Sex-Positivity, Feminism, Arrogance, and Shame

I received a comment recently from someone that I think brings up some really important topics:

Unfortunately I found that there’s this binary in the feminist and/or sex-positive worlds: either you are against all porn and BDSM etc or you are sex-positive and therefore are unwilling to admit that sexuality all too often has a truly sinister side.

I really wanted to figure out more about sexuality but found it hard to read most of the sex-positive sites, where making fun of people for being uptight is common. As a certifiably uptight person, these supposedly sex-positive people are (no doubt unintentionally but still) sending me a message loud and clear – they are not there for me.

I have certainly seen this sort of thing a lot and I’m pretty sure that many of you have, too. I recognize that each side of this pattern represents only a segment of the spectrum of ideas and discussions in sex-positive and feminist circles. But these are often the loudest, especially when it comes to talking about sex.

It would be easy for me to say that I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Some BDSM is abusive, and some is not. Some porn is violent and misogynistic, and some is not. So it’d be pretty simple to suggest that there is some truth to many of the feminist claims about sexual practices and communities, and that the sweeping statements that one often runs across aren’t the whole picture. It’d also be pretty simple to say that sex-positive folks have a lot of good things to say, and that they tend to leave some of the important pieces out (especially the pieces that relate to sexual assault and sexual intrusion).

But I think that the causes of this dynamic run deeper than that. It seems to me that there is often a certain amount of arrogance that comes from both sex-positive and feminist writers and speakers and this is a deeper cause of this apparent binary. I once took a workshop with Thorn Coyle in which she discussed the relationships among shame, pride and arrogance. A deeper look at this axis can help us understand why false binaries like the one described above come into being.

If we consider an axis of shame-pride-arrogance, then we can imagine ourselves moving from point to point, sliding back and forth as we make choices and gauge the effects of them. Praise from someone might shift us in one direction while being told that we did something wrong might shift us in the other. And of course, we might project meanings onto what people say or do, which could cause us to shift our location, even when that wasn’t the other person’s intention. Most of us do that sometimes and some of us tend to do it a lot.

A lot of people have been shoved to the shame end of the spectrum, especially around sexuality. It might be in relation to their sexual desires, practices or expression. It might be because they were devalued because of their gender or gender expression. It might be the result of sexual trauma or intrusion. It might be because they were told, explicitly or implicitly, that they were lesser or sinful or shameful. Or maybe it was because they were ignored, silenced, or shut out. While there are many ways in which this can happen, one common thread is that sex-negativity, homophobia, and sexism are all deeply entwined with shame.

Sometimes, people react to that by jumping to the other end of the spectrum. Some of the most deeply shame-bound people I’ve ever met were also the most arrogant. Perhaps it’s a way to try and hide their feelings of shame. Maybe it’s an attempt to seek balance. Or it can simply be an attempt to protect a wound by lashing out at anyone who might come near it, even when the intent is to help. In my experience, arrogance is often a sign of a very well-guarded shame.

So how does this connect to sex-positivity or feminism? I’ve noticed that there are people in both groups who speak with a whole lot of arrogance. Some people in sex-positive circles will mock anyone who isn’t sufficiently sexually experienced or interested in wild and crazy sex. Some people in feminist crowds will claim that everyone who engages in certain sexual acts must be acting out due to abuse or unhappiness. Many people in each of these groups often ignore the fact that porn, BDSM, and sex work can be both a source of joy and a source of pain, as can monogamous, vanilla sex. Both sides hold one piece of the puzzle and claim that it’s the whole thing. And that is the height of arrogance.

Claiming that you know what someone’s experience is like, even when your ideas are contradicted by their own words is arrogant. Judging people when they experience things differently than you do is arrogant. Assuming that anyone who comes to a different conclusion than you do is necessarily wrong is arrogant. Thinking that you know better than someone else is arrogant. Making sweeping statements is arrogant. Blaming someone for your own discomfort with their stories, their experiences, and the way they live their life is arrogant. Disregarding someone else’s pain is just as arrogant as disregarding their joy.

If you think that you’ve never done any of these things or if you think that these sorts of things are only done by the other side, that’s also a form of arrogance. I know that I’ve been arrogant in all of these ways and so has every person I know. I don’t know whether it’s part of the human experience or the result of our culture, although I suspect it’s a combination of the two. Wherever it comes from, believing that you’re free from arrogance is one of the first steps towards acting out of arrogance.

Arrogance tends to create or strengthen either/or thinking because it allows for little room to explore the complexities of the middle zone. It inspires defensiveness, anger, and resistance in one’s listeners and readers, which reinforces an either/or argument. And it reduces one’s willingness to listen to alternative ideas. Arrogance shuts down dialogue and creates false binaries.

So coming back to the comment I quoted above, it’s unfortunate that these sorts of either/or discussions leave so many people out in the cold. I think that it’s long past time that we find ways to stop this cycle and begin to find some real answers instead of yelling at each other or disengaging from each other. I find that there are some pretty simple ways to minimize the tendency to become arrogant.They’re not easy, but they’re not complicated, either.

First, we can avoid sweeping statements and use some/many/most. Language like this reminds us that even if most people share a common experience, not everyone does. Yes, some people who play with BDSM are acting out their wounding. And some people who play with BDSM have no history of sexual wounding or trauma.  Some people who have a lot of sexual partners have a problem (whether we call it “sex addiction” or not). And some people who have a lot of sexual partners simply have a lot of sexual partners, without any kind of pathology.

Being mindful in our speech helps us remember the diversity of human experience, which reduces the likelihood that we’ll slide into arrogance. It also makes room for our listeners to engage with us more deeply because it’s clear that we welcome the ways in which they differ from us. And while it may seem like a weaker stance, in my experience, it’s a much stronger one because it can bend and flex.

We can also speak with care by avoiding the tendency to take our personal experiences, opinions and beliefs and presenting them as fact. We may speak from the deepest conviction, but it’s quite common for that to be founded on limited or biased information. It’s all too easy for us to let confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new information in ways that confirm preconceptions and avoid or ignore information that contradicts our beliefs) shape our thinking, especially when it comes to sex. In the absence of reliable and validated research, there are plenty of people who are willing to make pronouncements about HOW THINGS ARE. But those claims rarely describe the diversity of experiences with any accuracy. Shifting away from these habits can help us remember that our opinions are not “the truth” and avoid arrogance.

Second, we can trust people when they share their experiences with us, even when theirs are very different from our own. We can try to remember that the fact that our perspectives diverge doesn’t threaten the truth of our own experiences. And we can look for ways in which their stories can tell us about ourselves. When we have strong reactions to what someone says, that is an opportunity to take a look inward and discover something about ourselves.

Third, we can strive to bring some compassion to these discussions. Compassion doesn’t mean giving someone a “get out of jail free” card and it doesn’t mean that we can’t set limits or call people on their stuff. It means that we can remind ourselves that the other person is a human being and that most of the time, we have more in common with them than we realize. It means that we can respect their humanity, even when we disagree with them, even when we feel anger towards them, even when we have been hurt by them.

Fourth, we can cultivate a sense of pride. Pride is the middle zone between shame and arrogance. If shame is the place of “I am a bad person” and arrogance is the place of “I can do no wrong,” then pride is where we can say “I am a good person AND I sometimes make mistakes.” Pride is strong and flexible. It’s grounded in the earth and can bend with the wind. It’s not pride that goes before a fall, it’s arrogance.

Cultivating pride is a challenging path precisely because it’s the practice of finding our balance and there’s no shortage of things that try to cause us to lose our balance. So it’s not a question of finding balance and keeping it. It’s the development of the skills we need to come back to balance when things shift. When we collapse into shame, it’s taking steps to reinflate ourselves and bring ourselves back up. And when we get overinflated with arrogance, it’s letting some of the pressure out and coming back to that middle ground.

We will each have a different path to pride since we will come to this practice with our individual experiences. The more we engage with this work, the more room we can make for people whose stories are different from our own, for people who explore this in different ways than we do, and for people who disagree with us. We can also let go of the stories we make up in our heads about why people do things and what their intentions are, which lets us give more attention to what is actually happening and helps us to ask the other person what they meant. Cultivating pride helps us to see people more clearly, with less of a tendency to project our hurts, triggers, and issues onto them.

Fifth, people in sex-positive communities need to get their act together and really look at sexual violence, rape and sexual intrusion. These are issues that affect every single person of every gender, sexual orientation, and background. They influence everyone’s sexual choices, relationships, interactions, and experiences. Yes, I know that I said that for almost everything you can say about sex, it’s more accurate to use some/many/most. And this is one of the exceptions- sexual violence and sexual intrusion affect everyone, whether they have directly experienced them or not. So many people have been affected by them that it’s pretty much a certainty that you will talk with, be friends with, flirt with, date, have sex with, or be in a relationship with someone whose life has been shaped by these experiences. Sex-positive folks need to start dealing with that more pro-actively and find ways to talk about sexual violence and its impact that can still model sex-positivity, honor choice and consent, and make room for sexual diversity.

That’s a tall order and it’s hard to take steps like these when it seems like everyone around you is yelling and not listening. All of this shouting means that folks like the person whose comment I quoted will often feel shut out. So I want to tell her and everyone else who has had similar experiences that there’s nothing wrong with having closer boundaries if those serve you. There’s nothing wrong with being exactly who you are, with whatever desires and limits you have. Don’t worry about what other folks say you should do or enjoy. And if you ever decide that your boundaries are holding you back, I hope that you can find the support you need to lean into those edges and see what’s there.

And for the folks in both feminist and sex-positive circles who are mocking, shaming, yelling at, or laughing at people, I’m asking you to stop. Step away from your arrogance. It’s not actually helping anyone and I’m willing to bet that it’s not making you a happier person either. There are much better ways to respond to whatever you’re dealing with and there are much better ways to inspire change in the world.

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26 Responses so far.

  1. Cynthia says:

    What a great piece!

  2. I enjoyed this very much, and will be sharing with many people.

    As a sex-positive feminist who has worked in the domestic violence/sexual assault field for over 15 years, this essay speaks to me in many ways.

    Thank you!

  3. Thorn says:

    Well done, again! (and thanks for the shout-out)

  4. Stephanie says:


  5. Frédérique says:

    Great article!!!

  6. Roger says:

    Thank you for posting this. Many of the points apply in this polarizing social/political climate in America. I have wondered about the shame/arrogance climate for the last few months and the steps that needed to find pride (as you stated so bluntly “Pride is the middle zone between shame and arrogance.”)
    I have been a fan of the sex-positive message for a while and read alot about it. However in many instances I’ve seen that many I discuss it with are quick to invite me into a swinging or BDSM environment. However I am happy with my monogamous vanilla-sex life.

  7. Charlie says:

    @Thorn: thank you for the kind words and the insight around the shame-pride-arrogance axis.

  8. Charlie says:

    @Richard: I think there’s some interesting stuff to explore with regard to sex-pos circles and assumptions of interest in various sexual practices. That might be my next post. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

  9. Bix says:

    Thanks for a wonderful, thoughtful and much-needed perspective!

  10. Nancy says:

    “Blaming someone for your own discomfort with their stories, their experiences, and the way they live their life is arrogant.” Love this – especially true for works of fiction, non fiction films, etc. People have a very hard time untangling their own discomfort/projection from others’ storytelling and expression. Wish I had read this during my filmmaking process!

  11. […] definition of “sex-positive” probably has some differences from the ones described in this article about sex positivity and feminism. Since I ALSO consider myself feminist I’m finding myself […]

  12. Lasara says:

    Excellent stuff, Charlie! Thanks for addressing this very interesting topic. So much I could say, but will ponder more before going further. Just, thank you very much.

    love to ya!

  13. Awesome and so applicable.

  14. Noah Gibbs says:

    This is a really good thing to point out. It really resonates.

    I’ll point out that I’ve always considered Shame and Arrogance to be two points on a triangle with “Apathy” as the third point. So pride would be the point on the top line of that triangle equidistant between Shame and Arrogance.

    Why would that matter? Because by putting Pride directly between Shame and Arrogance and treating Pride as the primary reasonable destination, you’re saying that whatever your feelings on the matter, they’re required to be intense.

    In my experience, even a very small amount of detachment (for before you really hit Apathy, but in its general direction) can really help everybody take a deep breath and treat things more reasonably.

  15. Charlie says:

    I’m not suggesting that we have to be in an intense place, as you seem to think. There’s another balance to be found, which I also learned from Thorn Coyle. In between apathy and obsession, we find passion. Passion and pride can go very well together.

    I agree that if we don’t have some balance between apathy and obsession, we’re likely to be in a much-too-intense place. So, yes, we need some amount of detachment without having too much. I just didn’t want to get off-topic and delve into that in this post, although I’ve been mulling it over for a future one.

  16. Original Commentator says:

    Oh wow! I’m the woman who originally wrote to you. I was sexually abused by my dad and I still struggle with sex and other things – my reason and my emotions aren’t aligned yet. I didn’t really expect a response – but I am so so happy to see this. It means a lot to see this addressed. I look forward to the discussion.

  17. Charlie says:

    Thank you so much for the inspiration. Your honesty and clarity about these issues and your experiences sparked a lot for me. I’m glad you enjoyed the response. 🙂

  18. Jonathan says:

    “I know that I said that for almost everything you can say about sex, it’s more accurate to use some/many/most. And this is one of the exceptions”

    Well said, sir.

  19. Julianne says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been reevaluating my “career” as a sex-positivity coach because I’ve felt so disconnected, here in the middle-area, wanting to encourage positivity for everyone, but not necessarily boundary-pushing life changes. I love that you have expressed my frustrations and given them the voice I couldn’t yet. I hope this will kelp me figure out where I’m going next…

  20. […] A Few Words: I want to be clear up-front about a couple of things when it comes to sexually-explicit materials that are aimed at arousing people and elaborating on sexual fantasies. I believe non-coerced sex work should be legal for adults. I don’t believe pornography or any other form of commercially-produced erotic materials are inherently anti-feminist. I think that it is possible (and appropriate) to critique the narratives that sexually-explicit materials tell us about sex, sexual identity, human sexual expression gender, and relationships. At the same time, I think that a lot of our current conversations about pornography and other forms of sex talk and sexual expression are reductive and shaming. I don’t think the feminist community or sex-positive activists have been very good at thinking creatively and imaginatively about how to critique the impoverished narratives of mainstream erotica while avoiding shaming folks for whom some of those narratives are a source of sexual pleasure. See this thoughtful post by Charlie Glickman for more. […]

  21. MyMelody says:

    I positively love this post. So much so that I shared it on my facebook wall. A friend of mine who identifies himself as a radical male feminist had some criticisms of it though, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I wonder what you might make of what he has to say. Thank you. <3

    "Besides the obvious fact that I think that sex-pozzies are tools of the patriarchy that are complacent in their own oppression (regardless of how empowerful they may feel), I think that this is largely wrong in general.

    In a lot of cases, there is no middle ground. Imagine if he were writing this about evolution vs. creationsism… is it arrogant to think that creationists are always 100% wrong when it comes to how the humans came about? Is it arrogant to think that a lot of creationists only believe in creationism because of cultural and psychological inertia? The fallacy of the middle ground is one of my least favorite tropes of the modern liberal, and it doesn't just have to do with stupid arguments on the internet. Consider Obama's "middle ground" on health care, state secrets, and all his other attempts at changing things by keeping them exactly the way that they are.

    Moreover, I think a lot of the strong feelings in the radical feminist circles come precisely because sex-positive "feminism" is hurting THEM, day after day of their lives. Imagine if a black person in the 1800s got upset about other black people who fought against abolition of slavery—would you be blaming them for being upset, for holding those people in high contempt?"

  22. Charlie says:

    @MyMelody I think that his comment is a great example of much of what I’m talking about. For instance:

    1) I’m not aware of anyone who calls themselves a “sex-pozzie” and even if there are some, I know that there are many people who would describe themselves as sex-positive who don’t label themselves as “sex-pozzie.” Giving people a name that they haven’t chosen is a form of arrogance because it attaches a label to people without their consent.

    2) “sex-pozzies are tools of the patriarchy” is a sweeping statement. He leaves no room for people who are sex-positive to be anything other than “tools of the patriarchy,” which sounds a lot to me as if he’s saying that he knows better than them, that they’re always wrong, etc. A sweeping statement is a form of arrogance because it is based on the assumption that the speaker is 100% right and that there’s no room for other possibilities. It also creates an adversarial dynamic- if I say “I’m sex-positive and I don’t think I’m a tool of the patriarchy in the way you describe,” there’s little room for dialogue.

    3) It’s true that in a lot of cases, there isn’t a middle ground. To use his example, evolution and creationism are based on incompatible assumptions, which means that there isn’t a way to really hold onto both at the same time. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s no middle ground in all cases and it doesn’t mean that there’s no middle ground between feminism and sex-positivity, at least as I use the terms. One of the things that I’m trying to do is suggest that sex-positivity is not, in fact, a blanket permission to do anything without limits.

    My view is that sex-positivity is the idea that the only important measure of the value of a sexual act is based on the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people involved. From that perspective, there is no real split between what I’m advocating and what a lot of feminists are. We may disagree on what “well-being” means or how to assess it, but the two are entirely compatible. However, it’s not clear to me why your friend felt the need to pull in evolution/creationism, Obama, and the abolition of slavery without actually connection them to this particular issue. That seems like derailing to me.

    In any case, I think that it is arrogant to “think that a lot of creationists only believe in creationism because of cultural and psychological inertia.” There’s also familial dynamics, there’s fear of transgressing the rules of their communities, there’s a lack of education around critical thinking, there are people who have never been offered other explanations, etc. To boil down a complex experience into such a limited and limiting view is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Cultural and psychological inertia is certainly one element, and it isn’t the only one. Ignoring that diversity is another form of arrogance because it says that those other experiences don’t count.

    I don’t know if this is helpful, but it seems to me as if much of what your friend is saying is illustrating exactly the points that I was making.

  23. MyMelody says:

    Thank you very much for the response. I had similar feelings, but I just didn’t have the proper words to express them. Your response was very insightful. I hope you will write about this issue more in the future. I really enjoy these kinds of posts, as do most of my friends. <3

  24. MyMelody says:

    Also, I’m ashamed to say I’m guilty of making blanket statements about lack of understanding of evolution too. I should know better because my grandparents were denied education, despite ability, because of poverty. Thank you for pointing that out. I’m going to stop doing that now. 😛

  25. Ben Cavendish says:

    Feminism is a form a arrogance and arrogance is one of the worse crimes. Feminism is shamefully incorrect, mostly written by people who do not have the best interests of women at heart. There are an increasing number of men and women who oppose feminism as either immature or perverse in nature. Having had a wealth of experience I can sincerely say that I am quite intuitively sure that feminism is incorrect.

  26. Charlie says:

    @Ben I don’t think that feminism has a monopoly on arrogance. In fact, I doubt that there’s more to be found there than there is among any other group of people. And speaking for myself, I’ve gained a huge amount from feminist perspectives, so I disagree with you that it is “shamefully incorrect.” For that matter, while arrogance in any of its many manifestations is deeply problematic, I don’t think it’s one of the “worse crimes.” Both of those phrases sound like needless exaggeration to me.

    Further, while I don’t know anything about your “wealth of experience,” using it to justify your intuition that feminism is incorrect is, I think, another form of arrogance. You can have whatever judgment you choose to, but when you turn that into a sweeping statement about an incredibly diverse set of ideas, beliefs, and conclusions, you’re falling into the same trap.

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