There’s an aphorism from the early 1900s literary critic André Maurois: “The diﬃcult part in an argument is not to defend one’s opinion but to know it.” Even though I identify as an activist and genuinely want to make a real impact on the world based on my beliefs … I often think that much of my blogging has been more an attempt to figure out what I believe, than to tell people what I believe. And sometimes, I fall into the trap of wanting to be consistent more than I want to understand what I really believe — or more than I want to empathize with other people — or more than I want to be correct. We all gotta watch out for that.
But I’m getting too philosophical here. (Who, me?) The point is, I am hesitant to write something with a title like “Sex-Positive 101”, because not only does it seem arrogant (who says Clarisse Thorn gets to define Sex-Positive 101?) — it also implies that my thoughts on sex-positivity have come to a coherent, standardized end. Which they haven’t! I’m still figuring things out, just like everyone else.
However, lately I’ve been thinking that I really want to write about some basic ideas that inform my thoughts on sex-positive feminism. I acknowledge that I am incredibly privileged (white, upper-middle-class, heteroflexible, cisgendered etc) and coming mostly from a particular community, the BDSM community; both of these factors inform and limit the principles that underpin my sex-positivity. I welcome ideas for Sex-Positive Feminism 101, links to relevant 101 resources, etc.
This got really long, and I reserve the right to edit for clarity or sensitivity.
Some Central Sex-Positive Feminist Ideas, according to Clarisse Thorn
1) Desire is complicated, and people are different. These ideas both seem basic and obvious to me as I write them, but I wanted to put them out there because I think they’re useful anchors for all the rest.
2) Gender is not a binary, and gender cannot be determined by a person’s outer appearance or behavior. Different people experience and display gender in a galaxy of ways. No woman in the world is perfectly submissive, perfectly hourglass-shaped, perfectly kind, etc, although these are stereotypes commonly associated with women. No man in the world is perfectly dominant, perfectly confident, perfectly muscular, etc. While many people reduce the idea of a person’s gender to whether they have a penis or a vagina, the existence of trans people and intersex people proves that this isn’t a valid approach. Individual people have all kinds of qualities that are attributed to the “other” gender … and the concept of an “other” (or “opposite”) gender is weird in itself, because why does one gender have to be the “other”, and what does that imply?
All this having been said, gender is frequently perceived as a binary, and many people fit themselves into the possibly-arbitrary system of gender that currently exists. There are ideas of “men” and “women” that are culturally understood, widely adopted, and socially enforced. Feminism has its roots in women resisting men’s violent and social dominance, and in women resisting the cultural emphasis on stereotypical men’s desires.
3) Historically, sex has usually been defined in terms of two things: (a) reproduction, and (b) the sexual pleasure of stereotypical men. Cultural sexual standards are based on these things. For example, the sexual “base system” (commonly discussed among USA schoolchildren) describes kissing as “first base”, groping as “second base”, oral sex as “third base” and penis-in-vagina sex as “home base”. Why should this hierarchy exist? It only makes sense if we think of sex as being centered around reproduction. If we think of sex as being about pleasure and open exploration in ways that are different for everyone, then having a “home base” — a standardized goal — makes zero sense.
Another example: penis-in-vagina sex is often seen as “real” sex or “actual” sex, with all other sex considered “less real”. How many arguments have you had over the course of your lifetime about whether oral sex “counts” as sex? (Hint: more than the subject deserves.) For a recent example, there’s the Kink.com virgin shoot, wherein a porn model publicly “lost her virginity” notwithstanding the fact that she’d already had plenty of oral and anal sex on camera for years — she’d just never had vaginal sex.
As for sex being defined by the pleasure of stereotypical men: one example is how people usually think about orgasms. In my experience and that of people I talk to — and in the vast majority of porn — it seems commonly accepted that sexual activity ends with a man’s orgasm, whereas women are commonly expected to continue engaging in sex after having an orgasm … despite the fact that many women seem just as tired and less-interested in sex post-orgasm as many men are. In part, this goes back to defining sex in terms of reproduction: men have to orgasm in order for reproduction to happen, so men’s orgasms must (supposedly) be central to sex. It’s all influenced by these other constructions, like how penis-in-vagina sex is “real” sex, or “home base”: many people are confused by the idea that you’d shift sexual gears to (for example) manual stimulation if you’ve already “made it to home base”. But it also arises from centering stereotypical men’s desires — from a culture that just generally sees them as more important, more driving, and more necessary than women’s. (Note that the majority of women don’t achieve orgasm from penis-in-vagina sex in itself.)
When sex is defined in terms of reproduction and stereotypical male pleasure, the following things result:
+ People who aren’t men have a harder time understanding their sexuality, because there are fewer models (for example: it’s fairly common for women to figure out how to have orgasms much later in life than the average man — like 20s or 30s, if ever — and yes of course I’ve written about it)
+ Men who don’t fit masculine stereotypes have a harder time understanding their sexuality (for example: there’s a great essay by a former men’s magazine editor in Best Sex Writing 2010 in which he talks about how hard it was for him to come to terms with his desire for heavy women)
+ Even men who do fit masculine stereotypes feel limited from other types of exploration, and may derive less pleasure from sex than they would in a less broken world
+ Sex acts or sexual relationships that aren’t reproductive are devalued, are seen as weird, or aren’t even defined as sex (for example: stigma against gay sex, lesbian sex, many fetishes, etc)
4) Women are expected to trade sex to men in exchange for support or romance. Women who don’t get a “good trade” (e.g. women who don’t receive a certain level of financial support or romance “in exchange for” sex) are seen as sluts. Men who don’t get a “good trade” (e.g. men who don’t receive a certain amount of sex “in exchange for” a relationship) are seen as pussies. (Yes, “pussies” … don’t you just love that a word for female genitalia is a commonly used insult against so-called “weak” men?)
What this also means is that many people have trouble examining motivations outside this framework: women are always expected to be looking for more emotional or financial investment from a guy, whereas men are always expected to be looking for more (or more so-called “extreme”) sex. Women who actively seek sex, or men who actively seek intimacy, are shamed and hurt and confused for it — often even within their own heads.
5) Since stereotypical men have historically been much freer to explore their sexuality than people of other genders, the desires of stereotypical men have formed the pattern for “liberated sexuality”. As women have won freedom to act, work and explore outside the home more, we’ve been following patterns created mostly by men, and those patterns might look extremely different if women had created them.
When we talk about sexuality, I think that leads us to examine what “liberated sexuality” looks like. “Liberated sexuality” is often stereotyped as promiscuous, for example. “Liberated sexuality” is also stereotyped as being unromantic, never involving any of those pesky pesky feelings, etc. I write about this cautiously: I have no intention of telling anyone what “real” men do or feel, or what “real” women do or feel. However, it seems conceivable to me that most men are generally more likely to enjoy promiscuity and emotionless sex than most women are — if only for hormonal reasons. Here’s a quotation from the brilliant trans man sex writer Patrick Califia on the effects of testosterone:
It’s harder to track psychological and emotional changes caused by one’s taking testosterone than it is to notice the physical differences. But I think the former actually outweigh the latter. It isn’t that testosterone has made me a different person. I always had a high sex drive, liked porn and casual sex, couldn’t imagine giving up masturbation, was able to express my anger, and showed a pretty high level of autonomy and assertiveness. But all of these things have gotten much more intense since I began hormone treatments. During the first six months on T, every appetite I had was painfully sharp. A friend of mine expressed it this way: “When I had to eat, I had to eat right fucking now. If I was horny, I had to come immediately. If I needed to shit, I couldn’t wait. If I was pissed off, the words came right out of my mouth. If I was bored, I had to leave.” My body and all the physical sensations that spring from it have acquired a piquancy and an immediacy that is both entertaining and occasionally inconvenient. Moving through the world is even more fun, involves more stimulation than it used to; life is more in the here-and-now, more about bodies and objects, less about thoughts and feelings.
… Casual sex has changed. When I want to get off, my priority is to find somebody who will do that as efficiently as possible, and while I certainly would rather have a pleasant interaction with that person, I don’t think a lot about how they were doing before they got down on their knees, and I don’t care very much how they feel after they get up and leave. It’s hard to keep their needs in mind; it’s easier to just assume that if they wanted anything, it was their responsibility to try to get it. I always preferred to take sexual initiative, and that has become even more ego-congruent. (pages 397-398, Speaking Sex To Power)
A trans woman friend once told me that not only did she get turned on more frequently pre-transition; also, she now has to feel more emotionally connected to her partner in order to enjoy sex. And she noted that she has to “take care of herself more” in order to feel turned on now — not just in the moment, but in life, and in the relationship.
If we accept that there is, speaking generally, a difference in sexual desires between men and women (although individuals will always be unique), then it leads to new questions. If women were socially and culturally dominant, what would so-called “liberated sexuality” look like? If people of all genders are following patterns set by stereotypical men, then what does that mean for attempts to think around those patterns?
6) Communicating consent is complicated, but consent is the only thing that makes sex okay, so we have to make every effort to respect it. All sex is completely fine with me as long as it’s consensual. Seriously, I really don’t care what you do — as long as it’s consensual. (Try to find a consensual sex act that shocks me. I dare you.)
Communicating consent can, however, be complicated, and there are lots of different ways to do it. Many BDSMers are eminently familiar with this, as you can tell by the fact that some parts of the BDSM community have developed an extensive array of tactics for discussing consent.
Most people don’t communicate directly about most things, and the stigma and high emotions around sexuality make it even harder for most people to communicate directly about sex. Hence, most sexual communication is highly indirect. Even among people who are accustomed to direct sexual communication — like many BDSMers — a lot of communication ends up being indirect and instinctive anyway; there’s just no way to discuss every possible reaction and every single desire ahead of time. Everyone fucks up sometimes. No one in the world has a perfect track record on creating a pressure-free environment for their partners to express what they want … or asking their partners for what they want … or even knowing what they want in the first place.
So, yes, I acknowledge that communicating about sex and getting what you want consensually can be really hard. However, it’s most important to not violate people’s boundaries. No matter how hard it is, it’s necessary to make a serious and genuine effort to measure and respect a partner’s consent every time sex happens. Feminist ideas of enthusiastic consent are designed to help this process.
(Here’s my attempt at a quick definition of enthusiastic consent:
The basic idea is simple: don’t initiate sex unless you have your partner’s enthusiastic consent. Not a partner who says, “Okay, I guess,” in a bored tone, but doesn’t actively say “no”. Not a partner who is silent and non-reactive, but doesn’t actively stop you when you start having sex with them. Not a partner who seems hesitant, or anxious, or confused. Enthusiastic consent means an enthusiastic partner: one who is responding passionately, kissing you back, saying things like “Yes” or “Oh my God, don’t stop” … or a partner who talks to you ahead of time about what will happen, as many BDSMers and sex workers do, and knows how to safeword or otherwise get out of the situation if you do something they don’t like.)
It’s worth noting that there are critiques within feminism of the concept of enthusiastic consent. For example, some feminist sex workers point out that when they have sex for money, their consent is not exactly “enthusiastic,” but they still feel that their consent is real consent, and that their choices must be respected. The same goes for some asexual people. Asexuality is commonly defined as “not feeling sexual attraction to others,” but some asexual people have romantic relationships with other people in which they have sex entirely to satisfy their partner, and some of them have said that they don’t feel included by feminist discussions of enthusiastic consent.
Hey, even some of my non-asexual, non-sex worker friends have problems with the idea that they aren’t “really” consenting unless they’re super-enthusiastic about the sexual act at hand. A married friend once commented wryly that if she and her husband always demanded 100% enthusiastic consent from each other, then the marriage would fall apart. But as we continued to discuss it, she and her husband both agreed that they have zero problem with the situation as it stands.
I don’t want to sweep those critiques under the rug. I figure that as long as everyone’s communicating about the situation openly, and working to keep things relatively low-pressure, then consent is likely to happen, even if it’s not perfectly “enthusiastic.” I’ve had extensive debates on the topic with other feminists, though, and I often seek more, because honing consent theory is one of my favorite things! (For example, here’s a discussion between me and Jaclyn Friedman where we try to hash out some of these ideas.)
All this having been said: the concept of enthusiastic consent has been very helpful for me personally. I know that it’s also been helpful for an enormous number of other people who are trying to understand boundaries in their sexual relationships. I absolutely believe that enthusiastic consent is an important and useful standard, and I do my best to observe that standard as much as I can in my own relationships. So, while I think some critiques are reasonable, I also think that the idea of enthusiastic consent is the best baseline assumption to start these conversations … if not to end them.
7) In practice, as long as everyone involved is having consensual fun, criticism is secondary. Practically speaking, consent is the most important thing; from a pragmatic standpoint, the question of whether sexuality arises from biology or culture doesn’t matter nearly as much. (I find the question of whether BDSM can be categorized as a sexual orientation to be more politically and theoretically interesting than practically important.)
Understanding sexual biology or culture may help us grasp some of the complexities of consent. For example, people often have trouble saying “no” to things directly: when was the last time you explicitly said “no” when you didn’t want to do something? Which of the following exchanges is more likely:
Person A: Hey, want to come over tonight?
Person B: You know, I’d love to, but I’m so exhausted from work, I really need to get some sleep.
Person A: Hey, want to come over tonight?
Person B: No.
People of all genders really don’t like saying “no” to things directly. Grasping this important cultural concept is one step on the path of learning how to communicate effectively about consent. But in my book, it’s really not as important to understand why people hate saying “no” directly, as it is to understand that people hate saying “no” directly. It’s necessary to understand that because it means that very often, pushing someone until they say “no” can mean pushing them further than they wanted to go.
I believe that the most important role of social criticism — including sex-positive feminism — is not to tell people what to do. If you have sex that appears to be in line with ridiculous and oppressive stereotypes, I really do not care as long as everyone involved is consenting and having fun. I reserve the right to occasionally have consensual sex where a gentleman friend beats me up before fucking me, and I reserve the right to enjoy it.
But I want to offer sex-positive feminist analyses in order to help people understand themselves and their desires … and also understand their partners and their desires. I think that many people have sex they don’t like, sex that’s in line with ridiculous and oppressive stereotypes, because they haven’t been exposed to anything they like better. I think many people have sex they don’t like because they don’t feel like they can look for something different — they think it’s the best they can get. I think many people have sex they don’t like because they think it’s what their partner wants — and I think those people are frequently wrong, and I think most partners would genuinely prefer that everyone be having fun.
Which is why I try to deconstruct sexual norms and stereotypes. Which is why I encourage people to look for what they like. Which is why I always emphasize talking about it.
8) Awesome, respectful, joyful, mutual sex means approaching sex as collaborative rather than adversarial. Aside from solo sex (i.e. masturbation), sex always involves another person. And at its best, it’s about having a good time with other people — understanding their reality, accepting it, playing with it. The best metaphors I’ve ever heard for sex were all about collaborative art, like a musical jam performance. Here’s a bit from Thomas MacAulay Millar‘s totally brilliant essay “Towards a Performance Model of Sex” (please do read the whole thing someday):
The negotiation is the creative process of building something from a set of available elements. Musicians have to choose, explicitly or implicitly, what they are going to play: genre, song, key and interpretation. The palette available to them is their entire skill set — all the instruments they have and know how to play, their entire repertoire, their imagination and their skills — and the product will depend on the pieces each individual brings to the performance. Two musicians steeped in Delta blues will produce very different music from one musician with a love for soul and funk and another with roots in hip-hop or 1980s hardcore. This process involves communication of likes and dislikes and preferences, not a series of proposals that meet with acceptance or rejection.
… Under this model, the sexual interaction should be creative, positive, and respectful even in the most casual of circumstances.
(“Towards a Performance Model of Sex” was first printed in Yes Means Yes, the brilliant sex-positive anti-rape anthology that I want everyone in the entire world to read. It was also reprinted in Best Sex Writing 2010.)
9) All people deserve equal rights, including sexual minorities. As long as people are having consensual sex, they do not deserve to be stigmatized, harassed, or otherwise harmed for their sexuality. Period. No one should be fired for their sexual or gender identity. No one should have their kids taken away for their sexual or gender identity. Rape is still rape, even when it’s perpetrated against a sex worker. I support decriminalizing sex work for a lot of reasons; for example, I’d love it if the law would quit harassing and jailing sex workers for having consensual sex, and I’d love it if sex workers could organize for better workplace safety. (Here’s a wonderful site for Sex Work Activists, Allies and You.) The bottom line is that people — all people — have rights. It’s time to treat them that way.
In terms of actual ways to be sex-positive in everyday life, here are the three ways I usually encourage people to spread the sex-positive love:
A) Avoid re-centering. Sexuality shouldn’t be societally “centered” on any particular norm, idea, or stereotype (except consent). It is frequently tempting to re-center “objective” ideas about sexuality onto ourselves, if we’re different from the norm, or onto people we admire. But the truth is that — on a societal level — queer sex is just as awesome as straight sex; that BDSM sex is equally admirable as vanilla sex; that cisgendered people are not any more or less amazing than trans people. The decision to have sex is no better than the decision to avoid sex, and asexual people are just as great as hypersexual people who are just as great as anyone with any level of sex drive.
In alternative sexuality subcultures, one often encounters a kind of superior attitude, perhaps because we have to push back so hard against the norm. In polyamory, for example, some of us use the sarcastic term “polyvangelist”: a person who insists that polyamory is “better” or “more evolved” or “makes more sense” for everyone, everywhere, than monogamy does. Neither monogamy nor polyamory is better than the other; they’re just different. Polyvangelists are trying to re-center onto polyamory. Not cool.
B) Start conversations. One of the most damaging problems around sexuality is the overwhelming and constant stigma. It hurts people with certain sexual identities, preferences or pasts. It hurts them spiritually. It can hurt them societally, like when LGBTQ folks have difficulty adopting children, or former sex workers are not allowed to work at other jobs. It can even hurt them physically: 40 years after doctors started noticing the HIV pandemic, too many people are still refusing to talk about sex openly, or give healthcare to sexual minorities directly affected by HIV. To say nothing of people who are attacked or killed for their sexual minority status. Sexual stigma kills.
So when someone says something icky about sex and gender, or stereotypes a certain sex or gender identity, it’s so great to challenge them — or at least to question them. (“Really? What makes you think all gay people are abuse survivors?”) And some of the most powerful sex activism out there involves starting discussion groups, creating venues for discussion, hosting sexuality speakers or sex-related art, etc. (Not that I’m biased or anything.)
C) Be “out” or open, without being invasive. This can be tricky, because I don’t want to encourage people to aggressively talk about sex at totally inappropriate times — and again, I’m against re-centering. On the other hand, the most powerful tool for destigmatizing sexuality appears to be coming out of the closet — whether a person is queer, BDSM, or whatever. Openly acknowledging, owning, and discussing your sexual preferences can help others respect those preferences — and can help others who share those preferences respect themselves. (Can you tell that I cried when I saw the movie “Milk”?)
Some relevant links:
* A student once emailed me a bunch of questions about sex-positive feminism, which I then republished (along with my answers) in interview form
* My old post “There Is No ‘Should'” and the Sex-Positive “Agenda”
* My old post Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing
* Some thoughts that came out of a sex-positive 101 discussion over at Feministing
* Why some common complaints about sex-positivity are misguided by Holly Pervocracy
* FAQ: Isn’t the Existence of the Term Sex-Positive Feminism Effectively an Admission that Many Feminists Are Anti-Sex? at Finally!: The Feminism 101 Blog
This was cross-posted at Feministe.