As I’ve said before, I think that the only relevant criteria for assessing a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people involved. While that may sound simple, there’s a lot more to it than may be immediately apparent. After all, consent is really only meaningful when one has the ability to make a fully empowered decision. That’s limited by what options people are aware of (sex education!) and believe are open to them, among other things. If you’ve been taught that you have to have sex in a certain way, or that your partner will leave you if you don’t have sex, or anything else that restricts your ideas about what sex is supposed to be, that can shape your capacity to consent. But to take it even further, in a world that offers remarkably restricted ideas of what “sexy” is, how do you know that your desire to do those things is authentic? At what point can you say for sure that your decision is genuinely yours and not influenced by media representations of sex? Exploring these questions is, I think, both a sex-positive and a feminist act. And I feel sadness that two groups of people who offer such useful and complementary tools for looking at these questions end up arguing, instead of finding ground for meaningful dialogue.
One place where we might begin looking for this common ground is the issue of “well-being.” The fact that one has a particular desire or fantasy doesn’t necessarily mean that acting upon it is going to support their well-being. For example, a man might have fantasies about being sexually dominant. To the degree that that comes from his internalizing the “Act Like a Man” Box, enacting those desires may actually hinder his well-being rather than fostering it, especially if he’s performing dominance in order to comply with the rules of masculinity. In his book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, clinical psychologist Michael Bader points out that we each have different motivations for our fantasies, even when the narratives of the fantasies might be similar. Without knowing what the backstories are, any interpretations we make are going to be at least partly the result of our own projections, which is a notoriously inaccurate tool. In my experience, rather than describing what’s actually going on for someone else, those projections are likely to express our own Shadows.
I think that it’s often worth asking “how do these desires or practices support well-being?” I can’t answer that for anyone else- that has to come from each individual. All I can do is make room for people to explore that for themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people either assume that “if I enjoy it, it’s ok” or judge someone without finding out what their motivations really are. In my view, both of those are often manifestations of arrogance.
When people argue that the fact that they enjoy something is sufficient justification for doing it, they often neglect the question of their well-being (or that of the people affected by their choices). People do all kinds of things that feel pleasurable and that are harmful to themselves or the people around them, and in my view, a sex-positive response is to challenge that. Meanwhile, it can be just as much of a problem to assume that everyone who does those things is ranking their pleasure above their own or other peoples’ well-being. Ignoring the diversity of motivations and experiences that people have, even when they engage in the same sexual practices, isn’t going to help, either. We need to be able to hold onto both pieces, if we’re going to get anywhere.
So where does well-being reside? How do we know whether someone’s choices are fostering it or not? And what do we do with that information? Those are some of the really important (and fascinating) questions to explore. I would love to have those sorts of conversations with Meghan- she’s smart, insightful, and articulate. Unfortunately, she also seems to oversimplify what I’m saying about sex-positivity, or at least, that’s how it seems to me. I’d like to be able to hold onto both the individual experiences AND the socio-cultural factors that shape our lives (and that we contribute to through our actions) as part of that discussion. If Meghan or anyone else is up for that, I’d enjoy that.
Update: Meghan responded to my comment and raised a really important question:
How do you decide where and when ‘well-being’ begins and ends? And how does, for example, pornography and prostitution contribute to the well-being of women at large, even if it, according to some, benefits individual women?
That is exactly the kind of question that I want to explore. I don’t think it’s up to me to “decide where and when ‘well-being’ begins and ends” for anyone but myself, although I would find the conversation around it really useful.