Ideally, every woman has the right to sleep with whichever consenting adult(s) one wishes. They should be able to do so on terms that are agreeable to all partners, backed up by a legal framework that hinges on consent and strongly discourages (through punishment) fraud, theft, abuse and violence. Or, so says Sex-positive feminism, anyway. Sex-positive feminists would not prevent people from engaging in sex work or same-sex relationships, or most of the behaviors that keep Pat Robertson awake at night.
If the libertarians in the room are lost, think of it this way: sex, to these feminists, is a function of free association and private contracts that should not be infringed upon.
So it was with some interest that I’ve read some critiques of sex-positive feminism lately. First, by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back at Feminist Wire, explaining how sex-positive feminism ignores the needs of people who have a complicated relationship with sex, pleasure, or their bodies (say, due to trauma, or being transgender). She asserts that mainstream feminism is awash in a kind of sex-positivism that appeals to middle-class, cisgendered white ladies and is preoccupied with issues like body image, Photoshop, sexual gratification, anti-slut-shaming, and empowerment. This kind of feminism promotes, she writes “[an] uncompromisingly positive and monolithic view of sex [that] can come off as anywhere from frivolous to brutally alienating.”
From another perspective, Meghan Rowland, writes about coping with vulvodynia, a vaginal pain disorder that makes penetrative sex difficult or impossible. She has similar beef.
What struck me about these women’s stories was that they (perhaps without realizing it) hit on what’s happened to sex-positive feminism over the years. It’s been co-opted and watered down. What these women are describing is more akin to “Sexy Feminism.”
Sex-positive women define their sexuality on their own terms: whether that involves a vanilla lifestyle, BDSM, dino-erotica, a good spanking, asexuality, or whatever else might float your boat or not. Sexxxy “feminism,” on the other hand, is pro-sex as long as that sex is on the “correct” terms (i.e. has an audience, usually of dudes). It’s largely pro-porn, pro-burlesque, pro-stripping, pro-“I heart Boobies” breast cancer awareness bracelets, pro-conspicuous consumption, pro-wearing lipstick to “feel good about myself.” Sexy feminists are media-friendly, which should raise your bullshit alarm, immediately. If feminism is about equality/liberation for women, then this school of narcissism-meets-sex-positivism is about the self-interest of one woman: me. It generally holds that a woman’s choice to wear high heels and makeup is a totally feminist act, simply because she chose to do it.
Now, it bears saying that I don’t begrudge these women for their choices. It just chaps my hide something fierce when any choice a woman makes is labeled as feminist. This everybody-can-join-the-club crap is why in 2008, we had dozens of talking heads wondering whether running for an office for which you’re woefully under qualified counts as feminist. It’s why a woman who’s built a career on her infantilized, excessively-twee, dude-appeasing, stereotypical hipster chick persona can demand a claim to the word “feminist.” It’s why sex blogging is another pink collar ghetto.
Sexy “feminists” are free to do what they want, and I’m not suggesting that real feminists don’t wear mascara, that cam girls are broken people, or that sex work always exploits women. I just fail to see how trading sex for money or training your knees to walk in five-inch heels contributes to ending widespread violence against women, rape culture, or gender discrimination.
Like Gina said, subverting an entrenched power structure isn’t a cakewalk, and if the bulk of your feminist efforts amounts to winning praise from an audience of horny dudes and other “empowered” ladies, you might be doing feminism wrong (whoa there, comments section, I said might. I don’t personally see how stripping for dollars moves women forward, but I’m open to the idea that, say, feminist porn does).
Consider: women have always had the ability to use their bodies to get attention and favors. What women still don’t have is the ability to: dance at a club without some bro rubbing up on her; feel confident that she will be taken seriously if she reports an assault or abuse; go topless in public in a nonsexual way (say, to breastfeed a child) without America freaking the fuck out.
Aside: Yes, I know, Slutwalk. Here’s the thing about exhibition-as-protest in general, and Slutwalk in particular: they’re protesting rape culture – Slutwalk protests law enforcement officials who cop (har har) an incredulous or dismissive ‘tude toward rape victims—but they’re also performing their protest for the very same media that promotes rape culture. Why not protest at the next town hall meeting, or march on the precinct? (Protip: If you’re part of a subversive social movement, do yourself a favor and don’t talk to the media, they will only squeeze you into a narrative they can sell. The inscrutable Anonymous hacker collective is a good example of what I’m advising; The misunderstood Occupy and Tea Party movements are not).
All of this is why I promote a philosophy of strict sex-neutrality. The shame and enforcement of essentialist gender roles that usually accompanies a sex-negative outlook are generally bad for women and men alike. And the old radfem claim that every instance of private boinking amounts to abuse, rape, or the collective degradation of womankind doesn’t much respect individual autonomy. On the other hand, I’d suggest it’s wise to view through a skeptic’s lens all arguments that invoke the female-empowerment-through-“sexhibitionism,” trope. The personal isn’t always political, and your sex life doesn’t need to be rationalized within a feminist framework or in some crappy article for Salon.
If patriarchy could be smashed with lipstick, push-up bras and high heels, we’d have ended rape culture by now. We can’t even find a woman to elect as president.