The new dichotomy: sex positivity, sex negativity

I blame it on Jess. And her friends. And the crew over at G3. And anyone else I can add to the list in a vain attempt to diminish my own culpability for this morning’s hangover. Cause, after all, the last thing you expect at a gathering that is both lesbian and chic is to be encouraged to drink silly amounts of strong alcohol before dancing til the early hours.


(Tequila! Grrr!)

Although before the party spirit hit, I found myself for the umpteenth time this year discussing an issue that feminists, academics and assorted commentators really need to get to grips with. Which is the sex-positive revolution… . and the way in which (mostly) rad fems, and puritanical Christians on one side, and a new wave of young/libertarian feminists on t’other seem perpetually to be locking horns over this issue.

Simple, really. We all know how alternative sexuality is “bad”. Cause Freud and an army of therapists after have told us. And thus we believed until some point in the last decade or so when Dr Gayle Rubin published her wonderful deconstruction of that view – the “charmed circle” – which highlighted how much our views on sexuality were constructed around a particular normative world view. Straight, missionary, non-commercial, lights on, non-bdsm is “good”: anything else is at least potentially “bad” – and frequently pathologised as such by the psychiatric profession.

As antidote to this, a lot of the debates at Onscenity last month were a breath of fresh air: Meg Barker pointed out how we too frequently confuse the co-ercive and the transgressive; a string of academics spoke about how there was much to be learnt from the non-normative. That it was a perspective, rather than an illness.

But still, wriggling between the cracks, was a small voice getting louder..and I am seriously indebted to academics such as Alex Dymock for keeping this on my personal agenda – although she is far from alone in making this point. Which is simply: just because it is sex-positive doesn’t make it bad: but nor does it make it good either.

Somewhere in the mix of kink and bdsm and let-it-all-hang-out sexual freedom, valuable lessons are to be had about our selves, our bodies and our relationships. Yet also in there are narratives of damage and hurt and, yes, harm.

And as long as this debate is conducted by two sides much in the fashion of two playground tribes slinging rocks at one another, we are going to get nowhere.

We need a new synthesis. Sex and extravagant sexuality is not of itself, bad. Rad Fems, Christians: just get over it (and yourselves); but its not necessarily good, either. We need a new language, a new dialogue that allows academics and researchers to look at both sides, to switch sides, to think roundly without being accused of being over-attached to one or other agenda on this matter.

That, and the fact that before the tequila and dancing set in that was the topic of a mostly sensible conversation.

jane xx


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Part of the problem with the ‘sex-positive’ label is ways in which – particularly for sex workers – it’s become a bit of a cage. There cracks appearing between people whose public image is as someone who pursues sex for the fun, but just happens to get paid, and someone who pursues sex work strictly out of a need for the money. (Mainstream media seem stubbornly unable to accept that people can at different times be both or neither) Which unfortunately brings us right back to ‘good sex worker/bad sex worker’ stereotypes and a continued wedge driven between a perceived categorical difference in the people involved (see also: call girl vs streetwalker).

    In general my impression of sex positivity outside of sex work is that it’s also damaging in that people feel pressured to be, or present as, highly sexual all the time when of course literally everyone has variable levels of enthusiasm about this. ‘Empowerment’ is absolutely a word which should die a death already. Unfortunately trying to promote the message that sex is just… well, sex? Is not terribly popular. It seems like the public discourse is only capable of handling an either/or situation, when of course we all know in our personal lives that it’s far more nuanced than that.

    Discomfort with sex positivity however is difficult to discuss in public, since anyone with a profile as a sex worker, researcher, or commentator will find their words inevitably twisted by those who like to make us look unreliable. As a result you find yourself having to couch every statement in uncertainties, knowing that in the age of short attention spans and shorter communication media all anyone seems to want is the sound bite. It’s frustrating to say the least.

    I would love if we could settle on an approach and a terminology that is judgment-neutral. To accept that once consent is achieved, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ is a entirely meaningless statement for anyone outside those involved to apply to sex acts. And for there to be more critical looks at the messages being sent in, say, 50 Shades et al – I thought this breakdown of the worrying underlying plot points to be very good.

  2. 2

    Evan said,

    Isaiah Berlin argued:
    “It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.”
    IMHO sexuality should be considered in the a similar way and must be consensual. It can not be considered in anyway positive in the case of prostitution, because there are external coercive factors involved in the relationship between the client and the service provider. The exploiter and the exploited are interchangeable, one seeks gratification the other financial gain. That would seem neutral to me.
    Negative on the other-hand is not just the sexual taboos in society but also the pressure that we place on young adults to have ‘normal sex’ and not allow people to find their positive sexuality with whosoever in whichever suits them.

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