Are We Witnessing The Death Of Sex-Positive Feminism?

Michelle Goldberg, in her column for the New York Times, wrote about the current trend against sex-positive feminism among younger women. The trend of women rejecting the premise of 90s era sexual liberation in favor of embracing Dworkin and MacKinnon is one I wrote about over a year ago and I have watched the drift of the modern feminist movement toward a sex-negative viewpoint ever since. And, much like the sex-negative feminism of the 70s and 80s, the current iteration takes a stridently anti-pornography stance. Goldberg cites an example from Amia Srinivasan’s new book “The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century” 

“‘Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real? I asked. Yes, they said,’ writes Srinivasan. She continues, ‘Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.’

Porn, the students say, provides the script for their sex lives, one that leaves them insecure and alienated. A man in Srinivasan’s class was unsure if sex that was ‘loving and mutual’ was even possible. The women wondered if there was a connection between the lack of attention to female pleasure in so much porn and the lack of pleasure in their lives. ‘The warnings of the anti-porn feminists seem to have been belatedly realized: Sex for my students is what porn says it is,’ writes Srinivasan.”

The issue I have with this argument is that it strips women of their sexual agency in a way that seems, to me at least, as passing off responsibility for being one’s own sexual advocate. I don’t doubt that what is shown in pornography passes as sexual education, and I am happy to have a discussion about how and why that is, but that discussion doesn’t address the current issue of women (and I’m sure men as well) having sex they are not enjoying. 

Put another way — if all porn was eliminated tomorrow, would these women automatically have better sex lives? Would the men they are having sex with magically become better and more attentive lovers? I would imagine not, which leads to the question of what exactly is a campaign against pornography supposed to accomplish?

Side note — if someone ever says to you that they are unsure if sex can ever being loving and mutual, run far away from that person. 

Goldberg continues on in her piece

“But sex positivity now seems to be fading from fashion among younger people, failing to speak to their longings and frustrations just as anti-porn feminism failed to speak to those of an earlier generation. It’s no longer radical, or even really necessary, to proclaim that women take pleasure in sex. If anything, taking pleasure in sex seems, to some, vaguely obligatory. In a July BuzzFeed News article headlined, ‘These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated,’ one 23-year-old woman said, ‘It feels like we were tricked into exploiting ourselves.’”

I’d like to counter the notion that it is no longer necessary to proclaim that a woman has the right to take pleasure in sex by citing a passage from the famous 2018 Atlantic article documenting the sex recession among young people (which I highly recommend)

“A particularly vivid illustration of this comes from Lucia O’Sullivan, a University of New Brunswick psychology professor who has published research documenting high rates of sexual dysfunction among adolescents and young adults. That work grew out of a lunch several years ago with a physician from the university’s student-health center, who told O’Sullivan that she was deeply concerned by all the vulvar fissures she and her colleagues were seeing in their student patients. These women weren’t reporting rape, but the condition of their genitals showed that they were enduring intercourse that was, literally, undesired. ‘They were having sex they didn’t want, weren’t aroused by,’ O’Sullivan says. The physician told her that the standard of care was to hand the women K‑Y Jelly and send them on their way.”

It would seem some young women did not get the memo about their right to sexual pleasure, and I don’t think lying all of the responsibility for that on pornography addresses the root issues. If, after a decade of “consent culture” and telling young women they have every right to refuse sex for whatever reason we are still in a place where women are consenting to sex they don’t want, then what was accomplished? Were any of these accomplishments worth the damage that has been done by Title IX cases and the infantilization of women that came along with them? These are serious questions that need to be grappled with. 

Goldberg mentions the trend of labels like demisexual popping up to give a name to what was once considered a standard norm in sexual relationships, a topic that I have also written about. I’m not a fan of turning fairly basic prerequisites for a sexual relationship into a sexual orientation. It shows an unhealthy relationship with one’s sexuality; nobody should have to adopt a new sexual orientation in order to say “I need to have an emotional connection to you before I can develop sexual attraction” or to offer any other explanation as to why they don’t want to have sex at that time. 

There is a central theme I see in the critique of sex-positive feminism, both in Goldberg’s piece and elsewhere, that I want to rebut — the idea that to be sex-positive means that women (and men) should be open to any and all kinds of sex no matter what. I was reminded how ideas around sex positivity get skewed by bad actors while reading this profile of Dan Savage in which he discusses how the concept of GGG (good, giving, and game) got off course. In its original form, the idea was that everyone should seek to be good, giving, and game in bed within one’s sexual boundaries. Somehow, the idea got twisted into “be a sexual doormat” which is not what Savage intended at all. 

I think the same thing has happened to the concept of being sex-positive, so let me help to rectify that. Being sex-positive does not mean one has to have sex with every damn person they see, in whatever manner that person wants to have sex. It doesn’t mean you have to participate in hookup culture if you don’t enjoy it. It does mean you have the right to decide when to have sex based on what feels right for you, be that on the first date or after marriage, or somewhere in between. It is about embracing and enjoying your sexuality, and it doesn’t exclude the ideas of emotional and mental connection. It is about supporting each individual in creating and maintaining their own sexual boundaries. Sex positivity is the freedom to choose your own sexual path, free of any cultural pressures (provided that everyone involved is a consenting adult). 

I kept that statement gender-neutral for a reason — these are rights that belong to every gender, including men. Too often men are left out of this conversation, and that needs to change. 

As for sex-positive feminism falling out of fashion? Maybe, but the fight between the two wings of the feminist movement has been going on since the 60s and sex-positive feminism isn’t going anywhere. Hell, I’m still here, along with my friends over at Feminists for Liberty and thousands of other feminists who believe that protecting everyone’s right to sexual freedom and expression is important. Our voices are needed now as a counterbalance to the sex-negative trend in current feminism.