Blog, Social Justice

Sex-Positive Feminism Is About More Than Getting Off

Sex-Positive Feminism Is About More Than Getting Off

I have a history of getting super excited about movements and initiatives before fully understanding the big picture. It’s very middle-class white chick of me.

For example, six years ago, after popping out a child and deciding, Man, I never want to do that again, I got an IUD that magically released me from the burdens of period cramps, heavy bleeding and, oh yeah, the fear of an unplanned pregnancy.

But instead of stopping there and allowing myself to quietly bask in the glow of post-IUD contentment, I wrote about it. I published a legit article about how programs that increase access to long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) could afford lower-income women greater agency over their reproductive health and, in turn, allow them to avoid unplanned pregnancies, continue their education, and have greater job flexibility.

Which is all well and good but, at the time, I was completely ignorant of our country’s history of reproductive coercion, and of the role LARCs played in that history. If nothing else, my piece should have acknowledged that. I’m still ashamed of how clueless I was.

Similarly, 20 years ago, when I was just a baby sex writer reviewing her first sex toys and porn, I full-on embraced sex-positive feminism. At the time, I was fresh out of a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship and my sex education up to that point had been both fear-based and forgettable.

Enter my very first clit vibe — which I tried out for work. That and a copy of Carol Queen’s Exhibitionism for the Shy were my first exposure to feminism. And I was like, Sure, feminism. Give me agency over my own sexual pleasure. I can roll with that.

What People Think About When They Think About Sex-Positivity

When people learn I’m a sex writer, they make all sorts of assumptions. They imagine I’m a kinky-as-hell nymphomaniac with an irrepressible sex drive and a bedside altar devoted to my vibrators.

Similarly, when they hear the phrase “sex-positive” or “sex-positive feminism,” they assume it means being up for sex, in all its forms, all the time, with anyone.

They assume that sex is always empowering.

This is sooo not the case

So, What’s Sex-Positivity, and Why Is It a Feminist Issue?

I recently read Dr. Marashi’s A Woman’s Right to Pleasure, which he curated in collaboration with LELO and BlackBook. As the title suggests, the book is filled with essays and artwork that interrogate a woman’s right to claim and control and even just to desire her own pleasure.

Which you’d think would be a given. But female sexuality — or any sexuality that does not fall into the heterocentric model our culture reveres — has long been policed by others. And female pleasure is often treated as an afterthought.

“Traditionally, openly expressing sexuality has been a privilege only afforded to a select subset of society,” says Erica Minor, LELO’s Marketing & Communications Manager for North America. “Women’s pleasure and sexuality have only been socially acceptable in context to men’s pleasure rather than being allowed to exist in their own right. And even in this context, there are all sorts of boundaries around the types of pleasure that women are allowed to experience.”

In Marashi’s book, by contrast, etchings by artist Judy Chicago depicting penetrative sex between fruit-like organs bump up against coloring pages by Rip Bambi featuring anal beads and nipple clamps. Masturbation selfies by Friedl Kubelka are followed by a cultural critique by pornographer Erika Lust. Embroidery by Sophia Narrett vibrates off the page in an intricate explosion of color that is at once playful and erotic and just a little bit magical.

And this is part of sex-positivity. Sex positivity is that attitude and that recognition that sexuality — in all its (consensual!) forms — is a natural and healthy part of the human experience.

But more than that, sex positivity is about body autonomy and safe sex and (I might as well reiterate) consent. It’s about embracing all sexual identities and gender expressions. It’s about approaching sexuality in a way that is shame-free and normalizing and healthy for each individual.

In a culture in which women’s bodies and trans bodies and bodies that do not conform to the gender binary have been regulated by those who are not living in those bodies, what could be more feminist than that?

Why We Need to Scrutinize Our Sex-Positive Feminism

Unfortunately, early sex positivity was not always inclusive. In fact, it oftentimes operated as a form of white lady feminism, that brand of feminism that privileges middle- and upper-middle-class, straight, cisgender white women who are desperate to break free from the domestic sphere while at the same time ignoring those in lower-income, marginalized communities. Not everyone can stroll on into their local feminist sex boutique, walk out brandishing a high-end riding crop or a pair of cushy leather handcuffs, and declare themselves liberated from the constraints of modern society.

Even today, those who continue to lean on this light and frothy version of sex-positivity are failing to acknowledge a history in which women of color were (and still often are) treated as “vessels for sexual desire.” They are ignoring the ways in which women of color have been racialized and sexualized, making the possibility of liberation through sex feel impossible. They aren’t seeing how sexuality for women of color is so closely intertwined with a history of reproductive control that the ability to embrace pleasure without shame remains just out of reach.

Which is why it feels so radical, in Marashi’s book, to see Carrie Mae Weems’ gorgeous black-and-white nude photography, featuring a Black woman being swept away by an act of self-pleasure. Or to see Mickalene Thomas’ Origin of the Universe series, made with rhinestones and acrylics and oil paints and enamel, a glittering celebration of the body and of its simultaneous potential for both pleasure and life.

But this book is only a start. To make our sex-positive feminism truly intersectional, we need to educate ourselves about our past, with help from the reproductive justice movement and with books like Killing the Black Body.

And we need to take in the voices of those who represent a variety of identities and experiences. As with We Have Always Been Here, written by Samra Habib, a queer, Muslim woman in Pakistan. Or with Gender Queer, written by Maia Kobabe, who is both nonbinary and asexual. Or with our next book of the month, The Body Is Not an Apology, which is not just about fat liberation, but which also acknowledges the fact that it’s difficult to experience healthy intimacy with others if we cannot first love ourselves.

(If you’re looking for even more sex-positive books, I got you.)

And we need to lift up the work of people providing sex-positive sexuality education to both teens and adults. Dalychia Saah and Rafaella Smith-Fiallo of Afrosexology come to mind. As do Tracie Q. Gilbert, Ph.D., of Thembi Anaiya and Yael R. Rosenstock Gonzalez of Sex Positive You and Shemeka Thorpe, Ph.D., and Gabrielle S. Evans, CPH, CHES, of The Minority Sex Report.

So… is your sex-positivity truly feminist? Because we all deserve safe and pleasurable sexual experiences free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.