Let’s Talk About Sex: A Critique of Sex-Positive Feminism

Laura Fleming offers a timely critique of the sex-positive movement.

Anyone who knows me well (or at least well enough to have gotten drunk with me on more than one occasion) will know that I love talking about sex. Give me a few glasses of wine and a brief mentioning of the mediocre sex you had last week, and it’s almost guaranteed that within thirty seconds I’ll be ranting about the underrepresentation of female pleasure in media and how everyone should own at least three sex toys. I love sex, I love talking about sex, and I love talking about how much I love sex.

At this point, you would assume that I would firmly identity as ‘sex-positive’, and up until very recently, I did. After all, the main goal of the sex-positive movement is to allow people, particularly women, to enjoy sex without shame, guilt or hurt. It pushes back against conservative stigma surrounding sex and focuses on consent, fights against slut-shaming, and is accepting of all orientations, preferences, and habits. The sex-positive movement is not inherently harmful, however, when any movement seeks to exist without critique, problems begin to arise.

One major issue I have with the sex-positive movement comes down to a certain lack of nuance, and an assumption that all sex, once everyone involved is a consenting adult, is good sex, and by extension, that notion being radical, or feminist. However, all our decisions are made within the realms of socialisation, and this impacts upon our decisions in certain ways, whether we realise it or not – so how radical are they really?

There is no way of determining whether our decisions are truly autonomous. For example, most days, I wear makeup. I can claim that my choice to spend ten minutes filling in my eyebrows or lengthening my eyelashes is exactly that – my choice. It allows to me to express my gender identity and indeed, myself – but I can’t deny that part of the reason is because I feel inadequate without it, and that that feeling has come from factors outside of myself. From what I’ve learned or been taught, consciously or not. It’s the same with sex. As much as I, or anyone can tell myself that any of my sexual decisions are completely autonomous, and that that makes them feminist by default, we can’t ignore societal pressures surrounding sex, and we can’t fully determine to what extent these pressures are impacting those decisions in the first place.

This is where it begins to get tricky when we talk about ‘sex-positive feminism’. How can we assert ourselves, particularly as women, as completely autonomous sexual beings when these pressures exist? More worrying still, is that the rise of this sex-positive brand of feminism has brought seemingly more, rather than less, pressure to engage in certain sexual activities under the guise of being ‘sex-positive’. Kinks, while perfectly safe and healthy when approached in an informed and consensual setting seem to have become more and more mainstream, creating a pressure, particularly on young girls, to be okay with certain acts – degradation, spanking, and choking, to name a few – for fear of being labelled as ‘vanilla’.

While the aim of the sex-positive movement is not to create these pressures but rather the complete opposite, we must examine how the movement is being manipulated by deep rooted misogyny and recognise the risk of placing emphasis on sex-positivity while still within the confines of the patriarchy. There is a danger that sex-positivity is moving from what it should be, and what it intends to be, to misogyny dressed up as a new, fashionable brand of feminism, that seeks only to make women’s bodies more freely available for men’s consumption, while still advertising itself as progressive.