Why I still need a sex-positive feminism

Content note: sexual harassment, rape threats, suicide attempts

Before I start, here's the standard disclaimer: I'm a white cis het-passing but actually bisexual middle-class able-bodied but mentally ill woman. So this is written from a perspective that's really rather privileged and might just be whitesplaining drivel. If it is, burn it. Anyway...

Sex-positive feminism seems to have gotten a pretty bad rap over the years as being overly simplistic, centring on the experiences of privileged women, and erasing and oppressing asexual people, among many other things. So by all rights, I should be sneering at it and turning away from just another vehicle that only works for certain privileged groups of women. And besides, I'm not even a feminist anymore, even though I miss being a feminist and a lot of the time I wish I could go back, particularly for the feel of community. Why do I even give a shit?

I'll concede this right now: a lot of criticism of sex-positive feminism is justified. Mainstream porn can be shitty and exploitative and thinking about people getting off to that exploitation leaves me with a sick taste in my body, and often sex-positive feminism can erase the experiences of asexual people. And those are just two criticisms I have of a very problematic movement - other people can come up with more, I assure you.

So why even defend it, you might ask, unless I'm a white supremacist piece of shit who wants to oppress ALL the people with the filthy sex? In other words, why don't I just shut the holy fuck up right now and close my legs?

I'll give as honest an answer as I can to this, but it might take a while. For even though I'm an incredibly privileged person, I haven't exactly managed to walk unscathed through life as I oppress people right and left - not a great track record for an evil oppressor, I must admit.

My early teens were a really, really, really shitty time for sexual ethics - as they are for many young people. We did SRE in my final year of primary school (aged 10-11), which covered the basics of reproductive science quite well but taught us nothing about the ethics and allowed students to miss the lessons with parental permission - and I was one of the lucky ones, as my school at least actually taught us about the biology of the act; other schools teach abstinence-only "education", which exclusively promotes sexual abstinence without any information about...well...anything else.

After I left primary school, I soon found myself in the confusing world of crushes, boyfriends and male approval. I was very much a tomboy, while most of the girls in my year were extremely feminine and a little bit boy-crazy - I mostly just saw guys as friends and didn't feel the need to impress them. Yet I still felt inadequate when all the other girls were pairing up with boys and none of them would date me. Combined with a crush on an older boy that would later prove disastrous, things were not going well.

Fast forward a year. My crush has been found out, I've been bullied even more relentlessly than I already was, and I've now developed depression - though I can't yet put a name to the suicidal feelings. I've been having sexual thoughts ever since that first proper crush and I'm comfortable with them (oddly enough) - though I'm not comfortable with the conflicting attitudes to sex that I see around me. Girls in my year started stripping on webcam when they were 12, and if I'll be honest...I felt jealous. I felt jealous that someone else would pay that much intimate attention to a person, but that I was too ugly for them to do that.

Enter toxic beliefs about sex. I was brought up to believe that promiscuous people were somehow worthless and dirty - something I used to denigrate the girls in my class who had lots of sex, or even the girls who wore makeup I deemed excessive (I was 14 and 14-year-olds are not known for having the world's best judgement), rather than face up to my own insecurity about being a virgin and being "left out" of a group of sexually active people. Those beliefs were poison for other people, and poison even to me - though perhaps I deserved it. Just like I deserved to feel dirty for the sexual harassment and rape threats made against me. And to top it all off, round about that age I started to realise that I didn't just like boys - I liked girls too.

This is the kind of environment I grew up in. Me. A white cis woman, not too fat, not too thin, not obviously sick or disabled, fairly rich and easily mistaken for being heterosexual.

Even the lucky ones aren't in a great place. And with depression, it only got worse.

I had already attempted suicide at the age of thirteen; at fifteen, I tried again. It was really quite disastrous - it destroyed who I used to be, and I had to start trying to build a new life. I don't feel this post is really the right place to go into details - and I've written other posts about this - but suicide attempts change you deeply. They bring you to the edge of death. Sometimes they don't bring you back again. And it's a very traumatic experience to go through.

Getting back on topic, I was busy trying to rebuild my entire personality - which is really quite a difficult task, as it requires you to be comfortable uprooting all traces of who you were before. I read and read and searched and searched - and somewhere in the middle of all this reading and searching, I found sex-positive feminism.

Maybe it's just because I'm white and cis, but it worked for me. It taught me that I didn't need to be ashamed of sexual harassment or rape threats. That consent is incredibly important, and that it's never the fault of the person who doesn't consent. That not being straight is every bit as good and right as being straight. That neither promiscuity nor celibacy are anything to be ashamed of - and that sex-positivity shouldn't discriminate against people who are asexual. (That was initially one of my problems with being sex-critical - I still believe that true sex-positivity should not oppress or marginalise people who don't want sex.)

And you know what? In many ways, I still need that. Not because I still need white supremacy, transphobia, or any host of kyriarchal sins, but because without it I'd still be closed-minded, judgemental and insecure - and worse, I'd think other people had a right to tell me what to do.

I am 17. I am still at school. This school has about 600 students, is in the middle of nowhere, and has a high proportion of boarders as well as a huge focus on a House system (students are divided into arbitrary groups, kind of like fraternities and sororities but not inherently racist, sexist or made up of assholes). As a result, everyone knows everyone and everyone thinks everyone else's business is fair game. This has resulted in me being publicly outed as bisexual against my will, people openly talking about my status as a non-virgin as though it's somehow interesting, and people shaming me for liking certain sexual positions. This upsets me because, quite frankly, unless I'm cheating on someone with someone else/intentionally spreading STIs/other shitty behaviour that causes real harm to people, my sex life is relevant only to me and my sexual partner(s). I don't like people shaming me over something that is none of their business; it's my life, not theirs.

To me, sex positivity also acts as a big barrier between "your business" and "not your business". It tells me that unless I am actively harming someone else, my sex life should not concern anyone but me, my partner(s), and possibly a doctor or a therapist - and that no-one has an inherent right to shame me for it.

You know what happens when that barrier comes down? Shaming. Mounds upon mounds of shaming. Shaming for being bisexual. Shaming for sleeping with men, because they're oppressors who oppress me and thus I shouldn't ever sleep with them ever. Shaming for having penis-in-vagina sex, because there's no way I could ever possibly enjoy that or try to protect myself from the health risks. Shaming for having blowjobs, or anal sex, because all penetration is inherently oppressive. I could go on, but I won't, because it makes me incredibly angry.

If you find sex upsetting or painful, or don't enjoy it, then it's not my place to act like a condescending fuck towards you or tell you that you must have sex or you're a worthless human being. Indeed, I respect your right to not have sex and will uphold and celebrate that. But please don't tell me that my sexual orientation is wrong or nonexistent, or that I shouldn't be having certain forms of sex because it degrades me; I will decide that for myself.

You see, when people say that, I don't think that they're righteous liberators trying to free me from an oppressive framework. I think that they're the more sophisticated cousins of little boys who think that sex makes me a slut, or little girls who think that I should respect myself more by conforming to their standards of self-respect instead of finding my own. I fought very hard to be even marginally comfortable with my own body, to trust other people enough to let them hold me and caress me and penetrate me - even now if people bring up the subject of sexual assault there's a risk that I might start seeing them as an attacker and prepare to fight (it's really not as fun or cool as it might sound) - to change my own bigoted views about sex, and to stand up and be proud of being bisexual. Every time someone equates dressing seductively to being impure, or someone else says that I shouldn't even be having consensual penis-in-vagina sex because it's dirty and ugly and inherently oppressive (apart from anything else, this assumes that only men have penises and only women have vaginas, which is transphobic as hell), a little part of me deep down inside hurts, a reminder of the little girl who grew up confused and ashamed.

I don't want to go back to being that little girl again.

Still, as I've already acknowledged, sex positivism in its current form is problematic. So here's what I would like from sex positivism - and what I will try and fight for:
  • a sex positivism that doesn't just concentrate on the experiences of white privileged women
  • a sex positivism that looks at the intersection of different oppressions
  • a sex positivism that doesn't simply marginalise anyone who isn't privileged, but dedicates time and space to understanding their struggles and adapting itself accordingly (for example, not being so shit to asexual people)
  • a sex positivism that refuses to shame anyone or call them dirty for what they want to do in the bedroom, unless it's harmful to other people
  • a sex positivism that understands that liking sex, not enjoying sex, fearing sex, and absolutely hating sex are all valid positions to hold and that no-one should be forced into believing one thing if they believe another; all people should be liberated to follow their own path and be given support and care
  • a sex positivism that fights for more comprehensive sex education (including informed consent and non-heteronormative sex education, two things I know I missed out on)
  • a sex positivism that is pro-choice
Some people might be wondering why I've put all this emphasis on informed consent and not harming people, arguing that what people consent to is warped by kyriarchal standards and that not harming anyone doesn't even meet the minimum requirements for being a decent human being. They might even wonder what's so wrong with shaming people.

To avoid exploding with frustration and leaving a mess all over this blog post, I'll address these points one at a time.

What people consent to willingly and with information is warped by kyriarchal standards, I agree. If we didn't have them in place, our ideas of what is and isn't acceptable would look very different.

However, until we smash the kyriarchy, informed consent is probably the best thing we have to go on: it's a decision made by someone who has the facts and who is not under any kind of duress. That's a damn sight better than coercion, or the Grand Poobahs of Morality deciding that even if I've willingly and knowingly consented to something it can't be real because of the kyriarchy.

I would also agree that not harming anyone is the absolute minimum requirement for not being a horrible person, and that people should go beyond that; however, I have, for lack of a better word, a libertarian streak. This doesn't mean I love guns and hate the NHS, it means that I like individual liberty and think that your liberty should only be constrained if it interferes with my liberty and vice versa - in other words, the freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. If people are not doing any harm, even if you don't like what they're doing, they haven't yet bopped you on the nose and thus you can't pull down their arm claiming that their interpretative dance is destroying the moral fabric of society...as that would infringe on their liberty and possibly cause actual harm. (You are perfectly free to tell them that their interpretative dance is harmful, as that doesn't infringe on their liberty.) I don't believe you can force people into your standards of goodness; they will only follow them reluctantly, which sort of defeats the point of trying to be a good person.

Lastly, I'll address shaming. Making people feel guilty or ashamed is a powerful tool to manipulate their behaviour - which is precisely why I don't like it. Most people in the Western world are pretty repressed or guilty in some way about sex, and often it takes years to overcome that - if ever. Shaming is pushing the buttons on someone that make them feel like crap for your own ends. Given how emotional this is, I really don't trust most people to use this tool wisely (e.g. to shame someone for being a racist), but instead would consider it bullying: after all, who else tries to make you feel terrible about your choices, then claims that you deserved it? Yep...bullies.