Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Feminist-positive sex: some initial thoughts

Inspired by Sunflower's post (::wave::) about sex-positive feminism, and by this thread at Feministe which appears to have turned into a debate between me and Amber Rhea and Renegade Evolution, and somehow keeps getting interpreted as another episode of Kink On Trial:

The problem I have with "sex-positive feminism" is that, a lot of the time, it seems to start with "we find these practices enjoyable" as an axiom, and builds its feminism around that; if sexual practices and feminist principles conflict, the principles lose every time. (Consequently, "sex-pos" can wind up supporting a lot of forms of privilege.) On the other hand, the problem I have with many "radical feminism" approaches to sexuality is that in that conflict, the practices lose every time. (And, conversely to the last parenthetical, "radfem" winds up being a haven for folks who *can* legitimately be described as anti-sex.)

I'm not okay with either of these. I think practice and principle need to be balanced against each other; I call this "feminist-positive sex." The way we get there is by *not* taking desires for granted, but examining them; “this turns me on, and therefore it’s good” gets replaced with “this turns me on, this is why it turns me on, these are elements of it (if any) that I’m less comfortable with, these are why I’m uncomfortable with them, these sources of discomfort I repudiate, these other sources of discomfort I accommodate by choosing practices that reduce or eliminate that discomfort, this is a result that I'm happy with.”

Why do this? Aside from the fact that if one actually believes in one's principles, it's the right thing to do (a sadly discredited argument these days), it helps distinguish "innate" desires from "imposed" desires, and helps make sure that one's really on the same page as one's partner.

And, of course, it helps one feel better about one's self. Though over on the Feministe thread, a commenter pointed out that:

See, I’m not sure about this, because it sounds well good on paper, but this kind of analysis didn’t work for me. It drove me kind of nutty and came close to pathologizing my own sex life. Not only did I end up feeling like crap and feeling guilty about sex for the first time since I actually started having it, I also didn’t come away with any answers.

I'm not sure quite how to respond to that criticism. For one thing, I'm the sort of person who can't *not* analyze things, and who can't silence misgivings, so it was more about what to do with those - try to ignore them and feel vaguely uncomfortable, or follow up on it and try to reconcile that discomfort.

For another, I've seen this form of complaint before - it's a strong part of the "Nice Guy(TM)" paradigm, where the "nice guy" who tries to be respectful of his partner is unable to function and be acknowledged as a sexual being, while the "jerk" who simply doesn't care has no problems. I know this is a slightly different situation, because the analysis is about whether one's self rather than one's partner is being mistreated, but I still think a closer look is a good idea.

One thing that probably needs to be pointed out, given all the miscommunication that seems to occur about it, is that this call for self-examination isn't limited to folks whose desires are generally seen as "deviant" or "problematic." A lot of folks seem willing to interpret this idea not as "we should think about our desires" but "you there, you should think about your desires; mine are just fine." If anything, it's the folks who are closer to societal norms who have the most need to examine their desires, both because it's harder to distinguish "imposed" from "innate" and because many forms of kinky or queer sexualities already endorse a measure of self-reflection.

Similarly, a call for self-examination is just that: a call for examining one's *own* desires. It's not my place to tell someone else they haven't looked hard enough when they conclude they're okay with something, even if I think it's not okay or even that they haven't looked hard enough. Sure, I might ask some leading question, or talk about the public side of things, but to gainsay their reflection process is to deny their own autonomy.

A final observation that was made (and then blown completely out of proportion) in the Feministe thread is that I'm coming from a different perspective than a lot of the other commenters. The social construction of male sexuality is one where a lot of practices and preferences are imposed, whereas for women virtually all practices and preferences are shamed. (Sex class vs. no-sex class again.) In addition, I'm personally easily squicked by shaming, degradation, humiliation, etc. And like I said earlier, I'm prone to hyperanalyze everything. So is this me simply doing what countless other groups have done, and demanding everyone else conform to what works for me? I've tried to avoid that trap, but I'm not sure how successful I have been or will be.

(EDIT: Emphases added because, across the blogosphere, this keeps getting turned into something very, very different.)

19 comments:

Renegade Evolution said...

JPF: Yeah, I kind of went off at my place, because you know...a lot of us kinky folk? We've examined. And when it comes to sexual proclivities which "squick" people out...Um, I seem to be leading the pack...but you betcha, I've examined, dissected, done a complete body cavity search, pondered...and I still like what I like. I do it with other consenting people, I do not force it on anyone, and I firmly believe that people, no matter what they do or don't like, should have the sort of sex they want to have with other consenting people...and not be judged for it, nor should it be assumed they haven't examined.

And all too often, both those things happen.

When I first took an interest in feminism, I rather expected that what happened in ones sex life would not be such an issue, as there are things such as the wage gap, the fight to take away a woman's choice wrt to abortion, and a limiting of women's options in careers, education, medical care, athletics, and countless other things. It seems, however, that how people have sex is often a far more pressing issue- that, in a great many ways, has disillusioned me a whole lot.

Trinity said...

Ren: Yeah, like I said at um... either Belle's or your place, part of the thing that interested me about feminism was trying to tangle out just why the culture seemed to think women should be sexually submissive rather than sexually dominant.

No sooner did I pick up MacKinnon and talk to a professor than I got "Oh hahahahha, how cute, you think being a top is FEMINIST? BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

And the thing is, yeah, I no longer think just being kinky confers feminism on someone, but I'm *still* puzzled by why people are so invested in not understanding what the feminism is in that. So fighting sexual norms that assert all women everywhere should/must/will best like submitting to men is feminist, except when it isn't? And why exactly does "when it isn't" look suspiciously like when I'm coming?

Amber said...

Your definition of sex-positive feminism is way off. Here are some reference sources that should clarify things for you:

This is probably my favorite blog post of all time on the matter - yes, I used a superlative. But it really is that good. Whenever I start to get into a back-and-forth with people about what sex-positive means and isn't it really just about privileged white women and whatever else, I point them to this post.

Other excellent posts:

http://blog.goodvibes.com/2007/08/17/what-is-sex-positivity-anyway/

http://sexualevolution.blogspot.com/2006/11/sex-positive-feminism-statement-of.html

http://sexposfemme.blogspot.com/2006/07/5-myths-about-sex-positive-feminists.html

http://blog.shrub.com/archives/tekanji/2006-01-29_132

And in general... everyone should read Susie Bright. Reading her books changed my life 10 years ago.

Wikipedia entry on sex-positive feminism (accurate for the most part; sometimes it gets hijacked by someone with an anti-feminist and/or anti-sex-positive agenda, though)

jfpbookworm said...

Well, I've stuck my foot in it a few times in the course of becoming the argument of the day. I really *am* still in the process of figuring all this out, obviously.

Ren: I'm still trying to figure out what the best approach is; it seems obvious given reactions that it's very, very prone to turn into a way to bash the folks who depart from the mainstream (because, yeah, *they're* obviously the ones who don't think enough about this...). Maybe it's just to try to set a good example; it occurs to me that it's much more effective to say something interesting that gets people thinking about a topic than it is to simply ask them to consider it.

Trinity: Yeah, you pretty much schooled me on that over at Belledame's. I will amend the statement to say that desire and ideology, while related, are separate spheres that come together in how we choose to live our lives. A feminist philosophy that says that women should desire dominance and men submission, or vice versa (or neither) is as misguided as one that says that because lots of people get off on power dynamics, we shouldn't concern ourselves with their effects.

jfpbookworm said...

Amber: I think one of the things that happened here is that I managed to conflate sex positivity in general and sex-positive feminism; there's no reason to expect everyone who's pro-sex to be particularly feminist about it.

It does occur to me that if sex-positive feminists and radical feminists always acted in accord with their position statements, there wouldn't be nearly as much animosity between the two groups.

Trinity said...

"A feminist philosophy that says that women should desire dominance and men submission, or vice versa (or neither) is as misguided as one that says that because lots of people get off on power dynamics, we shouldn't concern ourselves with their effects."

I agree -- with the caveat that we shouldn't be looking so hard for effects that things show up to us that don't mean anything, or don't mean much -- which I think is a serious risk in discussions like these.

I think we *can* talk a lot more productively about, say, which kinks are common and which aren't (although I keep hearing from the boards of big orgs that it looks a lot more like 50/50 when you look at their memberships than a lot of people think; I need to see if I can find newer and broader studies with good methodology), or about how they get presented in mainstream media, etc.

Amber said...

Amber: I think one of the things that happened here is that I managed to conflate sex positivity in general and sex-positive feminism; there's no reason to expect everyone who's pro-sex to be particularly feminist about it.

Uhhh that doesn't make sense to me. Sex-positivity is feminist, by definition. Did you read any of the links I listed? Sex-positivity is NOT about being "pro sex." That is entirely the wrong line of thinking.

Renegade Evolution said...

I think, amid all the examining and all, a lot of people put a whole lot of politics and power into sexual situations where such things are not there, or where they are so small of a concern to the participating parties, they are not even thought of, until someone says they need to examine...

SunflowerP said...

JFP: Something I'm seeing as quite significant in how this discussion got, um, tense, but that I haven't yet seen in the several places in which it's taking place, is that the word "examine" may, in itself, have become tainted. Now, I'm pretty adamant about not abandoning a word just because asshat(s) have tried to co-opt it (IMO, abandoning such words is exactly what changes "tried to co-opt" into "succeeded in co-opting"), but it can mean that continuing to use it requires being much more explicit about how one is using it.

For that, and a few other reasons (some you've owned, some you haven't yet), yes, you've had your toes, at least, in your mouth. I like that you're willing to speak as you see it, and maybe get called on it; it was one of the very first things I found attractive.

Amber: 'Sex-positivity is feminist, by definition. Did you read any of the links I listed? Sex-positivity is NOT about being "pro sex."'

It seems to me that there's a sex-positivism movement that overlaps considerably with and is allied to sex-positive feminism, but isn't in itself feminist. That could just be a tomayto/tomahto POV difference, but I feel the distinction JFP makes is a useful one.

Sunflower

Amber said...


It seems to me that there's a sex-positivism movement that overlaps considerably with and is allied to sex-positive feminism, but isn't in itself feminist. That could just be a tomayto/tomahto POV difference, but I feel the distinction JFP makes is a useful one.


If there is such a movement I am not aware of it, and I'd be interested to hear how you define/understand it. Because to me it honestly makes no sense to try to separate out a feminist version of sex-postivity and a non-feminist (or at least, not explicitly feminist) version. To my mind, sex-positvity is feminist, and trying to conceive of it any other way makes my brain hurt.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Sunflower -- I know that I respond to "examine" with a twinge from, effectively, it being tainted, for reasons that I pretty much laid out in my post linking to this one, though I didn't explicitly state as such.

jfpbookworm said...

dw3t-hthr (and everyone else this applies to): I didn't realize there was such a widespread negative reaction to "examine"; for what little it's worth, my usage of the term was out of ignorance rather than malice. Had I been more aware of the history of how that's been used with respect to kink/nontraditional sexualities/what have you, I would have either used a different term or more likely have taken an entirely different approach.

jfpbookworm said...

Sunflower: what haven't I owned up to? The first thing that comes to mind was the "if it turns me on it can't be problematic" characterization of sex-positive. I'm not going to deny that it's an impression I've gotten from time to time, but (a) it's not really a fair characterization of the movement as a whole, and (b) my objection to it assumed it was coming from a very different place (much more "pro-sex" than "sex-positive feminism," if I'm not mangling the terminology again). But if there are other issues that have gone unacknowledged... I may have fucked up, but at least I can try to do right by people in the aftermath.

Looking back, I think my general thought process through this whole thing was "I've started thinking about/analyzing my own sexuality in much more detail lately, and it's been a very good thing for me. So why wouldn't this be a good thing for other people?" Totally forgetting the True Golden Rule in the process.

And the other people, they answered.

At this point, I think i just need to take a break from this, shut up and just listen for a while until I stop feeling defensive and too socially backward to be around other people. (And yes, I know I'm privileged as hell for being able to step away from the discussion.)

And then, after things have settled down and everyone's feeling better, I'll probably wind up opening another can of worms because there are still some unresolved issues running through my head. (I don't want to bring them up here and now, not only because it's a bad idea for me personally but because it's a derailment and shouldn't be riding on the coattails of any other post.)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

For what it's worth, I didn't take your comments as malice, so much as ... not getting it, I guess? And given that it's really hard to figure out the thing that Sunflower pointed out from the inside, there isn't much available to help make the transition out of not getting it.

I'm pretty sure by 'examine sexuality' you mean stuff like the stuff I have tagged under 'sex' on the blog, but a lot of people are reacting to it like it's this kind of stuff, because so frequently 'examine' directed at minority sexuality goes straight there, or somewhere like it.

Dealing with people is hard.

Renegade Evolution said...

JPF:

On this:

"(b) my objection to it assumed it was coming from a very different place (much more "pro-sex" than "sex-positive feminism,"

You are not wrong there in some cases. Considering my general burn out/annoyance with a lot of feminist thought and a lot of feminists, I'd say these days I am often coming from a place which is heavily "pro-sex" and well, less concerned with 'feminism'. It's a complicated distinction, all things considered, but I think I see what you're saying here. Now, be default, I consider a woman doing as she likes and what she enjoys in sex to be a feminist thing, because so many women don't, or feel they cannot....but various strata of sexual activity she may engage in can (and in my case is) in no way feminist. But I am one of those people who feels not every decision has to be, or should be a feminist one or about feminism. The ability to choose and make those decisions, however, is.

Renegade Evolution said...

(wow that was a typing and grammar nightmare...i just woke up...but I think the point managed to make it through0

Trinity said...

Thing for me is, JFP, I know I differ from a lot of feminists on this but I actually AM just fine with taking "I like this" as axiomatic. I think NOT taking "I like this" as axiomatic is where we get movements like reparative therapy. So I have a big problem with the whole "desire is irresponsible; my job as a feminist is to impose responsibility upon it."

But yeah, that makes me way too "libertarian" or "feelgood" for a lot of people. I don't mind that label, personally. I think any time that a movement for the liberation of X starts telling X's what to like, a wrong turn's been taken somewhere.

Trinity said...

I don't mind if someone says to X's "hey, there's a lot of pressure to like Y around here." I think that's just true. But I don't think it follows from that that someone's liking Y is programming, or even that she should have to expend effort figuring out whether it is. Could be I'm naive, but I tend to have faith that people can figure out whether they really do like Y, whether Y is positive or negative for them, etc. without me playing nanny.

Amber said...

but various strata of sexual activity she may engage in can (and in my case is) in no way feminist.

See to me, the defining factor in whether something is a feminist choice or not is the motivation/reason behind it. The act itself is irrelvant. Simply looking at an act by itself, with no context - and this doesn't just apply to sex - gives no information by which to determine whether it's a feminist act or not.