How I Became a Sex-Positive Feminist

So a lot of people have already answered this question, but as usual, I’m slow with the thinking. See brilliance, for example, from Sarah J, from Caroline, from belledame (note particularly belledame’s points about the heteronormative attitude toward female same-sex attraction in the question).

It’s an extremely frustrating question. I joined in the snark inherent in putting a bunch of sexy hockey player pictures up for a couple of reasons (the first being sexy hockey players), but I’m under no illusion that doing so answered the question or got anywhere near the problem with the question, so allow me to go on a bit of a ramble that hopefully knocks out some insight or insight-inducing obviousness, at the very least.

First, Laura notes that she hates the term “sex positive”, but that there isn’t a better one. Personally, I hate it too, and generally only see it being used mockingly by those who oppose it, though they seem to hate it too and use it with attached disclaimers like “self-described” or “self-proclaimed”. Even the Carnival is called “Sexual Freedom and Autonomy”. I didn’t really ever declare myself “sex positive”. The closest I really came was on this post, when I said:

If this makes me a twittery sex-pos moron, well, hook me up. Hearing echoes of the words of rapists from the mouths of self-identified feminists is not on my list of ways to have a good time.

That’s reason #1 for the frustration. I may be wrong, but nobody seems happy with this term, and yet somehow everybody seems to think it’s the best of the available options, despite the fact that dialogue around it seriously loses focus because nobody being happy with it means nobody really has a good sense of what it means.

Reason #2 for the frustration is also pretty well covered in that post of mine that I linked – I stumbled into “sex positivity” not because I was looking for ways to be turned on, or because I was looking for a philosophical/political way to reconcile my feminism with liking p*rn, or because I felt like it would make me more popular with the boys (newsflash: it hasn’t), or because I don’t give a fuck about violence against women and would rather talk about cutesy sparkliness and hot het sex. I came to this position because more and more, I’m convinced that politically, placing limits – be they legal or social – on sexuality and on sexual expression is only serving and can only serve to increase rates of violence against women, decrease options for doing anything about it, and worsen the impact of the events. So this kind of “riddle me this, ladies” tone smacks of missing the point, to me – “if you all are so all about the feminism, why don’t you think there should be more pictures of men, hmm?”. And then the “gotcha” in the comments, from Jennifer Drew:

Well the answer is obvious because men’s naked bodies must never ever be exposed. Only women are sexualised objects never, ever men. But still it is sex positive because women’s naked bodies are exposed for men to leer at and other women too can look and compare themselves to such images. It is called male-centric ideologies but masking itself as ‘sex positive’ which means women = sexual commodities but never ever men.

Now, in my case, I’m not linking to pictures or anything anyway (also, most of the world and I remain in blissful ignorance of one another), so I know I’m not really the target for the question, but God-fucking-dammit does this “obvious” answer piss me off. In so far as I’m a “sex positive” feminist, I focus primarily on talking about how women are affected because I can see with my obvious-seeing eyes that women in our society have been the ones who haven’t been allowed to enjoy/express/appreciate the full range of human experiences, including sexuality. Virgin/whore dichotomies ensure that no matter what, no matter in what environment, no matter what choice a woman makes, she will be subjected to sexual scrutiny that is inherently dehumanizing. “Radical” feminists denigrating women who participate in p*rn as “fuck holes” (and sidebar: is anyone asking them why they’re not questioning how the men are seen as merely “fuck sticks”, there only to give the women screaming orgasms?) are participating in exactly that game. “Beyond” feminist cartoonists who justify mocking conventionally attractive women by saying that their beauty is placing pressure on the rest of us are participating in that game. Frustrated feminists who emphasize that at least “a little bit of kink/p*rn watching” has become practically mandatory in young liberal culture (wish I could find the link to the thread that was saying that repeatedly, but I totally can’t remember where I saw it) and who blame “sex-positivity” for the fact that some assholes call them “prudes” are participating in that game (and missing the point about who the other participants are).

Yesterday, I decided my “Female Desire Week” angle would be the hockey players, for reasons that are extremely obvious if you know anything about either hockey or real-life me. Others posted pics and videos of actors, musicians, other athletes, etc. And you know, in light of how Madonna/Beyoncé/Scarlett Johanssen and women like them are getting shit for daring to be (conventionally) attractive in addition to talented and for posing in ways that might turn men on or whatever, here’s something that strikes me about this whole “where are the men in this equation” question: If you look through those pictures I posted, Sergei Federov and Sheldon Souray in particular are *clearly* posed in a way that is pretty much *nothing but* sexual. Sidney Crosby is a little bit of sport, a whole lot of sex. Sarah J’s posted shot of Vinnie Lecavalier? Same thing. But all of those guys are still hockey players, no one’s suggesting they’re diminishing the quality of their game by posing, and no one seems to be criticizing them for daring to have bodies that they use for sex in addition to hitting other men into boards. I noted the double bind of finding them attractive in yesterday’s post: if I’m turned on by sexy men while watching hockey, I’m likely to be mocked as a giggly, boy-crazy ditz who can’t appreciate the beautiful poetry on ice or whateverthefuck, but even as friends are teasing me for this, I’m told that women aren’t as visually stimulated.

See the problem here? Men are allowed to be sexual entities and simultaneously talented, accomplished, successful individuals. Men are presumed to be sexually free to do what they want with their bodies. If I’m focusing on women, it’s because, duh, they’re the ones who still aren’t able to do that. This would be what’s known as “not rocket science”.

I do want to look at least a little at how I reconcile this “sex positivity” (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) with practicing my faith, but this would be, as usual, far too long already.


13 thoughts on “How I Became a Sex-Positive Feminist

  1. Sarah J says:


    You are so right on here.

    What also gets me is that quite often, I would buy men’s magazines (GQ, Esquire, Details) to get sexy pictures of men. Though I do note that men’s magazines have sexy pictures of women and women’s magazines have sexy pictures of women, you can find sexy pictures of men in magazines aimed at a (mostly) straight male audience.

  2. Renee says:

    If women were not visually stimulated they would not be able to look at men and find them attractive. Of course we recognize a hot guy when we see one. This just an attempt at controlling womens sexuality. THe problem is not that women are sexual the problem is how it is understood.

  3. BetaCandy says:

    I feel so lost when I try to understand what the sex positive label means – or what its antithesis means. The loudest voices on both sides are saying stuff I can’t agree with at all. All I understand is that the sexual freedom of women is constrained by many, many things, and they all need to change. No single thing can fix it all. Not porn, not lowering rape stats, not religion, not any one single thing.

    Men’s sexuality is constrained in some ways too. Men are often judged for not having sex at every opportunity; for having sex with other men; for, basically, any behavior that can be interpreted by small minds as not playing well enough for the heterosexual team (apparently, life is one big sports match or something).

    It’s a big entwined set of factors that hurts both genders quite a bit. I really think men are suffering from all this, too. It all seems to be designed to keep us alien to one another, keep us from uniting in anything that could subvert patriarchy.

    So… is that sex positive, or something else? I have no idea. To me, it’s just observations and my best attempt at common sense.

  4. purtek says:

    No single thing can fix it all. Not porn, not lowering rape stats, not religion, not any one single thing.

    I fully agree with this statement. And the thing is, I don’t think there’s a single genuinely *feminist* voice arguing that any one thing *can* fix it – especially not porn. I think it makes for an easier sound byte if media organizations *suggest* that this is what is being said, but the closest thing I’ve seen to this kind of overly simplistic analysis is “Yes Means Yes”, and you know how I feel about *that*.

    Yeah, it’s a big entwined set of factors that hurts and constrains and frustrates in *all kinds* of ways. I was also going to say that to me, the only framework for understanding feminism that leaves room for a woman (or man) to choose *not* to be sexually active (or rarely sexually active), as well as continuing to avoid slut-shaming or heteronormativity or whatever else is one that works to dismantle *any* kind of expectation or assumption about how an individual’s sexuality is *supposed* to work.

    It just turns out that this attitude lumps me in with mostly the “sex positive” crowd. I would, however, like to start a discussion about a better word, because again, everybody seems to feel it doesn’t quite fit.

  5. Amber says:

    I’m happy with the term sex-positive, and I use it loudly and proudly. Amen to everything else in your post, though.

  6. Jay says:

    Enjoyed the post, especially as I’m working myself through this whole tangle of what sex is/isn’t and what it is/isn’t “supposed to be” in western society, or world society, or from a religious standpoint.

    I’d really just like more honest discussion about sex, rather than it being a “_____” topic, where blank can equal “taboo”, “risque”, “crude”, or “sensitive”. At the risk of being crude (and over-generalizing things)…it’s just fucking, people. Can’t we discuss it like rational human beings?

    No, apparently…because most human beings don’t like being rational, and because for a lot of people, it ISN’T just about fucking. It’s also about power, and money, and morality, and religion, and emotions. And all of those things are complicated, and they complicate discussion of sex.

    I don’t know much about the term sex-positive, but I’m definitely positive about talking about sex instead of trying to dance around it.

    Re: the idea that there is no “normal” sexuality. I could almost get behind this. I still cling to the idea that there are trends and generalizations that are more or less accurate…but it’s hard to determine how accurate they are, because hardly anyone wants to really talk about it, and when they do, they often lie based off (ta da!) pre-existing expectations.

    Is there any way to get any viable data on this subject? Would it do any good?

  7. […] How I Became a Sex-Positive Feminist « A Secret Chord “Men are presumed to be sexually free to do what they want with their bodies. If I’m focusing on women, it’s because, duh, they’re the ones who still aren’t able to do that. This would be what’s known as ‘not rocket science’.” (tags: feminism sexpositive sexuality doublestandard society hypocrisy fsc) […]

  8. Amber says:

    As Kinsey said, “I’ve learned that the gap between what we assume people do sexually and what they actually do is enormous.”

  9. BetaCandy says:

    Jay, IMO the problem isn’t so much having “norms” as that people think “normal” means right and “abnormal” means wrong. This can happen from both a scientific OR moral standpoint (psychiatrists have tried to determine what’s sexually normal so they can tell if you need help, for example, which is just as potentially damaging as the Moral Pitchfork Brigade coming after you).

    Norms are just a mathematic point where the majority falls. It doesn’t mean anything more than that, but people think it does. So when we talk about getting rid of norms, I think it’s more the *investment* people have in them as the determinant of what’s right and good. There IS no way to get rid of a simple mathematical perspective. Does that make sense, or even address what you’re saying?

    Sarah, I totally agree that we need to stop expecting anything in particular of people’s sexuality in order to accommodate everyone. Whatever we call that. 😉

  10. […] a no-nonsense post, Purtek explains how she became a sex-positive feminist: Men are allowed to be sexual entities and simultaneously talented, accomplished, successful […]

  11. lindabeth says:

    Very good post. I do have one comment:

    you said “But all of those guys are still hockey players, no one’s suggesting they’re diminishing the quality of their game by posing, and no one seems to be criticizing them for daring to have bodies that they use for sex in addition to hitting other men into boards.”

    I see what you’re saying except…from what I see, the majority of society values men’s work before or in equal addition to their physical appearance, if that is even raised at all. While you were point out your being turned on by hockey players, you must admit that such a view of these men is not how they are typically represented. On the other hand, the converse is true for women. Famous or successful women tend to get noticed by society as a whole primarily in terms of their attractiveness. This isn’t an issue of anomaly as with your hockey players, rather, this is the norm, the standard. It would be as if the athletes on the sports page were only the attractive men, with exceptions being made only in the case of an exceptional, though unattractive athlete.

    So I think the “diminishing” isn’t a function of individual erotics but rather of social value of human beings, so I don’t really see an absolute analogy between the hockey players and female celebrities. And I don’t really think that women participating in “posing” culture diminishes their work but I do think that it reiterates their ultimate value being a male fantasy. You have to really admire someone like Natalie Portman who is sexy, smart, and talented who refuses to pose in underwear for Maxim (‘cuz that’s the only way you get in their, natch) or Tina Fey, who despite making Maxim’s Hot 100 in 2002 also refused to pose for them because that wasn’t the kind of career help she wanted.

  12. Trin says:

    “I’m happy with the term sex-positive, and I use it loudly and proudly. Amen to everything else in your post, though.”

    Same here. I never saw any problem with it. I want to make the world a place where women have more freedom to explore their desires if they want to do so, and not be shamed or looked down on. I want a world where women who don’t want to be pressured into sex (whether to be “good” or to be “hip” or whatever) won’t be. It’s all part of the same package to me, so people’s disgust with the term honestly makes me confused.

  13. purtek says:

    lindabeth – not quite sure I understand how your “except” is an “except”, since that was essentially my point. I’m certainly not saying that the hockey player situation is unique to the hockey players. What I’m saying is that society gives them, and all other male athletes, actors, politicians and public figures, permission to be sexual without dehumanizing them. Fancy that.

    To the extent that women’s success or fame is primarily based on their attractiveness (which I think is debatable, since I think genuinely talented women are often dismissed as noticed simply because of being pretty), the problem is that there’s a superimposed assumption that they’re not able to be both talented *and* pretty/sexual. Do I have to admire people like Natalie Portman or Tina Fey for their refusal to pose in Maxim? Well, I admire that they stand by what they are comfortable with and that they are confident enough (and, frankly, already successful enough) to refuse to be portrayed in a manner that isn’t true to themselves. But my point is that for women, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition – you can’t both be taken seriously as a talented individual and show any sign of public sexuality. I should be able to admire Portman and Fey for their choice – and operate under the assumption that any other woman would be just as able to make that same choice without damaging her career – at the same time as I can admire those actresses who do pose in Maxim (or whatever) and trust that those choices won’t damage their careers or be held up as a sign of lesser ability.

    Amber/Trin – I stand corrected on hearing from people who do like the term, and appreciate that feedback. To be clear, I certainly don’t feel “disgust” at the term, I’ve just never found it quite accurate and I’m always a little wary about position-staking language that feels somewhat antagonistic. I think Betacandy’s comment conveys my perspective on the word really well, and Jay probably covers some of my emotional frustration with the conversations better than most…what I want is terminlogy that facilitates dialogue and opens up discussion about how to get what we all (the few of us in this comment thread) seem to want, wrt sex and society. Not saying “sex positive” is necessarily *not* capable of being used in that context, just haven’t ever gotten quite comfortable with the assumption that it *is*.

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