You’re Allowed To Be Influenced

For most of my life I have been vocal about not wanting to get married. Extremely vocal. Marriage is only what you make it, it’s unnecessary, it’s got too much history in patriarchal structures, it costs too much. I’ve never felt any particular need to announce to the world in general that I’m in love and want to be with my partner since the one who needs to know that is actually my partner not everybody else. I still believe most of these things. I still think that marriage is unnecessarily prioritized in America, and that defining a romantic relationship as the basis of family is unnecessary. I still think that weddings are a scam to cost lots of people too much money and that marriage makes straight monogamy the building block of society.

But I’ve realized that I want to get married anyway. Kind of a lot.

I’m not immune to culture. I’m not immune to the messages that paint your wedding day as the most romantic day of your life, and that illustrate marriage as a beautiful commitment between two people. I’m not immune to the excitement and joy that other people feel around weddings and marriage, and I’m not immune to wanting a pretty dress and good food and dancing.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about the part of me that’s been influenced by culture, the part that wants to femme it up and be swept off my feet on my wedding day. But feeling guilt about the ways in which culture has influenced you doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t demolish the patriarchy, it’s just another way to tear yourself down for having feelings. Everyone has internalized things that they don’t necessarily believe logically. That does not make those things bad or wrong, just arbitrary. But not all arbitrary decisions are harmful. Sometimes you just have to pick between chocolate and vanilla without a logical reason except “I like chocolate”.

There are certainly problems with choice feminism, but as far as choices go, the decision to get married doesn’t have too many direct negative impacts and the choice to do what you think will make you happy as an individual is a pretty strong feminist choice when you’re a woman who spends too much time ignoring their own preferences and feelings.

There are absolutely contexts in which we need to question and challenge the cultural messages that we’ve internalized. But there are also circumstances where those messages are fairly harmless. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by external forces. It doesn’t make you a sheep or a bad skeptic or a horrible sexist. It means that you’re a normal human being who has grown up within a culture, just like everyone else. The place at which you need to make decisions is when you realize that one of your beliefs has come to you through culture. Once you’ve done so, you need to decide what the consequences of acting on that belief are, how much it will affect your happiness to try to leave that belief behind, and whether there are good reasons to believe what you do.

Sure, it’s never good to hold beliefs without any critical thought put into it, but sometimes we have to accept our arbitrary preferences. So yeah, I want to get married and I don’t need any more reason than that.

You’re Not a Virgin (Probably)

As I am wont to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my sexuality lately, and as part of that process I’ve been talking with other people. Through these conversations I’ve had a number of people mention to me that they’re virgins. I don’t particularly like to contradict people’s self-identities, but every time I hear someone say this I cringe inside a bit and want to mutter “no you’re not”.

I’m not the first person to criticize the concept of virginity (oh hell am I not). It’s fairly well established in most feminist circles that the concept of virginity is a myth. Typically it’s used to refer to penetrative sex, but there are all sorts of people who have most certainly had sex but not penis in vagina sex (see: lesbians). There’s an obsession with the hymen, but rarely is the hymen actually broken during the first instance of PIV sex (often it’s already gone). At the end of the day, there’s good evidence that the whole concept of virginity is a holdover from patriarchal obsessions with female purity and the establishment of biological fathers.

I’m going to let all these other people explain why it doesn’t make sense to just say you’re a virgin (seriously, click the links, they are helpful), but what I’d rather focus on here is a.how unhelpful it is to tell someone you’re a virgin and b.how you can often inadvertently belittle the sexual experiences you’ve had with your partner(s) by using the word virgin.

So first and foremost, when you assert that you’re a virgin you are not actually telling your conversational partner a whole lot of information about you (except possibly that you don’t read nearly enough feminist theory). They’ll probably assume you mean penetrative sex, but what if you mean you’ve never held hands? What if you mean you’ve never achieved orgasm with another person? What if you mean you’ve had oral sex and anal sex but not penis in vagina sex? And god forbid you don’t identify as heterosexual because any conception of what a virgin is becomes as muddy as the flipping Mississippi (this reference  is really just for my Minnesotan folks out there).

So there are a lot of critiques of the concept of virginity that talk about how it plays into purity and larger patriarchal social constructs, but I want to point out one that’s plain and simple: calling yourself a virgin is straight out unhelpful and unclear. If you’re trying to communicate with a partner about your past sexual experiences or have a discussion about your feelings on sexuality with a friend, you give them almost no information when you say that you’re a virgin. You may even be misleading them as your definitions of virgin likely differ. The use of the word virginity in serious conversations gives everyone a pass to not have the hard discussions about what really constitutes sex and when we feel as if we’ve passed certain milestones and what elements of sex are more or less life changing and why. It circumvents all those real, honest questions and just says “we all know what I’m talking about right? No more questions asked, right? Let’s move on”. It also asks all the people in the conversation to participate in a variety of patriarchal myths about sex, the role of sex, and the morality of those who are or are not virgins, because in order to accept the term “virgin” as it currently stands you have to be willing to accept penetrative, PIV sex as an important milestone that other types are not.

All of that being said, it is probably useful to have a term for not having done a certain sexual activity before. So in my mind, we need to revamp the word virgin: virgin is actually just a phoneme. It needs a modifier. You could be a kissing virgin, or a making out virgin, or an anal sex virgin, or a frottage virgin (a word I just today discovered and am totally in love with), or any of a million other kinds of virgin. All of us are on a spectrum of sexual experience, and everything about making that linguistic shift is helpful to validating more types of sexuality, sexual experience, and sexual preference. It also means that if you’re having a conversation about your own sexuality with another person and you want to use the word virgin to describe your experience, you’ll actually be communicating clearly, which is something we could all use more of in conversation. I wouldn’t advocate to erase the word “virgin” from our vocabulary, but rather to be more thoughtful and careful with the ways in which we use it.

More specifically, using the word virgin in a sloppy way can have some seriously negative effects on your partners. I was talking to a friend recently who in the midst of having sex with someone was informed “by the way, I’m a virgin so I don’t want to have sex”. I have also been with individuals who have told me they were virgins after we had engaged in activities that by most definitions would be called sex (although they were not PIV). Conversing with your partner about what you mean by sex is generally a good thing to do before you’re having sex, but if you don’t, then being specific about what you have and haven’t done rather than assuming your partner has the same definition of sex can go a long way towards not being a jackass.

When you just say “I’m a virgin” you could be implying to your partner that you didn’t care about the activities you’ve engaged in up to this point, that you have really strong feelings about penetrative sex, or that you don’t want to accept that you’ve actually been intimate with them. It can absolutely feel like a denial when your partner does not recognize their actions as sex. It can feel as though they don’t actually want to have sex with you or be intimate with you or admit openly that they have done what they’ve done. It might feel as if they’re ashamed, or as if they simply didn’t care about what you were doing. There is a lot of baggage that comes along with the word, and it seems to be easier for everyone to just be a bit more specific and let your partner know what you have and haven’t done, and what you are and aren’t comfortable with rather than using the word “virgin” as a pass.

So next time you think about using the word virgin, consider the fact that you’re probably not a complete virgin. You’ve probably held hands or hugged or kissed. Be more specific. It’s better for everyone.

Consent Is Not Magical

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.

I’m Coming Out As Sex Negative

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.