‘Sex-Negative’ Feminism Is A Misnomer, Makes People Defensive, Still Has Some Valuable Things To Say


A lot of people in my social media circle got mildly upset yesterday after The Gloss’s favorite women’s site XOJane published an article called Unpopular Opinion: I’m a Sex-Negative Feminist. Ready to be equal parts annoyed and amused, I clicked. But guess what? I actually agreed with a lot of it.

In this article, writer Jillian Horowitz describes the philosophy behind “sex-negative feminism,” which, contrary to how it sounds, is a philosophy that does not necessarily view sex as bad, but takes issue with the idea that pleasure is always good, and that “the bedroom” should be an area immune from critical discussion. To quote The Ethical Slut, the sex positive ethos espouses, broadly, “the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.” “Sex-negative feminism” views this statement as essentially naive, because if you are going to acknowledge that most aspects of modern life and society are affected by patriarchy, why should sex be some special exception?

Writes Horowitz (she is quoting herself, but whatever):

“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.”

I agree with all of this. Sex is not inherently good, even when you consent to it or find it pleasurable. It can be good, bad or neutral, depending on your subjective experience. (Here’s a lengthy article I wrote about Marie Calloway’s examination of this issue.) While important, I believe the concept of “consent” can also be used to keep people from discussing the complicated power dynamics at play in things like kink and sex work. It’s not so much that people are using “she consented” to say something  is “okay”…I’m not interested in judging the sexual practices of individual people as “okay” or “not okay.” It’s when you use the idea of consent to shut down discussions around certain topics and the systemic power issues that may be involved that it becomes problematic. Granted, it can be really hard to do this without seeming judgmental and without people taking it personally…which leads me to my big “but.”

The thing that gives me pause about the term “sex-negative feminism” should be obvious: it’s not just a misnomer, but a deliberate provocation. If you are really trying to get people to think more systemically without pissing them off, this is a poor place to start. The article also tends to caricature the sex-positive movement. Yes, there are folks—from The Ethical Slut to Sasha Grey–whose individualist views of the world keep them from acknowledging that yes, false consciousness is a real phenomenon, and no, you do not have to be stupid to be affected by it. But there are plenty of sex-positive feminists who are not afraid to look at sex from a systemic perspective, even at the same time that they won’t let themselves be shamed for the kind of sex they like. Emily McCombs (from XOJane as well) is a great example. Rachel Kramer Bussel is another. And don’t forget that sluts, sex workers and kinky people have been marginalized to a huge degree by both second-wave feminists and the patriarchy itself. If some seem a bit defensive, that is understandable, and deliberately provoking them isn’t going to help.

As I have become more radical and less traditionally liberal in my interpretation of feminism, I have often wondered if “sex-positive” is really the best description for what I am. But “sex-negative” seems wrong, too. Maybe “sex-neutral” or “sex-critical” (as Horowitz writes later) or just plain “critical of things in general” would be better. In any case, it’s important to go into this messy tangle without animus towards one’s allies, and “sex-negative” doesn’t quite fit that bill.

Ridiculous stock photo of a “feminist”: Shutterstock

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    • http://sarahhollowell.com/ Sarah Hollowell

      I’ve always considered myself sex-positive, but I don’t think I ever saw it as being “sex is always good”, probably due to my own ignorance about how people use the term. For me it was always just, “Hey guys, sex is great sometimes or even most of the time, unless you’re not into it, then cool!” I’ve also always considered part of my sex positivity to be supporting
      sluts, sex workers, and kinky people and honestly anyone who wants to
      express (or not express) their sexuality, as long as it’s all safe and
      consenting. I generally don’t think it’s my business what people do in
      their bedrooms if I’m not part of it.

      I definitely agree that sex is not a safe zone from criticism or discussion. I’m involved in BDSM, and for me, discussion on that front is freaking vital because of the power play, and not just between the partners. I went into a relationship with a Dom when I was 15 (and considering he was 26 I now realize holy shit that was not okay), not knowing ANYTHING about BDSM, and he didn’t really give me a lot of information. He just grabbed me when I was vulnerable and was highly emotionally abusive (luckily it was online or it would have likely been physically abusive as well).

      When I tried to seek out discussion from other subs (most of them generally pretty cool women) who might have more experience than me, I generally got a lot of the same answer: He was infallible. He was my Dom, so I shouldn’t be arguing, and yeah, it might SEEM abusive, but it probably wasn’t. They wouldn’t even entertain the idea that it could be a negative relationship. If I’d been able to talk to other subs who were willing to think that it could be anything other than positive, I might not have spent three years with him. I consented to everything we did, but it was far from a good situation.

      But I definitely hesitate to take on the term sex-negative. I love sex. I love being dominated during sex and I require that my partners respect me as an equal and respect my boundaries. I think that prostitution and all kinds of sex work should be legal and made safe. I don’t have a problem with most porn. But I know that none of these things are without their problems (some of them VERY serious problems), so…maybe sex-critical is a good term for me, too?

      /oh man long babble

      • Marissa

        I agree. Part of the problem with kink is that people don’t talk about it because it’s considered deviant and shameful, but there really does need to be more support for the BDSM community. It’s hard to navigate what right and what’s wrong when you get off on feeling fucked up and used.

      • http://sarahhollowell.com/ Sarah Hollowell

        Yes, this. It took me a long time to approach the kink community again because I’d become convinced that it was all just going to be straight-up abusive. Society doesn’t tend to teach us things like, “SO YOU LIKE TO BE SLAPPED IN THE FACE DURING SEX…”

        And then as a feminist you also end up in a weird position where people think that you’re messed up and bowing to the patriarchy and just need to be ~ fixed ~.

      • Kae Oz

        a few people have taken the notion of Sex Positive to the extreme. But very few and no one in a professional capacity. There are always zealots of any movement. Technically, much of which is described by some claiming to be Sex Negative is actually Sex Positive. While they choose to not engage in sexual activity and do not like it, it is the Sex Positive that makes it by their choice and not the demands and shaming of society.
        Some of the stuff, hating on specific kinks, claiming women can never truly consent, is actually Sex Negative, and not in a positive feminist way. It is another manipulative attempt to demean women for their sexuality.

      • Kae Oz

        You, sadly, are not alone in your original experiences with Kink.
        And, hopefully, with your Sex Positivity and experience, you can be a voice of learning for others new to the scene so they don’t ever have to go through that. Or worse.
        I have a friend who does lectures on safe sub-ing and this very thing.

    • Eileen

      Although I do generally consider myself to be a sex-positive feminist, I agree that this sounds like a valuable contribution. Like it or not, how we consider sex is definitely tied to the patriarchy, even down to the part where “going ALL the way” is PIV intercourse when lots of other sex things feel just as good if not better for many people. (Imagine how much time, money, and effort we’d all save on contraception if we didn’t have it ingrained in ourselves that the ultimate in sexual closeness is intercourse) Not to mention the fact that I’ve always found sex-positive feminism to tend toward exclusionary with respect to people who identify as asexual. But I agree, “sex-negative” might not be the best word for it.

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        I definitely agree that sex is not a safe zone from criticism or
        discussion. I’m involved in BDSM, and for me, discussion on that front
        is freaking vital because of the power play, and not just between the
        partners. I went into a relationship with a Dom when I was 15 (and
        considering he was 26 I now realize holy shit that was not okay), not
        knowing ANYTHING about BDSM, and he didn’t really give me a lot of

      • Fabel

        A spammer that actually contributes to the discussion? Okay, that’s new.

      • Eileen

        Actually – and it’s sad that I’ve noticed this – a lot of the spammers lift quotations from other comments and incorporate them into their spam. This paragraph came from Sarah Hollowell.

      • Guest

        I think that sex-negative feminsim is actually a good term,
        I mean yes it will scare people, it will get confused with patriachal conservatism however I always agreed more with ”sex-negative” feminist writings and it’s brain food!

      • Kae Oz

        Sex Negative is deliberately confusing term, as this author points out – for shock value or “provocation”.
        A lot of people, including feminists, worked hard to get people familiar with the terms of Sex Positive and Sex Negative in order to give language to the source of a lot inequity and the cause of a lot of unreported rapes. It is this defined Sex Negative culture that gives shape to the patriarchal confines of many peoples learned thinking. The shame Sex Negative culture creates keeps control of sex in the hands of white males, keeps women from making their own decisions about if, when, and how they derive their bodily pleasures, and keeps men and women from accusing their rapist.
        Twisting the definition will cause the twisting of the meaning of a lot of work already out there. As if one went and changed the meaning of the phrase “Intolerant hatred” to mean “strength”. Suddenly well crafted works among professional peers appear to no longer fight against intolerance and hate, but to the young and uninformed, look to be teaching that strength is wrong.

    • Fabel

      I agree that sex ~as a whole~ should not be immune to critical discussion, but as far as individual practices go? Certain kinks, in my opinion, shouldn’t be denounced as un-feminist. And people who enjoy “un-feminist” kinks should be able to enjoy them while calling themselves a feminist—the two can coexist. But those are just my thoughts about this.

    • s_park

      jamie – you’ve written a lot of critical, thought-provoking content that keeps me and my friends coming back to thegloss. thanks for the link to flavorwire.