Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism

When I sat down to write on being wrong a couple months ago, my first task was to go through my past posts for illustrations of how I have learned from being wrong. One of the first points that came to mind (which I hadn't really blogged about) is the divide between sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism. No, I haven't switched camps -- it's that I've stopped believing that there's as sharp a divide on this issue and I've stopped believing that this divide is as central to feminist thought.

And this is a change of opinion that has come about in just the past couple of years, through reading other women's blogs and memoirs.

Here's an example of what I mean. Take Greta Christina's post on "elevatorgate". I agree with pretty much everything she said. Maybe everything. The issue she wrote about is male/female sexual interactions, and Greta Christina is pretty much as "sex-positive" as they come. But would a "sex-negative feminist" take on the incident be any different? Perhaps in tone, but in content? Probably not.

I've sort of grown into the conclusion that -- for a huge number of feminist issues, perhaps most -- the sex positive/negative distinction is irrelevant or doesn't make sense. And while some feminists can reasonably be divided into these camps, probably most can't.

To see my evolution on this issue, the best place to start is my post porn and me -- where I described how my outlook was shaped by some of my earliest encounters with feminist theory of sexuality. In a nutshell, I felt that women who enjoy having sex with men (including women who are aroused by the thought of arousing a man) should not be told that they're messed-up in the head or that they hate themselves or that they're tools of the patriarchy. And they should especially not be given this slut-shaming in the name of feminism.

While I was enjoying the pleasures of grad school, I once attended a talk given by Andrea Dworkin. My reaction? I was horrified. This was nearly twenty years ago, so my memory of the lecture is a tad vague. All I remember is that everything is rape. Everything. Even things that aren't sexual are rape. Naturally, I felt that expanding the definition in this way not only trivializes the experience of people who are actually raped, but (more importantly) it is counter-productive in the fight against rape. You don't solve a problem by obscuring it, you solve it by first understanding it. Of course, before I even walked into that room, I already felt that her stance on porn was totally counter-productive with respect to addressing the problem of rape. So who knows what she actually said that day...

My stance on porn hasn't changed. There exist images in the category of pornography that are offensive -- as there are in all media genres. But images of women that are created and used for the express purpose of male arousal are not a priori harmful or degrading to women. If anything, it's the opposite.

On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to draw a clear dividing line between explicitly erotic materials and other forms of entertainment. And, while I think it's A-OK for men to enjoy looking at depictions of sexy women, the overall entertainment industry has a bit of a problem with portrayal of women. Specifically, a piece intended for a general audience typically includes only one female character, and even for her to get a spot on the stage she has to be beautiful and she has to be the love interest who is peripheral to a main [i.e. male] character. (Even God's favorite musical suffers from this, as much as I love it overall.) Maybe this problem is related to erotica. It's certainly related to attitudes towards women and sexuality. After contemplating this for a number of years, all I can say is that I think it's not simple.

So I guess feminism ranks pretty high on my grand list of things that aren't that simple...


The Sinister Porpoise said...

This reminds me of an argument I barely understand going on in the Asexual community.

It seems to center around the idea that Asexuals are necessarily sex-negative. Unfortunately, every person I've seen making the argument for either side assumes logical connections that aren't actually present.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

Essentially, I'm saying that for more than a decade I thought that "sex-positive vs. sex-negative" was a useful framework for understanding the feminist movement -- but, more recently, I've concluded that I was wrong.

It's interesting to hear that the asexual community is debating this sort of thing. I would guess that the existence of a positive asexual community would be one more argument to show that "sex-positive vs. sex-negative" is not a very useful model.

The Sinister Porpoise said...

The Asexual Sexologist (, might have more information on this. The Asexual News website (not a very creative name I admit) had a few articles on the topic of Asexuality and Feminism. Some of the articles regarind the issue are extremely confusing.

But I don't think I've encountered many Asexuals who are sex negative. They're absolutely fine with what other people want to do in the bedroom