Since I have seen the term “sex-positive” used in feminist/gender-sexuality debates, I have tended to adopt it to describe my own views. In the past few weeks, however, there has been a series of articles arguing the toss back and forth, with some choosing to identify themselves proudly with the label “sex-negative”. I’ve seen in the past few years some who used to call themselves “sex-positive” shift to “sex-ambivalent” or some such term (I can’t recall off the top of my head who, or what, exactly). The latest post on the debate that I’ve seen is Natalia Antonova’s response @ Feministe, titled “As a rape survivor, I…” Or, why feelings ought to matter to sex-negative feminism. Follow links and whatnot in the OP and comments there to get to other parts of the debate.
Since in my SCW posts I used the term to describe me, it seems wise to put down what my position on the term means.
My understanding, when I first encountered the term, was explained to me more or less thus: “Sex-positivism is the radical notion that no consensual sex is intrinsically bad or should be outlawed.” Sex-negativism was presented to me as being the complementary opposite. That is, to be sex-negative, a person has to have some belief that there is at least one example of a sexual activity such that, if adults consent to doing it together, then those adults should be stopped and/or punished. Consent being defined in the “enthusiastic” consent model. Sex-positive feminism says, “Your way of being sexual or not, is okay.” Or, in the wonderfully succinct snippet of self-help advice, when it comes to sex – “Do you.” (Which is an imperative “do you!”, not an interrogative “do you?”)
The definition being used by the “I’m a sex-negative feminist” side of the debate is subtly different. Instead of “no form of consensual sex is an intrinsic bad”, they read sex-positive feminism as saying “sex is an intrinsic good”. Coming from a position of “Sex makes me feel uncomfortable” (or more accurately, “your way of doing sex makes me feel uncomfortable”) this places them in opposition to the idea. Hence “sex-negative”. Often the arguments are portrayed that sex in private is still a matter that should be governed by (other people’s) politics, because in some way the private relationships between people are also part of the public relationships of other people. (The way I’ve worded that probably makes it clear that I find this view perplexing, even though in general the varied ways in which “the personal is political” is used, tend to make sense to me.)
A more rational argument is that an “intrinsic good” sex-positive feminism needs to define rape as being not-sex-but-something-else, and that this categorisation interferes strongly with understanding the relationships between sex, violence and misogyny. Some, under the label of “sex-negative” or “sex-critical”, argue that sex and sexuality should be examined politically in the same way every other part of our lives are. Usually, this is from people who give one or other version of “BDSM resembles heteronormative patriarchy, therefore that’s what it is” – from people who think they know more about BDSM than the people who spent their lives living and examining it. (Thomas MacAulay Miller in comments on Anatova’s piece, provides a link to an example, though the academic in question is far from original in her “criticism”.) Is there such a thing as ‘nillasplaining? If there is, these people do it.
*Ahem* where was I? Oh, yes. Explaining where I’m at, rather than taking potshots at other people’s positions. That was the purpose of this post.
I actually think that examining sexuality critically is a good idea. Regular readers will know that I am big on introspection and trying to see where it all comes from. Starting from the negatively-defined sex-positive stance (that is, “sex is not intrinsically bad” – a “negative definition” because it uses the word “not” in it) it is possible to say that, while sex is not intrinsically bad, yet bad things as well as good things can be done with it. It is also possible to say that ways of relating to sex socially can also be bad, or perpetuate bad social dynamics. It is possible to look at the ways in which sex is used as a weapon. But sex is not in itself bad.
Sex is, fundamentally, a physical act. The brain is the biggest sex organ, and so much of what is great about sex happens in the mind, but at the same time sex is about being embodied. It’s about sensations and situations. That means when a body responds to certain stimuli, it is foolish to deny that physical reality on the basis of political theory. “This turns me on” is enough. What value is there in saying “It only turns you on because you have been programmed by XYZ”? It won’t make it possible to choose not to be turned on, it only serves to apply a value-judgement about the person who is turned on by it. It is also possible to pick and choose how, why and with whom you do your kind of sex. Natalie Lue @ Baggage Reclaim reposted recently an awesome article she wrote called “Dear So & So: Sorry, my heart/libido/ego/imagination says yes, but my self-esteem says no”, which is about, “the importance of saying NO, setting limits and managing people’s expectations, my original post was for every person who like me, has struggled with people pleasing.”
That’s why I am very much more about the “enthusiastic consent” model (or whatever term you want to use to include asexual people – I’ve got a post brewing in my brain about enthusiasm that may explain why I find the first term more useful) than I am about the label “sex-positive”. To view sex positively, one must start from “yes means yes, and no means no” (or, in safeword terms, “‘green’ or equivalent means yes, ‘red’ or equivalent means no” – and in general only a green light means yes). I am very much in favour of letting people who say yes decide for themselves whether or not their yes actually meant yes, or whether it was a result of some form of coercion or programming or whatever, and whether or not they feel good or bad about the consequences. I am very much in favour of letting people decide whether or not they have been raped or sexually assaulted, and very much against telling them that “theory says that what happened to you was rape, so you should feel as though that person raped you.” (Read down the comments thread at Feministe if you think that’s a strawperson argument, btw.)
I believe people have a right to their own experiences, and they have a right to find a context for themselves by which to understand and utilise those experiences. This is true in all fields, and therefore also true when it comes to sex. People also have a right to choose what experiences they wish to pursue, even when those may turn out to be self-detrimental (there is, however, a moral imperative not to seek experiences that will be detrimental to others, so you can’t just say “I want to go out and punch someone in the face” and do it). I call this having the right to our own mistakes, and I genuinely believe we as a society should help people pick themselves up after their mistakes, and help them survive and recover. I believe people have a right to determine for themselves what constitutes a good outcome of their experiences and how they process the experiences. I think that sometimes it is helpful in a counselling or therapeutic role (while bearing in mind that I am not qualified to a professional level in either, but also viewing a caring and compassionate friend as being in a counselling/therapeutic role, even if zie is not operating as “a counsellor” or “a therapist”) to look carefully at what a person wants to get out of their processing, and perhaps help them view their options and the likelihood of a particular outcome (an example might be if a gay person asks a therapist to help hir stop being gay, when it might be more constructive to help that person see being gay as not a negative thing). However, if that person says “this is my goal”, then we can do our best to see that they do not come to harm from pursuing it, but we don’t get to stop them from pursuing it in their way. (For instance, there is a difference between saying “X sport is dangerous, don’t do it” and saying “X sport is dangerous, make sure you wear appropriate protective gear”.)
Thus, SSC or RACK as a value system in sex (not just kinky sex, but sex generally) and life, even, works for me. It’s why I believe radical collaborative democracy (or “communism”) is the best way to guarantee freedom of sexuality and identity for people, because it’s the best structure for affording “I’ll catch you when you fall” not just a personal but a social and political basis. If that’s “sex-positive”, then so am I.
All of this is relevant to my writing. The debate isn’t particularly new, and was a key inspiration when I first devised the plot for my novel. One of the characters was always going to be a feminist of the “sex-negative” persuasion. I have worked hard to make sure that her actions in the novel are motivated from a desire to do the right thing, according to her beliefs, and that she is not a nasty person. All the same, the novel is, ultimately, coming from my own perspective and selling an idea as well as a story, so if there is a “villain”, it’s her (but I would prefer to say that the villain of the novel is Patriarchy, a never-mentioned-but-always-present character).