Sex-Positivity, Compulsory Sexuality and Intersecting Identities

You know that post about asexuality and feminism where I said that I am strongly agreed with sex-positivism, even if I couldn’t see it as something pertaining directly to me?

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking and reading about sex-positivism lately, especially posts that are a bit more critical of some of the ways that sex-positivism is framed and utilised. And about sex-negativism, mainly in the form of The Ethical Prude – a brilliant essay by Lisa from A Radical Transfeminist.

I touched on some of my original issues with sex-positivism in my post on virginity, mainly how sex-positivism has the tendency to reinforce society’s views that everyone is inherently sexual – that sexual desire and acting on it is a given. It does have a broader acceptance of diverse sexualities than society does, whether it be gay and lesbian sexualities, kink or BDSM, etc. Originally, I thought that I could deal with this from inside the sex-positive framework – by highlighting diversity in desires, the fact that having the freedom to have as much consensual sex as you want includes not wanting it at all, and that being perfectly fine.

After reading around, I’m rethinking my stance on this, and wondering whether perhaps the sex-positive framework doesn’t actually work for me after all. While I don’t think I’ll be reclaiming the word “prude” as Lisa has done, I can see how I would choose the idea behind that word over any other word.

Compulsory Sexuality

The biggest obstacle in sex-positivism for me is the overwhelming sense of compulsory sexuality. As someone who is asexual, it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about and experiencing. It’s the idea that sex is natural and desired and normalised – something everyone wants, something that is central and pivotal to The Human Experience. Lisa provides the best definition of compulsory sexuality that I have found, and one that I often see cited around the asexual community:

Compulsory sexuality’ refers to a set of social attitudes, institutions and practices which hold and enforce the belief that everyone should have or want to have frequent sex (of a socially approved kind).

While the sex-positive framework embodies many ways of sexual expression and has done great work in accepting and normalising various behaviours that aren’t just PIV sex between two people of the opposite sex, and people with high sexual drives and various desires, it hasn’t really done much to normalise low sex drives, or people who don’t experience sexual attraction at all. Sexual attraction, sexual desire and sexual behaviours are still conflated with other types of attraction, and are still seen as naturally following on from each other.

Framboise also points out that there is still a lingering idea that people (I’ve seen it especially in regard to women, but men too) who don’t want sex are just oppressed or repressed:

Sex positive feminism explores the myriad ways in which women are encouraged under patriarchy to not want sex, or to want a particularly bounded form of sexuality.  The heavy implication is that any not wanting sex is a sign of lingering repression… at present there is little to no prominent affirmation of non-desire in sex positivity and a lot of suggestions on how to “fix” yourself.

As Lisa says: “Compulsory sexuality is “always in the room” – perhaps in different forms and guises, but always there.”

Elizabeth at Shades of Gray suggests that one of the reasons why we still see this in sex-positivism is that like everywhere else, asexuality still suffers from a lack of visibility:

It’s perfectly understandable why asexual people would feel alienated from an environment where it’s generally assumed that people want sex. But I also think it’s important to point out that the majority of people, sex positive or not, are not sufficiently educated about asexuality to respond to it appropriately. There are some sex positive people who DO reach out to asexuals and truly try to embrace sexual diversity in all its forms, but they’re in the minority because people who accept asexuality are in the minority (original emphasis).

It’s a valid and logical point. But I think the question that really remains is whether sex-positivism can recognise asexuality and then actually embrace it into its definitions.

Analysing sex-positivism: power, violence and sex

Elizabeth argues that sex-positivism can legitimately incorporate asexuality because the basis of sex-positivity is not that sex is inherently good or inherently bad, but that it has the potential to be positive when the right conditions (consent, knowledge, negotiation) are all present.

But while I agree with the idea that sex can be positive and can be negative, reading other people’s perspectives on sex-positivism makes me feel like that sentiment can be better utilised in a different framework. This strikes me especially in regards to what Lisa at A Radical TransFeminist has to say on sex, power and violence.

Trying to summarise an incredibly detailed and complex essay, Lisa points out the problematic side of differentiating between sex, as something that is always positive and pleasurable, and rape, as something based on violence, force and male supremacy (especially the subject/object construction). As Lisa writes here:

“Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” is a powerful motto for those for whom sex has been nice, or for those who would like to experience it as nice. It is less encouraging to those who have experienced sex as violating and/or unwanted; simply telling them that what they experienced was not sex, or the offer of sex, is small comfort when it appears indistinguishable from what the rest of the world calls sex, and when the rest of the world insists that it was sex.

Because sex is based on power, and violence and power are inherently eroticised in our society (i.e. conflated with sex) there isn’t such a clear distinction between the two, Lisa argues. I’ve never thought about this before, but I can now see that it makes a lot of sense. I don’t think that the rest of society often sees what I would see as rape as rape – it sees it as sex or sexiness. It’s especially evident in the media – it’s always a “sex scandal,” never a “rape scandal.” So the “sex is nice and violence is not sex” concept works both ways – it leads to good sexual experiences, but it could also enable rape, as Lisa points out here:

To the date-rape apologist, it is not “rape-rape” because the script for date rape is close to the script for sex, and because sex is nice (or at least socially sanctioned). If sex is nice, then a script for sex cannot be a script of power. If a script for sex is not about power, then a script for date rape is not about power… Sometimes those scripts [of sex/power] lead to something nice, and sometimes they enable rape.

I sometimes wonder about the usefulness of concepts in different contexts – especially when it comes to the spheres of feminist communities and wider social circles which don’t share general feminist beliefs. This is one of those instances: does sex-positivism’s sex-rape divide work differently in a feminist context than in wider society? I think it might. Perhaps it be more useful for feminists to spread an alternative, neutral idea of sex in wider society – one that recognises that sex will always be linked to power, and analyses the way that violence is made sexy and sex made violent?

Other intersecting identities

The other issues that I’ve picked up on while reading sex-positive feminist blogs and articles are mainly to do with the lack of discussion about intersecting identities, and the overwhelming focus on white, middle class feminists from Western countries, mainly the USA. There is very little I have seen on people of colour, people with disabilities, fat people, GLBT communities – people especially affected by different power relationships. Joelle at Transmeditations especially criticises this:

What has the “sex-positive” movement done to herald the attractiveness and sexiness of bodies deemed as “throw-away” by dominant culture?  While the “sex-positive” movement is not a monolith, I have not seen the movement do much to alter the hegemonic trends of our society.  Fat bodies, old bodies, and bodies that are not conventionally beautiful are heavily marginalized in this society, particularly when it comes to sexuality.  While small off-shoots of people under the “sex-positive” umbrella might produce alternative images, for the most part the movement has failed to substantially challenge the dominant order of body and beauty fascism.

Again, this is a valid and important criticism. There is still so much emphasis on feeling sexy, being attractive, being comfortable with sexuality and sensuality in sex-positivism, without thinking about how race, class, (dis)ability and other intersecting identities factor into this. If we stopped thinking about sex as something powerful and positive by default (and everything else as not-sex) then there would also be less pressure to fit into these standards.

New conclusions

Overall, I don’t think I can comfortably call myself a sex-positive feminist anymore. I think it’s a useful framework for some people – but only for those people who are the most privileged of the traditionally sexually marginalised, people who are mainly straight, white, sexual and conventionally attractive. Perhaps it would be generally beneficial to wider society if everyone adopted more of the ideas of sex-positivism. But I don’t think it’s enough.

To me, sex is not something that is inherently positive or inherently negative, and I don’t think most sex-positive feminists make that clear. There are too many issues of power and privilege at play which are not adequately challenged and criticised. The institution of compulsory sexuality still underpins sex-positivism. My own theoretical and activist framework is one where sex itself is neutral, but cannot exist without being shaped by the politics of privilege and power, in personal and public life.


21 thoughts on “Sex-Positivity, Compulsory Sexuality and Intersecting Identities

  1. I really enjoy your blog.
    I’ve come across it once before and I was lost today, seeking something worth thinking about and visited again.

    This blog entry made me very pleased.
    I have often called myself sex-positive, and I think at times, in the conversation or the context I used it, I probably was the minority in that state of mind,
    but I think you are on to something.
    You see that it is a state of mind.
    An instant.

    I wonder if we should just go back to calling it “intercourse” when two people are interacting…

    But that word hails so many old-word ideas.

    You are You.

    And sometimes you’ve probably been sexual. And had intercourse with people of varying types with degrees of pleasure and pain.

    I’m Me.

    I’m trying to figure out all this junk too.
    This worlds gotten pretty crazy….

    Have you ever read Atlas Shrugged?
    I haven’t, and I used to be afraid to because most people fear-mongered about how she empowered self-loving, rich capitalists to take over the world.
    Seems strange and silly now, along the lines of telling people not to read any of the bible because it might turn them into a god-worshiping aesthetic…
    Anyway, I just want to offer to you the suggestion that you listen to the “John Galt speech” from the end of the book.
    I found it in audiobook form on youtube, (it’s 3 hours long) and literally 10 minutes into listening, realized I have been radically misunderstanding words my entire life…

    I appreciate that because i think it has probably given me a much wider range of understanding, as has your blog.

    Thank you for your thoughtful research.
    Keep up the good thinking!

    -Amber Awake

    1. I’m glad you enjoy my blog, Amber. It’s always nice to know that my blogging had made people think about things in different ways, because it’s definitely what I look for in a blog! Haven’t read the book, perhaps I’ll check it out one day.

      Just to clarify though, I’ve never been sexual in any context – haven’t even made out with anyone. Not really interested in doing so either – it’s just an experience to me like going on a walk or reading a book, nothing more special than that. I don’t particularly need to be sexual to be me or to be happy.

  2. I really appreciated your post on this. While I don’t think that sex itself is inherently negative or positive, I appreciate the framework for sex posititivity that seeks to specifically address the context for negativity around sexuality as a whole. I appreciate however, that in many ways it is is not a framework where space is generally provided with any care or respect for individuals who are asexual. For me, supporting the legitimacy of asexuality is just as important as part of sex positivity, because seeking to address overt negativity about sexuality is to my mind just as relevant to negativity around people being asexual as any other intersectional identity. This is my own personal approach to the idea, and I don’t expect others to necessarily subscribe to the ideas I’ve mentioned. I thought it worth mentioning as an approach/idea though.

    1. As I said in response to another comment on another post, where sex-positive feminists do include asexuality, it’s only ever as a mention in a “whatever your sexual orientation is” or “if you have lots of sex or little sex” type comments. But that’s all it ever is – a mention. It’s never actually talked about in depth, so it tends to become a little tokenistic. Maybe with dedication the sex-pos framework could better address asexuality, but from what I’ve seen it’s unlikely. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I REALLY appreciate this post. For years I’ve been saying “I am not a sex-positive feminist” because the compulsory sexuality aspect is just so pervasive. I’m not asexual, but didn’t have any sexual relationship of any kind until I was in my 30s. The implication from various corners of feminism that this made me ‘lesser’ a human being was not appreciated at all.

    Thank you again for putting all this together as you have.

    1. There is a trend sometimes in feminism that says that our sexuality is what empowers us, so we should all have lots of sex in our lives because it is healthy and powerful! I’m sure it can be for some people, but I’ve never been able to relate to that. My sexuality isn’t what makes me strong!

      Thank you for the comment nymn, I’m happy that you appreciate my thoughts!

  4. Hi Jo,

    I really love this post. It beautifully articulates my feelings about sex positivism and I have linked this entry to my own (much smaller) post on my blog.
    Thank you for sharing!

  5. I know this article was written a million years ago, but I really enjoyed it. I used to work at a self-ascribed feminist non-profit. I was excited to meet other feminist, but found that conversations with my co-workers usually revolved around sexual relationships. It bothered me – these particular people seemed to view their liberated sexuality as a big part of their feminism. When I confronted the co-workers about feeling excluded as a less-sexual person (I didn’t know I was on the spectrum at the time), they got really defensive and tokenistic in the way that you mentioned in your comment to Trancendancing. It annoyed me that these “sex-positive” people claimed to be interested and tolerant of any a/sexuality, but only seemed to explore the nuances of overtly sexual lifestyles. I didn’t have the language to express my frustration over how I was feeling. I knew I wasn’t a sexual person, and I felt abnormal.

    A year later, I read “the ethical prude” and found that it resonated with me. And now I’m starting to explore asexual blogs like your own, and I feel so relieved. Thanks so much for putting all of your thoughts into words. It’s so important that someone articulates these issues clearly. Thanksthankthanksthanksthanks.

  6. Hi, I consider myself a sex-positive feminist, I still do, but your article made me aware of how I was often ignoring asexuality, and even low sex drive, in my rhetoric. I still believe sex positivism is, for want of a better word, the best way, despite being a fat, queer, sexual, working class (though admittedly white) woman

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