Expanding My View of Sex-Positivity

Following up on my post yesterday, I had a really interesting conversation with Meghan Murphy of the F Word, both on her blog and on Facebook. After sleeping on it, I realized where something was missing from my description of sex-positivity. I had thought it was implicit in my choice of words, but looking back at things I’ve said, I don’t think it really was.

One of the difficulties that I’ve faced in discussing sex-positivity with some folks is that there are two different lenses that a lot of people use when talking about these issues. Some use an entirely personal lens, as in “I like doing this thing, or I find it empowering, so that makes it OK.” And others look at things entirely from the perspective of the larger patterns of culture, politics, and social dynamics. In my experience, the former is more likely to come from folks who identify as sex-positive and the later is more likely to come from certain branches of feminism, especially radical feminism. It’s no wonder that these two groups never seem to agree- even when using the same words, the underlying meanings are so different that discussions often go nowhere or turn acrimonious.

I see a lot of value in both perspectives. For example, our sexual and relationship choices are deeply affected by our individual experiences and desires. Those are so diverse that any attempt to discuss sexuality without acknowledging those complexities can lose relevance, and unfortunately, a lot of people make sweeping statements that disregard them. That seems to be an especially common practice of people who want to focus on the larger socio-cultural issues. Examples of people whose lives don’t fit the larger patterns are often ignored or are described as being in the minority and so can be disregarded. I think that’s especially problematic when there isn’t any reliable data on how common those experiences are, since selection bias and confirmation bias skew our perception of prevalence.

On the other hand, we each participate in and contribute to the overarching culture that then influences each of us. It seems disingenuous to say that my sexuality is only a personal issue, just as it seems disingenuous to say that choosing to eat fast food isn’t participating in agricultural monoculture. Many of our sexual decisions affect how we move through the world and what impact we have on other people.

As I said on Facebook, I find it more useful to switch back and forth between these different lenses since I find that sexuality is really a recursive process that can’t be understood fully by looking at the pieces in isolation. Our sexual experiences are both individual AND situated in a larger context. The choices we make are both personal AND often have an effect on other people.

So let me make this more applicable. When I talk about assessing the value of a sexual act or practice by looking at consent, pleasure, and well-being, I think that tool needs to be applied on both a personal scale and on the contextual level. For example, if someone enjoys exhibitionism and showing themselves off to strangers, do they get the consent of their viewers? Are they exposing themselves on the street to strangers, going to a swingers party, or filming themselves and uploading it to a tube site (where, presumably, people are choosing to see them)? The context of their actions is directly relevant to examining the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people affected by their behaviors.

But I think that this can also be applied on a larger scale. Some people will argue that when we porn is we participate in a system that harms the performers (although it’s almost always framed as a system that harms women, since male performers are generally left out of those debates). I fully recognize that there are some porn producers who treat their performers badly. There are some producers who don’t care about the well-being of the people they film, who treat them disrespectfully, and who think of them as disposable. I’ve spoken with performers who have had those experiences and I think it’s dishonest to pretend that it never happens. At the same time, there are porn producers who treat performers as people worthy of respect, whose needs and desires are important, and who cultivate positive relationships with them. I’ve spoken with performers who have had those experiences, and I also think it’s dishonest to pretend that they don’t exist.

Now, we could discuss how prevalent each of these situations is, as well as the other sorts of experiences along that spectrum. We could debate what conditions are needed to minimize the former and maximize the latter. We could ask the performers and the producers what their needs and goals are in order to inform that conversation. And we can analyze the social, economic, and political factors that create the contexts that surround those situations. That’s a whole different project. But for now, let’s start with the postulate that some commercially-produced, sexually explicit media is produced in ways that neglect the well-being (and pleasure and consent) of the performers and some is made in ways that foster them.

Given that, we can then ask some really interesting questions: When people watch porn, what are the effects of their actions on the performers? Do they make choices that are comparable to buying fair-trade food, or are they making choices that are analogous to buying food that was made by forced labor? When they make those decisions, what kinds of business practices are they supporting? In what ways are they encouraging producers to behave toward their performers? Are there ways in which their choices about porn influence their sexual desires, how they act toward the people in their lives, and what they think of and act towards people (especially women) in general? Or are they sticking their heads in the sand because it’s too uncomfortable to acknowledge the impact of their actions? Are they selfishly choosing to indulge their desires at the cost of someone else’s well-being? And what about their own well-being?

From an ethical perspective and from a sex-positive angle, I think these are really important things to ask. These kinds of explorations are hindered by the incessant arguments about which lens, the personal or the political, is more important. They are both essential because they’re both part of the puzzle.

So I think I need to expand my definition of sex-positivity to include that larger frame. I still believe that consent, pleasure, and well-being are the core elements (at least, until someone suggests adding another one), and I think it’s not just the participant’s experiences that need to be considered. The consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who are affected by each individual’s choices are also important. I don’t think that there are any easy answers there, but I do believe that this is a useful starting point because it opens up the conversation. We can discuss what the relationships are between our personal decisions, our actions, and our participation in larger socio-political patterns. And we can do all of that without ignoring either of the useful perspectives that can inform all of this.

In light of all of this, I’m experimenting with some different ways to phrase things. At the moment, I’m trying out “sex-positivity is the perspective that the only relevant measure of a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who do it and the people who are affected by it.” It’s not as much of a soundbite as my previous iteration, but it’s a lot more accurate. As a general principle, it seems to work. Of course, the process of putting that into practice is where things get complicated, especially when there are competing desires, interests, and needs. I don’t think that this is anything other than a starting point, and once the general principle has been described, it becomes a bit easier to develop tools and practices that support it.

Since I’m just trying this language out, I’d love to hear suggestions. If anyone reading this has a suggestion, feel free to comment below.

I’d like to thank Meghan Murphy (and the folks who joined in on Facebook, who I won’t name out of respect for their privacy) for engaging in this conversation with me and for challenging my views with respect and care. I hope that she gets as much from reading my words as I do from hers.

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13 Responses so far.

  1. Lily Lloyd says:

    The consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who are affected by each individual’s choices are also important.

    I can’t believe I’m going to bust out some Kant in here, but, it sounds a little like the Categorical Imperative:

    Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

    I can kind of see the theory of change in the case of pornography — let’s say, just as a thought experiment, all people everywhere suddenly stopped consuming porn. Would the world be a better place? I imagine some people think so.

    When we get to the private behavior of individuals in their bedrooms, however, it gets murkier. As an example, let’s say that I decided that my own practice of allowing my male partner to top me was insufficiently feminist and I decided to stop doing it.

    Does this also mean that I should consider the views of many people who feel that homosexuality is wrong when I am having sex with my female partner?

    (In my personal worldview, these two claims do not have equal merit).

    Well, on the one hand, if I believed A) that either of those claims was true or, perhaps more importantly B) that either of those claims, once followed, would create a better world, then I would be following the categorical imperative, to, say, toss out the bondage equipment and/or kick my girlfriend to the curb.

    However, I don’t think that either of those would produce a better world, and, in fact, by taking those actions I’d be creating a new maxim, namely: “Do not do anything in your bedroom that would not meet with broad approval by virtue of being the Right Thing.” I think that would be a horrible maxim, simply because I believe a certain degree of privacy is necessary for liberty.

  2. Lily Lloyd says:

    The consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who are affected by each individual’s choices are also important.

    And by this I mean: the enthusiastically consensual activities of adults.

  3. MyMelody says:

    “…we each participate in and contribute to the overarching culture that then influences each of us.”

    I’ve been struggling with this myself, and I’ve been looking for answers from other feminists, and I’ve run into a lot of what I see as class and race issues when discussing this topic. The topic being, what exactly is this “overarching culture that then influences each of us?” But also, who gets to define it? Can this be defined in an objective sense?

    Many times I would enter a feminist group, only to find they have already laid out a schematic for how the world works, and how X,Y or Z influences Patriarchy, Rape culture, or what have you.

    The problem with this lies in who is creating the schematic. In my experience, and I don’t mean to be divisive at all so I say this begrudgingly, it’s upper middle class white women. Many of whom do not realize the experiences of their group are not universal among women. More often then not, experiences that deviate from the “norm” (their norm) are excluded, or in some instances, dismissed as being the result of “false consciousness” that results from women being overrun by patriarchal assumptions.

    On top of that, many of these groups (Yes I’m generalizing, and I admit I’m not free from bias) have a tendency to Keystone issues.

    So I do agree with you when it comes to looking at the things from two lenses: the personal and social cultural etc. But I think it’s important to think about who is defining the social/cultural, and are they doing so in a way that truly removes the personal from it. Can one even remove the personal from it?

  4. Charlie says:

    Personally, I’m not trying to define the overarching culture. It’s too big and changes too much to be able to be defined. Further, I’m inside it and it’s pretty hard to fully define a system from within, even if the system isn’t as complex as the “overarching culture”. The most I can do is describe a piece of it.

    Further, any particular lens can only give us a look at a piece of the puzzle. Whether the people who say that their theory explains everything about how things work are mistaken or have some motivation to try to convince people (and perhaps, themselves) that their model is 100% accurate or something else entirely, I don’t take those stories at face value. Among the people who honestly mean what they say, I find that these stories often shed some light on their inner workings, at least to the degree that they offer information about the ways that people project their worldviews onto the world around them.

    As far as why people try to universalize their experiences, I do think that it’s more prevalent among people who are used to having their worldviews dominate the discourse. Issues of gender, class, race, sexual orientation, cisgenderism, physical ability, etc. each play into that, in different ways for different people. And I’ve also seen some people within various groups try to universalize their experience, as a member of that group. As in, making sweeping statements about what it’s like to be queer, or Black, or a woman, or such. I don’t know how much that’s wired into people- I’d love to know how that varies by culture. What I do know is that practicing right speech has helped me do it less than I used to, both from a position of privilege and from a position of oppression, since there are ways in which I’m on each side of that split. I’d like to see more of these discussions come from a place of practicing right speech. I think it would improve things tremendously.

  5. MyMyelody says:

    Thank you for your response. That clears up a lot of things for me actually.

  6. MyMelody says:

    I really enjoyed the link you provided about “Right Speech,” and think I would benefit from applying that. I have one question though.
    How does one talk about various oppressions without promoting “divisive” speech?

    For instance, I was reading an article by Renee Martin where she criticizes what she sees as marginalization of people of color within feminist communities. I agree with many of her points and have had similar experiences. But how do I communicate this to the people who need to hear it without using “divisive” speech.

  7. Charlie says:

    Talking about oppressions when one is in the privileged group is often fraught. When I do it, I try to make it clear that I’m basing my words on what other people have shared with me or what I’ve read. “My understanding is…” or “From what others have told me about this…” are some useful phrases.

    When someone points out an inaccuracy or an error, I try to shut up and listen. I think there’s a lot of value in members of the privileged group holding each other accountable, and I also think it’s not their/our place to school the folks on the other side of that line about their experiences or analyses. And since most of us are on each side of that line in different dimensions, it’s also important to not fall into the trap of “I’m a woman/queer/person of color/etc. so I know what it’s like for you.”

    As far as not creating “divisive speech,” speaking with the intention of causing rifts and calling people out aren’t the same thing. One difference is whether you can bring compassion to it. Another is whether you can discuss people’s actions, instead of shaming them or attacking them. And since some people will feel ashamed or defensive when they are held accountable, learning how shame works can be useful in developing strategies. I also find that it helps to build positive relationships with people, when I can, so that they have more trust that my intentions are not to hurt them when I call them out (or when I speak ungracefully). That isn’t always an option, but when it is, I find that it can be pretty effective.

  8. MyMelody says:

    Thank you, that was very thoughtful and I can and will use it. Although, I was wondering more about how to get people from a privileged group to listen to people from a less privileged one.

    I’m a woman of color, and I notice that criticism from me is probably prone to cause anxiety. I don’t want that. I want to use my experiences to communicate issues that I see, but I also don’t want to carry the burden of representation.

  9. Charlie says:

    Thanks for clarifying. To be honest, I don’t think you have much control over white people’s anxiety in response to your criticism. Some of us will feel attacked or anxious for a lot of reasons and although your words or actions might trigger those feelings, they don’t have anything to do with you. I’ve seen some people try to deal with that by being gentle, although that can easily slide into ineffectiveness or into coddling someone, rather than calling them out.

    I can’t speak from personal experience on this one (since approaching homophobia as a queer person is a different thing, even though there are some similarities), so here are some useful links:

    Derailing for Dummies
    How to Tell People They Sound Racist
    How to talk to white people about racism
    and I think that white folks who really want to deal with race issues would do well to read Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice.

    Hope that helps!

  10. Nick says:

    Bravo, Charlie! I had a feeling that the two sides were talking past each other to a degree. Leave it to you to articulate it so fairly, diplomatically, and intelligently.

    @Lily Lloyd:

    “Does this also mean that I should consider the views of many people who feel that homosexuality is wrong when I am having sex with my female partner?”

    Absolutely. However “consider” need not necessary imply “agree”; in fact, it ought to just as easily imply “ignore” or even “defy”. You may not intend defiance or even be aware of it when with your partner, but it’s there, merely by them knowing you exist while you know they exist. Hooray for that, I say; such folk need all the defiance we can muster.

  11. Jack Jones says:

    Some people equate “sex positivism” with promiscuity. Hence the critics who equate sex positive sex education with encouraging kids to experiment. The onus is on the educators to make sure there is no misunderstanding.

  12. Emily says:

    Hi Charlie, I’m just now finding this whole conversation – fashionably late? – and I also found Meghan’s differentiation between the individual and the social to be helpful. 

    My own sense of sex positivity is “consent and satisfaction,” and it has always been implicit (but maybe not explicit enough?) that “consent and satisfaction are complicated by cultural pressure to want or feel or do certain things, just as it’s complicated by things like infection disclosures. 

    I don’t think you need to add your caveat; I think it’s inherent in “consent” that it includes the consent of all the people who are affected by it. And I think it’s REALLY IMPORTANT that it NOT include the consent of people who are NOT affected by it. And I think THAT is where the complexity lies: my private choice to watch sex-positive, feminist porn includes me and the people who made the porn. We’re all giving full consent. And NO ONE ELSE needs to be okay with that. As Lily says more articulately in her comment, uninvolved people aren’t okay with it, they can suck eggs.

    And as it’s become clearer to me that anti-sex-positive feminists are making an argument against authentic consent and authentic desire, I can’t help feeling that it’s JUST as unfeminist to say that a woman doesn’t know her own experience when she says, for example, “I really enjoy it when my partner ejaculates on my face,” as it is to say she doesn’t know her own experience when she says she was assaulted. In the second case, the world in general is pressuring her NOT to categorize her experience that way and in the first it’s pressuring her TO categorize her experience that way, but they’re both pressure.

    It also feels like anti-sex-positive feminists are more invested in the problems than in the solutions; that sounds harsh, but honestly that’s what it looks like to me. “We have to change the system!” they must say, and yes! I agree! But how? The answer is… “Fuck the patriarchy”? 

    And what I want is to CREATE ACTUAL CHANGE. I think sex positivity is the gateway to change.


  13. […] Charlie Glickman got there before me! He wrote, “It seems disingenuous to say that my sexuality is only a […]

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