Interview with a sex-positive feminist

There are different branches or “waves” of feminism. I, Clarisse Thorn, usually align myself with “sex-positive feminism” … although I feel that I’ve learned a lot from all kinds of feminists. Recently, I received an email from a student who is writing a paper about sex-positive feminism. He asked a bunch of questions; while I was reviewing those questions, I decided to just go ahead and post them plus my answers publicly (with the student’s consent, of course). So, here they are:

1. What principles or concepts is sex-positive feminism founded on?

As it happens, I wrote a sex-positive feminist 101 a while back when I realized that there wasn’t a good one on the Internet. But I was very cautious when I wrote it, because I’ve got my own biases. For one thing, I’m only 27. Sex-positive feminism has been around since the 1970s or 80s, and I haven’t read most of the founding books. For another, my sex-positivity is heavily biased by my own extensive personal experience in the S&M community (more on that in a moment).

That said! I believe that sex-positive feminism is about the belief that sex can be beautiful, it can be ugly, it can be difficult to deal with or easy to understand; some kinds of sex are widely misunderstood, and some kinds of sex are widely stereotyped; some people are really into sex, and some people aren’t; but most importantly, all kinds of sex are okay as long as they happen among consenting adults.

As a result, sex-positive feminists often focus on acceptance of alternative sexual approaches. Sex-positive feminists oppose problematic stereotypes of sex with men, or sex with women, or sex outside marriage, or sex within marriage, or sex with multiple people, or kinky sex, or sex for money, or sex on videotape, or even choosing to have no sex at all. Sex-positive feminists also do our best to oppose problematic stereotypes of different gender identities, from lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered people … to S&Mers … to sex workers … even to asexuals, who don’t experience sexual attraction.

Sex-positive feminists do not always succeed at these goals, but these are the goals that I personally perceive for us.

2. What events led to the emergence of the sex-positive feminist movement?

There have been acrimonious battles fought within feminism about sexuality; some people refer to these as the “Feminist Sex Wars” (seriously!). To shed light upon the depth and contradictions of those battles, I want to link you to what the pioneering sex-positive feminist Susie Bright wrote when she heard that Andrea Dworkin had died.

Susie Bright was one of the first feminist porn writers. Andrea Dworkin was one of the most famous feminist activists in history, and she was a genius, although she held some very extreme opinions. Dworkin very much disagreed with and attacked Susie Bright, plus a lot of other sex-positive feminists. Still, Susie Bright felt that she and her opinions could never have existed without Dworkin. Here’s a snip from what Bright wrote when Dworkin died:

Along with Kate Millet in Sexual Politics, Andrea Dworkin used her considerable intellectual powers to analyze pornography, which was something that no one had done before. No one. The men who made porn didn’t. Porn was like a low culture joke before the feminist revolution kicked its ass. It was beneath discussion. Not so anymore!

Here’s the irony… every single woman who pioneered the sexual revolution, every erotic-feminist-bad-girl-and-proud-of-it-stiletto-shitkicker, was once a fan of Andrea Dworkin. Until 1984, we all were. She was the one who got us looking at porn with a critical eye, she made you feel like you could just stomp into the adult bookstore and seize everything for inspection and a bonfire.

The funny thing that happened on the way to the X-Rated Sex Palace was that some of us came to different conclusions than Ms. Dworkin. We saw the sexism of the porn business … but we also saw some intriguing possibilities and amazing maverick spirit. We said, “What if we made something that reflected our politics and values, but was just as sexually bold?”

Andrea did not like this one little bit. Honestly, when I started [the pioneering sex-positive feminist porn publications] “On Our Backs” and “Herotica”, I thought all the girls were going to jump on the bandwagon. I had no idea how bad the animosity would get. I mean, I have tape recordings from colleges where I would go listen to Andrea lecture in rapt attention and turn my little cassette over to capture every word. I never dreamed that I would one day become one of the people she vilified.

Clarisse again. As a sex-positive feminist, I sometimes feel very much under attack from feminists who feel that my sexuality or my sex life are “not really feminist” or are even “harmful to women”. I’m not in porn and I’m not especially linked to porn — except inasmuch as porn is a general sex-positive issue; and I also believe that both free speech and sex workers’ rights are really important.

But I am into BDSM (also known as S&M, B&D, leather, kink or bondage), and that can cause no end of trouble. BDSM is a highly stigmatized sexual identity in much of society, and I’m kinda used to that stigma … but there’s something that especially hurts about other feminists attacking me for it. If some random person says I’m a broken human being because I’m into BDSM, that’s easier to bear than if another feminist says that — or even worse, if another feminist tells me that I’m a bad feminist or that I’m betraying other women or that I can’t possibly know what I want, all because of my sexual identity. (And make no mistake, other feminists do say those things. Recently, a history of the classic feminist “Ms. Magazine” quoted a co-founding editor who said that she “threatened to leave” when the magazine considered publishing an essay by a woman who identified as sexually masochistic.)

The thing is, I also try to be very aware of how sexuality can hurt people, especially women. I am a trained rape crisis counselor, for one thing, and I’ve also worked in public health on HIV/AIDS — but there are a lot of more subtle things that I worry about, too. I believe that there are ways sex is culturally constructed that are bad for people of all genders. I want there to be a way to talk about that, as long as we don’t fall unthinkingly into sexual shame. I’m a huge fan of groups such as Chicago’s brand-new Sexuality Health Education to End Rape, which is a coalition of people who try to find ways to meld sex-positive theory with rape prevention theory.

3. Do you think that in the past, and even in the present, women were expected (or even pressured) to be “anti-sex”?

I think there are competing pressures on women to be both “pro-sex” and “anti-sex”, and I think that has probably always been true.

That said, different cultures have thought about female sexuality in really different ways. Lots of cultures, such as ancient Greece, have seen women as uncontrollably sexual — have shared a wide belief that women’s sexual desires are so overpowering that we can’t be trusted to keep hold of ourselves. In the old Greek myth of Tiresias, the story goes that the king and queen of the gods — Zeus and Hera — had a big fight about who enjoys sex more: men or women. Zeus insisted that women enjoy sex more, and Hera insisted that men enjoy sex more. So the gods took a mortal, Tiresias, and they changed Tiresias’s gender, so that he had the experience of sex both as a male-bodied person and as a female-bodied person. Tiresias reported that sex was more pleasurable for women, which made Zeus smug and Hera angry. (Since the idea that women are uncontrollably sexual was used as one excuse to limit women’s freedom in some areas of ancient Greece, you can see why Hera was so furious.) Hera blinded Tiresias out of spite, but Zeus gave Tiresias the gift of prophesy and multiplied his lifespan by seven.

On the other hand, the Victorians widely felt that women were properly “chaste” and “pure”, and that “proper women” didn’t like sex. There’s a famous saying from the English Victorian era about how when women were having sex, they were encouraged to “lie back and think of England”: in other words, it was assumed that women wouldn’t like having sex; therefore, during sex women should just tell themselves that they were putting up with it for the sake of their country (since eventually they would have children, and that would be good for the country). For the Victorians, if a woman liked sex, then there was something wrong with her.

As for the present … right now, I think women are encouraged to be into sex, but we’re encouraged to be into sex in a very performative way, and we also aren’t supposed to be too excited about sex, because then we’re seen as “easy” or “slutty”. There’s nothing wrong with doing sexy things because you like looking sexy, but I think a lot of women feel as though we MUST look sexy in a certain way, and that’s really limiting and stifling. On the one hand, if we don’t seem to enjoy sex in this very performative way then we’re seen as “prudes”; at the same time, if we seem to enjoy sex too much then we’re seen as “sluts”. It’s a tightrope.

4. How important is sex and the exploration of one’s sexuality in achieving self-determination?

Both “sex” and “exploration” can mean really different things to different people … and sex can be differently important to different people. Sex and sexuality are really important to me, and I think that understanding my sexuality was a huge step forward for me for having control in my relationships. Of course, I’m also the kind of person who becomes a sex writer, so there you go.

That said … I am hardly the first person to point this out, but I really believe that controlling people’s sexuality is intertwined with a lot of other social control mechanisms. It’s hard to explain, but my experience is that when people are feeling sexually stifled — when people feel like they can’t experience sexuality in whatever way is important to them — they often have less freedom of thought. If a person feels stifled, then so much of their mental energy goes to suppressing themselves that they lose energy for spending on more positive or productive or creative thoughts.

And it goes the other way too: when people can be sexually creative, other things can get released too; there’s a certain openness and willingness to break down barriers. Obviously, creativity and breaking down walls can happen through other experiences as well, but really great connective sex is one very effective method of freeing people emotionally and imaginatively.

5. In your opinion, does being able to have and enjoy sex in whatever way a woman pleases make her empowered? How so?

A lot of things can be empowering. People who have enough food are empowered because they don’t have to worry about food — then they can look for other ways to make their lives meaningful. People who have good social networks are empowered because they can count on being supported if they take an emotional blow, or get sick, or have a business failure — then they can accept more social risks. In a capitalist system, people who can do the kind of work they want to do, and make good money at it, can be seen as empowered because they aren’t dependent on anyone for support. (Although a person might argue that no one can really be empowered in a capitalist system … I’m just saying.)

So … sure, I would say that a woman who can have or enjoy sex that she likes will often be empowered. (In fact, people of all genders who have or enjoy sex that they like can often be described as empowered.) As I said above, I think good sex can free up our mental resources; sex can be an amazingly freeing and creative experience. But as to whether having pleasurable sex makes a woman empowered, I think there’s more to it than that.

I love sex … but I’d rather have enough food than sex. For that matter, if I had to choose, then I’d choose a relationship that’s loving and respectful but maybe a little sexually boring — over a relationship that’s sexually amazing, but disrespectful or abusive. (I hope I never have to make that choice!) Sexual empowerment is a huge deal, but I think other kinds of empowerment are just as important and necessary … or more so. I feel called to work with sexuality and promote sexual freedom, but it’s not because I think sexuality is the most important issue in the world. It’s just an issue that I happen to have a particular affinity for.

About Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
This entry was posted in Feminism, Sex, Sexual Assault and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Interview with a sex-positive feminist

  1. Emma says:

    Really beautiful answers, Clarisse. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Hugo says:

    when people can be sexually creative, other things can get released too; there’s a certain openness and willingness to break down barriers. Obviously, creativity and breaking down walls can happen through other experiences as well, but really great connective sex is one very effective method of freeing people emotionally and imaginatively.

    Yes, this is true. And it’s why sex education is such an important component of equipping young people for life.

  3. Glass says:

    Fantastic. Informative. Well said.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  4. smash says:

    Thank you for your interesting perspective. I so agree with this, “I think a lot of women feel as though we MUST look sexy in a certain way, and that’s really limiting and stifling.”

    I do think that some pornography is harmful. The F word UK claims that you can be anti-porn and pro-sex, which is also an interesting perspective.

  5. Clarisse, can we be friends please? I literally read through this going “yes… YES… oh my god, exactly.”

    I am so sick of being told that my sexuality is something that has been forced upon be by a male-dominated ‘culture of porn’. I’m not big on BDSM but I am into plenty of other apparently ‘porn-influenced sex practices’ and I find the idea that I have been somehow conditioned to want these things pretty insulting.

    I also found your comments about the socially sanctioned forms of sexiness very significant. I’m British and I am constantly astounded by how much of our Victorian prudishness lives on, only now mutated into this horrendous hybrid of appearing to be up for anything while maintaining a slightly innocent/shockable air.

    Ok, I realise my opener made me sound a little like a stalker but basically what I was trying to say is thanks for writing this. I am going to link to it immediately.

  6. Onymous says:

    Not related to your article Clarisse but in the linked Susie Bright article/eulogy there is fragment of found text:
    “Andrea Dworkin is probably the loudest self”
    That I think is pretty damn beautiful and evocative.

  7. I’ve written before, I’m sure, about my mother who still identifies as sex-negative. It seems a little odd to analyze this subject in reference to her, but I’ll take a guess. I really feel like that in her perspective, it was easy to believe that pornography was uniformly demeaning to women or misogynist. This because it made her so personally ill-at-ease.

    Mom is a bit of a prude due to her upbringing. Sex was just never discussed except when absolutely necessary, and then only in euphemistic terms. So I think that may drive the beliefs of some women who are not sex-positive. It takes a lot to overcome the taboo aspect of sexuality, in any context.

  8. Dominique says:

    I just think it’s sad that those questions even have to come up. It’s sad that we live in a society where being a feminist and being “sex-positive” isn’t automatic. When I was younger I had a high sex drive and considered myself a feminist, but somehow, that just seemed to translate into “oh, she’s a nympho, she’ll just take it from anyone.” Like that was the liberation. Umm, no. Really, really not. Also, bizarrely, the fact that I identified as feminist apparently made me “unrapeable”, because as a feminist, I should be able to defend myself at all times and be superhuman. Also not the case.

  9. We are so already friends, Francesca.

    Thanks folks.

  10. Marlene says:

    I think that it is important to remember the context of Bright’s statements about Dworkin. Dworkin was an absolute eliminationist when it came to SM and made active moves to ruin the lives and livelihoods of those who opposed her. People lost jobs, careers, CUSTODY OF THEIR CHILDREN, and more as a direct result of Dworkin’s actions. Non-consensual outing of SM practitioners was one of her favorite tools.

    I think that you could have selected your quotes in a way that was more clear about the level of the fight.

  11. If you have any suggested quotes or resources, Marlene, you’re welcome to link to them.

  12. Jo says:

    Great post, Clarisse! I just wanted to point out that there are some asexuals who have sex, bei it for its own sake as something enjoyable, or to please a partner as a sort of compromise. I personally haven’t, but know from the AVEN boards that there are many who do, and there are also sex-positive asexuals. I would generally see myself as sex-positive, even though I’m not that way inclined myself.

    Eh, don’t know if this is all stuff you know already, but the representation is appreciated either way!

  13. Jo, I’m doing my best to try and be more inclusive of asexuals, and I’m working on an upcoming post about the topic.

  14. Jovan1984 says:

    Great post, Clarisse. By the way, when will you be 28? I’ll turn 28 on March 18.

  15. July. I am a Cancer, and therefore highly emotional. Everyone always thinks I’m an air sign, though ;)

  16. matlun says:

    Nice article.

    I was surprised over the positive view you (and Bright) seem to have about Dworkin. I would have thought a sex positive feminist would have been more critical of her work. Interesting.

  17. Stella Vance says:

    I believe that the author has a great attitude about female sexuality. My memoirs, Dancing with Duality, is all about how we of the ’60s and ’70s pioneered the sexual revolution…and it wasn’t always FUN!!! Sometimes we had abortions, date rape, sexual harassment, physical abuse. Hopefully we passed on the wisdom of how to avoid this.
    But most of it was incredibly fun…and I have absolutely
    NO REGRETS!

  18. tinfoil hattie says:

    Any time I read, “sex-positive feminism,” I wonder what it means. The default position of feminism is hardly anti-sex.

  19. ripley says:

    this is interesting, but seems utterly individualistic and therefore doesn’t really address what I would assume is a fundamental concern of feminism – the systematic material oppression of women. We simply cannot choose, interpret, or enjoy our way out of it.

    The main contribution of Dworkin, MackKinnon and others was not about personal choice or guilt, but about how what you do, in the bedroom with others or in public, or wherever other people are involved, can affect other people and contribute to a broader discourse and set of images and assumptions about power. Regardless of how you feel about what you are doing, or your personal interpretation. I would love to see a sex-positive feminist take this on more honestly – I have found Nina Power and the like to simply retreat to the whole “what I do in the bedroom has nothing to do with politics” which seems like an utter failure of feminism. And even more so when talking about a set of industries that create images and discourses that shape how people think about sex and bodies and stuff. (and again, it would truly be a collapse of basic feminism to think that images and discourses don’t matter!)

    I also see pleasure being discussed pretty uncritically. It is perfectly possible to enjoy exploitation and to enjoy being on the receiving end of sexism – I don’t think pleasure is necessarily a trustworthy indicator of being either non-oppressive or non-oppressed. Oppression would have died out long ago if our society didn’t make it feel good, on both sides. Does non-oppression feel better? maybe.. but our society exacts a high and painful toll for nonconformity and the pleasures of societal approval are pretty strong. (and again it is a collapse of some of feminism’s most powerful tools to assert that society doesn’t shape how you feel about yourself. All of this bravado about “not being brainwashed” actually insults many of the most powerful foundational tenets of feminism, which are that we all are brought up in a powerful system in which our personal practices are shaped by political forces. It’s not about being brainwashed, but it is about learning a vocabulary of pleasure, of the body, of attractiveness, that comes from somewhere. Consider how different cultures have different foods and flavors, and people growing up in them have different tastes. It doesn’t mean you can never learn to love something new, but why would we think sexual tastes are exempt from that? And because we know that many societies have massive gender inequalities, why would we assume that sexual relations and images around that would have no significance?

    lastly, the generalizations about ‘women in the victorian era’ or any other era could use a bit more specificity. Poor women faced very different assumptions about sexuality. African, Caribbean, Indian women as well. I’m not talking about attitudes about sex across cultures (which you mention), I’m talking WITHIN cultures/societies. To me this suggests even more strongly that attitudes about sex serves a different social purpose, connected to the other hierarchies and stratifications within a culture.. Also, when women are expected to be pro-sex or anti-sex, did either attitude enable them to escape exploitation? no. Poor women were considered sexually available and rich women sexually repressed, but both were treated as commodities, just of a different sort. Their own personal attitudes didn’t necessarily contribute to their liberation.

    Actually I’m with Hattie. I don’t understand the point of “sex-positive” – I mean, feminists care about consent (right)? that seems to be the relevant feminist attitude towards sex. The question of how you know what constitutes consent is the real divergence, I think – and here I can’t help but feel the Dworkinites have a point – in a society where all sexual choices are so overburdened with powerful material and psychological repercussions, how do you know what consent really means? (I think “it feels good” is a pretty inadequate answer, if you haven’t already guessed)

  20. Random Observer says:

    “I do think that some pornography is harmful. The F word UK claims that you can be anti-porn and pro-sex, which is also an interesting perspective.”

    The “anti-porn/pro-sex” position looks more rhetorical than anything else. It strikes me as the same-old same-old with a little creative table-turning. The reason I don’t think positions like this are really “pro-sex” or “sex-positive” the way I understand them is that while the person claiming this position may very well love their own sexuality (and who, other than die-hard asexuals, doesn’t), there’s manifest intolerance for people who’s sexuality includes media, voyeurism, or falls outside of the contrived notions of “authenticity” espoused in that article. I will note that somebody can be very critical of the porn industry without being intolerant, but the claims based on supposedly being put-upon by the very existence of sexually explicit media and the fact that –gasp– you might live in a society where you’ll come into contact with people who watch it most certainly is intolerant. If that’s “sex positive”, then so is the whole “sex is wonderful, but only in the context of a proper Christian monogamous marriage” line, and the term recedes into meaninglessness.

    As for the article, I think calling Sasha Grey an “exited victim of pornography” when she would not remotely call herself that makes the claims of that article more than a little bit of a stretch from the get-go.

  21. Random Observer says:

    “I was surprised over the positive view you (and Bright) seem to have about Dworkin. I would have thought a sex positive feminist would have been more critical of her work. Interesting.”

    Susie Bright actually is quite critical of Dworkin’s sexual politics, even if she admires Dworkin’s presentation and style. The claim that Susie Bright was some huge Dworkinista is based on a not-very-deep reading of what Bright has written about Dworkin (she pays Dworkin *many* backhanded compliments).

    And when it comes to Catherine MacKinnon, Bright spares no harsh words. (And rightly so, in my estimation.) Google “The Prime of Miss Kitty MacKinnon” to see what I mean.

  22. Random Observer says:

    “love their own sexuality (and who, other than die-hard asexuals, doesn’t)”

    I was actually trying to be asexual-inclusive with that statement, but now reading it back see that it doesn’t come across that way. I don’t mean “asexuals hate their sexuality”. Merely “asexuals don’t have a sexuality to love, nor want to”. Or that’s my best guess about asexuality, anyway, though not being one, I may be way off.

  23. matlun says:

    Random Observer: love their own sexuality (and who, other than die-hard asexuals, doesn’t)

    Also: The answer is sadly “too many people”. There are many homosexuals that are still struggling with guilt from their upbringing, women who do not feel free to be aggressively sexual etc.

    Re Susie Bright (as well as the OP): Yes, they are very strongly opposed to her sexual politics. And yet they speak of her as a person and feminist in very positive terms. This was the (seeming) contradiction I found interesting.

  24. tinfoil hattie says:

    the claims based on supposedly being put-upon by the very existence of sexually explicit media and the fact that –gasp– you might live in a society where you’ll come into contact with people who watch it most certainly is intolerant.

    TRIGGER WARNING:

    The claim that our society’s viewpoint of sex and sexuality is not based on relegation of women to the category of “sex class” is woefully (willfully?) ignotant. Porn is degrading and harmful to women, and informs upcoming generations that sex is about women who moan and writhe while being penetrated and thrust into, over and over. I don’t give a damn if stating that fact makes me – gasp – intolerant.

  25. Random Observer says:

    “The claim that our society’s viewpoint of sex and sexuality is not based on relegation of women to the category of “sex class” is woefully (willfully?) ignotant. Porn is degrading and harmful to women, and informs upcoming generations that sex is about women who moan and writhe while being penetrated and thrust into, over and over. I don’t give a damn if stating that fact makes me – gasp – intolerant.”

    You misspelled “opinion”. That’s o-p-i-n-i-o-n, not f-a-c-t.

  26. tinfoil hattie says:

    Keep telling yourself that, random. Keep telling yourself that so you can enjoy your “harmless” porn.

  27. Random Observer says:

    Whatever you say, appropriately-named one.

  28. Stephanie says:

    I’m curious as to what peoples opinions are about the violence that goes on in the porn industry? Like this (trigger warning!)

    Also, as tinfoil hattie pointed out, pornography is centered around male pleasure and it really relegates women to the role of “male pleasure provider.” I have a really hard time reconciling sex positive feminism with this.

  29. Random Observer says:

    Stephanie – I’ll give one “sex-positive’s” answer to this.

    It sounds like a bit of a rhetorical question to me. I mean, do you expect anybody here to be yay violence!, yay coercion! ? I think anything like that is shocking in any industry. (And the sex industry has no monopoly on violent coercion.) The question is, how typical is it? If you buy Shelley Lubben’s version of the porn industry, this represents all porn at all times. Others who have spent more time in the industry point to this kind of thing as the exception, and it seems to me more productive to root the abuse out rather than demand an end to all porn, which simply drives the remaining porn industry further underground and makes abuse even less transparent, and creates roadblocks to safe, consensual, ethical porn that would provide much better conditions for porn workers. I would much rather put my energy behind change coming from working performers, such as the recently-formed Adult Performers Association, who know best what the problems in the industry are and what needs to change.

    As for the second point you raise, Susanah Breslin points to the staggeringly obvious when she points out that most porn caters to male fantasy, because it’s mainly men (and not feminist bloggers) who are *buying* pornography, so of course the majority of it is going to cater to male fantasies, whether about women, or in the case of gay men, about other men. Of course, when you start a sentence with “pornography is….”, you make as much of a blanket statement as “popular music is….”. There’s more than a small amount of feminist, queer, and/or ethical porn out there, and quite a bit more that falls into some pretty huge gray areas between productions that are feminist to those that are basically misogynistic. I know that’s not the Gail Dines line on what porn is, but I’ve seen enough a variety of porn to know that Gail Dines has tunnel vision.

    How do I “reconcile” that? Well, for starters, I don’t think sex-positive feminism automatically condemns sexual imagery that doesn’t happen to be feminist, nor male fantasy per se. (I suppose this is where I’ll get flack for being a big old evol “liberal” – guilty as charged!) But basically, I see pornography as a *genre*, the same as science fiction or costume dramas. There’s nothing inherent about porn or any other genre that would prevent it from being used to advance a feminist agenda or simply give women pleasure.

    (Hopefully not opening up a major landmine by even answering this.)

  30. The claim that Susie Bright was some huge Dworkinista is based on a not-very-deep reading of what Bright has written about Dworkin (she pays Dworkin *many* back handed compliments).

    I guess it’s a good thing that no one made the claim that Bright was some huge Dworkinista.

    Y’all have fun with the comment wars. I’m tired and I’ve got work to do, so I’m bowing out of this round. Keep it civil, please.

  31. Jadey says:

    Stephanie: Also, as tinfoil hattie pointed out, pornography is centered around male pleasure and it really relegates women to the role of “male pleasure provider.” I have a really hard time reconciling sex positive feminism with this.

    And I have trouble reconciling my porn collection with comments like this, as I’ve managed to acquire quite a lot of pornography that has no resemblance to what is often touted as being absolutely representative of basically all pornography.

    We can still oppose the exploitative practices that occur within the textile and food production industries without trying to make arguments about how wearing clothes and eating are inherently and universally exploitative practices, yes?

  32. figleaf says:

    First of all thanks for the (sex-) positive read on Dworkin. I haven’t said it lately but for years I’ve believed strongly that Dworkin’s key contribution to positive sexuality was her activism for the right to say “no.” Because without the right to say no consent is effectively meaningless. And without meaningful consent positive sexuality is an oxymoron, at least for hetero women and therefore for heterosexuals, period.

    Remember, she never said “intercourse is rape.” She said that by (then) current convention and law intercourse was indistinguishable from rape. Meaning that a woman might be willing, and she might be enjoying herself, and she might affirmatively want to, but it didn’t matter whether she did or didn’t because she really didn’t have much in the way of legal or social or, especially, economic recourse to say no if she didn’t want to.

    Without an affirmative “no” there can be no affirmative “yes.” She as much as anyone else made that possible.

    She was a very big deal.

    figleaf

  33. Random Observer says:

    Right Figleaf, Dworkin virtually invented the whole concept of consent. There was no concept of it in either law or feminism before then. Rape would be legal if it weren’t for Andrea Dworkin.

    Good grief, man, is your reading of history that sloppy, or are you just trying for dramatic effect?

  34. Random Observer says:

    And actually, apologies about my tone above. The way it’s written comes across as more rude than I was actually thinking it.

    Nonetheless, it is hard to come across with perfect civility and still say “you are so wrong”, a point I do stand by.

  35. Iasme says:

    Sex positive feminism takes current material conditions and conventions regarding sex as given and healthy purely because they’re current and may give pleasure in the most narrow sense of hedonism, and just berates the delegated ‘overt’ forms of sexism which no die hard sexist that I’ve dealt with even aligns themselves with (and I’ve dealt with the kind that believe that they should have complete sexual access to women’s bodies at all times). Analysing the individual act of sex according to a really basic notion of consent eliminates the psychological conditions and the psychology underlying what has become conventional. The conventions of sex more broadly serve males (technically, misognynists of all kinds, bisexuals/lesbians/trans included) completely negates and dwarves any individually self-conscious attempt to transcend that environment and pretend that what they are participating in doesn’t degrade themselves as whole persons with actual conventional bodies, purely because they may get a few orgasms from the practice or feel vindicated because they receive attention and praise socially for participating in such acts (which of itself, is a form of conditioning). Like it or not, in many respects Dworkin was right. You can’t decry misogny and consume it too.

    Feminists cannot afford to ignore the forest that is the degradation and objectification of women on a social scale, which permeates all areas of life, including sex, for the tree that is the individual consenting to a particular act or rather capitulating and ultimately becoming a conformist to the always male-dominated pornography scene. At base, pornography is about degrading onself into a commodity form to be sold and consumed, conventions have as their primary market misogynist males (without which the porn industry would not today exist).

    Feminists cannot afford to ignore the social background that underlies and gives content to certain conventions. To ignore that in favour of relegating the struggle to only individual preferences without a social analysis, gives feminism an egocentric praxis and does not socially emancipate all women.

  36. tinfoil hattie says:

    Hey, as long as “No women were harmed in the making of your porn, there’s no problem! Porn is feminist! Women getting pronged by indifferent-to-sadistic dudes is a big feminist turn-on, amirite? So are nude vulvas, grotesquely enlarged fake breasts, and shots of ejaculate into women’s mouths/onto their faces. Mmm, degredation and conformance to male ideas of what induces orgasms – now that’s feminism in a nutshell!

  37. figleaf says:

    @Tinfoil Hattie: “Mmm, degredation and conformance to male ideas of what induces orgasms – now that’s feminism in a nutshell!”

    I think Clarisse addresses a huge part of this concern, in ways I sincerely hope make sense to non-feminist-inclined readers, when she says:

    As for the present … right now, I think women are encouraged to be into sex, but we’re encouraged to be into sex in a very performative way, and we also aren’t supposed to be too excited about sex, because then we’re seen as “easy” or “slutty”. There’s nothing wrong with doing sexy things because you like looking sexy, but I think a lot of women feel as though we MUST look sexy in a certain way, and that’s really limiting and stifling. On the one hand, if we don’t seem to enjoy sex in this very performative way then we’re seen as “prudes”; at the same time, if we seem to enjoy sex too much then we’re seen as “sluts”. It’s a tightrope.

    It is of course perfectly fine to be inclined to exhibitionism, and it’s as fine to wear funny or revealing clothes to bed as it is to wear them to the beach or the Oregon Country Fair. And it would be kind of weird to take no account of and to pay no attention to one’s partner’s enjoyment of sex when you’re together. And role-playing in bed can be as much fun as role-playing in a tree house used to be. It’s not even a problem that one might bring one’s manias, neuroses, enthusiasms, fantasies, or social conditioning to bed with you. It’s even (obviously) no problem at all to kiss a girl and like it. If any of that literally fans your personal erotic flames then cool. Good even!

    But if there’s a sense of obligation to perform that crap, Cosmo-style, because that’s what you understand to be socially expected, or that’s what you believe your partner particularly wants, or because your partner specifically presses for it and is unable or unwilling to recognize or respect your boundaries (let alone your actual, you know, erotic preferences) then, yeah, not sex positive. At all. Certainly not in terms of the people who coined the term.

    This is something a lot of people don’t get about the whole sex-positive thing. Including an awful lot of people who imagine themselves to be “sex positive.”

    It’s not about being “outrageous.” It’s definitely not about maximizing sexuality. Nor is it about being “cool” with anything sexual, including anything or everything “consenting adults” might choose to do together. With a nod to Jo, above, being sex-positive isn’t even about being sexual, period! (A very good metric for me, by the way, is how positively people react to asexuality.) Because, for instance, since the whole point of being sex positive is to appreciate and permit expression of one’s own actual erotic sexuality, it’s at least as important to create space for people to enjoy not ever having sex every bit as much as others might enjoy having it.

    Again, that performative business? No matter how low the Cosmo Girl cleavage might get, the implication as Clarisse mentions is that she’s really faking it — doing it not out of erotic self-enjoyment but for some non-orthoganal benefit such as “keeping her man,” or just “pleasing” him, or as some kind of reward for dinner or support or cold cash, or even just to avoid violence. Anything, in other words, but because she might actually want to because it’s what floats her boat.

    And I gotta say that I think a heck of a lot of the degradation, exploitation, humiliation, and pain exhibited in porn (and to a lesser degree in real life) is based on the perverse notion that if you just push hard enough, long enough, the woman will finally stop faking her interest and finally say no. Thus proving the dominant paradigm’s bogus proposition that it’s simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for women to express sexual desire and, alternately, that it’s equally intolerable and inconceivable for anyone, male or female, to have sexual desire for men.

    None of which, obviously, is even the least bit sex-positive. In fact in the dominant paradigm is thoroughly sex-negative in every respect. Which is why I think it’s still a useful term. It’s also why sex-positive non-feminism is always going to be a contradiction of terms.

    figleaf

  38. figleaf says:

    @Random Observer: Right. That’s why sex-positive pioneers like Susie Bright reject Andrea Dworkin’s work out of hand. Oh wait!

    Statistically speaking it’s unlikely you remember life before Dworkin. I do. So, I believe, does Tinfoil Hattie. Hetero sex really was that weird and that perilous for women. As an early-hours newsboy in a hospital I became quite aware of the dynamics of, say, sexual assault and domestic violence in emergency rooms — how seriously police took it, how seriously social workers took it, how seriously hospital staff (including women nurses) took it. It wasn’t quite as bad as “if she wasn’t a virgin she could legally have been raped,” but whether one was a virgin or “good girl” had a hell of a lot to do with how seriously she was taken, how likely the police were to investigate, how much sympathy the victim received, and so on. But the idea really was that if a woman ever said “yes” to anyone outside of wedlock it was really, really hard to take her seriously if she ever said “no” to anyone else.

    Anyway, no, Dworkin didn’t out and out invent consent. But she as much as anyone formalized it and, aggressively and sometimes unpleasantly,sure, hammered it into popular consciousness. But it’s still the case that if she (and others like her) hadn’t jammed so hard on that theme it would be far more difficult for women to express as wide a range of sexuality as they’re able to today.

    I won’t go as far as to say that Dworkin was the first “3rd-wave”
    or “sex-positive” feminist — that really is something Susie Bright and her contemporaries pioneered after coming of age inside 1970s feminism. But given that they acknowledge Dworkin as a key influence I’m not sure why anyone else would balk.

    figleaf

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  40. Aydan says:

    This is really interesting. Between this and Pervocracy, I’ve been thinking lately about how to apply the framework of sex-positivity– what would you do if everything [between consenting adults] were okay– to asexuality. It’s nice to see a definition of sex-positivity that acknowledges that sex isn’t, by default, a positive thing.

    One thing– asexuals aren’t people who don’t experience sexual feelings, but who don’t experience sexual attraction. Asexuals can and do experience arousal, sexual pleasure, etc.

  41. Thanks Aydan. Fixed.

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