So my post yesterday got some negative feedback (as I somewhat expected), with people saying that it was horrible and wrong of me to butt into other people’s sex lives and that as long as people are agreeing to do something then it’s fine and unproblematic.
Now I want to be clear: I am in no way suggesting that any individual should have control over another person’s sex life. What I am suggesting is that sex should not be a magical pass that keeps any consensual act from criticism. I am suggesting that we should be able to discuss how sex plays into political and patriarchal questions, ask whether certain sex acts might have negative consequences, and explore some of the complexities of consent in a world where women’s choices are necessarily constrained. I also want to be clear that I encourage people to not feel ashamed of their sex lives, sex desires, and choice to have sex because in general shame is an incredibly unhelpful and unnecessary emotion.
It was pointed out to me yesterday that sex-negativity is a misleading name for the position I’m taking, which is a point well taken. That said, I feel comfortable with the ID and want to keep it personally.
But back to choice. This seems to be something that people mistake all the time: because they chose something, because it’s their opinion or their desire, that means it must be right. If all the parties involved in an action consented to it, then it cannot be criticized and it’s fine.
This is just patently false. Choice is not a magical thing that changes all of your actions into positive ones. The moral worth of an action is complicated, and it involves things like choice, consequence, motive, and symbolism. Choice is one element of a variety of intertwining pieces that determine whether your action was positive or negative overall.
But sex is incredibly charged and personal, and it can be a hard place to look to understand the intricacies of choice and criticism. Let’s look at some less charged actions that were freely chosen and yet still really horrible. There are lots of examples of this, but first I’d like to focus on one close to my heart that also happens to terrify the vast majority of the population: self-harm. Self harm is something that is freely chosen and consented to by everyone involved. But it causes harm and negative consequences. Very few people would argue that it is a positive action (and when I’ve tried to point out that it might have some useful or positive elements, people tend to freak out a little bit so don’t suddenly change your mind and say it’s great).
We can see clearly that despite the fact that this is something incredibly personal, something that directly affects only one person, and something that is freely chosen, it is not a positive action and it’s one that we would want to criticize or change. It may impact others indirectly. We want to talk about the things that drive a person to do it and ask them if they might have a different way of dealing with those urges.
Now this example might not do it for all of you as it’s a fairly controversial example (and I’m really not trying to suggest that sex is like BDSM, it was just the clearest example of a negative but freely chosen action I could find). But there are TONS of other examples. Someone brought up organ donation to me recently. Very often, when people say that their choice not to donate their organs is beyond criticism because it’s their choice, I get confused. Yes, we all have bodily autonomy. And no, no one is going to steal your organs out of you because you haven’t consented. But that doesn’t mean that there are no negative consequences to your action or that you couldn’t have made a more positive choice. Simply because you have bodily autonomy doesn’t mean that others can’t ask you to explain your actions or try to convince you that a different action might be better. They’re free to discuss the ramifications of not donating organs, or explain to you why they choose to donate their organs. Sometimes one freely chosen action is better than another.
Again, none of these are supposed to be direct parallels to sexual choices, they are simply illustrations that things we choose to do with our bodies that don’t involve violating another person’s bodily autonomy or consent may still have negative ramifications or be a negative decision.
A final example is one that’s close to home and illustrates how gently we have to move around these kinds of criticisms: veganism. Many people realize that veganism is probably the most ethical life choice in terms of eating: it is best for the planet and respects animal life the best. However many other people choose not to be vegan. Oftentimes non-vegans pretty much ignore all vegan arguments because they think that their right to choose what to do with their body means their food choices should not be open to any criticism. They get incredibly pissed when a vegan suggests that maybe they shouldn’t eat hamburgers filled with bacon for every meal. Now food is a very emotionally fraught topic, and in many ways they might be right: each of us has the right to eat what we choose. However the larger impacts of an individual’s diet mean that the choice to eat meat has larger implications that might make it a negative choice. So while they do have the right to eat as they choose, others may ask them to consider how that action affects the planet as a whole.
Pointing this out is not an attack, nor does it remove the bodily autonomy of an individual to continue eating meat. It begins a conversation and asks them to consider alternative perspectives. Respectful vegans will understand that the situations of other individuals must be taken into account and that no one should be forced to be vegan or insulted or shamed for their choices, however they are still willing to discuss the ramifications of meat-eating. We have seen how quickly this can get ugly, but I have had productive conversations about my own choice to be non-vegan with vegans who adamantly believe that veganism is the best choice.
But somehow when we bring sex into the mix the ability to discuss these larger ramifications is suddenly considered negative, invasive, and shaming. Why is it that when sex is in the mix, choice becomes the magic card that shields all actions from any criticism or questioning? Discussing, criticizing, or questioning does not take away another person’s freedoms, nor does it necessarily shame them (although it can and thus we need to be careful with it). It asks for more, and it asks them to consider if their actions could be more positive. That’s all. Just as free speech does not free you from criticism, neither does bodily autonomy, particularly when your actions have ramifications like reifying patriarchal structures that create negative impacts throughout society.