The Soapbox: Feminism Deserves Better Than “Sex-Negative Vs. Sex-Positive”
As a feminist, kinky person and sex commentator, I am the target audience for Jillian Horowitz’s xoJane essay “I’m a Sex-Negative Feminist” — and that’s exactly the point. Part of the site’s “Unpopular Opinion” series, I can only surmise that the essay, like others before it, was written largely with the intention of riling up its supposed targets rather than fostering a nuanced debate.
I’d also quibble with her quickie history lesson—yes, sex-positive feminism in part emerged as a response to anti-porn feminist activism, but it also sprang from the anti-BDSM and anti-lesbian bent of much of mainstream 1970’s and ’80’s feminism. My understanding is that sex-positive feminism was about embracing feminist ideals and furthering sexual freedom—for everyone, not just women.
Horowitz tries to make an intellectual argument, but the only direct citation she offers is an interview she did with Thought Catalog. Otherwise we’re left with gaping generalizations like, “Thirty years after the sex wars, sex-positivity has emerged as the default setting for mainstream feminism…” She twice resorts to the idea that this debate is actually about that traditionally “female” realm, feelings: “Sex-negativity makes a lot of feminists uncomfortable, but I frankly couldn’t give less of a damn if my politics hurt your feelings.” But this isn’t about feelings—and narrowing an important debate down to that seems decidedly anti-feminist.
She glosses over the very real debates happening from within the BDSM and feminist communities about consent, such as whether kinky social networking site FetLife should allow users to make criminal accusations and how to tackle the problem of abuse in BDSM.
Most damning of all, Horowitz implies that sex-positive feminists haven’t been open to those who don’t publicly embrace engaging in and enjoying sex, which isn’t true. Here are just a few examples: the films “Where Is Your Line?”and “How to Lose Your Virginity,” the Rethinking Virginity Conference and An Asexual Map for Sex-Positive Feminism. “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,” she writes. Where is that being assumed? By whom?
Horowitz claims, again without evidence to back it up, that “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,” but as xoJane Executive Editor Emily McCombs commented, “while ‘compulsory sexuality’ is certainly one reality for women, the opposite is also true. Women have also been punished for their sexuality and forced to squelch their sexuality for thousands of years in different places across the world. Women are still literally killed for exercising their sexuality.”
Horowitz seems eager to dismiss anything she deems problematic, rather than grappling with its intricacies—at least, based on these two pieces. You can be a critic of porn and watch porn—even a critic of the porn you yourself get off on (see also: feminist porn, women who watch gay male porn, and feminist porn stars). Horowitz says she had “numerous qualms” about being an organizer of SlutWalk NYC and was angry “about the silencing of women who didn’t constitute SlutWalk’s core audience” — but that doesn’t necessarily mean she or others can’t work from within and try to change the direction of SlutWalk, or anything else.
Horowitz makes it sound like there is, and should be, yet another giant division within feminism—sex-negative vs. sex-positive, and that those lines are evenly divided. When she writes, “One of the truisms of sex-critical and sex-negative feminism is, ‘We can’t fuck our way to freedom,’” the default assumption is that sex-positive feminists are saying that we can, indeed, fuck our way to freedom. It’s not that simple—nor should it be. I won’t argue that many of her views probably are counter to those of many sex-positive feminists, but after reading her piece twice, I was left with the notion that in fact there are more commonalities than differences. I can only speak for myself, but I’m in favor of more sexual options for everyone, more sex education, and abolishing the idea that anything related to sex is “compulsory.”
I’m going to make a slightly off-the-beaten-track analogy, so bear with me. Momastery blogger Glennon Doyle Melton recently wrote a post called “Quit Pointing Your Avocado At Me” (I encourage you to read it and return here to fully get my point), about how she used to feel that more organized moms were deliberately flaunting their neatness at her in a hostile, accusatory way, which made her feel like a bad mom. The same analogy applies here—maybe it’s happened, but I haven’t seen sex-positive feminists condemning the likes of Horowitz for being, in her words, “‘man-hating’ or ‘anti-sex’ or ‘judgmental’ or ‘shaming or ‘prudish.'” Horowitz conflates sex-positive feminist discussion and BDSM/kink culture as being somehow targeted at so-called sex-negative people, when I don’t see any evidence of that.
Lastly, the terminology Horowitz has embraced, “sex-negative,” is one I’d suggest feminists be careful before aligning with. You know what’s truly sex-negative (not just “critical of sex-positive feminists”)? Rape in Egypt’s Tahir Square, restrictions on abortion in Texas, the epidemic of slut-shaming and bullying and teen suicide, and the conflating of submission in BDSM with passivity and non-ambition.
I’m not saying there isn’t much to debate, but rather that the legacies of Off Our Backs and On Our Backs (two now-defunct publications, the latter of which was named as a response to the former) can co-exist within feminism. I agree with Horowitz that “sex is not a realm separate from politics,” but where we differ is what to do with that information. I believe it’s possible to rigorously examine our sexual politics and kink, and still get off how we like. I don’t want to sweep this discussion under some utopian “Can’t we all just get along?” banner, but feminism and feminists deserve better than a false dichotomy of us vs. them.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author, editor and blogger. She’s edited over 50 anthologies, including Twice the Pleasure: Bisexual Women’s Erotica, Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission, and Best Sex Writing 2013. Find her online at lustylady.blogspot.com and @raquelita on Twitter.