UNPOPULAR OPINION: I’m A Sex-Negative Feminist

Sex-negativity makes a lot of feminists uncomfortable, but I frankly couldn't give less of a damn if my politics hurt your feelings.
Publish date:
July 10, 2013
beliefs, feminist, Sex Negative, M, Sex,

I’m a sex-negative feminist.

I call myself sex-negative partially because it's an unsettling term -- one that invokes particular histories that many feminists would rather paper over or erase completely -- and partially because I fundamentally disagree with the assumptions about sex, kink, and consent upon which mainstream sex-positive feminism is based.

Sex-negativity makes a lot of feminists uncomfortable, but I frankly couldn't give less of a damn if my politics hurt your feelings.

I've considered myself to be sex-negative (or at least critical of sex-positive feminism) for a while, but have only recently started expressing that view outside of conversations with trusted friends. Sex-negative feminism isn't particularly, well, sexy; openly articulating criticisms of sex-positivity is to simultaneously make oneself a target for straw(wo)man arguments aimed against radical feminism, for accusations that you're shaming or judging others, or for assertions that you are frigid or prudish or pathologically broken -- all of which are sentiments that have been expressed by self-identified sex-positive feminists toward less enthusiastic women.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago, when the author Marie Calloway asked if she could interview me for a piece she was planning on writing about young women and feminism, that I decided to go public about being sex-negative. I answered Marie's questions via email; not long after that, my interview, along with that of our mutual friend, was published on Thought Catalog, and included the following quote:

"Related to choice feminism is sex-positive feminism, much of which makes me rather uncomfortable. It often seems to me that, for many self-identified feminists, sex is the one domain in which feminist politics should have no import (unless that politic is that sex and/or pleasure is always good and healthy and desirable and that fantasies and desires have no bearing on life outside the bedroom). Sex is not a realm separate from politics — it is always already political and social and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Kinks are not necessarily harmless. Even the notion of consent, considered by so many to be a simple matter, is problematic — in a patriarchal society where women’s agency is circumscribed by male supremacy, how meaningful is consent? These issues are purposefully obscured by sex-positive feminists who believe that sex is an inherent good and that to feel otherwise is somehow aberrant, abnormal, a position that should be remedied."

The following day, I stumbled across a rather long piece on The Frisky dedicated to criticizing the "potshot" I allegedly made at sex-positive feminism and kink. According to the author of that post, the fact that I question the usefulness of the ways that we currently talk about consent in feminist circles is "truly dangerous." Commenting that many sex-positive feminists obscure or erase the fact that sex is not inherently good or pleasurable for many people is "untrue, unfair, and just plain wrong."

With all due respect, fuck that shit.

Being sex-negative doesn't mean that I fancy myself the chief inspector of the sex police, or that I am personally judging what you do in bed, or that I'm conservative, or that I'm engaging in repressive moralizing. It doesn't mean that I hate sex workers, or that I want to ban sex work or porn (and, in general, I tend to leave those conversations to women who do sex work while I shut up and listen to what they have to say). It doesn't mean that I hate sex or that I'm embarrassed by it.

What it does, in fact, mean is that the way you fuck is not "private," apolitical, or outside the realm of critique. Sex does not happen in a vacuum immune to outside structural influences; in fact, it can (and does) replicate inescapable systems of power and dominance. Being sex-negative means acknowledging that sex, and kink, have nothing intrinsically "good" or "positive" about them (in direct contrast to sex-positive feminists, many of whom argue that sex is an inherent good and that less charitable opinions toward sex are the result of a poisonous, prudish society).

It means understanding that many women have neutral to negative experiences with sex, whether due to a lack of desire or sensitivity or past traumatic experiences or myriad other reasons, or may not wish to have sex at all, and that none of this makes them unhealthy, aberrant, or wrong.

Thus, sex-negativity urges feminists to reject compulsory sexuality, which has historically translated to forced sexual compliance with men but has recently been extended to non-hetero sex and sexuality as well.

Sex-negativity also encourages us to question "consent is sexy" attitudes (since sex is inescapable from patriarchal and other power relations, and thus what is “sexy” caters to men and the male gaze) and understand that even in situations where consent is given, sex is not necessarily enthusiastically consented to or utilized as a means to ends other than pleasure and intimacy.

It means, above all, engaging in the kind of sustained analysis of sex, kink and consent that we willingly grant to pretty much every other facet of our individual and collective existence.

The virulent opposition commonly expressed toward sex-negative views is fascinating. Most self-identified feminists that I encounter believe that our society is male-dominated, privileges men, and is patriarchal (also racist, homo- and transphobic, classist, and ableist, among other things), and that sexism has a measurable effect on our day-to-day lives.

We can talk freely and easily about how institutionalized and structural misogyny purports to give men unfettered access to our bodies and how that materializes in street harassment, rape culture and the restriction of access to reproductive health services; and about how sexist and unattainable beauty standards fuel huge(ly profitable) industries that prey on women's insecurities, reward or penalize women on the basis of how closely they conform to these standards; and how this game plays into patriarchal, racist, and classist hands.

Yet when sex is the topic, we fall over ourselves in an attempt to pass the least amount of judgment and avoid being categorized as "man-hating" or "anti-sex" or "judgmental" or "shaming" or "prudish." Too many of us are so committed to escaping accusations of frigidity and joylessness that analysis falls by the wayside, leaving feminist sexual politics in an untenable position.

Part of the problem is the seeming opposition between "sex-positive" feminism and just plain "feminism," no qualifiers, and the demonizing of the latter. Sex-positive feminism originally coalesced in the late 1970s and early 1980s in opposition to abolitionist feminists who, through groups such as Women Against Pornography, conducted guided tours through the strip clubs and toy stores of Times Square and lobbied for anti-porn legislation on civil rights grounds.

At that time, sex-positive feminists (who mostly identified as "pro-sex" or "sex-radical") argued that the effects of anti-porn feminism were harmful to sex workers and sexual minorities and that sexual liberation should be a central goal of feminism.

Thirty years after the "sex wars," sex-positivity has emerged as the default setting for mainstream feminism, with anti-porn feminism largely relegated to the margins and more nuanced positions often completely elided and erased.

Feminists who do not identify with sex-positive ideologies are often accorded little room in discussions and spaces; the assumption is that if you are not sex-positive, you must be an anti-sex fuddy-duddy better left in the movement's dustbins (see also: the attacks leveled at sex-negative feminists that I discussed above).

Perhaps this is attributable to the misguided actions of anti-porn feminists, since sex worker savior complexes and deep undercurrents of racism and classism aren't a good look for anyone. It could be the end result of mainstream characterizations of feminists as ugly, sex-hating lesbians and the subsequent desire of many women to demonstrate that "We're not all like that" (as though masculine women, butch lesbians, and otherwise non-feminine women are the ultimate bugaboos, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them), or to non-feminist and/or male approval of sex-positive positions and the seeming possibility of greater acceptance for feminist goals in general.

The root causes of this shift are debatable, but no matter who or what is responsible, it's time for a change in the conversation.

One of the truisms of sex-critical and sex-negative feminism is, "We can't fuck our way to freedom." Arguments about how analyzing desires, kinks, and the material effects of sex in our society should be off-limits, or that sex is private and we "like what we like" and should leave it at that, are harmful, whether or not the participants are consenting.

Rather than sidelining criticism, we need to rethink sex and its effects within frameworks of oppression, power and violence, without bullshit truisms about choice or the immutability of desire. And please, no whining about your hurt feelings.