Enlarging the Space vs. Changing the System

Posted in Being a Feminist, Feminism, Sex, Women's Bodies by Dizzy on April 22, 2008

I’ve been trying to figure out sex-positive feminism for a while now, I’ve read a bunch about it, but ever since this Twisty post and this post at Rage Against the Manchine I’ve been preoccupied with figuring this shit out.

I’ll admit that I’m a total n00b when it comes to this topic – it took many years of considering myself a feminist before I could meaningfully articulate what that meant to me, so understanding and being able to take a side on all the controversies ostensibly existing inside the feminist sphere is this whole other level of challenge.

What I do know is that this sex-positive feminism thing has never sat well with me. I suppose it’s partly because my sexuality isn’t really that important of a thing to me and expressing it isn’t anywhere close to the top of my list of things to do in a day. Sex is fun sometimes and the freedom for women to be sexual is paramount, but I don’t understand the preoccupation with needing to turn and be turned on. Maybe other women understand feeling sexy and having orgasms as an important part of their identity and their mission. Okay, that’s fine. I’m not against sex, just a little sex-neutral (as defined here)

But now I’m realizing how much sex-positive feminism rankles me, mostly because the mainstream world seems to think it’s the cool young sexy fun and entirely non-threatening part of the whatever Wave we’re riding these days. And also because it has the word feminism in it. (And from this point on, I will call it sex-positivity).

I dunno, but trying to make misogyny work in our favor doesn’t feel like any kind of a feminist movement to me. I know that women as a class do this every second of the day for various reasons and at all levels of oppression, but doing it is one thing. Calling it a feminist movement just because some women choose it/enjoy it/feel sexy and empowerfulled because of it – well, that feels like delusion.

Female sexual empowerment in the form of lap dances and porn parties and hawt women making out for the sole purpose of titillating the menz as a path towards gender equality? Whatever. I think true sexual empowerment would look a whole lot different than a 16-year old boy’s Tila Tequila-inspired spank bank and from where I sit, equality has very little to do with sex. Gender equality, or as I like to envision it, gender devaluation, would have to come before any meaningful sexual empowerment for women.

I read this today, which is from John Fisk’s book on the politics of popular culture via an essay collection called “Third Wave Feminism and Television”:

Radicalism’s “progressiveness is concerned with redistributing power within these structures (family, work, education) toward the disempowered; it attempts to enlarge the space within which bottom-up power has to operate. It does not, as radicalism does, try to change the system that distributes power in the first place.”

So first of all, I guess that means I’m radical, because everything that I believe can be done to combat the woman-hating that presents itself in the form of CSI and 14 year old girls cutting themselves and bikini babes on boat-selling websites and 13-year old pregnant FLDS commune wives – they all revolve around changing the system entirely and most certainly NOT around believing that the solution to the problem of mysogny is to make it work in my favor.

Anyway, the Fisk quote makes sense to me. Sex-positivity may be considered a progressive movement because it’s attempting to give a form of power to a traditionally oppressed class. Feminism, on the other hand, wants to change the system that distributes such power and not simply redistribute it.

OR… the alternate way to read this is that it’s all under the feminist umbrella, but the progressive faction is defined by its so-called female sexual empowerment and the radical sect is concerned with making sexual empowerment of women moot because there would be no distinction among gender-specific power and roles in the sexual sphere.

Aw shit. I don’t know what to think right now.

I can’t reconcile myself to calling sex-positives anti- or non-feminist because I just can’t believe that the feminism I believe in is the only thing that can truly be called feminism. That makes me uncomfortable. But I also can’t embrace sex-positivity as a feminist movement because it goes against so much of what I think feminism is. So much of what I feel it is.

All I know for sure is that feminism is a fight and sex-positivity feels to me like an admission of defeat. It’s like the back door to the club with the sketchy dark twisted hallway that distracts you with all its mirrors but then stops at the velvet-roped dance floor where the burly bouncer tells you to go back to the mirrors and check your makeup.

ETA: I realize that sex positivity encompasses far more than the Pussycat Dolls characterizations I’ve made here. I know that it’s about sexual agency and subverting the patriarchy via personal choice and liberation from conventional notions of femininity and female sexuality. That said, I still think that the belief that it’s possible for a woman in a patriarchy to become a sexually empowered subject by choosing to embrace misogynistic objectification is what results in things like Girls Gone Wild being considered the new feminism.


12 Responses

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  1. Daisy said, on April 23, 2008 at 7:04 am

    Hello there. I read your blog, but I don’t think I’ve commented before.

    As another feminist who’s trying to puzzle out where I fit amongst the factions, I’m wondering: how are you defining sex-positivity? Who do you think of as sex-positive? Because I agree with everything you’ve said, except that none of your characterizations of this clearly not-very-feminist phenomenon sound like sex-positivity to me.

    When I think of sex-positive feminism, I think of this.

  2. Dizzy said, on April 23, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Thanks for the comment and the link, Daisy. I think I get carried away with the easy-to-mock parts of sex-positivity. I edited my post to address your point.

  3. sigh said, on April 24, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Sing it. Thanks for trying to work out these ideas.

  4. meghan rose said, on April 24, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Found this post via Daisy’s link to my blog – I just wanted to mention that I think this is one of the more thought provoking posts on how sex positive feminism does and doesn’t fit in or whether or not it is feminist that I’ve seen (as someone who can be loosely thought of as sex-positive, perhaps). I noticed in my own struggle with labeling myself both as feminist and sex-positive that I went through in order to affiliate myself with the carnival publicly that it really DOES have to encompass a whole lot more than Pussycat Dolls and Girls Gone Wild, because there are people like me that fit into it. I’m not a sex worker, although I’ve done a little bit in my past and have considered doing more. I’m a Muslim woman who keeps hijab, rather conservatively most of the time. Although I’ve had my days of free sex and yay stripping and porn, that really isn’t who I am about or what my sexuality is about, if that makes any sense. So there are those of us out there who could perhaps be classified as sex positive and/or feminist that don’t fit “the mold,” so to speak. And I just wanted to say, as someone who has struggled with these same issues and thoughts herself, that I really appreciated reading your thoughts on this issue. I have found yours to be one of the more balanced and deeply thought out posts on sex-positive feminism from a critical perspective that I’ve seen. So thank you for this.

  5. meghan rose said, on April 24, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Meep, sorry for the double comment, but I also wanted to add that I agree wholeheartedly with the idea (with the fact, in my mind) that it’s impossible to be “empowered” within the confines of the patriarchy, and that I do agree that taking an uncritical approach to sexuality and pornography and sex work and the rest is harmful. I don’t think sex work, pornography, etc. is empowering in and of itself; I don’t think those things can exist, at least presently, unaffected by misogyny and patriarchy, although I think that they can be individually empowering for some women in some instances. For me, being “sex-positive” is about negotiating dealing with my own desires, which are often “deformed” and “malformed” by patriarchal influence, for being a sex worker, for pornography, for being submissive, etc. and coming to terms with that. So at least in my case I have found that it is not impossible to be both “sex positive” and critical of the way that patriarchal influence is an ever-present undercurrent of sexuality.

  6. Dizzy said, on April 24, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    I appreciate your comments Meghan, and I get what you’re saying. I think we’re pretty much on the same page. And I think you did an excellent job with the Carnival. There were a lot of really thought-provoking and educational posts there. Womens’ experiences and arguments need to be heard regardless of what category they do or don’t fit into.

  7. Nine Deuce said, on April 25, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    I hate to quote my own about page, but I’d rather do that than paraphrase myself, so here goes. My (obviously polemical) take on “sex-positive” “feminism” is:

    I’m not a “sex-positive” feminist, inasmuch as that term is used to refer to the kinds of people who believe that women, by adopting the piggish sexual attitudes of men and becoming complicit in their own objectification, can fuck their way to being treated like human beings. In fact, I say piss on that misleading term altogether. It’s just another guise by which men try to trick women into believing that the road to equality is paved with thongs and used jimmy hats. Using your sexuality to manipulate men does not equality make, nor does it even amount to controlling your own sexual destiny, because in order to manipulate men through sex you have to fulfill their pornographic fantasies, very few of which revolve around anything but a one-dimensional and completely fictional conception of female sexuality.

    I’m disappointed with professed feminists who call themselves “sex-positive,” which is a serious misnomer. Using your sexuality to try to control people doesn’t make you a feminist, it makes you an asshole who has been brainwashed into believing that by being as gross as most men are you can reach some kind of equality with them. No matter how many times you show them your tits, they’ll still run the government and all the corporations and institutions that make sure your life revolves around obsessing over your appearance and making 75 cents on the dollar for what they make. Frankly, I’m sick of hearing these women reduce feminism to “to strip or not to strip.” It does nothing but add fuel to the general public’s misinformed view that we live in a “post-feminist” world in which there is nothing left to be decided but whether porn watching and pube waxing are feminist acts. I do know that sex is one of the few forms of power that women can exercise in this system of ours, but I don’t believe that doing so can be called feminism.

  8. Carol said, on April 28, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    I think you have pretty well summed it up. “Sex Positive Feminists” are still defining themselves with the rules from the patriarchy. Therefore they are not actually feminists, as we use the term. As I see it.

  9. whatsername said, on April 28, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Here’s the thing with me, I self identify as both a sex positive feminist, and a radical feminist.

    Apparently, that really really rankles most other radical feminists.

    The thing is, I can’t figure out why.

    My sex positivity, and my understanding of sex positivity, are rooted in ideas that are antithesis to patriarchal “values”. The idea of female agency, empowerment, for all females, all expressions of femaleness, any and all sexual inclinations that the empowered woman may have…these are not things the patriarchy wants us to believe we can have! They actively discourage our even thinking we CAN have these things.

    They tell us how to be, in every way, including what is sexy, who gets sex, what kinds of sex are ok… Sex positivity is about us figuring that shit out for ourselves, and not letting others (ANY others) tell us what’s ok or not.

    And yes, that means that we end up sometimes supporting, at least other women’s *choice* to enjoy or participate in things that overlap with what the patriarchy likes… But I’m simply not willing to condemn them because of that.

    It doesn’t mean I don’t see the problems that exist within things like pornography and prostitution, etc. And I think the sex positive people I know, both feminist and not, take those things as seriously as any radical…

    This isn’t at all perfectly articulated, but, I agree with Meg, this is a great post, and I just wanted to share my thoughts too…

  10. chlorophyll said, on April 29, 2008 at 12:03 am

    How utterly sad and frustrating that something as broad as Feminism is reduced to one facet in the public sphere; and not just any facet, but the facet that is strategically beneficial to men in addition to women (though I’m not sure how). Sex-positive feminism has been wedged into the tiny spaces of MTV2, VH1, SuicideGirls, even the old 90’s girl bands like Hole … these so-called independent, sexy, powerful women are definitely anything but. If any, they live to create the illusion of independence and confident sex appeal to cater to mens’ tastes. Men today seem to tire of the submissive waif, and seem to crave novelty in the brazen, crass, smart-but-slutty-indie-amateurish appeal of the new wave of pinup girls and pop culture icons. Men want a badass girl who flaunts it and won’t take shit from anyone … but who will still submit to their (men’s) perversions and preferences.

    The above description is a description of what the mainstream media portrays sex-positive feminism as. I’m sure that there are many feminine individuals who have a predominantly sex-positive personality who can find other, more constructive ways of expressing their natural sex appeal. Likewise, there are an equal number of sex-neutral and perhaps even sex-negative females, just as there are the same proportions of sex-positive/neutral/negative males. Both men and women are genetically predispositioned to harbor a certain amount of testosterone; those who have more, will be the sex-positive ones, and vice versa. Sex-positivism is less about gender expression than it is about personality expression. I think that maybe the point is, women of the sex-positive personality type have never been able to publicly express their true colors without risking some form of a smear campaign against their upbringing, character, or motivation.

  11. edie said, on September 30, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” by Ariel Levy. She says everything I want to, and the cover is pink!

  12. Dizzy said, on October 4, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    That’s funny, I just today got done reading that book. It really put things into perspective for me.

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