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.