In the beginning, there were the sex wars. At a time when my major concerns including learning how to go potty or how to spell the name of Transformers toys; a time when I didn’t speak a word of English, let alone ‘dyke’, ‘porn’ or ‘kink’, feminists and queers in the English speaking world were having heavy debates centered on expressions of sexuality.
Now, the wars continue. After the many fragmentations and horrid situations that happened due to the so-called sex wars of the 1980s, the internet has made it so many of us share spaces again. Nowadays, we are more likely to see it phrased as ‘sex positive’ feminism versus ‘sex negative/critical’ feminism. Of late, I have read that many feminists have embraced the latter. And I see many of their critiques of sex positivity, I truly do. However, more often it feels as if they are quoting feminist scripture as truth, rather than reading gospel as an emanation of truth, not the truth itself.
To wit: sex-critical feminists denounce sex positivity as something unethical, which steps away from the critical view of sexuality, particularly male/hetero sexuality, which characterises much of feminist politics. Sex positivity, they claim, creates situations where young women feel pushed into having sex not only by a sexist, mainstream culture, but by the counter current of feminist itself. Many have taken on the mantle of ‘prude and proud’ in response to this.
There is a truth here. The truth, which statistics, decades of studies and accounts by women, cis or trans, queer or straight, show us is that patriarchy exists; that it is a system designed to exploit our bodies and the very essence of our intellect and labour; that it exploits, demeans and polices our bodies and bodily functions. Thus far, I am willing to call this the truth.
Sex positivity, the proud prudes say, emanates from a privileged, positivist view of sexuality devoid of actual critical analysis of patriarchy and how it influences how, when, and with whom we have sex with. It’s the province of kinksters that do not want their kink deconstructed, lest it become unsexy, they say. It’s a realm that enables predators and enforced sexuality that distorts consent, they claim.
This has never been my sex positivity. It has never been the sex positivity of anyone I know who uses that term to describe their sexual politics.
Let’s begin by saying that someone with sexually predatory tendencies, or who is an actual predator or rapist, will find anything to excuse their horrid behaviour. Religion, masculinity, machismo, kink, sex positivity, and more, nothing is beyond them to shield themselves behind. I have also seen people use feminism or trans feminism to justify their own oppressive behaviour, which does not lend any less credence to these ideas.
The sex-negative view also says that many practitioners of BDSM simply do not accept any critique of their sexuality. That is the case, but notice how I said ‘many’. There is a great awareness among many other kinksters of the function their kink serves for them, of how it operates in their position in society, and how consent plays into it. Yes, there are abusive people in kink. There are abusive people everywhere. There are many sex-negative people who are abusive, if we want to go down the route of ‘which ideas have a lot of abusive people associated with them’.
Again, this has never been my sex positivity, although I have observed really shitty people use these arguments. My sex positivity emanates not only from many long, sometimes intensely difficult conversations, but also from several viewpoints espoused in the Yes Means Yes anthology, after which I was ready to call myself a sex-positive feminist. If you were to read that anthology, you’d realise that the idea that sex positivity is also uncritical of sex (as the way in which sex-neg feminists will often say they are sex-critical seems to imply) is abjectly false.
The idea of enthusiastic consent is not about pressuring people, particularly those objectified sexually by society, into having sex. It’s about understanding that consent requires direct negotiation; that there are many expressions of what sex is; that consent is mandatory; that rape and abuse exist and we must fight to prevent and eradicate them; and that some people just plain are not interested in sex, this being a legitimate way to be regardless of why.
It’s the accusation that sex-positive feminists prefer to gloss over or directly enable abusers and rapists uncritically, which I can’t abide. Some people have taken on the term in an extremely depoliticised manner, and use it for pressuring people into sex, demeaning asexuals or people who are not kinky. This is abuse. This is rape. And no sex positive feminist worth their salt would ever, in a million goddamn years say that this is good or okay.
The arguments of ‘sex critical’ feminists often seem to draw heavily from 40-year old, 2nd wave feminist scripture. They rephrase them to adapt to present-day feminist currents, but essentially they boil down to the idea that true consent is impossible in patriarchy; that sex-positivity does not take into account the experiences of abuse/rape survivors or the abusive nature of a lot of kink. The truth, however, is much more nuanced.
When we go to the argument that ‘consent cannot exist in patriarchy’ we are getting very close to the gravity pull of the ‘all sex is rape’ sun, and we will be burned by its radiated heat. There are also rather troubling undercurrents of transphobia, biphobia and anti sex worker rights politics in such statements. I find it rather worrying that many are resorting to these arguments, mostly made by academic, white middle-class feminists from the UK or US, which do not take into account the perspectives of a great deal of women of colour, trans women and sex workers.
The conversations about sexuality and consent aren’t over. They must not be over. We must continue them, with a critical eye regarding our many diverse positions regarding patriarchal power, white supremacy, cis and hetero supremacy in a society that teaches rather disgusting ways for human beings to enact sexuality, forcefully, upon one another. This is the actual sex-critical feminism.