Sex positive feminism is a relatively new movement in feminism which originated in the 1990s. It arose as a reactionary movement in direct opposition both to millennia-long patriarchal and usually religious movements against specifically women having sex, and opposition to second-wave feminists’ anti-pornography viewpoints. It is the idea that a woman’s sexual liberation is central to women’s liberation as a whole; that a woman’s freedom must include the freedom to have sex whenever, however, and with whomever she likes. Parallel goals include recognizing different kinds of beauty, and celebrating various sexualized expressions of beauty, masculine, feminine, and everywhere in between, including pornography and sex work.
Opponents of sex positive feminism, sometimes derisively referred to as “sex-negative feminists,” argue that pornography objectifies women, sex work keeps women second-class and in a great deal of danger, and that the sex positive movement is not actually feminist but a disguised extension of male privilege – a movement which overwhelmingly makes colorful excuses for the objectification of women and favors men’s dicks. Sex positive feminists are sometimes derisively referred to as “fun-feminists.”
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to those on the feminist side of the opposition to the sex positive movement as anti-pornography. The division of feminism into sex-positive and anti-pornography feminism began in the 1990s and persists through today, and like any radical movement in its adolescence, sex positive feminism has brought enthusiastic and idealistic attention to some important issues – and has some glaring blemishes on its face.
Sex positive feminism has been a positive force in the acceptance of queer sexuality. The movement places heavy focus on the acceptance and inclusion of different sexual orientations and gender identities, which was long, long overdue. It is also inarguably important that women be able to enjoy the freedom of having sex with whomever they want and whenever they want to do it. For too long over too many thousands of years, women’s sexuality has been institutionally controlled. Only recently has western culture stopped actually killing or shunning women for having extramarital sex, and there are still exceptions. Some eastern cultures still mutilate women’s genitals to keep their sexual expression in check. There is definitely a place for sex positive discussion in the gender equality movement.
At the core of the rift between sex positive and anti-pornography feminism is their interpretations of what constitutes empowerment and oppression in the larger arena of female sexuality, from high heels and lipstick to submissives in sub/dom relationships to sex workers. Simply put, while anti-pornography feminists tend to view socialized aspects of female sexuality as coercion until proven innocent, sex-positive feminists see most of it as consent until proven guilty.
The anti-pornography crowd, for example, will often argue that high heels, miniskirts, and makeup are uncomfortable, expensive, and in some cases near-crippling, and that to call them empowering expressions of femininity is disingenuous and insulting. Sex positive feminists might argue that high heels are hot and if women choose to wear them, then they ought not be shamed either by agents of the patriarchy wishing to devalue them due to their visible desire for sex, or by their sisters in feminism who would take something as benign as an article of clothing and claim that it was oppressing women. After all, heels make their calves look good.
The same goes with things such as pornography and sex work, where anti-pornography feminists claim that a monetary contract for sex is oppressive and dangerous to women (and men, but disproportionately women), sex positive feminists claim that women can consent to these things as much as they can consent to sex without pay, or as much as they can consent to any other sort of work that pays them, and the only difference between getting paid to be a secretary and getting paid to be a sex worker is that sex outside of marriage is considered by the patriarchy to be improper and debasing for women.
While sex positive feminists certainly have a point by saying that women should be considered able to consent to sex in all contexts and can even consent to wearing things traditionally labeled sexy, and while they definitely have an argument that women should not be shamed or devalued because they look sexy or have sex for work, there are significant problems with these arguments.
Full gender equality does not yet exist, and many of us are hesitant to join in enthusiastically on current ideals of sexiness in the contexts of interpersonal relationships, feminine presentation, and especially commerce. While sex positive feminists claim to be challenging those ideals, they are only doing so inasmuch as they intend to add to them with things not previously considered sexy (for example, fat acceptance). While there is certainly a place for that, there is also a pervasive and purposeful push for acceptance of the current ideals if that’s your preference. The idea that any sexual preference whatsoever is legitimate and natural, and is probably only considered bad because patriarchy, is to deny how overwhelmingly the current ideals benefit heterosexual men at the expense of the rest of us. How awkward and out of place would it be to hear a heterosexual man say that he was not in fact oppressed or anything, but simply wanted to burn his hair with styling tools, then put on those crippling shoes, revealing short shorts, and daily face paint because he thinks it’s sexy and therefore women think it’s sexy, and he likes women and sex? No one would mistake such an individual for empowered. If it seems absurd to expect from men, then it ought to seem absurd to expect from women.
Further to the point, this focus on expanding the ideals of beauty and sexiness so that everyone can have a slice to further empowerment for women is doing exactly the opposite of what feminists have been working toward for decades, and not for nothing. It keeps us locked in this asinine prison of a value system that teaches women they must be aesthetically pleasing to be sexually desirable and sexually desirable to be whole. Again, how awkward would it seem to base a movement on reassuring men that they’re all handsome? Or, to use a stereotype more often associated with men’s desirability, to assure them that no matter how little money they have, they’re rich so long as they’re confident?
However, the biggest and most shameful crime of the sex positive movement is the cherrypicking of testimonials from sex workers of all sorts – from nude models to actors in pornography to exotic dancers to escorts – as though middle-class, healthy, educated agents of gender equality made up a significant portion of the industry’s representatives. The stories of hundreds of thousands of women who worked in the sex industry and experienced emotionally painful objectification, dehumanizing treatment, addictions, and abuse should not be dismissed as problems that can be erased by simply erasing pimps, and cannot be replaced with the assertion that sex workers are adults and therefore have agency and consent freely or that porn is healthy. Safe working environments and emotionally healthy consent simply are not components of most sex workers’ realities. Sex workers are overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly unsafe. Scrawling the word “empowerment” over the sex industry is by far the sex positive movement’s largest insult toward women.
But, it’s still a baby. Maybe it will grow up someday.