Guest post: Sex-positive feminism vs. anti-pornography feminism

by Heather

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.

Frank Turek’s embarrassing details

Christian apologist Frank Turek has recently made a name for himself as the premier hate-martyr for the National Organization for Marriage. As part of their so-called Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance project, Turek recounts the tragic story of how he was let go as a consultant for Cisco and Bank of America after they discovered he had written a book about “How Same-Sex Marriage Hurts Everyone”. In reality, his views on homosexuality go far beyond merely opposing gay marriage, and he neglects to mention his history of claiming that gay people are “on the road to destruction”, that they “hate Western Civilization”, that they’re predisposed to “bad behavior” comparable to pedophilia and alcoholism, that they should be banned from the military, and that they’re “acting like racists” by seeking legal recognition of their marriages. Yes, these are the words of a man who presents himself as the victim here. Ironically, Bank of America had hired him to present a training seminar about adapting to diverse personalities in the workplace.

When he’s not angling to join the ranks of brave moral crusaders like George Wallace and Hazel Massery, Turek has made a living out of defending Christianity in books like “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist”. In the course of trying to convince people that the Christian faith is more well-supported than any other belief, he unleashes a particularly shameless argument. He calls it the “principle of embarrassment”, a phrase which he attributes to unnamed “historians”, but only seems to appear in the context of Christian apologetics, and was probably invented for that very purpose. Briefly, Turek claims that the authors of the New Testament included embarrassing details about themselves, such as failing to understand what Jesus was talking about, which they would have omitted if they were trying to pass off a fictional narrative as true. He contends that there would be no reason to make themselves look bad rather than good if they were making it all up. He also refers to this as “the duh factor”.

However, for any of these things to be genuinely embarrassing to their authors, they would first have to be true. And how do we know that they’re true? This would require that the New Testament is true. But the truth of the New Testament is exactly what Turek is trying to establish by citing these supposedly embarrassing details. If we don’t know that the New Testament is true, then we don’t know that the embarrassing incidents in the New Testament are true, either. And if we simply assumed that these details of the New Testament are true, then we could just as well assume that the entire New Testament is true, without having to appeal to any of these embarrassing details. With this oversight, Turek has failed to establish the truth of either.

More crucially, the fatal flaw of this criterion of embarrassment is that Turek and his fellow apologists do not have privileged access to this concept. They’re certainly not the most uniquely brilliant people on earth, and if they were able to imagine that such a standard could be used to judge the believability of a given narrative, then why couldn’t others realize this as well? Couldn’t they anticipate this principle, and thus account for it when writing these stories? If you want your fictional narrative to be seen as believable, then why wouldn’t you aim to fulfill this requirement? Even stories that are acknowledged as fiction from the outset still have to maintain a degree of believability by making their characters realistically flawed. Failing to do so, and instead writing all of them as utterly perfect, makes the story unrelatable and generally intolerable to read. Frank Turek was not the first person to discover this.

The real “duh” factor here is that he thinks he can pass this off as a compelling argument for Christianity – and the worst part is that maybe, he can. If it weren’t for people who are willing to accept anything they hear so long as it confirms their beliefs, Turek wouldn’t even have an audience for this tripe. He’s little more than a huckster peddling hollow justifications for faith to people who don’t know better, or just don’t care, all the while knowing that a child could poke holes in this. Now that’s an embarrassing detail.

Overton bigotry

The Overton window is a political concept that refers to the range of policy opinions which are considered acceptable by the mainstream. The window encompasses views that are seen as relatively uncontroversial, while excluding ideas that are so far out of the norm as to be politically suicidal. A key feature of the window is that it shifts over time with public opinion, and people may sometimes attempt to move the window in a certain direction. For instance, the emergence of an unthinkably outrageous proposal can make merely terrible ideas seem more palatable in comparison. In this way, what constitutes the perceived moderate center can be pulled closer to an idea that someone seeks to legitimize. By essentially lowering the bottom of the barrel, previously controversial positions might start to look like they’re not so bad.

I’ve often noticed that people appear to follow a similar model when forming their views on how much injustice is acceptable to inflict upon minorities: extreme acts of bigotry are cited in order to minimize and ignore any lesser bigotry. For example, people may dismiss the importance of gay civil rights by pointing out that black people endured slavery, lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement, systemic social inequality, and the most horrible forms of abuse. Some even go so far as to reject the notion that the pursuit of gay equality could qualify as a civil rights movement, as though the very concept of a movement for civil rights was strictly limited to black Americans.

But arguing over who’s worse off is only a distraction here, because it has no bearing on the relevant issue: the unavoidable significance of fully equal rights for everyone. People seem to be under the impression that the degree to which a group has suffered defines how important their civil rights are. By this standard, the rights of gay people are far less valid, worthy, and urgent because they were never subjected to the horrors of slavery. Any other legal and social injustices we might experience just aren’t that much of a concern, because at least we’re not being segregated and disenfranchised. The Overton window of equality has been pulled so far downward that full and equal participation in society is no longer considered to be everyone’s birthright. Instead, people seem to think that all they have to do is refrain from lynching and enslaving us, and anything beyond that would be doing us a favor.

This is an impressive display of heartlessness, with utterly repugnant implications. After all, if not enslaving people means that we can eliminate their rights at will, would disenfranchising black people be any more acceptable if they had never been subject to slavery and segregation? Of course not. Likewise, could straight white men now be treated as property simply because they’ve never experienced any such institutional abuse? Surely no one would agree with that. Everyone deserves their equal rights, regardless of whether or not they’ve suffered “enough” to satisfy the ridiculous demands of a majority.

If you’re going to protest that gay people haven’t been subject to the most extreme brand of injustice, then why would you be in favor of forcing them to endure any degree of injustice? This shouldn’t be an excuse to preserve the inequality that remains. It should be a reason to eradicate it. What kind of person would force people to experience the evils of slavery and lynching and segregation before recognizing their rights, when they could have simply chosen to abolish this inequality because it’s the right thing to do? In case you’ve forgotten, you’re not supposed to enslave people. You’re not supposed to lynch people. And you’re not supposed to deprive people of their civil rights. Shouldn’t you be glad that we’ve come this far already? So why stop now?

Common objections to boycotting the Salvation Army

Over the past few years, a number of LGBT groups have drawn attention to the anti-gay views and activities of the Salvation Army. Many people aren’t aware that in addition to its charity work, the Salvation Army is also a Christian church with a decidedly conservative doctrine. In their position statement on homosexuality, the Salvation Army claims that intimacy between members of the same sex is forbidden by scripture, and that celibacy is the only acceptable option for gay people.

The opposition to homosexuality has become a recurring theme in their charity efforts and their political activities. In 1986, the Salvation Army in New Zealand collected signatures against a law to decriminalize gay sex. In 2000, the Salvation Army in Scotland opposed the repeal of Section 28, which prohibited schools from any positive or affirming discussion of homosexuality. In 2001, the Salvation Army’s Western Corporation rescinded health benefits for same-sex domestic partners of employees after criticism from the religious right. And in 2004, the Salvation Army in New York City threatened to close all of its soup kitchens and shelters instead of complying with a law requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners.

Following calls for a boycott in protest of the church’s anti-gay beliefs, many people have claimed that this would be unjustified for a variety of reasons. The most common response is that regardless of their religious views, the Salvation Army does good things. And that’s undoubtedly true. But doing good things is not an excuse for doing bad things. There are many people and organizations that also do good things, but that doesn’t make them justified in holding prejudiced beliefs or fighting to keep gay people from being treated equally. And there are plenty of charity groups that are willing to do good for people without supporting needless intolerance. The Salvation Army is not alone in providing help to those in need. But it is set apart by its choice to endorse bigotry.

Others claim that the Salvation Army’s beliefs are irrelevant to its charity work, and that their homophobic views don’t matter when compared to the good they do. This tacit acceptance of anti-gay prejudice seems to reflect the transitional status of how gay people are currently viewed in society at large. If the KKK were a major provider of charity services, it’s likely that many people would indeed consider their white supremacist views an obstacle to supporting them. And if straight people were a disproportionate target of the Salvation Army’s efforts to mark them as legally inferior, it’s doubtful that this would be dismissed so readily. The church’s anti-gay beliefs are relevant because they are completely immaterial to the purpose of a charity. There is no reason that helping those in need must involve this kind of prejudice, and the pointless inclusion of homophobia only serves to create a totally unnecessary controversy that detracts from their goal of collecting donations and providing services.

Many have pointed out that the Salvation Army is sometimes the only charity offering critical services in a certain area, leaving them with no other alternatives to support. If so, it’s worth considering why this continues to be the case. If people keep giving to the Salvation Army, then they have no incentive to change their policies, and there’s no possibility that another provider could ever supplant them. Essentially, the reason you now have to keep supporting them is only because you’ve always chosen to keep supporting them. How about choosing not to for a change?

Finally, some people insist that withholding donations from the Salvation Army will only result in more people going hungry and homeless. Army Major George Hood has said, “If people refuse to give, it’s the poor and people in need that will suffer.” While that may be the case, this would still be an issue whether we support the Salvation Army or not. Donating to any charity comes with an opportunity cost attached, because every dollar given to a certain charity is a dollar that could have gone elsewhere, but did not. For instance, the Salvation Army’s red kettles occasionally receive gold coins valued at about $1,700. If the same amount of money was given to another charity that provides vaccines in Mozambique, it could have prevented the deaths of approximately three children. Instead, it went to the Salvation Army. If choosing to take our donations elsewhere means leaving the needy to flounder, then giving to the Salvation Army likewise means taking that money away from everyone else you could have helped. Demanding that we should only support the Salvation Army means assuming that they must do more good per dollar than literally any other charity. And that seems rather implausible.

If helping the poor is their chief concern, then they should consider the impact of their homophobic beliefs. There are many more charities that do just as much good, and they would be happy to have our support. More than that, they’re ready to treat all of us with respect.

You’re a Mormon. And?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, has once again launched a series of advertisements intended to improve their image. After finding that many people see the church as “secretive”, “cultish”, or “anti-gay”, or simply don’t know much about Mormonism, several commercials were produced featuring members talking about their life, their experiences, and their faith. At the end of each ad, they conclude: “And I’m a Mormon.”

In terms of their tone and presentation, these ads are positive, accessible and humanizing. They depict Mormons as friendly, everyday people who seem like they’d be really fun to hang out with. Above all, these ads are normalizing, in keeping with the goal of their creators to dispel the perception that Mormons aren’t Christian.

Relatively speaking, the beliefs of Mormonism are no more outrageous than those of the average Christian, and their acceptance is likely hindered only by the religion’s recency. It hasn’t had enough time to permeate society to the point that it’s seen as normal, and unlike faiths rooted in ancient writings, the exact details of its fraudulent origin are easily available to anyone who’s interested. In this respect, Mormonism may always be at a disadvantage. But if their aim was to show that Mormons aren’t substantially different from other Christians, and that they are not strange and awful human beings, this campaign is certainly effective.

What it fails to do is show that the Mormon faith is reasonable, humane, ethical, reality-based, or worth believing in. The tactic of showcasing lots of happy, friendly, normal people may help to induce warm fuzzy feelings, but it does nothing to explain why the shared belief they hold must therefore be acceptable. Their faith may not prevent them from being good people, but all this demonstrates is the capacity for decency to harbor darkness.

It’s entirely possible to find legions of people who are upstanding members of their community – people who care for their families, people we would probably love to be friends with – and who nevertheless believe things that are baffling, idiotic, hateful and hideous. At least one in ten Americans think it’s acceptable to torture suspected terrorists for information, and it’s unlikely that all of them happen to occupy the bottom rung of society. Almost half of Americans believe that humans were created by God within the past 10,000 years. And a third still think that gay relationships should be illegal.

Do these beliefs become any more sensible, respectable, or well-supported simply by virtue of being endorsed by nice people? This strategy is essentially the inverse of a personal attack. Rather than criticizing a certain claim by impugning the character of the claimant, it instead highlights their normalcy in order to portray their beliefs as equally inoffensive. This is not a sound argument. Nice bigotry is still bigotry. Nice idiocy is still idiocy. And nice blind faith is still blind faith. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find a number of good, congenial citizens of Saudi Arabia who think it’s appropriate to whip rape victims repeatedly for being alone with an unrelated man. But if they were to appear in a commercial and tell us their life stories before reiterating their support for such barbarity, this would rightly be seen as nightmarish bordering on comical. So why is this rhetorical sleight of hand any more persuasive when it comes to Mormonism?

Its adherents may be wonderful people, but here’s what their choice of religion reveals about them: It tells me they decided to join a church that did not accept black people as fully equal members until 1978. It tells me they follow a faith that views gay people as sinful and tirelessly works to keep them from having the legal right to marry. It tells me they regard such a church as possessing moral authority. And it tells me their beliefs are not at all affected by the overwhelming evidence that the claims of their scriptures are false, and their religion began as no more than a hoax.

Mormons might want to show us that they’re just average people, but being an average person doesn’t mean you won’t believe in preposterous, hateful and ignorant propositions. From your friendly neighbor who thinks we should nuke the Middle East, to your elderly grandmother who bakes cookies and is also a tremendous racist, evil can cloak itself in the kindest of souls. They are our family, our friends, our co-workers, our lovers. They are Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists. But I’m not going to pretend that their positive qualities can make their beliefs any less wrong. I’m not willing to accept politeness as an excuse for being a bigot. And I am not a Mormon.