True feminism is all-inclusive. It doesn’t leave anyone behind, and it certainly doesn’t make any woman feel worse about who she is, what she has experienced or what she desires to experience. It doesn’t marginalize. I am just five weeks into an introductory Women’s Studies course at a community college — a watered-down, slowed-down, truly basic course where we haven’t learned much at all — yet we have learned at least that much. It’s an elementary fact.
Yet, many of the ideas I hear labeled as “feminist” in contemporary discourse are not inclusive at all. The most aggressive of these misled, modern manifestations of feminism — at least in my experience — is sex positivity.
My understanding of the sex-positive movement, in its ideal form, is that it aims to end all negative perceptions of sexuality — to end slut shaming, kink shaming and the Madonna-whore complex. It aims to educate and to spread awareness of the female anatomy and understanding of the female orgasm. I don’t disagree with any of these goals; I disagree with the way sex positivity has trickled down — the way I hear it expressed by real people in real conversations.
I have been told by sex-positive “feminists” that the solution to any problem, or to any anxiety, is casual sex. I have heard physical arousal prioritized over emotional connection and trust so many times that it makes me nauseous. No, I’m not repulsed by your enjoyment of casual sex; I’m actually very happy for you. I’m repulsed when you tell me how I should feel about sex —that my aversion to it is irrational, that my desire for a deeper connection is silly. Don’t ever tell anyone that his or her very real, very legitimate feelings about sex are silly. You have no idea what that person has been through.
The sex-positive movement is the most marginalizing force I have ever experienced. Now, that says a lot about my privilege. I’m white, cisgender, middle class … and I don’t label my sexual orientation, but I can sure as hell pass for straight. I had a decent lot in life, until I attended UCSB and accumulated a number of experiences with physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
The sex-positive movement didn’t cause those experiences — misogyny and rape culture did. But as a survivor of all of that, I find that the way that sex positive “feminists” treat me is incredibly problematic.
I identify as a survivor of sexual assault. I identify with a number of the mental disorders that accompany such survival. I identify as the girl hitting her head against the drinking fountain outside, trying to stop the flashbacks that were triggered when a sex-positive “feminist” made the (perhaps unconscious) decision that her right to express sexual freedom superseded the right of others to feel safe.
Hyper-sexualized language is triggering. Aggressive sexual imagery is triggering. A fellow student once opened a porn gif on his phone and held it in front of my face, in a situation where I physically could not walk away from it. I don’t know if that was micro or overt, but it was passed over as sex positivity, when it was nothing more than marginalizing aggression. And that wasn’t the first or the last time that sex positivity forced me into panic, while its advocates brushed off my feelings and experience with three words: “It’s just sex.”
I don’t hit my head on drinking fountains at UCSB anymore. I took a leave of absence because the culture made me feel so small. Sex positivity drove me 300 miles away, where I am now five weeks into an introductory Women’s Studies course at a Bay Area community college.
That’s my story. I won’t tell you any more about it, so as to avoid gross overuse of pathos. You shouldn’t need the full-length tragic account of one survivor in order to sympathize with this issue — it’s much simpler than that.
The statistics vary, but in one report by the Centers for Disease Control, 20 percent of female college students reported having been raped at some point in their life. Rape is also drastically underreported. That means at least one in five college women are survivors of sexual assault. Most, if not all, of those women have a much more complicated relationship with sex than sex-positive “feminism” is willing to acknowledge.
Those women matter. Those women are a minority, and they have had their voices taken away in a more profoundly psychological way than any other marginalized group. Those women deserve to feel safe, to not be triggered everywhere they go. They deserve to rediscover and redefine sexuality on their own terms, in their own time.
I’m sure that all the self-identifying sex-positive “feminists” reading this article have been offended every time I put “feminist” in quotes, but that’s the point I’m trying to make. Sex positivity is a movement with many admirable goals, but the reality of it has stretched into something that marginalizes survivors, asexuals and anyone for whom sex is more complicated than simple consent and the distribution of orgasms. When a movement begins to marginalize, it ceases to be feminism.
I’m not saying that sex positivity needs to end — I’m saying it needs to change. It needs to acknowledge the complex relationships women have with sex. It needs to acknowledge survivors.
I recently attended UC Berkeley’s production of “The Vagina Monologues,” which celebrates female sexuality, but places equal emphasis on the reality of sexual assault. At the end of the show, the emcees asked audience members to stand or otherwise indicate if they indentified as survivors. I experienced a small convulsion, as my immediate response was to stand, but when no one else stood, I felt a flash of the shame that had plagued the past year of my life. Then, as I sat there mortified with my knees locked, I saw a hand go up. Slowly, across the room, women began to raise their hands, and I raised mine as well. None of us had the courage to stand, but we were all there, and we were not few.
In my experience, survivors are the quietest people you will ever meet. They have been made to feel small through many aspects of our culture, with sex positivity being just one of the drops in an ocean of oppression. But if you give them a chance — if you let them feel safe — the survivors have absolutely the most important things to say.
The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.