On ‘sex-positivity’ and misunderstandings

The Pervocracy published a post on Friday, intended to set all us feminist critics of ‘sex-positive’ discourse, language, and arguments straight. According to the author, who, strangely, avoids referencing anyone or using any specific quotes to back up many of her claims, argues that feminists who critique ‘sex-positivity’ A) don’t understand what the term ‘sex-positive’ means, and B) generally are just hating on women “who wear high heels and shave their legs and…giggle and… act all flirty and give blowjobs…” We are, apparently, “disgusted” by these women and therefore we are not only “obnoxious, elitist, sexist, and counterproductive,” but our criticisms are straight up wrong.

This is a common rebuttal made by those who identify as ‘sex-positive.’ Charlie Glickman, in response to Robert Jensen’s critiques of the language and discourse of ‘sex-positivity’ also claims that Jensen just doesn’t understand it. Like Glickman, Pervocracy’s key point is that “Most critics of sex-positive feminism have not bothered to figure out what sex-positivity is.”

Glickman argues that ‘sex-positivity’ is “the idea that the only relevant measure of a particular sexual act, practice, or desire is how the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants are cared for.” And, yeah, I think we ‘get’ that. And we don’t agree. At all. We think it is much more complicated then individuals simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (though of course consent is a key part of sex, assuming that our intent is not to rape).  Where the ‘sex-positivity’ defenders seem to get off track is in this ‘judgement’ discourse. In the obsessive need to make all representations and manifestations of sex and ‘sexiness’ about individuals, the point that feminists are making is completely missed. That is that this isn’t all about individuals and that your sexuality has been influenced by a myriad of factors, all which have been shaped by patriarchy. This is not about whether or not you, as an individual, feel ‘judged.’

When we look at the arguments made in response to feminist critics, it becomes very clear, to me, who is ‘not getting it’. As I mentioned earlier, those who use the language of ‘sex-positivity’ tend to talk a lot about feminists ‘shaming’ or ‘judging’ their sexualities, which immediately frames the debate in individual terms, isolated from any greater ideology or impact. But in terms of your individual, private, sex life, is it really fair to say that, for example, pornography is something that is individual and private? Or would it be fair to say that pornography is a cultural, social phenomenon that exists as it does today within a particular framework of domination, subordination, sexism, and violence?

I think we could all agree that pornography has influenced our perceptions of women and of men, of femininity and masculinity and, of course, of sex and sexuality, as a society, as well as individuals. Turning this into a conversation about individual likes and dislikes completely misses the point. Whether or not you feel ashamed about your use of pornography or of rape fantasies, well, that could perhaps be examined further, rather than starting an entire discourse or movement specifically around your desire to feel ‘ok’ about this aspect of your sexuality as well as, then, forcing everyone else around you to tell you that it is ‘ok’ or ‘perfectly normal’. Seeing as we live in a rape culture, it might be fair to say that, culturally, you are pretty ‘normal’ if your sexuality exists based on domination/subordination and on objectifying female bodies, anyway.

In terms of the piece at Pervocracy, I suppose it makes sense that we have not been provided with references or concrete examples of these supposed feminists who are ‘disgusted’ by women who shave their legs because, really, that’s not what the arguments are about. While I think there are many, many arguments that are critical of the way in which females are supposed to present femininity, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the argument boils down to disgust.

If we were actually making the argument that women who shave their legs and give blow jobs are ‘disgusting,’ the ‘sex-positive’ crew would have something going for them, because that, on its own, is a pretty shitty argument. But it isn’t nearly as simple as that.

So, for the purposes of clarity, I’d just like to point out that I, as someone who thinks that the term ‘sex-positive’ is bunko and that those who attack feminism and feminists based on the argument that they are ‘sex-negative’ are delusional, shave my legs and give blow jobs.

I don’t engage in these practices as feminist or as revolutionary acts, because they are not, but rather, as something that I do on occasion as part of my life as a heterosexual woman living in this world. I am not dedicated to these practices to the point that I would defend them, but they happen, in my life, it’s true. Do I think I am disgusting? Not so much. Do I also believe that women shouldn’t have to shave their legs or give blow jobs in order to be viewed as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ women? Yep. Do I think that the fact that women are expected to pretend that they don’t have any body hair in order to be viewed as real women who aren’t disgusting (and I’d like to point out that, if we actually look at who it is that thinks women or women’s bodies are disgusting, I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t feminists) is something that exists because of patriarchy? Yep. Do I think women should be obligated to give blow jobs to men in heterosexual relationships in order to maintain their relationship? No. Fuck no. But I don’t think that women who have sex with men, wear high heels, shave their legs, or flirt are disgusting. I think they exist within the constructs of a heterosexist culture and I think we learn behaviour. It’s hard to unlearn that behaviour.

I wore heels every day for years. Now I tend to avoid them. Because heels are painful and ridiculous and because I like walking places and I also like my ankles and knees and back. I don’t hate myself for wearing heels or think that I was ‘disgusting’. I think that, at the time, I felt like I had to wear heels in order to appear attractive. That’s how this all works! Women learn that in order to count, they have to be sexually appealing to men.

Though Holly Pervocracy says: “It’s hard to find a piece that isn’t dripping with disgusted descriptions of women who wear high heels and shave their legs and…giggle and…act all flirty and give blowjobs,” there are strangely no references provided. I have the feeling this is because most critiques are far more comprehensive than the author claims.

Pervocracy then goes on to critique a good little piece posted over on XOJane about ‘choice feminism,’ saying:

“So you should go ahead and do things that are patriarchy-approved, if you want to. Buy new nail polish! Care about celebrities! Have a giant wedding! Wear a thong in your hair! Put your picture on the Internet! Look good according to particular patriarchal ideas of what looks good! Be flattered when men wolf whistle at you, literally or metaphorically! Whatever aspects of being a “Hot Chick” work for you, enjoy them. Maybe except the hair thong. But don’t fool yourself that you’re doing so of your own unconstrained free will.

That’s right; women who are sexy are victims of mind control. You can tell by looking at them.  There’s no way a woman can choose to wear nail polish or care about celebrities.  I know I’ve been harsh on femininity myself at times (mostly I’m just harsh at the idea of me being feminine), but this goes beyond criticism of femininity.  This is a claim that femininity is a symptom of Borg assimilation.”

So I don’t know. I read the XOJane article, and I’m preeeetty sure that what the author was arguing wasn’t that women are “victims of mind control.” Never mind that this particular article hardly makes an argument against presentations of femininity.

I’ve written about this issue of ‘choice’ as insta-feminism before, and the argument is not that women are stupid and brainwashed, but rather that the way we act, look, and behave exist within a context of patriarchy and is always influenced by the context of our surroundings. To pretend that the choices you make somehow exist inside a bubble of your own making is either disingenuous or delusional. The fact that this context exists does not make those who have learned from that context ‘disgusting’ or products of “Borg assimilation,” it makes us human beings who live here in the now. And it makes the patriarchy powerful. So, let’s recap: women aren’t stupid, patriarchy is an insidious asshole. The more aware of this we are, the better equipped we are to challenge it.

Simply because this is where we live (in the West, in a capitalist-patriarchal system), it does not mean that we must follow along blindly. In fact, once we recognize that we are indeed part of a larger culture and that we, as individuals, are impacted and learn from the systems and ideologies which surround us, it makes it much easier to challenge and critique both the ideologies, as well as our own behaviours as they manifest themselves within this context.

Critiquing things like high heels, body hair removal, heterosexual sex as we’ve defined it in this culture is not the same as “judging women by their sexuality,” because, you know what? High heels have absolutely nothing to do with your sexuality. They are shoes. Which have been fetishized. Primarily because they restrict women’s ability to move and make them appear more fuckable and less mobile (which, of course, also makes them appear more fuckable).

Pervocracy goes on to say that: “It’s also, implicitly, a claim that women who reject femininity aren’t  influenced by patriarchy, which is even more unfortunate. ” PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE. Please. Show me where the feminists are all sitting around pretending that their actions and lives haven’t been influenced by patriarchy. SHOW. ME.

No matter how radical the feminist, I don’t believe that it is common to argue that we, as individuals, whether or not we’ve rejected high heels, leg-shaving, or blow jobs, are somehow free from this system and that it hasn’t influenced our worldview. That the moment we put on a pair of flats we suddenly escaped the male gaze or that we entered into some kind of feminist utopia because we threw out our razors. I mean, isn’t the whole point of feminism to stop pretending as though patriarchy doesn’t exist and impact our lives in a rather all-encompassing way? And then challenge that?

All of this leads up to the key point for Pervocracy, which is that: “it’s impossible for women to be accepted as human beings if we aren’t accepted as sexual beings.” Well, the problem is, of course, that women, in our society are often only viewed as sexual beings. Not whole beings, but things we use for sexual pleasure. Things that specifically exist as sexual objects. To have sex with. Or fantasize about having sex with. We don’t get to just be human beings. Because we have breasts. And therefore we must be gawked at or yelled at or harassed. Because our bodies exist for men. That’s why they’re there. How could we not be sexualized?? We have female body parts! And female body parts, as we’ve learned from porn, are too be looked at or ejaculated on to.

The problem here is that, in our society, we don’t get to choose. We don’t get to choose whether we are looked at or objectified or sexualized. It happens to us whether or not we shave, or wear high heels, or give blow jobs. That is the problem.

So it’s not that, as Pervocracy claims, “women’s dignity is contingent on our not being too sexy,” it’s that women don’t get to choose dignity. Because men always have the power to view us and treat us as sexual objects. Regardless of how “dignified” we are or we think we are.

Wouldn’t it be great if women could “be sexual and also other things.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everything we did didn’t have to be sexualized. How is it that, somehow, jobs that are typically viewed as positions occupied by women, such as teachers, nurses, and secretaries, have been turned into porny fetishes and sexy halloween costumes? How is it that, in order to have a ‘healthy’ (hetero)sexual relationship there must be PIV and blow jobs? Why is it that breast-feeding in public is an issue? Women feeding babies?? WITH THEIR BOOBS?? But breasts are only for men to masturbate to! *mind explodes*

The argument feminists make around ‘sex-positive’ discourse is that, often, it refuses to question anything that has to do with sex. This means that, for example, pornography can’t be criticized, because porn is about sex. And sex is good. And it’s about me not you. Same goes for prostitution. Criticize the purchase of women’s bodies? Well, you’re criticizing somebody’s ‘sexual freedom’ (whether or not that individual’s ‘sexual freedom’ imposes on another individual’s or group’s freedom is left out of this conversation) and you can’t do that!

So we hear you. You like sex. Some of us also like sex. That does not mean that everything anyone does in a male-dominated culture, that is somehow related to the way in which sex and sexuality have been constructed within said culture is free from critique. And that critique does not equal ‘sex-negativity’, in fact it is just the opposite. Critiques of the way in which sex and sexuality are represented in our culture come from a desire for a world in which we actually get to choose whether or not we want to be sexual, whether or not we want to have sex, how we define ‘sex’, and yes, even whether or not we want to give blow jobs. It comes from a desire to live in a world where we don’t have to be sexual or sexualized.

While Pervocracy thinks that “having the sex life that’s right for you is an important part of being a self-actualized person,” I think that having a sex life that exists outside a pornified culture wherein women are presented as bodies to ejaculate onto is an important part of…um…living in a free society. I also think that choosing not to have a sex life, because believe it or not, not everyone in the entire world enjoys sex (or enjoys sex in the way in which we’ve decided that sex happens), should be an option. And, at this point, that isn’t really part of the deal.

Feminists aren’t attacking people who like sex. They are critical of the way in which sex and sexiness have been defined. Our perceptions of what ‘sexy’ is and what sex is have been, largely, defined by a male-dominated culture. ‘Sexiness’ is a male construct. It is something that is done for men. That is not the same thing as “refusing to see a woman as a powerful individual because she’s sexy” or “treat[ing] sexy women with disgust and pity.”

Yes! I believe that some individuals like rape fantasies. Do you think that could have anything at all to do with the fact that we’ve sexualized rape in this culture? I also believe that many individuals like porn (I would even go so far as to say that we, as a culture, ‘like’ porn). You are not alone, you who are turned on by porn! But do you truly believe that your love of, for example, fake boobs and shaved genitalia is something that you were born with? That, because you are turned on by dominating women, that this is just something that happened? Out of thin air? And therefore someone needs to fulfill your fantasies for you because god forbid you not be able to ejaculate whenever you feel the urge?

The point is not: ‘sex is bad’ or ‘women who like sex are bad’ or even ‘women who like to feel attractive to men are bad’ – the point is that the way in which we think we should have sex/be sexy/exist as human beings is very much a construct of living in a violent and inequitable culture, which is all very much a part of the way in which we understand ‘sex’ and ‘sexiness’ and even humanity.


Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.