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.