The divide isn't between 'sex negative' and 'sex positive' feminists — it's between liberal and radical feminism

I’d prefer not to draw hard and fast lines between feminists and have tried, lately, to avoid painting what feels like an overly simplistic “liberal feminist” vs. “radical feminist” wall that divides us. It isn’t always that simple. Some feminists I know disagree with me on the best way forward with regard to prostitution law, for example, yet don’t fall squarely into the category of “liberal feminist” and I myself don’t actually identify as any particular brand of feminist either — I simply call myself a feminist and a socialist. I also am trying to avoid vilifying all of those who might be described as “liberal feminists.” Some feminists do and say good things, despite the fact that I may disagree with them on, say, selfies (I know, I know, I’m having a “nice” day — I must be getting more sleep or something), but I wouldn’t necessarily view them as working in political opposition with me (though often they are).

So, to be clear, this isn’t a post about labels and identities, it’s one about ideological divides.

In an article over at The Frisky, entitled: “The ’80s Called And They Want Their Sex Wars Back,” Kitty Stryker writes that, after having attended the Feminist Porn Awards and the Feminist Porn Conference, she “realized that the sex wars are still very much A Thing.” She goes on to say:

There are still Good Feminists and Bad Feminists, though the definition of which is which varies depending on who you ask. It’s saddening to see us fighting each other, women who have been called prudes for asserting their sexual choices attacking women who have been called whores for asserting their sexual choices… and vice versa. This is, of course, exactly what the patriarchy wants. While we bicker about whether or not porn is empowering, we are being systematically marginalized, turned away from jobs, thrown out of school, our kids and our workspaces and our money and our privacy taken away from us. The act of having sex on film or any other sex work may empower some and humiliate others, or we might start feeling one way and eventually feel another.

While Stryker claims to feel sadness over the (often quite vicious) divides among feminists, she goes on to label the supposed two camps of feminists as “sex negative” and “sex positive.” No. Noooooo. This is so, so wrong. This characterization is responsible for so many misconceptions around feminism and what women’s collective empowerment looks like and I’m baffled that anyone who is familiar with the theory, arguments, and history of the feminist movement could frame it in this way.

I know for certain that many have used these labels in order to intentionally misrepresent and discredit radical feminist theory (and, actually, feminists in general — see: ye old “man-hating prude” trope) and scare women away from forming critiques of the sex industry, lest they be labelled “anti-sex;” and I also know that, as a result of this intentional misrepresentation, many women have legitimately bought into these ideas.

I don’t know where Stryker stands on that spectrum of “intention to misinform” to “legit misinformed,” and am happy to give her the benefit of the doubt (though I’m thinking her claim that she’s “read a fair amount of sex negative feminist theory” shows that she hasn’t, in fact, read and understood radical feminist theory or feminist critiques of the sex industry very thoroughly).

To clarify — “sex negative” and “sex positive” are relatively useless terms with regard to discussing feminist approaches to issues of sex and sexuality. The terms convey the message that “sex positivity” equals support for a vision of sex and sexuality that is defined by patriarchy and one that is primarily libertarian. What’s defined as “sex positive feminism” tends to translate to: non-critical of the sex industry, BDSM, burlesque, and generally, anything that can be related to “sex.” “Non-judgement” is the mantra espoused by so-called “sex-positive feminists,” which is troubling because it ends up framing critical thought and discourse as “judgement” and therefore negative. Since I tend to see critical thinking as a good thing, the “don’t judge me”/”don’t say anything critical about sex because it’s sex and therefore anything goes” thing doesn’t sit well with me.

“Sex negative,” on the other hand, tends to be ascribed to feminists who are critical of prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, burlesque, BDSM and, really, sex and sexuality as defined by patriarchy and men. The reason that feminists are critical of these things is because they want to work towards a real, liberated, feminist understanding of sex and sexuality, rather than one that sexualizes inequality, domination and subordination, is male-centered, and is harmful and exploitative of women. To me, that sounds far more “sex positive” (from a feminist perspective, anyway), than blind support for anything sex-related, because sex.

Stryker says the “infighting” between these two groups upsets her and reminds feminists to “remember who the real enemy is.” And I agree with her that we should indeed “remember” and that, too often, feminists attack and blame one another for problems that result from larger systems of power like patriarchy and capitalism.

Nonetheless, the divide is real. And while it isn’t black and white as not everyone fits squarely into one category of feminist or another, the reason the division exists is because there are very real ideological divides among feminists that have nothing to do with meaningless terms like “sex positive” or “sex negative.”

The divides are more accurately described as existing between liberal feminist and radical feminist ideology.

Liberal feminism is takes an individualistic perspective on women’s liberation. So the priority, for liberal feminists (for the record, it’s very rare for any individual to actually identify as a liberal feminist, so you’re going to have to make your own assessments based on their approach to feminism), is about the ability of individuals to make choices. Liberal feminism also focuses on achieving “equality” through legislative reform. What this means is that liberal feminists don’t aim to attack the root of the problem, but rather make changes within the system that already exists in order to help enable women to hold equal status to men in society. To be clear, I don’t think these aims are bad, in and of themselves, I just don’t think they will successfully address the problem of male power and female subordination. The main problem with liberal feminism is that it’s focus on individual rights and choices leads feminists to attempt to fix problems like violence against women and sexual exploitation through superficial means, for example: “maybe if we just make more “woman-friendly” porn, the porn industry will cease to be completely misogynist and exploitative;” “maybe if we just regulate the sex industry, prostitution will cease to be a violent industry that preys on marginalized women and exists purely for male pleasure, at the expense of women’s lives;” “maybe if women consent to shaking their breasts on stage for an audience and choose their own outfits (!), stripping/burlesque will no longer be about presenting women as pretty, sexy things to look at and become feminist;” “maybe if women choose to self-objectify in selfies, that act will become an empowering one;” and on and on. You get the picture.

Radical feminism looks at patriarchy as a system of power, not as something you can simply regulate or talk or imagine out of existence. Taking back words or inventing new ones won’t upset male power, nor will your own personal feelings of “empowerment.” You can’t simply change your own individual perspective on particular acts, trends, and behaviours in order to change reality. Radical feminism aims to attack gender roles and the social inequality and male violence against women that results from these prescribed gender roles. Therefore, from a radical feminist perspective, there can be no glorification of the “feminine” or “masculine” because 1) those roles are oppressive, and 2) they aren’t real, but are invented and enforced by a patriarchal society. “Feeling good” about self-objectification is fine on an individual level (I mean, feel however you want — no one’s stopping you), but has nothing to do with feminism or with changing or challenging an oppressive system. If more women make porn that is “female-friendly” (whatever that means), it won’t destroy the porn industry or make that industry one that isn’t a primarily sexist one that promotes the abuse and degradation of women. If we regulate the sex industry, it won’t change the fact that prostitution exists on a foundation of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy and is an industry that exists to benefit men and reinforce women’s roles as subordinate.

Whether or not you identify as a “liberal feminist” or a “radical feminist” is irrelevant, because the proof is in the pudding (I find that saying gross, but am using it regardless) and this is where and why there are such tense and explosive divides among self-described feminists. It has nothing to do with this mythical “sex positive”/”sex negative,” anti-feminist garbage — it has to do with how well one understands this system and how one believes it should be addressed.

Stryker quotes a self-described sex worker who asks: “Why do you need me to be empowered or degraded in my work?” in order to argue that this is a bad question because the issue is more complicated than that. But she, and the woman she quotes, doesn’t get it. It isn’t about deciding whether or not an individual woman feels either degraded or empowered in doing sex work — it’s about the system that led her to prostitution, it’s about why she made that “choice,” it’s about the fact that women and girls are funneled in to this industry in order for men’s every desire to be met, no matter how it impacts these women and girls — it’s about the fact that prostitution exists at all, and that it is primarily men who buy sex and primarily women who are forced to sell it. Any individual can feel “empowered” in any given situation, but that changes nothing in terms of the overall structures and systems and it changes nothing in terms of women’s collective liberation from said system.

Call it the “sex wars” if you like, but know that this “war” is less about sex than it is about power. Despair about “infighting,” but know that some of these divides are irreconcilable so long as there is no common understanding of what the oppressive forces we are fighting are, how those systems work, and what our end goal is.

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.