When I first came across this article explaining why the author is a sex negative feminist and how the reactions to that are oftentimes ridiculous, I found myself with the sort of feeling that someone who realizes they’re gay for the first time might have (perhaps I’m exaggerating a tad. I don’t want to steal that experience from anyone). But I did feel like I had finally found an understanding of the way I approached and felt about sex and a word for it and a reason why I had always felt out of synch with the people around me and their attitudes towards sex. It was a little bit like coming home: I wasn’t dirty or bad for having some negative thoughts about sex. I wasn’t a prude. There may actually be legitimate reasons to criticize sex from a feminist perspective!
You see I’ve always considered myself a sex positive feminist. What else would I be? I don’t think that people should be ashamed for having sex, and I myself have felt so negative around sex for so long that it only made sense to me that I should try to encourage attitudes that would make sex more positive and enjoyable for everyone around me. Sex is a good thing, everyone knows that! Consent is great. Not shaming people is great. Obvious. Self-explanatory.
Until I read this article. And I realized that maybe some of the reasons that I felt negatively about sex weren’t just that I’d had bad experiences with consent, but that the very nature of sexuality in a patriarchal culture is one that is political. There is a good reason that I had felt like sex was always a battlefield and that I was barely getting out alive and that’s because in many ways it is. The author does a better job of explaining why sex negativity is a worthwhile position than I can, as I’m just getting introduced to the term, but there is something I want to respond to in her article. She asks why it’s considered taboo or prudish to label oneself sex negative, or why sex positivity has become ubiquitous with mainstream feminism. I suspect I have a few answers.
The first and biggest answer is that sex has been used to shame and control people for a very, very long time. Not enjoying sex (especially as a woman) has been the status quo…pretty much always. Of course it feels like a radical act to suggest that women should enjoy sex, and it feels liberating and wonderful. When someone says they’re sex negative, people automatically jump to the idea that people should feel ashamed, people should not enjoy themselves, or people should not strive for positive and open sexual experiences. Because of all the shit in the past of sex, people are terrified of going back. Understandably. Sex positivity feels like the strongest barrier against shitty sex.
Unfortunately what this doesn’t take into account is the fact that even if you’re enjoying sex, there might still be negative aspects to it (such as continuation of patriarchal power structures). We can give people choices and still ask them to make responsible choices or hold them to higher standards. This response to sex negativity misses that sex negativity is TRYING to make sex better for everyone and trying to make society as a whole better for everyone by criticizing the things that make it fraught with patriarchal meaning.
And hand in hand with this fear of going back to the shame that we used to feel is the fact that when you have good sex you want EVERYONE to have good sex. Let’s use a different example. Let’s say you’ve been eating shitty Hershey’s chocolate all your life. You kinda know it’s shitty and that it comes from bad labor practices and then you finally get some nice free trade chocolate and it’s delicious and you feel AMAZING. You start telling your friends about this new chocolate. You start promoting your new chocolate. YOU LOVE THIS CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S DELICIOUS AND TASTES AWESOME AND WHO DOESN’T WANT CHOCOLATE? It’s a fact of human nature that when something makes you happy you don’t really like other people criticizing it. Have you seen Steven Moffat fans when someone tells them he’s sexist? Point in case.
So anyway, you’re going around loving this chocolate and stuffing it in the face of everyone who mentions they might want chocolate and then someone comes up to you and says they don’t like chocolate because it made them puke once. Also even if it’s fair trade it might still be part of a bad labor market. Maybe they should give some of the money for that expensive chocolate to charity instead. And also chocolate is maybe more of a sometimes food.
This is not the best parallel in the world, but I think you all see where I’m going. Telling someone they should reexamine their sex life when they think their sex life is awesome and fun really feels like raining on their parade. You don’t really want to hear about it because you’re too excited and you don’t know why someone would want to criticize you for sharing joy. Even if the criticism is for the best possible reasons and completely valid, it still can feel really invalidating. Particularly when you’re enjoying something and someone else comes along and asks you to consider WHY you are enjoying it and whether or not your desires are really your own, it can feel as if they’re questioning your experiences and telling you that your enjoyment isn’t valid or real.
In addition, sex negativity questions an arena that many people think of as essential to human nature. I have heard many people say that everyone is sexual or that everyone should embrace their sexuality or they will not be happy. Sex negativity questions these assumptions, which are closely held for many people. It says that there might be people who are completely capable of getting turned on who choose not to because they don’t enjoy it. This is mind blasting for people who enjoy sex. Seriously. Many people cannot fathom the idea of someone who is asexual or even anti-sex. It’s like suggesting that someone might be anti-food. Because sex is so integral to personal identity, people who like it have a hard time understanding those who don’t (also vice versa, but liking sex is much more the default in our society). Questioning whether sex is a necessary part of human life is a really deep and personal philosophical question. It’s scary. Many people don’t want to get into it, and they feel as if their choice to be sexual is being attacked or shamed when others try to bring up other options.
And finally, many people don’t want to think of themselves as constrained by society or of their choices as shaped by society. People want to imagine themselves as autonomous, with free will. They want to think that their desires and preferences are their own. In many ways, that’s true, but desires and preferences don’t appear out of thin air. You may have some natural predilictions (no matter how hard I try I will never enjoy black coffee), but many of your preferences are shaped by the messages around you. That’s hard to hear. It feels like it takes something away from you. And perhaps it does, but in the end it gives you back the power to begin actively deciding what you want to do with the desires that you may not have chosen.
Overall, the immediate impression of sex negativity is that it wants to take away something really fun, take away your self-identity, and take away your choices. Many people have an immediate disgust reaction to this. I think we’d all be better served if we looked past the label and understood how sex negativity wants to give you back these things at the deepest level. It is not satisfied with simply saying that if something feels good you can do it. It wants to go a step further and give you more tools to explore and identify how you can make your choices positive not only for yourself, but for others in society and for future generations. Mind. Blasting.