Considering the limits of sex-positive feminism

Sex-positive feminism has contributed a lot to the feminist dialogue over the past ten or so years. Addressing issues such as sexual assault and anti-woman sex norms are essential to any good feminist realm and to society as a whole. There is no question whatsoever that consent is inseparable from sexuality rights as a whole. However, a lot of sex-positive feminism comes with its own toxic implications and views.

Sex-positive feminism is a specific type of third-wave feminism that places heavy emphasis on sex. This may include sex life, sex norms or otherwise sexual and reproductive rights. Some of the most basic principles of sex-positive feminism are consent-based sex, prevention of sexual assault, sex education featuring accurate information and a positive relationship with one’s body and sexuality, all of which are pretty much universally good things.

The fifth principle I failed to mention is viewing sex as a universally positive and wanted experience. Although this serves a breath of fresh air for many people who grew up in sexually repressive or negative environments, this blanket view of sexual activity becomes very problematic very quickly. This ultimatum is simply not true.

There are a variety of reasons why someone would not want to have sexual intercourse, even when given complete sexual autonomy. People may remain abstinent for religious reasons, due to personal preference, for practical or logistical reasons, or may simply lack sexual desire in the first place. A variety of sexual expressions can be healthy, and it is not productive to normalize some experiences over others.

Claiming that sex is always a desirable thing erases the experience of people who either are not interested in sex or not able to participate in sex. Although many sex-positive feminists briefly address that some people may not ever want to have sex while discussing consent, the reasons why someone might not want sex at all are more or less glossed over. No one really addresses any situations in which someone may not want sex. Although talking about consent definitely helps lessen the blow, the lack of attention given to this issue can make asexual or sexually inactive people uncomfortable when speaking about the subject.

Although it is not a requirement to want sex in order to be a sex-positive feminist, many still turn sexuality into a Hobson’s choice. You can do whatever you want with your sex life, as long as you choose to have as much sex as often as possible. On the surface, sex-positive feminists seem to be concerned about choice, but many choices are still left out of the equation.

Furthermore, some people are still repulsed by sex. It is neither reasonable nor fair to hold people accountable for their own reactions. Many asexuals experience dysphoria when they see sexual stimuli, and many more people are simply made uncomfortable by sex in certain situations. Although it is important that highly sexual people are able to express their desires in a healthy way, people who dislike sex also need their wishes respected.

A healthy suggested alternative to sex-positive feminism is sex neutrality. Although the same principles of education and consent remain intact, sex neutrality views sex as neither a negative or positive thing overall. It is much more effective at respecting all choices and body types concerning sex, since no stigma exists around not desiring sex.

In a sex-neutral world, every sexuality choice would be equally respected, including the choice not to have sex. Sex education would focus around accuracy and consent, but without assumptions about the sex lives of the students. Sexual liberation does not by nature entail making those around you uncomfortable. Conversations around sexuality would focus on accommodating as many options as possible rather than having as much sex as possible.

Although none of the flaws I mentioned are inherent to sex-positive feminism, the view of sex as an innate, wanted and positive thing does nothing to question these problematic views. I have met more than one sex-positive feminist who either directly or indirectly ostracizes sexual inactivity and asexuality. Treating your body and desires with respect should go hand in hand with respecting all choices you can make with your body, and anything else would go against the principles of consent and autonomy which we have all been working so hard for.