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Sex-positive feminism, also known as pro-sex feminism, sex-radical feminism, or sexually liberal feminism is a movement that began in the early 1980s that centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom.
Some became involved in the sex-positive feminist movement in response to efforts by anti-pornography feminists to put pornography at the center of a feminist explanation of women's oppression (McElroy, 1995). This period of intense debate and acrimony between sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists during the early 1980s is often referred to as the feminist sex wars. Other less academic sex-positive feminists became involved not in opposition to other feminists but in direct response to what they saw as patriarchal control of sexuality.
Women who have advocated sex-positive feminism include Amy Greene, Kathy Acker, Camille Paglia, Megan Andelloux, Susie Bright, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Diana Cage, Avedon Carol, Patrick Califia, Betty Dodson, Nancy Friday, Nina Hartley, Josephine Ho, Amber L. Hollibaugh, Brenda Howard, Wendy McElroy, Inga Muscio, Joan Nestle, Carol Queen, Candida Royalle, Gayle Rubin, Annie Sprinkle, Tristan Taormino, and Ellen Willis.
Sex-positive feminism centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom. As such, sex-positive feminists oppose legal or social efforts to control sexual activities between consenting adults, whether these efforts are initiated by the government, other feminists, opponents of feminism, or any other institution. They embrace sexual minority groups, endorsing the value of coalition-building with marginalized groups. Sex-positive feminism is connected with the sex-positive movement.
Gayle Rubin (Rubin, 1984) summarizes the conflict over sex within feminism:
...There have been two strains of feminist thought on the subject. One tendency has criticized the restrictions on women's sexual behavior and denounced the high costs imposed on women for being sexually active. This tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that would work for women as well as for men. The second tendency has considered sexual liberalization to be inherently a mere extension of male privilege. This tradition resonates with conservative, anti-sexual discourse.
The cause of sex-positive feminism brings together anti-censorship activists, LGBT activists, feminist scholars, sex radicals, producers of pornography and erotica, among others (though not all members of these groups are necessarily both feminists and sex-positive people). Sex-positive feminists reject the vilification of male sexuality that they attribute to many radical feminists, and instead embrace the entire range of human sexuality. They argue that the patriarchy limits sexual expression and are in favor of giving people of all genders more sexual opportunities, rather than restricting pornography (Queen, 1996). Sex-positive feminists generally reject sexual essentialism, defined by (Rubin, 1984) as "the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions". Rather, they see sexual orientation and gender as social constructs that are heavily influenced by society.
Sex-radical feminists in particular come to a sex-positive stance from a deep distrust in the patriarchy's ability to secure women's best interest in sexually limiting laws. Other feminists identify women's sexual liberation as the real motive behind the women's movement. Naomi Wolf writes, "Orgasm is the body's natural call to feminist politics." Sharon Presley, the National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists, writes that in the area of sexuality, government blatantly discriminates against women.
The social background in which sex-positive feminism operates must also be understood: Christian societies are often influenced by what is understood as 'traditional' sexual morality: according to the Christian doctrine, sexual activity must only take place in marriage, and must be vaginal intercourse; sexual acts outside marriage and 'unnatural sex' (i.e. oral, anal sex, termed as "sodomy") are forbidden; yet forced sexual intercourse within marriage is not seen as immoral by many social and religious conservatives, owing to the existence of so-called 'conjugal rights' defined in the Bible at 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. Such organization of sexuality has increasingly come under legal and social attack in recent decades.
In addition, in certain cultures, in particular in Mediterranean European countries influenced by Roman Catholicism, traditional ideas of strong masculinity have interacted with the cult of Virgin Mary that required female purity, leading to strong double standards regarding male sexuality and female sexuality, with men being expected to be sexually assertive as a way of affirming their masculinity, but 'good' women being required to be uninterested in sex. Indeed, Cesare Lombroso claimed in his book The Female Offender that women could be categorized in three types: the Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman. As such, highly sexed women (prostitutes) were deemed as abnormal.
Authors such as Gayle Rubin (Rubin, 1984) and Wendy McElroy (McElroy, 1995) see the roots of sex-positive feminism in the work of sex reformers and workers for sex education and access to contraception such as Havelock Ellis, Margaret Sanger, Mary Dennett and, later, Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite. However, the contemporary incarnation of sex-positive feminism appeared more recently, following an increasing feminist focus on pornography as a source of women's oppression in the 1970s. The rise of second-wave feminism was concurrent with the sexual revolution and rulings that loosened legal restrictions on access to pornography. In the 1970s, radical feminists became increasingly focused on issues around sexuality in a patriarchal society. Some feminist groups began to concern themselves with prescribing what proper feminist sexuality should look like. This was especially characteristic of lesbian separatist groups, but some heterosexual women's groups, such as Redstockings, became caught up with this issue as well. On the other hand, there were also feminists, such as Betty Dodson, who saw women's sexual pleasure and masturbation as central to women's liberation. Pornography, however, was not a major issue; radical feminists were generally opposed to pornography, but the issue was not treated as especially important until the mid-1970s. There were, however, feminist prostitutes-rights advocates, such as COYOTE, which campaigned for the decriminalization of prostitution.
The late 1970s found American culture becoming increasingly concerned about the aftermath of a decade of greater sexual freedom, including concerns about explicit violent and sexual imagery in the media, the mainstreaming of pornography, increased sexual activity among teenagers, and issues such as the dissemination of child pornography and the purported rise of "snuff films". (Critics maintain that this atmosphere amounted to a moral panic, which reached its peak in the mid-1980s.) These concerns were reflected in the feminist movement, with radical feminist groups claiming that pornography was a central underpinning of patriarchy and a direct cause of violence against women. Robin Morgan summarized this idea in her statement, "Pornography is the theory; rape the practice."
Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan began articulating a vehemently anti-porn stance based in radical feminism beginning in 1974, and anti-porn feminist groups, such as Women Against Pornography and similar organizations, became highly active in various US cities during the late 1970s. As anti-porn feminists broadened their criticism and activism to include not only pornography, but prostitution and sadomasochism, other feminists became concerned about the direction the movement was taking and grew more critical of anti-porn feminism. This included feminist BDSM practitioners (notably Samois), prostitutes-rights advocates, and many liberal and anti-authoritarian feminists for whom free speech, sexual freedom, and advocacy of women's agency were central concerns.
One of the earliest feminist arguments against this anti-pornography trend amongst feminists was Ellen Willis's essay "Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography" first published in October 1979 in the Village Voice (Willis, 1992a). In response to the formation of Women Against Pornography in 1979, Willis expressed worries about anti-pornography feminists' attempts to make feminism into a single-issue movement, and argued that feminists should not issue a blanket condemnation against all pornography and that restrictions on pornography could just as easily be applied to speech that feminists found favorable to themselves. (Willis' 1981 essay, "Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex?" (Willis, 1992b) is the origin of the term, "pro-sex feminism".) Gayle Rubin (Rubin, 1984) calls for a new feminist theory of sex, saying that existing feminist thoughts on sex had frequently considered sexual liberalization as a trend that only increases male privilege. Rubin criticizes anti-pornography feminists who she claims "have condemned virtually every variant of sexual expression as anti-feminist," arguing that their view of sexuality is dangerously close to anti-feminist, conservative sexual morality. Rubin encourages feminists to consider the political aspects of sexuality without promoting sexual repression. She also argues that the blame for women's oppression should be put on targets who deserve it: "the family, religion, education, child-rearing practices, the media, the state, psychiatry, job discrimination, and unequal pay..." rather than on relatively un-influential sexual minorities.
McElroy (1995) argues that for feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, turning to matters of sexual expression was a result of frustration with feminism's apparent failure to achieve success through political channels: in the United States, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) had failed, and abortion rights came under attack during the Reagan administration.
China scholar Elaine Jeffreys (2009) observes that the 'anti-prostitute' position gained increased critical purchase during the establishment of the international movement for prostitutes in 1985, demanding recognition of prostitutes' rights as an emancipation and labour issue rather than of criminality, immorality or disease. By the 2000s, the positive-sex position had driven various international human rights NGOs to actively pressure the Chinese government to abandon its official policy of banning prostitution in post-reform China and recognise voluntary prostitution as legitimate work (Jeffreys 2009).
Related major political issues
The issue of pornography was perhaps the first issue to unite sex-positive feminists, though current sex-positive views on the subject are wide-ranging and complex. During the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, as well as activists inspired by their writings, worked in favor of anti-pornography ordinances in a number of U.S. cities, as well as in Canada. The first such ordinance was passed by the city council in Minneapolis in 1983. MacKinnon and Dworkin took the tactic of framing pornography as a civil rights issue, arguing that showing pornography constituted sex discrimination against women. The sex-positive movement response to this argument was that legislation against pornography violates women's right to free speech. Soon after, a coalition of anti-porn feminists and right-wing groups succeeded in passing a similar ordinance in Indianapolis. This ordinance was later declared unconstitutional by a Federal court in American Booksellers v. Hudnut.
Rubin writes that anti-pornography feminists exaggerate the dangers of pornography by showing the most shocking pornographic images (such as those associated with sadomasochism) out of context, in a way that implies that the women depicted are actually being raped, rather than emphasizing that these scenes depict fantasies and use actors who have consented to being shown in such a way (Rubin, 1984). Sex-positive feminists argue that access to pornography is as important to women as to men, and that there is nothing inherently degrading to women about pornography (McElroy, 1996; Strossen, 2000). Anti-pornography feminists however disagree, often arguing that the very depiction of such acts leads to the actual acts being encouraged and committed.
Some sex-positive feminists believe that women and men can have positive experiences as sex workers, and that where it is illegal, prostitution should be decriminalized. They argue that prostitution isn't necessarily bad for women if prostitutes are treated with respect and if the professions within sex work are de-stigmatized.
Other sex-positive feminists hold a range of views on prostitution, with widely varying views on prostitution as it relates to class, race, human trafficking, and many other issues. Sex-positive feminists generally agree that prostitutes themselves should not be stigmatized or penalized.
Sadomasochism (BDSM) has been criticized by anti porn feminists for eroticizing power and violence and for reinforcing misogyny (Rubin, 1984). They argue that women who choose to engage in BDSM are making a choice that is ultimately bad for women. Sex-positive feminists argue that consensual BDSM activities are enjoyed by many women and validate these women's sexual inclinations. They argue that feminists should not attack other women's sexual desires as being "anti-feminist" or internalizing oppression, and that there is no connection between consensual sexually kinky activities and sex crimes. While some anti-porn feminists suggest connections between consensual BDSM scenes and rape and sexual assault, sex-positive feminists find this to be insulting to women. It is often mentioned that in BDSM, roles aren't fixed to gender, but personal preferences. Furthermore, many argue that playing with power (such as rape scenes) through BDSM is a way of challenging and subverting that power, rather than reifying it.
McElroy (1995) argues that many feminists have been afraid of being associated with homosexuality. Betty Friedan, one of the founders of second-wave feminism, warned against lesbianism and called it "the lavender menace" (a view she later renounced). Sex-positive feminists believe that accepting the validity of all sexual orientations is necessary in order to allow women full sexual freedom. Rather than distancing themselves from homosexuality and bisexuality because they fear it will hurt mainstream acceptance of feminism, sex-positive feminists believe that women's liberation cannot be achieved without also promoting acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality.
Some feminists, such as Germaine Greer, have criticized transgender women (male-to-female) as men attempting to appropriate female identity while retaining male privilege, and transgender men (female-to-male) as women who reject solidarity with their gender. One of the main exponents of this point of view is Janice Raymond (Raymond, 1979). In The Whole Woman, Greer went so far as to explicitly compare transgender women to rapists for forcing themselves into women's spaces.
Many transgender people see gender identity as an innate part of a person. Some feminists also criticize this belief, arguing instead that gender roles are societal constructs, and are not related to any natural factor. Sex-positive feminists support the right of all individuals to determine their own gender, and promote gender fluidity as one means for achieving gender equality. Patrick Califia has written extensively about issues surrounding feminism and transgender issues, especially in Sex Changes: Transgender Politics (second edition, 2003).
Like feminism itself, sex-positive feminism is difficult to define, and few within the movement (particularly the academic arm of the movement) agree on any one ideology or policy agenda.
An example of how feminists may disagree on whether a particular cultural work exemplifies sex-positivity is Betty Dodson's critique of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. Dodson argues that the play promotes a negative view of sexuality, emphasizing sexual violence against women rather than the redemptive value of female sexuality. Many other sex-positive feminists have embraced Ensler's work for its encouragement of openness about women's bodies and sexuality.
Statutory rape laws
There is debate among sex-positive feminists about whether statutory rape laws are a form of sexism. As illustrated by the controversy over "The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could" from the Vagina Monologues, some sex-positive feminists do not consider all consensual activity between young adolescents and older people as inherently harmful. There has been debate among feminists about whether statutory rape laws benefit or harm teenage girls, and whether the gender of the participants should influence the way the sexual encounter is dealt with. The argument that is brought by some sex-positive feminists against these statutory rape laws is that they were made with non-gender neutral intentions and are presently enforced as such, with the assumption that teenage girls are naive and nonsexual and need to be protected. Sex-positive feminists with this view believe that "teen girls and boys are equally capable of making informed choices in regard to their sexuality", and that statutory rape laws are actually meant to protect "good girls" from sex. In "Sex-Bias Topics in the Criminal Law Course: A Survey of Criminal Law Professors" 24 U. Mich. J.L. Ref. 189 (1990), it is said: "Other feminists are opposed to or ambivalent about strengthening statutory rape statutes because such protection also precludes a young woman from entering a consensual sexual relationship, to which she may be competent to consent. These feminists view statutory rape laws as more controlling than protective – and of course part of the law's historic role was protecting the female's chastity as valuable property". She also noted that, at that time, in some states the previous sexual experience of a teenager could be used as a defense by one accused of statutory rape. She argued that this showed that the laws were intended to protect ideals of chastity rather than issues of consent.
Works that critique sex-positive feminism include those of Catharine MacKinnon (1987), Germaine Greer (1999), Pamela Paul (2005), and the essays in Dorchen Leidholdt (1990), among others. Their main arguments are that certain sexual practices (such as prostitution and pornography) exploit women and have historically benefited men rather than women, and that the indiscriminate promotion of all kinds of sexual practices merely contributes to female oppression. Catharine MacKinnon argues that any concept of sexual liberation must be understood within the framework of male domination in society, in the context of an imbalance of power between men and women, and with due regard to the history of male and female sexuality; she writes: "Men have eroticized the idea that their sexuality has been denied, but their sexuality has been nothing but expressed and expressed and expressed. Sexual liberation, from this perspective, looks like a male rationalization for forcing sex on women."
In her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy also critiques sex-positive feminism. While not opposed to sex-positive feminism per se, nor wishing specifically to proscribe certain forms of sexual behavior, she sees a popularized form of sex-positivity as constituting a kind of "raunch culture" in which women internalize objectifying male views of themselves and other women. Levy believes it is a mistake to see this as empowering and further holds that women should develop their own forms of sexual expression. The response by sex-positive feminists to Levy's book have been mixed; Susie Bright viewed the book quite favorably, stating that much of what can be seen as "raunch culture" represents a bastardization of the work of earlier sex-positive feminists such as herself. Others, such as Rachel Kramer Bussel, see Levy as largely ignoring much of the female-empowered sexual expression of the last 20 years, or misinterpreting it as internalization of male fantasy. Kara Jesella argued that sex-positivity may not necessarily be empowering, but it may also not be disempowering.
Dorchen Leidholdt argues that "sex" (the way sexuality is expressed in society) must be understood as a social construct defined by patriarchal social structures, and therefore must be scrutinized; she writes, "If you understand that sex is socially constructed—which we do—and if you see that male supremacy does the constructing—which we see—and if the sex in question is the sex men use to establish their dominance over women, then yes we're against it." According to Ann Ferguson, sex-positive feminists' only restriction on sexual activity should be the requirement of consent, yet she argues that sex positive feminism has provided inadequate definitions of consent. Also, in an effort to reconcile radical and libertarian feminism, Ferguson argues that sexual behavior should be either basic, risky, or forbidden, specifying that forbidden sexual practices "include incest, rape, domestic violence, and sexual relations between very young children and adults," as well as any other activities for which there is evidence of resulting subordination. This evidence is key for Ferguson in identifying a forbidden sexual activity. Since consent is so problematically defined, Ferguson's categorization of forbidden sexual activity circumvents the issue of consent entirely. Sheila Jeffreys argues that the "sexual revolution" on men's terms has contributed less to women's freedom than to their continued oppression. She argues that existing traditional ideas about heterosexual sexual relations, such as male sexual entitlement within marriage, are aggravated by sex positive ideology. Bell hooks argues that one problem with sexual liberation movements is that they focus on the right to engage in sexual activity, but often ignore the right to refuse to engage in sexual acts. Another criticism is that what are often presented as feminist ideas are in fact ideas originating in male-dominated sexology.
Authors and activists who have written important works about sex-positive feminism, and/or contributed to educating the public about it, include Kathy Acker, Megan Andelloux, Susie Bright, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Diana Cage, Avedon Carol, Patrick Califia, Betty Dodson, Nancy Friday, Nina Hartley, Josephine Ho, Amber L. Hollibaugh, Brenda Howard, Wendy McElroy, Inga Muscio, Joan Nestle, Erika Lust, Carol Queen, Candida Royalle, Gayle Rubin, Annie Sprinkle, Tristan Taormino, and Ellen Willis. Several of these have written from the perspective of feminist women working in the sex industry.
Information on formal organizations that endorse sex-positive feminism seems lacking but one major outpost of sex-positive feminism is the former cooperative business Good Vibrations founded by Joani Blank in 1977 in order to sell sex toys and publications about sex in an environment welcoming to women. Blank also founded Down There Press which has published various educational publications inspired by sex-positivity. There are a number of other sex-positive feminist businesses who thrive on a combination of sex toy sales and distribution of educational materials. Good For Her, a woman-owned sex-toy shop in Toronto, Ontario, holds an annual Feminist Porn Awards.
Nonprofit groups supporting sex-positive feminism include the currently defunct Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force associated with Carole Vance and Ann Snitow, Feminists for Free Expression, and Feminists Against Censorship associated with anti-censorship and civil liberties campaigner Avedon Carol.
Feminist pornography is a small but growing segment of the pornography industry. A Feminist Porn Award was established in 2006. The equivalent in Europe is the PorYes award for feminist porn, established in 2009. The magazine On Our Backs was founded in 1986 to promote a more positive attitude towards erotica within the community of lesbian and bisexual women. It flourished until 1994, struggled from financial problems and changing ownership and the final edition was published in 2006.
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Advocacy of sex-positive feminism
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- "A Feminist Overview of Pornography, Ending in a Defense Thereof" by Wendy McElroy, WendyMcElroy.com.
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- "Obscene feminists: Why women are leading the battle against censorship" by Annalee Newitz, San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 8, 2002.
- Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression, by Elisa Glick
- Political is Personal: Scholarly Manifestations of the Feminist Sex Wars, by Jenna Basiliere
- When Women Defend Pornography, by Dorchen Leidholdt