.

The so-called sex-positive factions are right to question dictates about what women (and men) ought to find pleasurable. Radical feminists too often had a problem with "Respects unique and individual preferences (what's true for you or me isn't universal)." Sometimes in the 1980s it felt like radical feminists were proscribing anything that smacked of power, even (or maybe especially?) within feminist lesbian relationships. And I'm sorry, but sex that's all about perfect egalitarianism, that's only tame and gentle and all about rolling around naked in the daffodils without anyone ever penetrating anyone else? No offense to daffodils - the one above, from my garden, is quite fetching - but as a steady diet that's just not very sexy for a lot of women. Including many of us who prize egalitarianism in the rest of our lives.

But to make things way too convoluted, I've also got qualms about my qualms. Because if I write off the term sex positive, which really does describe me well (at least in figleaf's formulation), aren't I doing the same thing many women do when they reject "feminism" and "feminist" because the terms seem hopelessly laden with baggage? And doesn't that make it harder to build alliances and take collective action? Even if I came up with a clever new term, the fronts are already hardened and no one's likely to be fooled.


figleaf said...

I think maybe one way out of the "sex wars" would be to consider that the paroxysms of (being semi-arbitrary here) 1978-1991 were all about the *discovery* of consent and, necessarily, experimenting aggressively with it, including withdrawing it, denying it, and absolutely refusing to have anything to do with it because...

... well, because, frankly, *prior* to the construction of consent sex for women was sometimes nice, and more often horrific, but far, far more often than that it was insipid, vapid, and considerably more hassle than it was worth. And -- this being the crux -- women had *no particular say in the outcome!* Which, when you think about it, is as good a reason as any to mess around with saying no.

By the way, I said those dates above were semi-arbitrary but I think 1978 was roughly the point where Andrea Dworkin made her much-misunderstood point that in the absence of affirmative consent heterosexual sex isn't necessarily always rape but it *is* necessarily *indistinguishable* from it. Once that started percolating up it makes sense that not merely angry but also resentful and uninspired women would be drawn to opting out of the whole thing. And I picked 1991 because I'm pretty sure that's roughly the time 3rd-wavers like Susie Bright, and Carol Queen, and the... call it the Bay Area post-employee-buyout "Good Vibrations/Open Enterprises" crowd began issuing manifestos about the then *incredibly* radical notion that women could choose heterosexual sex for *their* benefit and enjoyment and not their partners.

Somewhere in between there, yeah, it's kind of a wasteland, with Dworkin and MacKinnon making common cause with Ed Meese and Jerry Falwell on the one hand, and on the other hand Larry Flynt putting a naked woman being ground up in a meat grinder on the cover of Hustler. Nobody came out of that long decade looking very creditable.

So anyway, yes, it's true that the term "sex positive" is a byproduct of those "sex wars," but for me it looks an awful lot like the Red Cross position during, say, World War II rather than either the Allies or Axis powers with their "anything goes" vs. "nothing goes" intransigence.

So, bottom line, whereas the ostensibly "sex-negative" feminists (as distinct from the *even more* sex-negative *anti-feminists*) seemed to balk at "Respects unique and individual preferences," they were fighting for the equally and absolutely critical "Everyone always has the freedom to decline" principle.

So. Bottom line is would I want to go back through all that again? Heck no. Am I glad it happened? Heck yes. Do I wish, ardently, it had happened a few generations earlier (with the same general outcome) so I didn't have to go through it? Oh my yes!!! But someone had to be there and better me than my children or their children!

Nice post, Sungold, and I agree about Sunflower's post as well.

Take care,


Smirking Cat said...

I'm amazed at what feminists have to struggle through in defining themselves, simply because they believe in equality. Anti-feminists must have a lot of fun making up things like "Feminists don't like sex, feminists hate men, feminists don't wear make-up, feminists don't wear bras" etc.

I'm feminist, and I like sex. I don't see any conflict there whatsoever. It's absurd what feminists have to explain. How about anti-feminists do some explaining for once?

Sungold said...

Smirking Cat, I agree it's time for the anti-feminists to explain themselves. Nicely put.

Figleaf, you're right about all of this. I remember a lot of these discussions about consent - I was in college/grad school for a lot of that time (well, nearly the whole time, and then some!) and the air was thick with it. Catharine Mackinnon came to speak and I was much impressed. I recall fighting with my then-boyfriend about objectification, etc., though honestly that was the least of our issues. :-)

But I think I was also born *just* late enough that I could believe I had a birthright to pleasure. I do remember Susie Bright et al. from the late 1980s, and I recall at least one lesbian I know getting into the San Francisco BDSM scene circa 1987. So 1991 might be a little late for the end of that era? But then again I was living in the Bay Area, and I could (and did) sneak out to Good Vibrations on my lunch hour, and so my chronology probably is a bit skewed. By the late 1980s, much of academic feminism had moved on to tussles over post-structuralism, and the sex wars mostly moved out of the university.

So I guess I was a beneficiary of the sex wars, in a way, since I really did feel like I had a right to say no and a corresponding, delicious right to say yes. But that doesn't stop me from wishing feminists could stop the circular firing squad behavior and find their common ground where it exists.

SunflowerP said...

Sungold - I'd be that ambiguous, too, and for the same reasons, except that, one, so much of my life experience that fuels my feminism centres on sexuality-related issues, and, two, I have a massive Thing about not surrendering words just because some contingent has tried to narrow and pejoratize (is that a word? it is now) the definition. (Two examples from - mostly - outside feminism-related discourse are "amateur" and "eclectic".)

So I have, and will continue to, put extra effort into being non-divisive about how I use "sex-positive" - f'ex, emphasizing that, while it implies that there is sex-negativity (and some of it is within feminism), "sex-positive" doesn't mean everything else is sex-negative, it just means that, for some feminists (like me), issues of sex and sexuality are core issues, and for other feminists, they're not core issues.

Figleaf: "Better me than my children." Yes. Whether that's my unknown ideological descendants, or much-younger close friends, or my bio-kids, yes, that's a big part of my motivation. I should probably post about my bio-kids sometime; both were placed for adoption at birth (my long-ago closed-adoption son searched for me and found me; my daughter, now nearly nine, was placed in open adoption - so both are part of my life now) so there's a feminist connection in terms of my repro-rights choices, and other connections as well.

Smirking Cat: regrettably, the anti-feminists didn't invent that Straw Feminist out of whole cloth, they patched her together from bits and pieces of actual feminists. Some is misinterpretation, both "innocent" and wilful; some involves stating real, reasonable and valid feminist stances as if they were bad (why, yes, we do want to have participation in society based on something other than our appearance!), and some... well, every group has its lunatic fringe, and feminism is no exception.


Sungold said...

Sunflower, I think I'm with you in the end. If someone pushes me into a corner, I'll call myself "sex positive." Just wish it weren't so fraught.

I too think sex is absolutely a core issue in feminism, not least because so much of women's history has been determined by male efforts to control sex and reproduction. That's shaped what I choose to research and write about professionally, as well as how I see my politics and personal identity.

Feminism is partly about refusing dichotomies, so yes, I think that the term "sex-positive" is as good a place as any to start.

I'd love to hear more about your bio-kids; that sounds like an interesting and complex story.

Laura said...

What if we don't call it "porn"? What if we call it "erotic video imagery"? Can't there be instrinsic beauty there? In other words, there can be value to it, and it doesn't necessitate victimhood.

I don't view sex positive feminism for what it is, but rather what it isn't. That is, it's not repressed.

That having been said, I have reservations about the direction of sex positive feminism. Sexuality can be powerful and intoxicating. But it needs to be balanced with a sense of personal (and sexual) safety and personal responsibility. What I've been hearing lately is a sex positive and alcohol positive message. "Pleasure affirming" is the term I've seen bandied about. This is a dangerous message for women, in my opinion. But if you raise this concern in the sex positive community, you're met with the hysterical "SLUT SHAMING" reply. It seems like the movement is a little off the rails because it's starting to defy common sense.

Sungold said...

Laura, don't you think figleaf's list goes way beyond "not repressed" into a whole host of important things, like positively valuing those who are different from us and having the freedom to say no? These are really important things.

Agreed, personal responsibility is a key part of any meaningful personal ethics. But I don't think that "pleasure affirming" can be bad in itself. The ability to say *yes* to sex is the logical obverse of the ability to say no. You can't really have one without the other. And without the ability to say no, personal responsibility is meaningless.

SunflowerP said...

Laura - I haven't heard any of that except in mischaracterizations of sex-positive feminism by those who oppose it.

I'm wondering, though, if, when you refer to the "sex-positive community", you mean those who, distinct from feminism, take a sex-pos stance. While there's a close relationship with sex-pos feminism, and a fair bit of overlap, they're not the same thing. I'm less familiar with that, though I can see more of a "pleasure-affirming" leaning there (though I don't recall seeing much reference to alcohol).


Sungold said...

Thanks for bringing in that distinction, Sunflower. I'd argue that without feminism in the mix, you *definitely* see potential for exploitative behavior toward women.