Sex Positivity! It Works (Not)

A nice woman I know recently gave me some zines to read, mostly zines written by young, third wave type feminists talking about their experiences of sex, sexuality, rape, trauma and other related issues. A lot of what they related will be pretty familiar to many women – too many of them were used, abused, raped, taken advantage of. Too many of them internalised that self-hatred and replayed it repeatedly in destructive relationships.

All of these women were trying to write themselves towards some kind of healing, towards a greater understanding of what they experienced and why; a lot of them were trying to untangle their own self-destructive behaviour and develop a more positive sense of self, a better relationship to their own body.

So what happens when you throw sex positivity into the mix, which all of these women also identified with/as?

You pretty much get a train wreck.

You get women using the very thing that is going to re-traumatise them as a tool to try and get away from trauma.

There was one woman who related how upset and betrayed she felt when she found her boyfriend watching porn.

“But you’re sex positive!” he said, “you can’t criticise me.”

And actually – according to the rhetoric of sex positivity – he was right.

And yet this woman still knew on a basic, instinctual level that her boyfriend was doing something that was degrading to her, and degrading to other women. And she felt that. Despite supposedly believing in and following an ideology of sex positivity that made it all okay. What sex positivity didn’t give her was the political language with which to explore and discuss her discomfort at knowing her intimate partner with whom she was having sex was getting off on viewing images of objectified and degraded women.

There was also a lot of confusion around the issue of sex – with a lot of them the belief seemed to be the more sex the better – and yet they would also relate how alienated they felt by a lot of the sex they had, how a lot of it happened because of abuse/dependency issues, or an unhealthy need for sexual validation, and that actually it was part of the problem not part of the solution.

But if you’re working within a sex positive framework, then what other solution is there?

Well, I suppose(?) there’s the option to make better sexual choices – talking only on an individual level of course – but there’s not the option to call the whole sorry mess into question. And by the whole sorry mess I mean the entire fucked up structure of hetero-patriarchal relations in which (in the west anyway) enthusiastic sexual availability is demanded of women at all times, sometimes with the caveat of consent (which is meaningless in a culture that is already going to enforce consent through, amongst other clever ploys, the very concept of sex positivity itself).

Why could that be I wonder?

Gee, I bet it doesn’t have anything to do with that smug boyfriend wanking off to porn and saying, “but this is sex positive, and you’re sex positive, so you can’t criticise me!”