The Cracking Foundation of Sex Positive Feminism

August 23, 2010

Do we think the ladies have gone too far with the sex positive feminism? I mean I know they’re all down with the pornography and the shaved pudenda and what not, but do we really think this is the path to liberation?

Hank Moody

Even Hank Moody Wants the Insanity to Stop

I’ve been claiming that the walls of Sex Positive Feminism are tumbling down. I suppose if I were being conservative I might say the foundation is cracking. No point in getting giddy or anything. I’ve assembled some quotes for you, which generally track the demise of the movement over the past five years. Interesting stuff.

The whole argument that women are choosing this path themselves, and that that makes it OK, doesn’t particularly make sense to me. I mean, I suppose it is a tiny nugget of progress, but it’s like we have taken the cage away from women and none of us is trying to escape, we’re just behaving exactly as we think men want us to. In terms of the Cake parties, I just didn’t think that they were really about women’s sexual pleasure at all. It was like being at your average strip club. And if you’re going to try to sell that to me as feminist, then I’m just going to laugh at you.

Ariel Levy, author, Female Chauvinist Pigs, 2005

Our popular culture, she argues, has embraced a model of female sexuality that comes straight from pornography and strip clubs, in which the woman’s job is to excite and titillate – to perform for men. According to Levy, women have bought into this by altering their bodies surgically and cosmetically, and – more insidiously – by confusing sexual power with power, so that embracing this caricaturish form of sexuality becomes, in their minds, a perverse kind of feminism.

Jennifer Egan on Ariel Levy, New York Times, 9/18/05

Before it curdled into a collection of stereotypes, feminism had fleetingly held out a promise that there would be some precincts of womanly life that were not all about men. But it never quite materialized.

It took only a few decades to create a brazen new world where the highest ideal is to acknowledge your inner slut. I am woman; see me strip. Instead of peaceful havens of girl things and boy things, we have a society where women of all ages are striving to become self-actualized sex kittens. Hollywood actresses now work out by taking pole-dancing classes.

Female sexuality has been a confusing corkscrew path, not a serene progressive arc. We had decades of Victorian prudery, when women were not supposed to like sex. Then we had the pill and zipless encounters, when women were supposed to have the same animalistic drive as men. Then it was discovered — shock, horror! — that men and women are not alike in their desires. But zipless morphed into hookups, and the more one-night stands the girls on ”Sex and the City” had, the grumpier they got.

Maureen Dowd, New York Times, 10/30/05

When Dowd quotes an Ivy League professor on the mysteries of undergraduate women who outperform their male peers every day in the classroom and then capitulate their power at night, not “even getting orgasms … just servicing boys in dark corners,” it’s an observation that is surely unquantifiable and alarmist. But if it’s true for some young women — and if we’re honest, we have to admit that it doesn’t sound that implausible — then we must find a way to address the contradictions of sex-positivity and sexual objectification.

Rebecca Traister, Salon, 11/8/05

There’s a world of difference between being branded a sex object and choosing to be one…I may like to get spanked until I scream, but I still deserve to be treated as an intelligent human being… Feminists are just like any other women, and it’d be a shame for us to hold back in a misguided attempt to live up to the legacies of Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem.

…We can choose to be celibate, or to have someone come on our face. Having a full range of sexual options should be a high-priority feminist goal…Thankfully, many of us are exploring our kinks in all their flavors.

Rachel Kramer Bussell, Fucking and Feminism, Village Voice, 7/11/06

Maybe that is because I have only really engaged in bareback sex with the types of dudes who don’t fear HPV and whose diseases I don’t particularly fear, because the worst thing I can think of about most of them is the ensuing lifetime of awkward conversations, and the worst thing about that is that awkward conversations summon memories, and summoning bad memories every time you’re about to fuck a new person is no way to live, but, if you can smile and say (hypothetically!) “Hey, just so you know, I have [insert STD here], but I got them from this really hilarious guy who is still one of my best friends, so it was kind of worth it,” before you do it with a new person, it’s almost nice. Like: oh yeah, that was a good time.

Moe Tkacik, Jezebel, 7/24/08

I actually don’t believe that hook [sic] culture exists. What I do think is cause for worry is the way that conservative and anti-women organizations, writers, and media makers are using this myth of a hook up culture to promote regressive values surrounding gender and to roll back women’s rights.

Jessica Valenti, Feministing, 2/20/09

The death of courtship is very, very widespread. I’ve never spoken on a college campus where people say, “No, no, no, we’re dating. We’re courting. We’re having candlelit dinners.” Even on very conservative college campuses, people are very promiscuous, but they think they’re not having sex because they’re not having intercourse. It’s extraordinary.

It’s like that Woody Allen quote — even bad sex is better than no sex. I think they feel like that’s what they’re stuck with. And given that, it’s better than solitude and frustration. But when I talk about romance and courtship and love, there’s this palpable longing from both genders. I think they wish it were not so.

Young women don’t feel empowered to set the pace or to set the boundaries. Young women’s sexuality is better served by a more gradual approach. And certainly because they are the ones who face pregnancy, they’re better served by not [having] intercourse — there’s other ways of being sexual. Frankly, I think another pressure is that grown-ups have kind of failed them. We talk to them about the mechanics of sexuality, but we don’t talk to them about love and intimacy and desire.

Naomi Wolf, Hooking Up and Losing Out, 2/12/09

While we’re “unfixing definitions of feminism,” may I humbly submit that we unfix this “sex-positivity” shit from the entire praxis? Because if I have to endure another essay on the mysteries of the female orgasm in the name of feminism, I may never have an orgasm again… Of course, there are a lot of feminist issues involved in the porn industry, sex work, and in human sexuality; I just don’t think “sex positivity” is one of them. So you’re a feminist, and you like sex—well, that’s normal. So do a lot of people, including a lot of non- and anti-feminists. So what does that have to do with feminist identity?…If people who like sex see sex-positivity as a part of the feminist movement, maybe they’ll see feminism as less prude and scary and icky and straight-laced and serious and anti-man. And I think it’s condescending to the feminist movement that we have to bring orgasms in to be taken seriously.

Amanda Hess, The Sexist, Washington City Paper, 4/1/09

Liberation always included an element of sexual libertinism. It’s one of the few things that made it so appealing to men: easy sexual access to women’s bodies. (And to their stories about sex, which helps explain why 49 percent of Jezebel’s audience is men.)

But unregulated sexual life also exposes women to the strong men around them, and here, the most visible of the Jezebel writers reflect the risks of liberation. Even if the girls gone wild stories are substantially overstated, the emergence of Tkacik and Egan as brand emissaries of Jezebel, and its attendant increase in popularity—as well as the responsive posts from the community of commenters, who call themselves “Jezzies” or “Jezebelles”—forces feminism to confront their public sexual narrative. How can women supposedly acting freely and powerfully keep turning up tales of vulnerability—repulsive sexual partners, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, even rape?

Linda Hirshman, Slate Double X, 5/12/09

Especially in the college hook-up culture, ‘yes’ has become the default setting for us and any other decision would require a justification. It’s supported by such ingrained beliefs about freedom, progress and rights that people fall into bed together left and right without actively making the choice. Sex is expected and when you consider not having it you are fighting a whole host of other factors. Somehow, we have swung the pendulum back the other way, such that sex is a bit like the new abstinence: it feels like a betrayal to our values and ideals to say no.”

…Even if I should feel comfortable having sex, that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to.

I know. Shocking. It’s total blasphemy to admit this in a column that’s only supposed to titillate you. But it’s true, I am not so sex-crazed that casual sex appeals to me. It took me a while to realize this because I was caught in the implications that accompany the choice to abstain. I was confused by my general sense that people only abstain because they think sex is wrong or dirty, God will judge them, or they’re prudish. Otherwise, the general thinking goes that sex is so fucking awesome, of COURSE you will want to have it as much as possible. It’s a vicious feedback loop with little way out for the rational mind.

Carmel del Amicis, Sex Columnist, UC Berkeley Daily Californian, 6/15/09

There’s another sort of possibly emerging sexual conservatism among younger women that I actually find a lot more understandable and am personally a lot more sympathetic to…I do think that organized feminism or mainstream feminist activists have somewhat missed an opportunity to speak to a lot of young women who find hookup culture and the emotional brutality of contemporary sexual mores to be really unsatisfying…Sex-positive feminism became something in which women were expected to be as casual and callous about sex as the most casual and callous men.

Michelle Goldberg, author, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, 2009

Is a world in which guys rule the result of the so-called man shortage on campus? Fat chance. More likely, we’re enjoying some unintended spoils of the sexual revolution. As authors like Ariel Levy and Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin have shown, the sexualization of girls and young women has been repackaged as girl power. Sexual freedom was supposed to be good for women, but somewhere along the way, the right to be responsible for your own orgasm became the privilege of being responsible for someone else’s.

…Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I’m against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. What, and who, are we losing to the new sexual freedom? Is this progress? Or did feminism get really drunk, go home with the wrong person, wake up in a strange bed and gasp, “Oh, God?”

…These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls’ sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys’ terms. They hook up first and ask later. The girls are expected to “be cool” about not formalizing the relationship. They repress their needs and feelings in order to maintain the connection. And they’re letting guys call the shots about when it gets serious.”

Rachel Simmons, Teen Vogue Columnist, How the Hookup Culture is Hurting Girls, 2/25/10

When people concern troll the hook-up culture, they rarely talk about how young women might want a commitment for reasons outside of Twu Wuv, but as someone who does remember college pretty well as it drifted into this hook-up culture, I can say firmly that getting a capital-B boyfriend was a huge source of social validation and status. But for men doing the validating, there’s not actually much value in monogamy (outside of Twu Wuv).  They give something—validation—and instead of getting anything for it, they end up having to pay the price of not having their options open.  Who wants that?  Plus, power corrupts, as I can tell you from my own ugly college dating experiences and the ones I saw around me.  The aching need that women have for validation can make them easy to manipulate, and sadly, quite a few men enjoy doing that.  But I submit to you, dear reader, that as sexist as all this is, it’s still better than in the past.

…Of course, that doesn’t do much for young women in the here and now who are suffering from their extreme need for male validation that young men are exploiting.  What do we do for them?  I’m not really sure that telling them to quit fucking is going to get the job done, because it doesn’t address the underlying issue.  If you’re the sole individual, you get no benefit from that, since the guys will just take their validating attention to others who are willing to play ball.  If women come together collectively to withhold sex, I still don’t think that’s going to work out, because the underlying issue—that men get to define women in these youth cultures—hasn’t been addressed at all, and you’re still going to have women sobbing into their pillows because lack of male validation is leaving them as social pariahs.

…That [girls] can go out in groups and then perhaps hook up is already better than a system where they have to be selected by a man to even go out.  The girls are lurching in the right direction, but what needs to happen now is more attention paid to the boys.  How can we discourage young men from validating each other based on displays of misogyny?  How can we get boys to appreciate girls more as human beings?  How can we dismantle a system where social status in youth cultures is controlled strictly by young men?  These are the questions we need to be asking.

Amanda Marcotte, Pandagon, 2/28/10

I am a post-baby boomer who has been handed a sort of Spice Girls’ version of feminism. We’re supposed to be wearing half-shirts and jumping around. And, you know, maybe that’s not panning out.

Tina Fey, Vogue, March 2010

Feminist Web sites advise that is it our “feminist duty to 1) seek pleasure and feel entitled to it and 2) to make the world a more orgasmic place for other women.” And yet there seems to be something else at play in the culture that’s making Klausner (I Don’t Care About Your Band) and Anderson (Chastened) regretful, some new wave of anti-orgasmic sexual conservatism that makes you hate yourself for what you did last night.

Jessica Grose, The Shame Cycle, Slate, 3/3/10

The casual sex backlash is here. Even so-called sex-positive feminists are starting to express their shame and regret over past one-night stands, says Jessica Grose in Slate. This is sure to cause many conservatives to rejoice, but I suspect the report of hookup culture’s death has been greatly exaggerated…As I see it, young women have fully proved that we can have one-night stands, hear us roar –

Maybe instead of signaling a backlash, these are actually signs that we’re slowly inching toward a world where a woman isn’t either good or bad, a wife or whore, a virgin or slut.

…and maybe we’re beginning to also allow ourselves more nuanced feelings about our hookups. …We can now acknowledge regret over a one-night stand, without being considered, or seeing ourselves as, forever ruined women; if there’s been a recent change in my generation’s relationship to casual sex, I suspect it’s that we’re relaxing our defensive posturing.

Tracy Clark-Flory, Salon, 3/4/10

Chen is part of a handful of women bloggers who are sobering up quickly after their youthful indiscretions, and lately, the sober seems far more prominent than the indiscreet. Former Gawker editor Emily Gould (a friend) wrote poignantly about the highs and lows of her post-breakup life a few years ago but has since pulled back and started a much less personal blog where she writes mostly about cooking and eating.

Jessica Grose, Slate, 5/11/10

And finally, a quote not directly related to sex-positivity, but rather a general assessment of the way that the feminist blogosphere does business, from a former sex blogger:

It’s a prime example of the feminist blogosphere’s tendency to tap into the market force of what I’ve come to think of as “outrage world”—the regularly occurring firestorms stirred up on mainstream, for-profit, woman-targeted blogs like Jezebel and also, to a lesser degree, Slate’s own XX Factor and Salon‘s Broadsheet. They’re ignited by writers who are pushing readers to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly marketed as feminism. These firestorms are great for page-view-pimping bloggy business. But they promote the exact opposite of progressive thought and rational discourse, and the comment wars they elicit almost inevitably devolve into didactic one-upsmanship and faux-feminist cliché. The vibe is less sisterhood-is-powerful than middle-school clique in-fight, with anyone who dares to step outside of chalk-drawn lines delimiting what’s “empowering” and “anti-feminist” inevitably getting flamed and shamed to bits.

Emily Gould, Slate Double X, 7/6/10

I respect those feminists brave enough to take on the Snarky Sinister Sisters of No-Strings Sex. It’s never easy to speak truth to power.