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