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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.

Comments

  1. Matt Burgess says

    An interesting article from Heather (I could only read it, wasn’t able to watch the video).

    The role of feminism in sexuality is a really interesting one, particularly when it comes to issues such as aesthetics and pornography. Discussion can go back and forth, and it’s impossible to get a clear picture of the end result. For example?

    I want to wear high heels because they want to look attractive.
    But it’s a male appeal you’re conforming to!
    No, it’s my own, I think they’re nice.
    But you only think they’re nice because you’ve been told by a male dominated aesthetic that they’re nice.
    Who the hell are you to tell you what I’m allowed to think looks nice.

    And so on. Pornography is another interesting issue. It’s something that a lot of women don’t “get”. As a male I’m not sure I really “get” it either. I do have to say, though, that pornography as an industry and as a social construct is a poor representation of gender roles. The female is (almost) always subservient to the male (or males) and the goal is male pleasure, usually in a way that could seem quite humiliating.

    That said… I have known many women, maybe most, who enjoy and actively seek that same subservience, to be dominated and possessed. It doesn’t take a male dominated medium such as pornography to see this, either. Women’s erotic fiction covers as much as their contents convey the same view. The powerful man, the fragile woman melting beneath his dominance. In this respect is the pornography itself a cause or does it merely reflect an inherent, albeit exaggerated, inherent truth in human sexual dynamics?

    I don’t have an answer to that, nor to the other questions this post raises. But I do know that the questions, and the conversations, are important.

  2. Christian S. says

    I may be of a rare breed but i think the women who wear the kind of make-up and hairstyles that are difficult to put on are not that attractive as it seems overdone and unneccesary. there tends to be a meat market for super attractive people with model-like bodies where a public fart could equal commiting suicide, but really, you dont need to be a part of that group or aspire/dream to be. their relationships tend to be superficial, short and the women are not very nice as persons and the men are douchebags that are more into the sex/prestige part.

    and nowadays when a guy is going out (at least in Denmark) we wear clothes that, although comfortable. shows us from our best sides aestetically. A lot of us uses hair products as well. women can easily look attractive and still use less time in front of the mirror. men dont go after the super hot girls anyway. they are shallow and boring persons when it comes to relationships

    when my former girlfriend or my sister didnt want to go out to buy stuff before they put on make-up, or dont want to go at all because of a huge zit then all the men in the house think that the women are being stupid. so yeah, those opressive ideals are not really benefiting anyone and it is simply a matter of seeing through the bullshit and getting some confidence and be more relaxed. to be comfortable about ones looks and having a good personality and only “standard” looks is way better than looking hot and be nothing else.

    Regards.

    Christian S.

  3. says

    I can see where you’re coming from, but I’m having trouble following your argument to its conclusion.

    I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffle written at Skepchic about the 15-year-old who was basically sexually harassed in extraordinarily creepy fashion on reddit after posting a picture of herself with a Carl Sagan book. The comment section on Watson’s site in response to her breakdown of this happening exploded, as it often does, and included at least one person who seemed to be arguing that the glory of the internet is that she can just change her username and be anonymous again, then nobody will know she’s a girl and will take her seriously again.

    This is where the argument went off the rails. Why should she have to pretend not to be a girl in order to be taken seriously and not be the subject of really disgusting commentary? Similarly, I can’t get behind an argument that suggests that choosing to be aesthetically pleasing is automatically in support of a value system that demands as much from women.

    There is no reason why a woman should not be able to wear whatever she pleases and be held in the same esteem as men would in comparable outfits. “Comparable” here is a little difficult as women and men’s fashion is vastly different, obviously, and you need a wide set of definitions, but let us use intended audience as a rough guide. A woman dressed as she would for a club, for example, would be roughly the aesthetic equivalent as a man dressed for the same club.

    So, we have our hypothetical pair. Right now, one of the major problems is that if the woman is dressed for a business setting and the man is dressed for a casual gathering, the man will still be taken more seriously in a business setting, but not as seriously as a man dressed for that setting. This can stem from a lot of places, a fairly significant one being the perception of women as sex objects having to fulfill a mythical slot in the male consciousness in which they are attractive, but not too attractive, and their worth is measured by that. It’s sort of a sick game of aesthetic horseshoes.

    The problem I see with your argument is that I don’t understand how the rejection of aesthetics addresses this problem, or the wider problems this example represents. How does rejecting the idea of being attractive in any sort of conventional sense change the idea that her worth is determined by her beauty? Moreover, this seems like a further constraint on women as they are now essentially brought into an embargo on traditional beauty. Like the women in Lysistrata, if you constrain too much their desires, it doesn’t actually work out for anybody.

    I also think there is a bit of a false dichotomy set up there. I’m thinking of one of the running topics that happens over at What Would JT Do? in which they discuss atheist activism and the need for both firebrands (like JT or PZ Myers) and diplomats (like Hemant Mahta). PZ wrote a post related to this blasting Massimo Pigliucci for his casual arrogance in dismissing the New Atheists because he feels that that sort of in-your-face activism is inferior to achieving the goals of atheism. PZ’s point, in this case, is that it’s a different approach because it has different goals, and it is better to have both approaches than to suggest that one is superior to the other for the latter not achieving the former’s goals. His other point is that Pigliucci and Chris Steadman are idiots, but it’s PZ Myers, so you have to kinda expect that.

    That being said, your argument seems predicated on the idea that the goals and especially the focus of sex-positive feminists and anti-pornography feminists are the same, and they clearly aren’t. The sex-positive feminist goals and priorities lie in creating an environment in which women are treated with the same esteem as men regardless of how they dress or present within a context. The woman above would be taken more seriously in a business suit than the guy in a polo shirt and jeans if they were at a meeting because she has chosen to present herself as appropriate for the setting, just as another man in a suit would receive the same treatment. That goal cannot be achieved by a rejection of current aesthetic ideals, and instead by reclaiming them, much like minority groups do with language.

    Most importantly, though, these are not the same goals and priorities as the anti-pornography feminists and suggesting that they’re somehow working counter to feminist goals essentially says that one side of the schism is the only side with worthy objectives. Sex-positive feminists are doing it wrong because they’re not achieving the goals of anti-pornography feminists. But of course they aren’t; they have their own goals.

    This was really well done and as much as I adore ZJ, I hope to see more of you in the future. Thank you for getting my brain working this morning and presenting something to talk about. Now to crawl back to my own blog and, theoretically, work as well.

  4. Gary T. says

    I’m glad that Heather is addressing this topic, although I don’t think she goes back far enough. I would have liked to hear about the advent of the feminist anti-pornography movement (and writers such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin) to get a proper context and perspective of the debate. In the process, she unfortunately skipped over the more important reasons why the movement came about (rape and mutilation of women in pornography, child abuse and trafficking) and she instead addresses the more indirect concerns of aesthetics. The topic of pornography is itself huge and controversial, and would probably require several videos to cover. Also missed were the use of censorship and how the “fun-feminist” movement came about as a reaction to censorship.

    She has a lot of information to convey and it would be nice to see her points distilled down to its basics to be more understandable to the viewer. Also, if she would slow down a bit while speaking, she would be easier to follow.

  5. says

    “Sex positive feminism is a relatively new movement in feminism which originated in the 1990s.”

    Nothing spells well argued-essay like one where *the first line* gets basic facts wrong. Let’s see, um, Ellen Willis *1981* essay “Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?”. How about early writing and activism from the 70s by Betty Dodson and Pat Califia? How about the 1986 Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce brief in Booksellers v. Hudnut that helped rule Catherine MacKinnon’s legislation unconstitutional? I think somebody needs to do their homework.

    And all this misinformation and strawmanning to come to a conclusion that sex-positive feminism’s “crime” in fostering a sex-workers rights movement. (Such ingratitude toward feminists who are just trying to save them!) Of course, the same “feminists” who call this a “crime” of sexual liberalism say the same damn thing about the transgender movement. Just sayin’.

  6. SonneillonV says

    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.

    *ahem* Eddie Izzard. That is all.

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