Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999
May 1st, 2007

There are some big cons of being — or, more accurately, being seen as, being called — a “sex-positive” feminist. In fact, at this point, I’m sure it’s nothing BUT cons. For everyone.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last year, and it’s seemed high time to discuss it outright, even knowing that it’s going to be rambling, murky and unclear, primarily because the entire issue itself is, in so many ways, not even real.

I think what spurred me on to the thoughts I’ve been having over the last few months was a discussion over at the All Girl Army a while back on pornography. A few of the girls who came in pro-porn were stating that they felt that they were far LESS heard than those who were anti-porn (and a couple were talking right over the anti-porn girls, and in a thread that was all about personal opinion, were picking apart the personal narratives and opinions of those other young women, rather than merely sharing their own), something I had to vehemently disagree with when we’re talking about feminist women who are anti-porn. Even though, I assure you, that several years back, I might have said exactly what they were saying about my visibility as someone who wasn’t pro-porn, but wasn’t anti-either. Ah, hindsight.

Certainly, the anti-porn perspective is well-heard when it’s coming from a vantage point of setting up pornography as a barrier to purity, innocence, femininity, modesty and proper morality. But when the discussion is about porn as a barrier to equality, to real female sexual ownership, respect and autonomy; when the discussion is about body image issues or young partners clearly parroting porn in their in-person dynamics….? Eh, not so much. And for the youngest women, it’s become even tougher to find avenues in which voice those opinions.

Before I go anywhere else with this, for the purposes of this discussion and understanding my stance on pornography when it’s pertinent, when I say “pornography,” in these contexts, I am not talking about any and all material which may incite sexual arousal or desire. I’m talking expressly about material made for profit and en masse distribution, and which is most often made solely or primarily for men, to benefit and profit men, by men. In the same vein, I DO and have used and self-assigned the term sex-positive to the sort of sex education I provide, and did and do to the erotica and visual art I have produced: I’m not talking about “sex-positive” in other contexts here, only per feminism. I simply, to my knowledge, have never identified my feminism this way. I did Google myself on the topic, to double-check, and could not find one instance where I self-identified this way, but still. Lastly, I will not be referencing the feminist “sex wars” in any of this, because as most of us know, that has little to do with anything real, unless we’re talking about NOW and lesbians locked outside in the 70’s, and I’m not. Besides, this is the 21st century: let’s get over it, already, eh? Most of us weren’t even there, and those who were, on either “side” tend to express a complexity of the matter that stands in sharp relief to how it’s often simplified.

And I found myself having to make clear that I thought we needed to make extra room, extend extra effort per visibility, to feminists who were anti-porn, even though — and I said as much — that is not a category I would have placed myself in at all in my life, and it’s not even one I place myself in now, for various reasons, despite having many very strenuous objections to much of pornography from a feminist viewpoint, as well as from a standpoint of what I feel is optimal for a cultural sexual well-being. My points weren’t about what I needed, but about personally seeing a pretty obvious inequality in who got to speak and be heard on the issue, and in having a vested interest in allowing for as many perspectives as possible, especially when I felt I could say that I knew an awful lot more arenas in which one could speak in favor or pornography and far less to speak in protest, especially as feminist women, or when the protest was on grounds other than a patriarchal morality.

And all THAT brought up the age-old label of “sex-positive” feminists, which necessarily implies there is an inverse: the “sex-negative” feminist.

Here’s the problem.

There is no such person.

The “sex-negative” or “anti-sex” feminist is a big, stinky red herring. I feel very confident saying no such woman exists to my knowledge: she is a strawfeminist. And in many ways, constructing a “sex-positive” sect of feminism — intended or no, though many times I think it is intended — can serve the same end as anti-choicers identifying instead as “pro-life,” does: it paints those who are not clinging to that branch as something they are not, and it paints those others exactly how one wants them to be seen, quite manipulatively.

By all means, there are feminists — of any sex or gender — who critique or protest various kinds of sex, or given approaches to/frameworks of sex and sexuality. There are feminists who oppose pornography and/or sex trafficking and sex work, some or all. There are feminists who oppose any type of subordination — even willing subordination — in partnered sex. There are feminists who have a big problem with heterosexual intercourse, or with certain approaches to it; feminists who have a big problem with a handful of different sexual activities, or, more accurately, certain approaches to or dynamics which can and often are brought to those activities. There are lesbian separatist feminists; there are celibate feminists. There are feminists who have a problem with consent — as in, “I say yes to” or “I don’t decline,” — as a final word on anything, or as a barrier to any sort of examination or question of a given sexuality, sexual dynamic or sexual activity. There are feminists who have a big problem with bringing heterosexual roles or cultural dynamics to non-heterosexual sex and partnerships; there are feminists who are anti-heirarchy in sexual relationships and sexuality.

And of any of those feminists, there are those who apply these ideas and ideals only to themselves, those who put them out there for question and examination to others, those who suggest feminism would be best served by everyone sharing them; there are those for whom any of these issues are part of their feminism, there are those for whom they consider any of these issues separate from their feminism, or feminism-at-large.

But I’ve been in all this long enough now, since college at a minimum (I read feminist works before then, engaged in some feminist action before then, but I’d say I didn’t really start deeply digging in until around ‘89), to say that to date, I have never met a single “anti-sex” feminist, a feminist who says she is against all of sex and sexuality, on any terms, against all sexual partnership, by any definition, and that human sexuality, in the whole of its sphere, is a barrier to women’s equality and quality of life. I do not know of any group calling themselves “Feminists Against Sex.” I have never seen or met a feminist who is going to protests with big signs that read “ALL SEXUALITY, OF ANY KIND, IS OPPRESSIVE TO ALL WOMEN.”

Ever. Never. And until I see just one holding such a sign, or making such a statement and identifying herself as feminist, I have absolutely no reason to believe that this dichotomy/binary set up by the term “sex-positive feminist” is false.

So, sure, maybe I just haven’t met these women because there are only so many people out and about in the world we can encounter, read and see, and I’m only one person. But I think the real reason I haven’t met these women is that these women do not exist.

So, why do we hear so much about them? Why is there this whole class of feminists identified as a pro to a nonexistent anti?

More to the point, why, when I haven’t ever really labeled myself this way, do women like myself continue to be defined by others AS “sex-positive” feminists if “anti-sex” or “sex-negative” feminists aren’t real?

The most obvious answer is, of course, that some people do earnestly believe they’re real, and if we’re not them, we must be their opposite.

Equally obvious is the fact that I am a woman who talks about sex a lot, works with sexuality as a theme a lot for her work, who artistically works with the nude and sexuality by preference, and whose feminist work often centers around sexuality and reproductive rights issues, a la, things about sex (I also work a lot with the female body, which is, of course, presumed to always be about sex), and who just plain loves having sex, with myself, with others, and who geeks out utterly on the whole topic. With women like myself who work in sexuality and are also feminist, it may be presumed that the only classification for me as a feminist is as a sex-positive feminist. And I’ve had that presumption made of me by people all over the map, from “other” sex-positive feminists to radical feminists, from the middle of the road, and from both edges of it; by men, by women, by groups, by individuals. I’ve been all but collared with it.

There are tougher answers though, too, answers that I want to discuss, especially for younger women, because I feel that that “sex-positive feminist” label has really held me down in terms of the effectiveness of my feminism and my feminist work. It’s a label I don’t want anyone to walk into blithely or lightly — and admittedly, I have often been very blithe about labels people affix to me, even when they aren’t those I affix to myself or agree with — and, like anything else, which I’d encourage folks to give some deep thought to.

For instance, you put “sex-positive” in front of the word feminist, and I think you cut the impact of “feminist” at least in half, on either “side” of the false equation.

To plenty of men, that sex-positive in front of feminist says that either I am the sort of feminist they just don’t have to worry about, because I pose no real threat to them — since I don’t appear to want to take away or limit access to sex — or worse still, in some cases, it says additionally that they will get the heart of what they really want from me — sex — regardless, so who freaking cares if I’m feminist, right? So, you nod and smile when I talk women’s equality and it’s all cool: you’re still getting laid, Joe. (I am, for the record, not just pulling this out of my ass: in discussing this over the years, even just personally, I have had plenty of male friends or once-lovers confess that yes, this is exactly how they viewed my feminism at one time. I have also, like anyone else, read enough ‘net commentary on all of this by men to see this exact reaction and thought process in action.)

When you create this binary, you also force women, in some respect, to have to accept, embrace or support things like pornography, BDSM or sex trafficking who may not — or may not unilaterally — if they are labeled or seen as supportive of sexuality. In other words, were I to say I were “sex-positive,” affixed to that would be that I support or accept all pornography, whether I do or do not, in whole or in part, and whether or not I feel those things or some aspects of them are, in fact, profoundly sex-negative, or stand in the way of a healthy, autonomous sexuality for women. The sex-positive feminist label often means that we have little to no choice per our bedfellows: we are often forced into bed with those who support exactly that — forcing women into bed — and who stand counter to not only many feminist aims as a whole, but even what are often said to be “sex-postive” aims. And I resent and have always resented having this label put on me strongly for that reason: I’ve had radical feminist women put it on me to make me appear I’m in bed with those I’m not, I’ve had women who see themselves as counter to radfems do same, and no matter who does it, it freaking stinks.

You put “sex-positive” in front of feminist and to a lot of men and women, it sends a message that while they may need to worry about me calling them out in other arenas, they don’t have to worry about me calling them out or questioning them in the arena of sexuality, no matter what kind of sex they’re having, how they enact it, or what questions I may want to ask just to find out what the answers are for myself. When you put it on yourself, in many ways it also sends a clear — and often known — message that says “You may not question me, my actions or my theories on anything sexual, no matter what I do or say.”

Now, part of this, I get. Sex and sexuality IS sacred and IS personal.

Obviously, it’s more or less sacred, and sacred in different ways, for different people, but it is sacred, in a myriad of respects. No matter what type of sex it is we enjoy at a given time, no matter what our sexual identity, for most of us both are incredibly personal, very individual, and however little or however much or sexuality is or is not defined for us, influenced by outside influences, it often feels extraordinarily authentic, plenty of it IT hard-wired and we want — and deserve — real ownership of it.

For many of us, sex and our sexuality is solace, it is a way we find — or at the very least, seek — communion with ourselves and others, it is self-expression, it is process, it is growth and evolution, and the sex we’re having today may well not be the sex we want to have a decade from now, but it remains the sex we are having, and which feels right to us, right now. As women, we obviously feel an even greater to cling hard and fast to our sexuality, because in so many ways, so many people, of all kinds, either refuse our ownership or threaten the little we have.

Critique of our sexuality — of any core part of ourselves — is also very hard to hear, and sound critique of sexuality and its aspects is incredibly hard to give in the first place, because our first instinct is almost always to see it first and foremost through our own lens.

* * *
I’m going to go ahead and make an admission I generally reserve for private, just because I earnestly feel like such a complete asshole for thinking things like this, even when I was a lot younger and more green. Back in high school and college, when I first started picking up, or being given for study, certain radical feminist texts, I very ashamedly admit that I often earnestly thought, and sometimes even said aloud, “Christ, these women just need to get laid.”

(Mind, I did NOT mean “get fucked,” nor did I mean “get a penis put in their vaginas because of the mystical, life-changing powers of the penis.” I also did not mean by that that somehow having decent sex — with anyone at all of any hue or sex — would solve all the problems of women. I can’t excuse my thoughts like this much, because I want to be accountable for them, but in some respects they at least weren’t as completely stupid as they could have been. Just mostly stupid, especially since my reaction, in hindsight, was a very clear knee-jerk to having things questioned that I just wanted to enjoy, without the burden of question or critique: I didn’t WANT to think about it, dammit, and screw them for making me.)

Over the years, the more I read, and the more expansive a context I had to put it in, that sentiment began to sound as totally moronic and shitty as it was, and I began to feel as much of an idiot on that matter as I had been acting. But over the years, too, some of the underlying truths that lay beneath the thick haze of my stupidity and defensiveness became clear.

To whit: women DO need the agency to have sex (or physical and emotional intimacy combined, however you’d like to put it or whatever you’d like to have) on our terms, and by our definition, that is pleasurable, that is real communion, that honors our bodies and selves.

Women DO need real sexual autonomy and ownership of our unique and diverse bodies and our unique and diverse sexualities.

Women DO need a cultural sexuality that includes all of us, truly allows for all of us, and which holds all of us us in equal regard.

Women DO need to be able to define sex on our own terms, whatever they may be, and have equal allowance made for us to even be able to discover what our authentic sexualities and terms even are — to truly author our own sexuality — free of pressures to make our sexuality fit, support or enable a cultural model of sexuality which men created, not women, and which men created without much, if any, accord for women. Hell, we didn’t even get to be the ones who named our own parts.

Everyone needs these things, but several classes, most certainly including women, are often denied them.

Now. Having all of that certainly won’t ever magically make all of the oppressions women face vanish, but NOT having all of that — and for many women globally, ANY of that — is very much potent fuel, with many other assorted additions, in the gas tank that drives our oppression.

So, it’s not that radfems need to get laid, or that women unhappy with their position in society just need a good schtup. It’s that women as a class and as individuals, overwhelmingly, are oppressed sexually in numerous ways and that our sexual oppression is yet one more rock on the giant pile of many we’ve been stoned with that keep us down, AND hyperfocus on the sexual, or sex-as-entry to being able to bring up feminism at all is part of that.

…and radical feminists — those most often arbitrarily labeled as against sex and sexuality — KNOW this. And THIS is what the hell most (we can’t say all, we can’t ever, because feminists, like anyone else, aren’t immune from being assholes, idiots or crackpots) are going for when they are critiquing or protesting aspects of sex and sexuality.

THIS is what gets many labeled as anti-sex or “sex-negative.”

(There’s a whole separate conversation, by the by, to be had about how I feel the whole meaning and intent of the phrase “sex-positive” when applied to anything has changed. I’d love to put it here, but this puppy is lengthy enough as it is. There’s also a whole separate conversation to be had about how the converse of “sex-positive” is “manhating,” and the bullshit that says about both groups, including, m’dears, that sex-positive feminists must necessarily be putting out for men and loving-to-bits the current cultural construct of male sexuality.)

As I mentioned earlier, it isn’t just the sex-positive feminists who become diminished, whose ideas and words are given less credence by that label. By the inference that there are anti-sex feminists, those feminists who are not “sex-positive” are also diminished because it is generally seen as a given not only THAT they exist, and that they are those women who do not ID as sex-positive, but that they aren’t “real” women, aren’t whole people, aren’t sane, sound people because they are a people presumed or assigned to be either without a sexuality or in denial of one. Ironically, potentially without even realizing it, we wind up with people marginalizing those women based on their “anti-sex” stances-that-aren’t using some of the landmarks of those same women without even acknowledging them — we have, for instance, the second wave to thank for the construction of language and premises which gave us “no means no” and the differentiation between consent and nonconsent, between consensual sex and sexual abuse. And yet.

In case it’s somehow escaped anyone’s attention over the years, I am a rabid fan of the comma, especially when it comes to describing myself. I am always far more inclined to create a list of the things I am and the influences I have: to join them in a sentence, but to keep them separated by commas, rather than compounding them. I am a buddhist, an earth-lover, an anti-racist, a person without economic privilege, a socialist, a white woman from immigrant families, pro-choice, an abuse survivor, a sex worker of sorts, nonviolent, antiwar, vegan, queer, anti-marriage… I am any great number of things, but I am not one of those things + feminist. Thus, when I identify as feminist, it is only as that: feminist. If someone needs me to explain that further, I’m glad to, but as far as I’m concerned, it really says all that needs saying without further qualification: I have a vested and active interest in the emancipation, equality and connectivity of women. (Plus, when you have the kind of verbal and textual diarrhea which I do, if someone isn’t getting your deal, one extra word or label isn’t going to somehow make it all suddenly clear.) But I have long been titles by others as a “sex-positive” feminist: by some in adoration, by some in scorn, and by some, I suspect, just because it seems like the thing to say.

When that happens, I, as a feminist, am made to be taken less seriously, given less weight, because if I like sex or say I do (whatever any given person presumes “sex” to mean or encompass) I can easily be seen as a sexual object, and because IF I like or say I do sex, I must not be very feminist (and of course, it’s presumed, implied or simply affixed that IF I like sex, if I work in and affirm sexuality, I must therefore be in no way critical of any kind of sexuality or sex, and must be okay with the kind of sex and sexuality the prevailing hegemony practices, enables or cheerleads, blah blah blah), and whatever my feminism is, it’s nothing for anyone to trouble themselves with in terms of having any real power, because if I can be made to be a sexual object or okay the sexual objectification of women, if I will have sex and not ever question the sex I or anyone else is having, then I still serve a lot of the primary interests of the status quo.

Those “anti-sex” feminists, those women who hate sex on all terms who we’re led to believe are out and about and ready to take all our fun away have THEIR power undermined because if they critique sex, or don’t have a certain kind of sex, it surely must because because no one wants to have it WITH them, because they’re hairy or fat or ugly or old or visibly disabled or any of the things that don’t fit beauty ideals. If they are not “sex-positive,” or talking about how great sex is all the damn time, they must also in some way be maladjusted, and thus, their credibility and power is sapped, too.

The big duh of course, which should be obvious, is that either way you flip that coin, we’re all being discounted on the basis of sex and sexuality, and how others interpret us through than lens, no matter what we call ourselves. Which I shouldn’t need to mention, but will all the same, is quite precisely what feminism, from it’s very beginnings, has protested.

What really grates my soy cheese about any of this is how stupid the whole freaking lot of us can be — yeah, me, you, everyone else — not to realize that these divisions that aren’t even real are used in a very real way expressly and intentionally to keep us divided, to keep us from achieving very real, united aims, and so many of us, on all “sides,” enable them, knowingly and unknowingly, which ultimately stymies any of us reaching our aims when it comes to feminism. They’re used to blind us to far more real divisions: divisions of race, of class, of geography, for instance, and we too often buy right into them (in part, perhaps, because — especially if we’re women of any privilege, because we just don’t want to deal with those other divisions).

So many of us have at one time, or do now, somehow allow ourselves to continue to play this high school game of sluts and prudes — and let others reduce us to that, and they do: to be part of women hating all over other women — and without feeling like dolts about it, to go to public No, YO mama’s! to one another — because of sex: doing EXACTLY what we’ve been reared to do to each other by a culture of men to keep us divided instead of united. In saying that, I am not referring to compassionate critique on anyone’s part, of anyone’s view. I’m talking about the sort of name-calling and bitch-slapping that can and does happen from any side of this manufactured and imaginary fence, that happens on the internet like crazy (mostly due, no doubt, to the crap communication dynamic the ‘net can create, especially when people don’t use real names and feel able to say things they’d never say to someone’s face, or never say when they knew it’d follow their resume), and again, which happens from no one party, but really unilaterally.

And I just, for the life of me, can’t figure out how so many of us smart women can be so bloody stupid, and how any of us can call ourselves feminist if we’re willing to be divided by something as small and truly unthreatening as critique or question of our sexuality coming from a good place.

I think about the work I do, and I think of how much divisions like this have sometimes stood in the way of my counseling rape and abuse survivors and helping to get them to better, safer places, because I’m seen as this kind of feminist or that, so I do or do not have this credibility or that. Or stood in the way of educating more women about their own sexual anatomy and self-pleasure, or about creating a sexual and interpersonal dynamic in their relationships that is right for them. Or of connecting women who I KNOW could really benefit one another and benefit feminism as a whole, but who can’t see past these arbitrary and useless divisions to find where they CAN connect.

After saying all of this, it may sound silly to say that even if there were/are, these anti-sex feminists, I’m not sure it would matter very much. Because we’re not — or shouldn’t be — at war with one another, regardless. We should be able, however difficult it is, however much we screw it up time after time, to acknowledge whatever differences we have and still very easily find common ground that if we are all feminist we DO all stand upon, no matter how different some of our views, no matter how different our ideas may be of the best way to get there.

* * *

This isn’t easy terrain for me to navigate, not the least of which because working in sexuality and sex education is what I do, and by virtue of that, much of my efforts when it come to feminism ARE in that arena. Not because I feel it is THE area, nor the most important or critical, nor THE equality that will fix issues of equality for everyone (especially when you bear in mind or agree that sex is the first differential, it’s hardly the only one, especially for those whose oppressions are exponentially compounded by class, by race, by nationality, by ability, etc.). Rather, a lot of my feminist activism — not all, but a majority — is in this arena because this is where I have worked for many years, where I continue to work, and it is an arena in which I have discovered I can work effectively with the skills and gifts I have and serve very real needs in an arena which is important to most, including myself, especially as a survivor of sexual violence and abuse.

So, I’m well aware that a lot of the time, that is inadvertently going to give the impression that my feminism is only about sexuality, merely because there are only so many hours in the day for me to work, so much people like to hear me talk, and because I can only diversify my efforts so much and be as effective as I’d like. But as I’ve explained, I’m also unwilling to let a lot of people off that easy: I know too well, that by so many different types of people, my feminism has been said to be about nothing but sex merely to dismiss and discredit me as a feminist.

Too, a lot of my energy over the last few years has been invested, per my feminism, on really working on connectivity and bridging divides. Setting up the AGA was part of that, as has been trying very hard to keep cultivating the interpersonal connections I have with feminist women older than myself. Of course, it’s not easy, but it’s so painfully obvious that so much of why is just that women as a class are intentionally divided and kept divided, by patriarchy, by ourselves: it’s Friere and Arendt Oppression Theory 101, not rocket science. The difficulty, I think, is less about whatever the particular divides or differences are, and more about why they’re there and why it’s so damn easy for us to enable them, and so damn hard to break out of that.

I was recently asked a handful of questions about women’s spaces for a magazine piece, and explained that my first ideas about women’s spaces and feminist community were that it would be like the soft, fluffy inside of a marshmallow: comforting and warm and sweet and gooey. It’s taken me a very long time to start to get exactly how off that expectation was, and not because feminist community or women’s spaces are terrible, cold places to be, but because feminist theory is critical by nature: it can offer supports, to be certain, but it’s aim is to deconstruct to reconstruct and that means that it’s a more challenging place to be than a comfortable one. Too, we so often — I know I did — try and come to feminism the same way we come to the culture we live in, doing the things we have learned to do, been reared to do, to acquiesce, to net a desired result, to gain approval or permission. We try to come to it — again, I’m also speaking for myself — with only the tools the hegemony has provided us, most of which are useless here, and it’s jarring, confusing and tough to forge new ones.

Ideally, these communities and spaces are about nurturing growth and change, and neither growth nor change are ever comfortable: essential, vital — individually and as a collective — but very uncomfortable. I’ve recently been revisiting what bell hooks has to say about defining love as active growth and change, and it speak so, so well to all of this. I think about my close, intimate relationships and reflect on the fact that those which have been truly meaningful, which have forged my growth, which have really been loving have absolutely had many moments of comfort and support and sheer joy, but just as many which have been distinctly uncomfortable, which have made me have to look at truths I’d rather not, acknowledge failings or inconsistencies I’d prefer to avoid acknowledging, and made me have to grow and change to meet a bigger challenge. So much of feminism and feminist community, even just framing myself as a feminist in general, has meant that I had to grow, that I had to acknowledge failings and inconsistencies, and that I’ve had to incessantly re-evaluate how my life and the lives of others means I have to change my feminism, and how my feminism and feminism-at-large means I need to change (or even start by just looking differntly at) my life, even when I would really prefer to change neither.

I can’t offer big answers here.

As usual, what I offer are my own questions and observations in the hopes they serve some use to someone, and that they serve some use to me, as well. I feel I remain, as ever, and as in most things, without a camp, and while that can at times be isolating — I don’t think there’s a single camp I haven’t been shoved out of at this point — I think it’s for the best, however difficult and trying it may be. I’ve no doubt that half the reason I’ve been going back and forth with this post for a month or two is because I am always reticent to say or do things which may result in further isolation on my part, which is an incredibly shitty reason not to speak one’s truth.

I hear a lot of talk of how sisterhood — hell, how really connecting with anyone else at all, creating real communion — is so difficult, or how everyone just isn’t feeling it. But I think we all need to take a lot of personal responsibility (and feminism is ALL about that, sister) in terms of what kinship we do or don’t feel, because such a great deal of that is what kinship we will or will not LET ourselves feel, and often for reasons that are at best, lazy, and at worst, hateful and stupid. Kinship and real connectivity up our personal responsibility and accountability, and also require that we up our compassion. We need to think differently to create real kinship, and we need to be willing to privilege and prioritize that kinship, sometimes over things that, for whatever reason, we might prefer to put first.

It’s hard — really hard — to have faith in feminism, because it requires we have faith in women in a way many of us have been taught, overtly and covertly, we should not. I think it can be hard to let go of what are earnestly false divides if it feels like those divides provide us with a camp, with a home, with a unity when we feel otherwise homeless, especially when we are members of a nomadic, disconnected class that is so intentionally divided. I understand that: at times when I have been blithe about how this person or that put a label on me, I have no doubt that some of my lack of care was due to my simply feeling that at least it meant I belonged somewhere, someone believed I belonged somewhere, even if that place wasn’t where I really felt like I was or where I wanted to be.

From where I am sitting, the very first building block of feminism is simply this: love — in the active sense — and trust women. Without that block, nothing else is possible. Over the years, I have watched so many of what, in my mind, would be otherwise amazing feminists, of every conceivable hue and camp, shoot it all to hell simply because while they can do other things, they cannot seem to do that, do not want to do the hard work to do that, and without that, it’s all pointless. I have watched women knowingly, purposefully, do some kind of harm to other women — often rationalizing it in some way, as if it could be — and identify still as feminists and all I can do is look at that and think, “You lie.” We can say an awful lot about the individuality of feminisms, but we have to agree that feminism starts, ends and should be driven by a profound love and trust of women, and that if we cannot treat the women we are surrounded with, all of them, as sisters — remembering that sisters often have tremendous differences: sisterhood is not about approval or full-stop commonality — then we fail, no matter what else we accomplish.

If we allow ourselves to fail in those essentials — love and trust — based on something as completely ridiculous and trivial as a not-even-real division that diminishes and disconnects all of us by design; that plays a part in keeping us from equality and connectivity expressly by enabling and supporting exactly those forces that thrive on and drive our divisions? If we cling to what’s easier, what’s more comfortable and familiar, what is expressly a manifestation of our own oppression when we are have the smarts, the ability and the agency NOT to?

Well, then maybe we deserve to fail.

80 comments so far

  1. Ingrid Says:

    Thanks so much for this.

  2. Mya Says:

    That damn confounded invisible fence!…I’m deeply saddened and confused by it. It seems that while we should expect more from ourselves and from others, I think we’re a wee bit too hard on ourselves as women for a number of reasons which I don’t have the time to go into right now. It does seem, however, through love and acceptance, the fence could be dismantled. But we as faulty wired human beings, tend to find ourselves reaching for the pruners and cutting our own umbilical cords.

    And on another note, I received my copies of your book today. I’m sorry to read about the error. I’ll write more about that later because I’m at work right now and my time is up.

  3. Sarah Says:

    Oh man, I want to write the hugest comment ever. I love posts like this.

    I think I mainly have two responses, besides the “hooray, i like this post you rock ok thanks!”

    1. Most of my experience with the sex-positive label is independent from feminism. I mostly see people slap it in as an item with commas. (This group is feminist and sex-positive. That event is sex-positive and pro-choice.) Consequently, I mostly think of sex-positive perspectives as a separate tool in the toolbox, almost like an independent-but-interrelated movement that asserts the value of sexuality the way that feminism asserts the value of women. (And then, just like the opposite of feminism could be sexist oppression, the opposite of sex-positivity that I usually think of is sexual conservatism or erotophobia.) So thanks for this. I have thinking to do. You make good points.

    2. I have been thinking a lot lately about the relationship of anger to isolation. A lot of politicized people have rage. A lot of the time that is seen as healthy and important. A lot of times it is also a motivation to disconnect from particular people, and increase isolation. I have a lot of feelings about anger as a source of suffering, and I often align with the perspective that the solution to anger is compassion and love– the same love and trust that I think you’re talking about. It isn’t just competition and hostile habits that can get in the way of that, I think. It can also be that good old feminist rage.

  4. Christine Says:

    This is such an awesome essay, yeah totally, as mad as I have been getting over the past several years about stupid pop culture manifestations of “feminism” that grossly warp and politically denude notions of ‘third wave,’ ’sex positive,’ and what have you; I don’t think it had ever really occurred to me to trace this particular thing to the juxtaposition of ’sex-positive’ as a modifier for ‘feminism’ in such a way that a new thing, “sex-positive feminism” is created. The problem is that people who DO self-identify as “sex-positive feminists” really do exist, and the degree to which they might or might not be cognizant of these things that you’ve just said is really iffy and variable… I wish I could think that I would now be able to have serious, respectful, intelligent conversations with some women I know who do self-identify this way about this issue, but I’m sad that that doesn’t seem too likely to happen in the world as we know it. It’s so right on what you said about this problem within feminism. The defensiveness with which women react to other women is really fucked up and destructive. :(

  5. Elinor Says:

    This was so wonderful to read.

    I tend to identify as “sex-negative” with my tongue in my cheek. My views are actually not that far over the imaginary line dividing radfems from sex-positives, but the implied binary irritates me.

    What amazes me is that there is potential for (and actual) bullying, name-calling, unwarranted and cruel personal judgment, on both “sides,” but I have repeatedly read from self-described “sex-positive feminists” that “sex-positive” means “never coercive, silencing, or judgmental.” (Radfems at least know that they judge and criticize, even if they/we don’t see the full implications of that in every circumstance.) This may be true of sex-positive health care, sex-positive sex ed — but NOT of “sex-positiveness” as a political agenda, or a personal identification; not of many actual women who identify as “sex-positive feminists”; not of many MEN who identify as “sex-positive feminists” (and oh, my, I DO have to question that one, particularly when said men are straight, conventionally masculine male-born men, claiming that they are being sexually oppressed by…me).

    Having read more “sex-positive” writing lately, I’ve come to realise that there is a lot more common ground than I thought there was; but it’s difficult to be subjected to mud-slinging, and even more difficult to stop slinging mud back. It’s an ongoing struggle, but yes, a crucial part of being a feminist; I would like to be better at it.

  6. jennie Says:

    *fangirls madly*

    I’ve been contemplating a post on this very topic. Now I’ll just link.

    Like Sarah, my acceptance of the term sex-positive wasn’t initially linked to my acceptance of the label “feminist” for myself. My feminism and my sex-positivity both came to me as personal, pollitical statements, and rejections of the culture of self-hatred that I’d grown up with (sorry, mom and dad. I know you didn’t mean for that to happen. I don’t think it’s your fault, either.) For me, sex-positivity was about taking the shame out of sex and sexuality, and it was a radical stance, and one that I still embrace with passion and ferocity.

    My feminism also took the form of a radical rejection of the assumptions that shaped my childhood and adolescense: Gender is a construct, not an imperative. Therefore if we want to change women’s roles, we need to address the outmoded and false gender binary. It seemed so simple, so straightforward, so seamless, in my head and heart.

    So the blowjob wars, the porn wars, the sexuality wars, came as a bit of a blow. What? I couldn’t be sex-positive and feminist? The huh? My hard-won acceptance of my sexuality, my sensuality, my liking for many things sexual were, somehow, ideologically suspect? Oh noes!

    This was complicated by the work I was doing, preparing chapters on sexuality and human reproduction in our health textbook—I was fighting tooth and nail to create a resource that presented sexuality as a positive thing, that divorced sex from shame, that encouraged students to look at the influences on their thinking about sex, media messages, and the confused societal messages about sex, adolescence, sexuality, and virginity, as well as presenting necessary information on safer sex, STIs, pregnancy prevention, and sexual health all the while thinking “How can this not be a feminist fight?”

    Answer: it is. Sex-positive means something different in sexuality education than in feminist discourse, apparently, and I am going to embrace the moniker, and my radical feminism, and use lots of commas.

    So thanks.

  7. Stephen L Says:

    Not sure if it’s ok for me to post on this, as a man. Take it down if you’d rather we kept out of it.

    While I take your point about the divide and conquer approach patriarchy takes to feminism, I’m not convinced that the labels have to represent a fence dividing two extreme camps. Take this example: if someone opposes the use of most mind altering drugs in most circumstances it is reasonable to label them anti-drug. They quite likely would use that label themselves. The fact that they might see some rare exceptions doesn’t mean the label has no meaning, let alone being destructive.

    So if someone takes the position that all heterosexual sex, and an awful lot of lesbian sex, is oppressive it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that person is sex-negative, particularly if they think that the ok forms of sex don’t make up for the social harm of what they see as bad. Likewise, I don’t know anyone who thinks being “sex-positive” means you have to be positive about all forms of sex.

    The terms indicate to me a tendency, a shorthand for saying “I’m more sex positive than society in general, because I think that most forms of sexuality are to be encouraged, but I retain the right to criticize those I don’t like”. So if someone says they’re a sex-positive feminist all that says to me is that they are more likely to endorse and support more forms of sexual activity than some sort of average or midpoint of the feminist movement.

    Progressive movements have a terrible tendency to turn on themselves, Life of Brian-like. However, I’m not convinced this is all the fault of the labels, which can I think speed up conversation both for good and ill.

  8. Lauredhel Says:

    This is a magnificent essay. I have nothing to add.

  9. Elinor Says:

    Stephen L, I see your point, but I think you’re mischaracterizing the position taken by the average radical feminist. (I get the feeling you aren’t that familiar with radical feminist critiques of sex — if I’m wrong, I apologise.) Also, the recreational drug metaphor doesn’t work very well because sex is far more of a bedrock of human experience than the use of mind-altering drugs, however common that is.

    By “the ok forms of sex don’t make up for the social harm of what they see as bad,” do you mean that the average radical feminist would declare “the ok forms of sex” to be verboten because sex generally is bad (which is unlikely) or that the average radical feminist would tell you that a ton of people having good sex doesn’t make it fine and dandy for there to be sexual activity in the world that is harmful, exploitive, or worse? Because that’s true, but it’s also pretty much universal — I’ve only encountered one or two “sex-positive feminists” who ever said or implied that rape isn’t a big deal, or isn’t worth discussing, because sex can be so great.

  10. A really great essay « The Anti-Essentialist Conundrum Says:

    […] –from Heather Corinna at pure as the driven slush; hat-tip to Shannon Filed under: analysis, personal reflection, growing up out or around, respect, feminism, The Blogosphere, politics, sex, internet   |   […]

  11. Orv Says:

    Thank you very much for this, I am going to shamelessly rip off the whole commas bit, it really works.

    I think the problem is that EVERYONE is by their own lights sex-positive. The Catholic church for instance, elevates sex to the status of mystery and gift from god; only, it has to be heterosexual, in the context of marriage, and for the purpose of procreation. And of course that masks the same old sub-text: sex is to be hated, feared, stigmatized, and be made an object of shame. I think that you can find the same kind of celebration/fear in sections of pretty much every movement or organization, including feminism, socialism, etc..

    I always took sex-positive to mean a rejection of hatred, fear, stigma, and shame in connection with sex. As such, it is a profoundly feminist issue (not the only one, and not one that informs everything else, see, lots off commas), as the fear and shame around female sexuality is pervasive and toxic. But it also warps and damages men.

    I consider myself to be a feminist, without shame or qualifier, and I also consider myself to be sex-positive. I agree that there is a great deal of division and conflict and smearing and so-on, within both those comma-separated clauses. For example, I really do think that the next wave of feminism, whatever that is, really has to be about men, amongst of course other things. Which is going to be really tough, and is going to have to take some real listening, and empowering men to speak up in an area where, just like women, they have been told and told and told, and very much discouraged from thinking and talking, and controlled and suppressed by shame and cultural expectations. Take it from a man.

    Thank you so much for this essay, I have read it three times now, and will again as soon as I post this.

  12. First Carnival of Radical Feminists « Carnival of Radical Feminists Says:

    […] In this post, Wrong Turns at the Thought Stopping Cliché, Heather Corinna argues that it’s time for feminists to retire the adjective “sex positive” and all related rhetoric. She writes: Those ‘anti-sex’ feminists…we’re led to believe are out and about and ready to take all our fun away have THEIR power undermined, because if they critique sex, or don’t have a certain kind of sex, it surely must be because no one wants to have it WITH them…If they are not ‘sex positive’ or talking about how great sex is all the damn time, they must also in some way be maladjusted, and thus, their credibility and power is sapped, too. The big duh of course, which should be obvious, is that either way you flip that coin we’re all being discounted on the basis of sex and sexuality, and how others interpret us through that lens, no matter what we call ourselves. Which I shouldn’t need to mention, but will all the same, is quite precisely what feminism, from its very beginnings, has protested. […]

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  14. The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism | A Radical TransFeminist Says:

    […] Whose are these radical, sex-negative feminist voices? They are Clarisse Thorn, Kitty Stryker and Heather Corinna (each name links to the relevant article), all three of whom are well-known writers and activists in sex-positive feminist circles. […]

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