Monday, March 31, 2008

Well, as a matter of fact, there is a such thing as "sex negative"

I just wanted to thank Lina for putting together this blog carnival and for inviting me to be part of it. On the general theme of sex positivity and its relationship to feminism, I have several, hopefully not-too-disconnected thoughts on the theme.

The term "sex-positive" itself has been the source of some rather unproductive debates lately. Overall, I like the fact that Lina chose the title "Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy", as its much more inclusive and speaks more to core values than "Carnival of Sex-Positive Feminists". At the same time, rejection of the phrase "sex-positive" because it "gets a lot of people's backs up" kind of gets my back up a bit. Not because I want everybody to embrace that label, or embrace labels at all, but because I really think that any movement has an inherent right to define its terms and present itself in whatever way its members wish to. Whether other people accept that framing is up to them.

The general argument against the term is that "sex-positive" and "pro-sex" axiomatically means the opposite of "sex-negative" and "anti-sex", and hence those who use such terms are being really big meanies by implying that the other party in the debate, most typically radical feminists, are anti-sex or sex-negative. Well, true, the term does frame the debate that way. However, this is true of many other political movements – in the abortion debate, the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" also have connotations about the other side and also manage to get people's backs up, but generally speaking, I don't see a lot of ink being spilled by either side of the abortion debate demanding that the other side cease and desist in using its self-designation because the other side is offended by it. Both self-designations are generally accepted by now and a more substantive (if still intractable) debate moves on.

The thing is, I don't feel that this is a particularly good reason to drop the term "sex positive", because there really is a such thing as sex-negativity. It is something that has deep roots in Western culture, and quite a few non-Western cultures as well, and continues to manifest itself in religious systems, political ideologies, and in other dominant institutions like law and medicine. And, yes, one of the places sex-negativity comes up is in feminism.

Natalia Antonova posted a rather interesting example of this, showing some rather similar-sounding sex-negative rhetoric from radfem blogger Twisty Faster and Russian Orthodox fundamentalist Dmitri Artemyev. The point is not, as some have taken Natalia's post, that there's some kind of weird collusion between radical feminist bloggers and the Russian far right, but rather that there are some deep-seated memes in the larger culture that express themselves in some decidedly different milieus.

While Twisty calls herself a "sex neutral feminist" who describes the sexual act as "on par with sneezing", there are some decidedly far more sex-negative strains out there. Foremost, of course, is Sheila Jeffreys, who really does seem to embody what many feminists dismiss as a non-existent caricature – she is unmitigatingly against any heterosexual sex as an "eroticization of power differences", but also has an extremely low opinion of lesbianism, autoeroticism, and orgasm itself, if such pleasure is derived from anything that remotely resembles heterosexual or power roles, or even the fantasy of such. In her book, The Spinster and her Enemies, Jeffreys proudly traces her intellectual heritage to the Victorian social purity movements of the first wave feminism. Lest you think Jeffreys is just obscure some bitter crank, she's actually a rather popular radical feminist author, not just in the radical feminist blogosphere, but in the mainstream press.

I could cite numerous other examples from the feminist blogosphere showing this mentality (well, OK, this one is pretty glaring), but I think the above will suffice. And while I think Jeffreys and her followers are an extreme and glaring example, I do think that there's more than a hint of this kind of sex-negativity even among liberal and "moderate" feminist bloggers who go into full-bore moralism mode when it comes to issues around prostitution and pornography.

My point here is not to pick on feminism as being a worse example of sex-negativity than the larger society. For all of the much-vaunted "permissiveness" of modern society, there is also a strong streak of sex-negativity still very much permeating it – its in the air we breathe, figuratively speaking, and its not terribly surprising that it emerges full force in some strains of feminism. A favorite theme of radical feminists is that we must "examine" how the larger society has influenced us. But, then, why should feminism itself be exempt from such examination and critique?

This, to me, is the reason why sex positivity, sexual freedom, sexual autonomy, or whatever you want to label it or not label it is so terribly necessary.