Feminist Desire Chronicles: Sex-positive feminism, part 1 – the positives
** Trigger warning for discussion of consent and lack of it. Content warnings for sexism, patriarchy, slut-shaming. **
A few days ago in a discussion with a friend, despite years of self-identifying as a sex-positive feminist, I scathingly commented how sex-positive feminism has done nothing for me, and that what we need is more radical feminism. I’ve thought about it since, and honestly, I think the first part of that statement is not true. However, I still think that the relationship between sex-positive feminism and feminist desire is actually a rather complicated one. So, provoked by my own comment, I tried to think back to my own attitudes about sex, how they’ve changed over time, and how they’ve been shaped by sex-positive feminism. This post talks about the positives – valuable things I feel I gained from sex-positive feminism. The next post in the series will talk about negatives – the areas where I feel sex-positive feminism is compromising for me.
There are two main things I found that I gained from sex-positive feminism, and they are both things that are really important to me. They can be briefly summarised as follows:
1. Enthusiastic consent is the minimum baseline of consent.
2. My desires are ok.
And here are the detailed versions too:
1. I don’t think the sex-positive model of consent is ideal. I don’t think any model of consent is ideal, unless it takes into account that given a sufficient imbalance of power, it’s not really possible for yes to meaningfully mean yes, and that power structures are all around us. However… Enthusiastic consent as the minimum baseline was a new idea to me when I first came across it. And it was a helpful one.
The belief I absorbed about sex when I was growing up was that it was something men pestered women for, until the women gave in, and enjoyment or enthusiasm didn’t feature that highly. At the same time, the other attached belief was that ‘sexiness’ was necessary and gave women ‘value’, and that sex, in the middle of that contradiction, was something that I was never expected to enjoy as such, yet that was somehow essential to my worth as a human being, whether as a validation or as a bargaining chip. So I did some logical things, like losing weight, regularly wearing sexy clothes and faking orgasms. Also, believing things like, that if I try harder, dress up more, and be more sexy regularly, my boyfriends will care more about me. Since suffice to say that my beliefs have changed somewhat, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that sex-positive feminism has done anything at all for me, since I’m all too keen to forget what my beliefs started from.
As things were though – sex was a concept that was both far-reaching, and at the same time in many ways had nothing to do with me. ‘Sexiness’ was a thing that was performed for the benefit of the male gaze, and had very little in the way of agency. I believe that this transactional, male-centric, performance model of sex is a powerful weapon, used against women to keep us in our place and separate us from our sisters. After all, if ‘sexiness’ is a value and what our value comes from, and if men are the judges, then all women are in competition. I still find this feeling difficult to shake off occasionally.
Within this context, internalising “yes means yes” is like the first ray of light breaking through, as cracks in old assumptions start to appear. You start to ask questions like “well, am I enthusiastic? Do I want this?”, and suddenly, this concept of ‘sexiness’, of a thing I perform that is largely separated from my feelings (other than the ones of wanting to belong, and to feel worthwhile), becomes a thing that’s about me and my desires. It’s a long and winding road from there, but I think this concept of sexual agency is an essential one, as is the ability to say “yes” and “no”, based not on external narratives of worth (keep saying “no” because it increases your sexual value in the long term), but on personal narratives of desire.
So, one of the epic things that sex-positive feminism taught me was that I have sexual agency. I don’t think it’s *enough*, and I think that the same long and winding road continues for me, away from there. But at the same time, I think it was essential to me. And the truth is that lots of us start off within mainstream society, with all its messed up beliefs, and that sex-positive feminism can be a useful tool within that. I feel like I had to travel very long and far down the road, to start questioning some of the more fundamental assumptions of society, and to find friends who support me in this. But before that happened, I feel that sex-positive feminism definitely started me on a good path, and let me discover some power that I didn’t know I had.
2. When it comes to desires and guilt, something that strikes me is that not only is there a lot of guilt floating around – that guilt seems to often land in the wrong places. I don’t believe that all desires are ok in an absolute sense. I think society is twisted, and we end up with some twisted desires, from being exposed to patriarchy all our lives. However, I also think that a dark pit of guilt and shame is not the best place to be addressing that from. But back to the question of who it is that ends up with the guilt.
The thing is, I found that guilt stuck to me at strange times. There was a boy, the first boy I ever kissed, who went a bit further than I wanted him to, then made up some lies on top, and told my whole school about it. He was the one that was boasting, and I was the one that was in a dark pit of guilt. I kept it a secret, loudly denying anything ever happened. I got lucky, in that people chose to believe me. But out of the two of us, I don’t understand why it was that the guilt and weirdness landed on me.
I remember another time, which was different. I was older, and it was a happy one night stand. Cheerfully mutually desired. Sadly, it was no longer that cheerful when people heard about it and the teasing started. Yet I remember really clearly, people teasing both of us, with him beaming with pride, and me burning with shame at the time. Guilt is gendered, people! We’re raised with guilt being gendered.
Given that’s how my more mainstream desires were treated, maybe it’s not that surprising that the kinkier ones were a dark secret that I kept to myself for a very long time. The sort of thing I only hypothetically, casually alluded to, to see how people would react. The answer to that, for a long time was, they didn’t react well at all. So that other dark pit of guilt was a secret one, that would occasionally find me, in a movie scene, or late at night in my mind, and make me feel for days that I was a freak – in some way fundamentally flawed as a human being.
I should also not forget, that the fact I was clearly attracted to women was hidden for years. Oddly, hidden even from myself. I was vehement that I was heterosexual. Really. Really really. And the existence of desires that were different… Well, they were somehow explained away in my mind. I just admired them. I was just curious. And there’s a heavy link with point 1. about sexual agency too – if you don’t particularly believe in your own sexual agency, it’s honestly kind of difficult to spot these things. You’re just not looking out for things like your own desire. Anyway, after years of twisting my brain in a knot trying to fit my star-shaped sexuality into a square space, I finally came out as bi. I’m happy to report that the world didn’t end in the spectacular way I imagined it would.
In this context, finding sex-positive feminism, and more sex-positive attitudes in general, was like a sweet healing balm that took away that darkness, and placed the guilt back in more appropriate directions. Slut-shaming is a real thing, and kinky people exist, and some of us are women, and making us hide and feel like monsters is not ok. There are lots of elements of my desire that I have been re-examining and reframing over the years, and what I want has changed, and I expect and hope will continue to change. However, I believe that the reason I found a position where I could accept myself and grow from was because at the right point in time, I felt sex-positive feminism give me the equivalent of a nice, friendly hug, with a reassurance that “You’re not broken. It’s ok. It’s all ok.”
I think that benefits of different types of feminism are context-specific. I believe that most people living within society are in positions where they are forced to make a range of compromises, and I think that sex-positive feminism is in the right place to build bridges that help some women. I don’t think that’s the place I’m in at the moment, but it’s definitely a place I’ve been in the past, and I’m very happy that sex-positive feminism was there for me at the time.