About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sex-positivism, -negativism and kinkshaming

A recurrent debate within feminist communities revolves around sex-positivism and sex-negativism. I'm aware that many people who support the latter don't like the term because it would imply that they hate sex or that their vision is just a rhetorical trick to make them sound like prudes. There are some similarities with the pornography debate, though arguably this topic is complex in other ways.

Sex as a revolutionary act

Most sex-positivists hold that anything that everyone has the right to seek out the sex they like, as long as all partners involved are (enthusiastically) consenting adults. This idea, especially as far as the liberation of women goes, is still super-revolutionary in a lot of ways, but has its share of opposition even within feminist communities, on top of opposition from traditional social structures in the form of slut-shaming, birth control limitation and sexual harrassment.

Sex-negativists, for lack of a better word, are concerned about patriarchal structures that adopt sexual liberation for their own benefit, e.g. mostly men who are all for a woman liking sex as long as it's the kind of sex they like, or the glorification of self-objectifying women to the detriment of women who enjoy other types of sex than being submissive/provocative.

Sex as a symbolic act

It's a valid concern, but one that can be addressed within sex-positivism as well. In fact, I hold that you can't be truly sex-positivist until you are comfortable with how diverse the sexual spectrum really is. In kink communities, this is summed up as 'Your kink is not my kink, and that's okay'. Also, let's not equate people who adopt superficial sex-positivist rhetoric with actual sex-positivists.

It gets trickier once you delve more deeply into the analysis of sex-negativism. For example, an argument I've seen as well - usually presented as a question - is that sex cannot be truly feminist if, in the majority of experiences, what it does is essentially replicating patriarchy in the bedroom. It views BDSM as a re-enactment of patriarchy (because most dominants are still men), and women who enjoy being the submissive partner or performing acts inspired by pornography as not contributing to feminism at best, and working against it at worst.

Language games

That argument may seem to have its merits, but it falls apart under closer scrutiny. For one, symbols mean different things in different contexts. Ludwig Wittgenstein spoke about 'language games', contexts that provide their own meaning and rules. The sign 'I' is letter in the English alphabet, but it is also the Roman numeral for 'one', depending on the context. 'No' is a perfectly clear indication of a boundary in flirtation, but in BDSM, its meaning may be 'yes', depending on what participants in a particular session or relationship have agreed.

Now, obviously symbols can carry double meanings and contexts definitely influence one another, otherwise we wouldn't have art or literature. But I hold that sufficiently self-conscious people can switch between contexts and realise that Symbol A does not stand for A in all of its contexts, or may even become anti-A. In this way, for instance, dirty talk does not promote slut-shaming, but subverts it.

The worst allies

Secondly, and more concerning, is that sexual preference is deeply tied with identity. Asking people to probe their sexual preferences - beyond the question of consent - is actually nothing more than old-fashioned kinkshaming. Do you ask gay people why they enjoy gay sex? Sexual preferences are usually formed rather early in life and before critical examination of gender roles in society gains much traction, and some of it may or may not be hardwired.

Sexual preferences can change, but they don't do so consciously. If sex-negativists wish to see a sexual landscape that carries over less symbols and acts inspired by patriarchy, the answer is certainly not to sanction only sex acts that are somehow sufficiently rife enough with egalitarian symbolism (also, how the hell do you even determine that). While sex-positivists should be on guard for patriarchal re-appropriation of liberation, sex-negativists have allies in circles that are arguably much worse: religious fundamentalists, some of whom think that sex acts that don't concern procreation should be punishable by death.

Full equals

Many people want to respect their partner as full equals, but discover they have kinky interests that seem to be at odds with this ideology. That's why sex-positivism can be such a boon to them, and helps them find healthy ways of getting the sex they like in a larger framework of meaningful consent and openness. With sex-negativism, I see none of this. It's a misguided approach to sexual preferences at best, and just another way of attempting to control people's sexuality at worst.