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