By Kate Harris
Below I explore the “sex wars” debate and critique sex-positivity in a non-hostile way from a socialist feminist perspective, offering an alternative at the end. It is an introductory piece on a wide-ranging topic.
Sex-negative “Sex-negative” or “anti-sex” feminists would likely not refer to themselves in this way; rather this is how some sex-positive feminists think about a stew of radical and liberal feminists with certain views on sex. For example, anti-porn radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, and Harriet Harman could both be included in this.
“Anti-sex” feminism can range from political lesbianism (that is, choosing to have sex only with women in order to reject patriarchal relationships) to abolitionism and belief in prohibition of sex work and anti-porn stances. It is associated with second-wave feminism — but, in reality, second-wave feminists varied hugely and included sex positive feminists, as we will see.
Although many of the ideas in sex-positive feminism have been around for a very long time, as a movement, sex-positive feminism is largely thought of as a resistance to those “sex-negative” stances. Most young feminists I come across are strongly sex-positive, and include a mix of straight and cissexual women as well as LGBTQ women.
Sex-positive feminism takes a more accepting approach to a wide range of issues relating to sex and sexuality. There are lots of schools of thought, including socialist feminists and liberal feminists. One of the non-conventional sexual practices sex-positivity addresses and defends is BDSM (bondage, domination, submission, masochism) through “kink-positivity”.
Sex-positive feminism is also usually against censorship. Sex-positive feminists are often more trans friendly than anti-sex feminists, particularly in recent years.
The debates within second wave feminism about sex and sexuality, which raged especially hard in the 1970s and 80s, usually involve radical, anti-porn, anti-prostitution feminists versus liberal, sex-positive feminists. As well as these categories being overly simplistic, the role of socialist feminists is often sadly overlooked. Our comrades were making generally sensible arguments about the decriminalisation and unionisation of sex work, and the devastating ways in which capitalist labour division impact on women.
“Orgasm is the body’s natural call to feminist politics.” This Naomi Wolf quote above is one of the reasons I find the sex-positive movement sometimes problematic. The idea of sex as something liberating makes little sense to me. It might be enjoyable and fun, but also can be pretty boring, not that pleasant or just a bit crap. As my friend says, “There is nothing liberating about lying in bed wondering about your tutorial readings while some guy flops around on top of you like a half-frozen haddock.”
Further, women on the asexual spectrum are just not (that) interested in sex. They are not ignoring “the body’s natural call to feminist politics”. And women who don’t have much sex are just as good feminists, and no less measurably “liberated” than those who do.
Sex-positive, anti-slut-shaming attitudes, on the other hand, can be liberating. Women refusing to feel shame about being sexually active in ways they enjoy — and refusing to shame other women — that is liberation. In my view there are limits to the agency arguments espoused by sex-positive feminists.
I agree with the view that consensual sex between adults is not a topic to be judged by others, but to what extent can agency be separated from social construction? Is all consensual sex okay? Should we accept “slave camps” in the US as fine — or berate those white people pretending to be slave owners in roleplay?
Sex doesn’t exist in a vacuum, totally separated from the rest of our lives. Furthermore, there are two unsettling factors about the way the sex-positive versus sex-negative debate is “framed”. First, the discussion around which sexual practices are or are not acceptable often focuses on women, letting men off the hook. Second, the debate is on the terms of radical feminists such as Dworkin and MacKinnon, who saw male sexual domination as the main oppressing factor in women’s lives. It fails to take into account the economic factors that oppress women or consider the possibility that sex work might be work.
A feminism that is consistent with the reality of women’s lives, I think, has to be a sex-neutral feminism that takes on all the good bits of sex positivity. It recognises the effects of capitalism as well as the effects of the sex industry and societal attitudes towards sex. The sex-neutral socialist feminism I conceive of is strongly in favour of the unionisation of sex work as well as knowing that not all sex work is liberating. It challenges the bourgeois, male-dominated courts and Parliament rather than only seeking to use them to prohibit what feminists may or may not think is oppressive. It is against police interference in lap dancing clubs.
My sex-neutral socialist feminism, and I hope that of others too, opposes sexual oppression at the same time as opposing capitalism and its devastating effects on women.
- The case for socialist feminism — Workers’ Liberty/Women’s Fightback publication
- Women’s Oppression, Feminism and the Left — Workers’ Liberty/Women’s Fightback publication
- The Ethical Prude: Imaginging an Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism here.
- Porn by Andrea Dworkin
- Feminism Unmodified by Catharine MacKinnon
- Cunt by Inga Muscio
- The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy