Towards a Sex Neutral Feminism

Over at the (very excellent) Radical Transfeminist blog, Lisa Millbank has been thinking through some of the theory behind “sex-negative feminism”.  This current has been out of fashion in contemporary feminist thinking since its heyday in the 70s and 80s with the rise of political lesbianism and the use of “sex-strikes” as a protest tactic.”Sex- positive feminism” emerged from women involved in the sex industry who felt marginalised and silenced by some of the discourses emerging from the rad-fem movement and grew to encompass a range of other women, including those involved in BDSM practices and non-traditional relationship structures.  It seeks to reclaim female sexuality , asserting it vocally and demanding that it is respected.

These two strains have clashed violently particularly over issues such as the nature of the sex industry, the power and agency of women in a sexual context and the relationship between gendering, sexualisation and objectification.  Sex-pos fems accuse sex-neg fems of aligning themselves with the moralistic agenda which seeks to control and limit female sexual agency, while sex-neg fems accuse sex-pos fems of aligning themselves with raunch culture which seeks to objectify and sexually exploit women.

Millbank suggest that there are two discourses which shape women’s sexuality – although on the surface they appear in contradiction, they are actually two sides of the same coin.  Compulsory sexuality acts to maintain the sexual purpose of women as to be fucked, while sexual moralism acts to maintain the shamefulness of being fucked.  Women and their sexuality exist in a dualism under patriarchy which asserts that the purpose of women is for fucking, however being fucked is shameful and humiliating.

Overseeing every heterosexual interaction are the “eyes, laws and codes” of patriarchy.  The eyes of society gaze upon women reflecting back to them their purpose and their degredation; the judicial system re-asserts their patriarchial purpose any time a man uses a consent defence for rape, ensuring their humilation through the legal process while the codes of lad culture maintain a hegemony which values women for their sexual availability while openly denigrating those who make themselves available.

In addition to providing a theoretical basis for articulating sex-neg feminism, Millbank suggests that sex-pos and sex-neg feminism should see themselves as different but complimentary, but the issue remains that they they are still different approaches to what is ultimately a unified problem: that a woman’s purpose as a sexual being is to be humiliated.  Sex-negative feminism challenges this purpose, but agrees that penetrative sex-acts are humiliation, while sex-positive feminism challenges the humiliation but agrees with the purpose.  If compulsory sexuality and sexual moralism exist in a step-dance which maintains patriarchial hegemony, sex-pos and sex-neg feminism are merely different approaches to tackling what is in essence the same problem.

What we have here is a binary dualism established to snare female sexuality.  Sexual moralism demonises the slut, reinforces the humiliation of being fucked, denies women’s agency and is challenged by sex-pos feminism; compulsory sexuality demonises the prude, reinforces the purpose of women as to be fucked, denies consent,  and is challenged by sex-neg feminism. Taking a step back tho, it is quite possible to see that how sexual moralism and compulsory sexuality work together to deny female autonomy.

Sexual moralism – in denying female agency, works to encourage males to pick up women while compulsory sexuality – in denying consent works to encourage women to respond positively to their advances; sexual moralism – in denying female agency encourages men to initiate sexual behaviour while compulsory sexuality – in denying consent encourages women to accept this sexial initiation; sexual moralism –  in denying female agency, encourages men to dominate; compulsory sexuality in denying consent encourages women to submit.   We live under patriarchy, so such discourses shape all interactions, but it is perfectly possible to switch from one feminism to another as challenging the patriarchial norms throughout an encounter.

Agency is generally seen on a continuum – you have more or less agency within an encounter, while consent is often seen as binary: either you consent or you dont, but as Millbank points out in an earlier post it is more useful to see that too as a continuum.  That consent is obtained on the basis of “I choose to say yes on the basis of understanding the consequences of saying no”  As you increase agency and consent you lessen the effect of patriarchy and the eyes, laws and codes which sustain it.

A sex-neutral feminism which acknowledges the role of patriarchy in shaping individual interactions, pledging to challenge both the moralism and compulsion which seeks to contain female sexuality, continually seeing to increase both agency and consent at the same time is the most positive way forward.  Acknowledging that sexual behaviour is not a universal “good thing” to be promoted; nor a universal “bad thing” to be avoided, but becomes good or bad dependent on the context and the level of consent and agency present.  There is no such thing as “sex-positive” or “sex-negative” feminism, only contexual challenges.

First published on Second Council House of Virgo on 23rd March 2012

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 14:33:43

    Funny that you should repost this now – I just had a conversation on Tumblr about the term “sex-neutral feminism”. In summary, I can see where people are going with the term but I think there are some problems with it too…


  2. Morag Eyrie
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 14:43:44

    Oh wow, Lisa from Radical Trans Feminist has commented on the Aunties! Welcome! Love your blog. Just going to rush over to Facebook and tell Mhairi you’re here.

    Would love to hear what you think the problems with ‘sex-neutral feminism’ are.

    And thank you for pushing various debates forward on your blog.


  3. mhairi
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 14:57:12

    I didnt realise others were using the term actually.

    From reading that tumbler post the meaning that I have assigned to “sex-neutral” closest to mine is ” to understand it is as a statement that neither sex-positive or sex-negative feminisms are the totality of how we, as feminists, should approach sex”

    I think there’s a lot of difficulty in “picking a side” in the whole sex-pos/sex-neg conflict, it ties you in knots and pits woman against feminist. Appreciating them as contextually useful theories which are interlinked is the most productive way forward to my mind.


  4. Lisa
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 15:12:15

    Appreciating them as contextually useful theories which are interlinked is the most productive way forward to my mind.

    This is absolutely where I am as well. I think, for me, “sex-neutral” isn’t a good word to use to express that position, but if that’s what people are trying to express by saying it, I’m on board with their position at least! :)

    I love the name of this blog, by the way. Aunties, spinsters, hags, crones and witches – we need them all. (Can you tell I’ve been reading Mary Daly recently?)


    • mhairi
      Apr 19, 2012 @ 02:44:24

      Interesting you should say that – I’m half way through writing a blog post about “aunties”. Serendipity strikes again.

      (although I cant stand Mary Daly!)


  5. Morag Eyrie
    Apr 19, 2012 @ 09:44:27

    I loved Mary Daly in my formative years as a 20-something feminist (i.e. 20 some years ago). She really changed my life and my thinking. It’s only her stance on trans* issues that has made me back off in recent years. So I will be particularly interested to hear any reflections Lisa has, reading her now, should you choose to write them up!

    I think overall we are in an interesting time of a few feminists (and womanists) trying to think/write/talk/act our way through the deepest divisions in feminism. They have seemed so intractable for so long, and so damaging to our various causes. I think this work around sex pos vs sex neg is a good starting point, because I have *never* felt that I was completely one or the other, I have always admired the writing and thinking of various women on both sides, and been deeply uncomfortable with certain aspects of both sides, and you two, Lisa and Mhairi, have helped start to articulate why that is.

    For me, the grounding I always come back to is to listen first and foremost to the voices of those directly affected by a particular form of oppression: so listen to trans women about transmisogyny and transphobia, listen to sex workers about what their lives are like and what they need, etc. But of course there are multiplicities of voices within any grouping of people too.


  6. Mary Mac (@MryMac)
    May 06, 2012 @ 13:57:20

    Theory can distort as well as clarify. Would accomplish more by focus on campaigning for issues indisputedly important to large numbers of women imho


  7. mhairi
    May 06, 2012 @ 18:31:10

    Almost all women have heterosexual sexual relations – and these reproduce power structures. While women are viewed as sluts or prudes this informs how they are treated in healthcare (slutty teen needing contraception), benefits (slutty single mother), the workplace (the prude who complains at lads mags in the office), and on the streets (the slut who smiles at a passer by and the prude who doesnt).

    Theory underlies how women are treated in a vast variety of arenas outwith the bedroom.


  8. b
    May 07, 2012 @ 22:54:37

    feel that you have completely misrepresented sex positive feminism. as a sex positive feminist, i feel that the reclaiming of sexual pleasure for myself, on my own terms, is the only adequate response to the way in which it has been circumscribed, oppressed and distorted by patriarchy. in what sense does sex positive feminism, with its emphasis on female choice, female agency and female gaze, further the ‘objectification’ of women?

    feel like you’ve willingly reproduced the slut / prude dichotomy with your positing of the two ‘sides’ of the debate, proposed by millbank, with whom i’m not familiar… my feeling is that sex positive politics, whether feminist, queer or whatever, tries to make the case for the massive heterogeneity of sexual possibilities and identities. it’s the only truly liberating position to take.

    also, there’s nothing ‘compulsory’ about sexuality within sex positive feminism either. the stuff i’ve read that is open minded about the heterogeneity of sexuality. is by necessity the most tolerant of people with atypical sexualities, and that includes people who consider themselves asexual.

    i disagree with the implication that if i’m aligning myself with the struggle of sex workers, i’m somehow advocating sex without consent. the whole thing is about creating the conditions so that sex workers are safer in their work, and more able to give consent! the assumption is that if you’re a sex worker you must be a passive victim of exploitation, even if you’ve chosen that work, even if you (god forbid) enjoy it. there are plenty of sex workers that do. the refusal to accept that sex workers have agency – that sort of position is only tenable if you’re relying only on theory to form your opinions, if you’ve never actually tried to engage with people working in the sex industry or at least read some good books that represent some of their views. it’s really important to see the class dynamics in all of this. a really good book is ‘sex at the margins’ by laura agustin, who’s an anthropologist. she talks a lot about the history of bourgeois women in their attempts to control the sexuality of poor women, and the ways in which they’ve made them into objects to be ‘saved’.

    within capitalism, women are exploited, and the mainstream culture does overwhelmingly objectify women as sexual objects. i’m completely with you on the urgent need to increase agency and consent within sexual contexts. the only way we can do that is by creating a sex positive culture both within our close feminist circles, and outside them, so that people come to understand that sex is not a language only men can speak, not a one-way conversation.


  9. mhairi
    May 07, 2012 @ 23:13:28

    I’m not suggesting that Sex-positive feminism isn’t necessary, just that it isn’t sufficient to bring about women’s liberation and sexual liberation.

    Sex positive feminism doesn’t challenge the expectation that women are sexually available for men, and the pressure that they feel on occasions to “put out” in response to advances. Sex-positive feminism has even been abused by men calling themselves “feminist” to persuade women to engage in sex or sexual practices that they are not comfortable with.

    I dont see Sex-pos as a position within feminism, rather as a current, which can only be effective where other currents are also strong. Supporting women in the sex industry, an ethical BDSM and non-exploitative alternative relationship structures can only occur where there is a level of agency allowed which cant just be assumed but must be fought for.

    I know and have known women engaged in the sex industry, their level of agency varies – not just individually, but also at different points in their experience of it. For some their sexual exploitation is minimal, for others extreme. Women involved in BDSM feel pressure to go beyond their boundaries in order to participate in something that they are drawn to. Women in non-monogamous relationships often find themselves exploited, or feel pressure to accept relationship structures that are not of their choosing.


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