There’s a new post up on the Good Men Project, Is Sex Positive Ever Negative?, which highlights many of the ways in which sex-positivity is seriously misunderstood. The writer, Lili Bee, starts with an account of a conversation she had with a friend and the roadblock they hit when he suggested that she do some reading on sex-positivity. So she went to her mentor, Robert Jensen, to get his thoughts on the issue. And that’s where things get squirrely.
Bee starts off pointing out that one of the problems with what many people think of as sex-positive communities is that there’s often a reactivity to the overboundedness that has been imposed on sexuality. I agree with her that a lot of people who say they’re sex-positive have judgment towards folks with concerns or squicks about a particular sexual act, which only reinforces and perpetuates the cycle of judgment. But Bee doesn’t get that a big part of the problem is the result of how people “express objections to” a particular sexual act.
There’s an important difference between saying “I don’t enjoy that” or “I don’t understand what draws people to that” and saying “that sexual act is bad/sick/wierd.” When someone expresses an objection to a sexual practice, there’s often a theme of judging the people who do it and of saying that there’s something wrong with them for enjoying it. Even if it’s not intentional, that judgment is still likely to come out. Bee doesn’t seem to understand that while reactivity to that judgment is unfortunate, it’s also understandable given how much shame people have received for their sexual desires.
As I’ve written many times, sex-positivity is the idea that the only relevant measure of a particular sexual act, practice, or desire is how the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants are cared for. And the two pillars that reinforce sex-negativity are the Myth of the Normal and the idea that there are ways that anyone’s sexuality should be. The more we can let go of the idea that there is such a thing as “normal” sexuality that people “should” enjoy, the more we can let go of sex-negativity.
It’s not a surprise that a lot of people get confused around this. Even Jensen, who usually has a more nuanced understanding, seems to not get it:
I think the whole notion of it is absurd. The notion of a “Sex Positive” category or a sex-positive feminism is truly ridiculous since no one I know of in these arenas is sex negative. The only people who might be truly sex-negative are extreme religious fundamentalists who believe that sexual conduct is somehow inherently shameful.
First off, there are a lot of people besides extreme fundamentalists who believe that sex is shameful. Like the Catholic Church. Want another example? The all-too-common practice of slut-shaming rests on the idea that women who have sex are dirty and that certainly isn’t limited to “extreme religious fundamentalists.” Or how about the ways in which queers are asked to desexualize themselves in order to gain acceptance? When two men kissing gets a negative reaction in settings where male/female couples can kiss without reprisal, at least part of the cause is likely to be sex-negativity. Given how pervasive these sorts of things are, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not just “extreme religious fundamentalists” who express sex-negativity.
Further, maybe Jensen would do well to talk with some therapists about how their clients feel about sex. Any therapist worth their fee can tell you that many, many people feel shame for their perfectly benign fantasies and desires, simply because they’ve internalized the belief that anyone who wants to do those things must be sick. Unless he’s going to argue that being a feminist somehow automatically absolves you of that shame, I don’t see how he can reasonably argue that there are no sex-negative feminists.
Even people who have few negative feelings about their own sexualities can still have negative feelings about other people’s sexual desires or practices. It’s easy to say that you think sex is good. It’s a lot harder to honor, value, and celebrate someone’s sexuality when you find it challenging, confusing, or triggering. And speaking from personal experience, I’ve had plenty of feminists (and non-feminists) judge or try to shame me for my sexuality because of their own issues around it to buy what Jensen is selling.
The reason I find this so frustrating is that there are many ways in which he & I are on the same page:
The question now is: How does one fashion a healthy, sexual culture and the question I use to frame that is to ask: “What is sex for?” Sex has a role in human life. Obviously it has a basic role in procreation but it’s much more than that. The question is, and at any given point in time, sex can mean many different things and what do we want it to mean?
To ask that question is not to impose a single answer, it’s to recognize that not all forms of sex are consistent with healthy, human relationships.
Yes, this. I take it a bit further when I suggest that one way to find the answers to the question of “what do we want sex to mean?” is to ask about the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants, but we’re pretty much in alignment, I think. But then, they take the conversation here:
Lili: When one looks at the tone of many of the comments following articles about porn use, one can really get a sense of the contention and hostility. So it leaves me wondering: Whom does it really serve to create distinctions like “sex positive”? Why even create the distinction?
Bob: Well, it serves the people who want to undermine critique by labeling any critique as being “sex negative”. That’s the only function it serves as far as I can tell, which is why I don’t use the terms and don’t accept the terms in conversations or debates I might be in.
While that might be one use for the term for some people, it’s not the only one. One of the historical roots of sex-negativity was the idea that sex is inherently sinful or shameful unless it was validated by procreative sex within the bounds of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. While that has changed over the last century or so, what we’ve mostly done is shift the boundaries. For example, when van de Velde published Ideal Marriage in 1926, his suggestion that non-intercourse sexual stimulation was acceptable (provided that it led to intercourse) was groundbreaking. That’s only 85 years ago, which isn’t a long time compared to how long sex-negativity has been around.
Over the last century or so, we’ve seen some pretty significant shifts in terms of what kinds of sex are considered acceptable and which aren’t, but the fact that we’re still discussing things like how many partners someone can have before she’s a slut, or whether it’s possible to respect someone and have casual sex with them, or whether there’s something inherently oppressive about anal sex shows that we’re still stuck on the idea of categorizing sexual acts or desires as good or bad. The very notion that a sex act can be good or bad in and of itself is simply the current iteration of sex-negativity because it locates the value of sex in the activity rather than in the experiences of the individuals who do it.That’s like saying that sandwiches are good or bad without reference to the personal tastes of the people who eat them. It’s much more productive to ask how a given individual feels about what they do and make room for a diversity of responses, instead of judging the acts themselves.
Now, I do think it’s worth asking a question that a lot of feminists bring up: in a world that pressures people to make certain choices around sexual expression, how do we know what our authentic desires are? But at the same time, I find it rather telling that Bee is so honest about her judgment:
When I do raise the question in conversation, it’s not uncommon to get a considerable amount of pushback from women, who’ll say, “No, I do love walking around in a see-through dress with no underwear on in public”, or “I love when I know my man is out enjoying himself at strip clubs” or any of these statements which I have to admit, sound bizarre to me. [italics added]
Right there, where she admits that what turns someone else on sounds bizarre to her: that’s sex-negativity. It’s not the fact that she doesn’t get what makes those things appealing to others. It’s not the fact that she’s not drawn to them. It’s the fact that she says that they’re bizarre that makes it sex-negative. If she had said “…any of these statements which I have to admit, I just don’t understand,” I wouldn’t say that this is an expression of sex-negativity because she’d be owning her confusion instead of labeling other people’s desires. And while she toned it down by saying that they sound bizarre rather than being bizarre, it’s still an expression of judgment instead of taking responsibility for how she feels. It’s ironic that it happens in the same interview in which Jensen claims that sex-negative feminists don’t exist, which I really take to mean that he doesn’t have a really good grasp on what sex-negativity means.
I think that’s what I find so frustrating about him. I can add one word to his question about body image to make it a really relevant question about sex-positivity:
How do we shape [sex] lives that are sensible, sane and consistent with both physical, emotional and mental, long-term health?
And again, when he talks about authentic desire, he and I are really in agreement:
The other question is, “How much of that comes from authentic desire?” and ‘authenticity’ is a difficult word in this context because all of our desires are in some sense, conditioned by society. I’m not sure anybody has individual, authentic desires. What I come to desire is always going to be, in part, shaped by the society around me. But we have to be able to ask, “How are those social pressures sometimes healthy, or unhealthy? How are they sometimes connected to domination/ subordination dynamics in oppressive systems like patriarchy?”
So in a lot of ways, I do agree with him that feminism can be very much in alignment with sex-positivity. But where it falls down is when people arrogantly judge others and in the use of shame and disgust to try to sway people, both of which are unfortunately common in discussions with feminists, in my experience. Those are the mechanisms of erotophobia and I believe that’s a big reason why some people equate feminism with sex-negativity. I have difficulty imagining how one can create a truly liberatory set of sexual ethics if you’re using tools that create and reinforce sexual shame.
The difficulty for anyone who wants to ask questions that challenge people’s sexualities is that shame is so pervasive that it’s really easy to accidentally trigger it, causing all sorts of defensive reactions including attacking the questioner. So if you’re going to ask those questions, as many feminists do, it’s a lot more productive to learn about how shame works and then adapt your inquiry to minimize how likely you are to trigger it. (Some good places to start are here, here, and here.) It’s also really useful to learn how to compassionately inquire or set boundaries instead of attacking or blaming someone.
In any case, given that Bee wanted to explore sex-positivity, I think that she would have done better to have found someone who has something to say about it beyond the claim that it doesn’t exist. Since Jensen is one of her mentors, I assume that she already knew what he had to say on the topic and I can’t help but wonder why she asked him for his take on it. So here’s an open invitation to her, or to Jensen, or anyone else. I think that sex-positivity has a lot to offer feminism and I’m always happy to talk about these issues. You can get in touch with me anytime.