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She’s Degrading Herself; You’re Performing Femininity; I’m Sex-Positive

Debbie says:

Usually I come to blog discussions somewhere in the middle, but I’m going to write about one that I saw unfold. (And now it’s almost a week later, so a year later in internet time.) This story “starts” with Jill at I Blame the Patriarchy (who is responding to a remark made by one of her readers about what people think of her). For those who don’t know the blog, I Blame the Patriarchy is one of the great bastions of “radical feminism,” and Jill and her co-blogger Twisty are kick-ass writers. (I put “radical feminism” in quotes because I believe there are lots of ways to be a radical feminist, and this is one of them.) I often don’t agree with them, and I almost never agree with them 100%, but I keep the blog on my reading list and I’m seriously glad that their voices are out there.

Today’s feminist, empowered by all those articles on vibrators in Bust magazine, chooses choices of her own free will. These choices mirror her own unique sartorial, sexual, and philosophical personality. That these unique choices happen to align precisely with standard male porn fantasies, and that they are therefore rewarded with positive attention, is purely coincidental.
Such a viewpoint is a luxury of youth. It is the great tragedy of the women’s liberation movement that fully-realized feminist consciousness is too rarely achieved by women who are still young and fit enough to take on Dude Nation in a knife fight. Too often, it’s only when a woman ages out of pornosity, and is too old to do anything but take pictures of cows, that she discovers what the world really thinks of her.

Towards the end of the post, Jill states the “radical feminist” position in no uncertain terms.

It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization. That femininity is a set of degrading behaviors that communicates one’s level of commitment to male authority and women’s oppression. That femininity is coerced appeasement, regardless of how successfully it is now marketed to young women as feminism.

Holly at the Pervocracy had a response (which is the only one I didn’t read in the normal course of my blog reading, but it was picked up by Clarisse at Feministe, and I did read this one. Here’s Holly:

Most critics of sex-positive feminism have not bothered to figure out what sex-positivity is. It’s not the giggling, hair-twirling exclamation of “it’s feminist to be sexayyy!” It’s really not. I’m not going to defend that strawman. (I also think it’s funny how often I get accused of being a Hooters-girl-bot, when I’m about the least Hooters-looking-person ever.) Nor is it the demand that everyone be sexy or have sex. Nor is it the claim that everything that involves sex is beyond criticism. Nor is it the suggestion that sex will fix all the problems of feminism.

Instead, sex-positivity is the belief that sex and sexiness are… okay. It’s the belief that people shouldn’t be judged by the sex they have. It’s the belief that consent matters and social norms do not. It’s the belief that porn and erotica are valid media of expression (not that the current porn industry is hunky-dory, cause it’s not) and that sex work ought to be just work (not that it currently is). It’s the belief that neither “slut” nor “prude” should be an insult. It’s the belief that every sexual and gender identity is valid.


Sex-positivity is, in a nutshell, the belief in sexual freedom as a key component of women’s freedom and of having a better world in general.

A lot of criticism of sex-positive feminism is really criticism of sexy women.

Clarisse at Feministe picked up Holly’s post and ran with it without analyzing it. Clarisse is smart and sharp, and is trying to make some level of peace by talking about how much she respects Twisty and radical feminism, while quoting Holly at length (and not quoting Twisty or Jill, which is interesting in itself).

At Alas, A Blog, Mandolin comes in to talk about the relationship between sex-positivity and fatphobia:

… a lot of the sex-positive stuff I’ve read has been pretty deeply entangled with fatphobia, even the stuff that’s not trying to be. Which, lots of stuff is, so it’s not like I think sex-positive feminists are more fatphobic than other people or even other feminist activists (probably less as a whole!), but sexuality and body issues are really at a–I’m going to say it, “problematic” :-P –crux so…

Well, at heart, I guess, I think some of the assumptions of sex positivity run counter to my experience as an unattractive woman. I’ve tried to pornulate, my goodness. And I’m not trying to say here “I’ve tried to be sexy” or “I’ve tried to be feminine.” Because I am feminine! And I wasn’t trying to be sexy, I was trying to be “sexy,” to be the ideal pornulated female. (And the fact that I never could is one of the big pains of my life since it eventually drove me away from my chosen career.)

Mandolin has a later post on the same subject with some nuanced and thoughtful comments about performed femininity, which I recommend that you read.

So here we have three women I respect (plus Holly, whose writing I don’t know), all making “blind woman and the elephant” responses to a very deep social problem. Jill sees sex-positive feminism as inherently degrading. Holly and Clarisse see it as a woman’s right. Mandolin sees it as something she’s cut out from by her body shape.

But …

As Lori Selke helped me figure out, none of them are really talking about sex-positive feminism. They’re talking about performed femininity, about women making choices that make them/us more conventionally attractive to men, and specifically to men who are at least as acculturated as women to defining certain shapes, sizes, and accessories as “sexy.”

Sex-positive feminism is not historically heterosexual. It is not only possible to live a passionately and unmistakably sex-positive life without ever touching a man, plenty of people do it. Plenty more travel in the world where “gender is not binary” signs are posted at every turn, where at least half the people they/we meet and hang out with and go to erotic readings with and go to sex parties with are not simply categorizable as either male or female.

Holly’s sentence (quoted above) that criticism of sex-positive feminism is often criticism of sexy women completely sidesteps this issue, because she is effectively defining “sexy women” as women who are conventionally sexy in the heterosexual culture, and who make use of the trappings of performed femininity, from high heels to make-up.

Jill, unaware or unexamined femininity is coerced appeasement. With awareness, it can become a combination of coerced appeasement, theatricality, and turning the horrible hand women are dealt into something we can actually play with.

Holly and Clarisse, sex-positivity is in the body of the person who feels it. It’s not in the eye of the beholder. Don’t make the mistake of conflating how people see us with who we are or what we like.

[NOTE: From here in, this post is edited to add a distinction between personal and political sex-positivity.]

Mandolin, I get it that your body keeps you from pornulating but, as you say, you are feminine. And Your own sexuality is about what works for you in your bedroom (or your car, or the beach, or the elevator) and whoever you wish to share it with. It’s not about how other people see you. whether or not you are sex-positive is, to me, a matter concerning what you believe and what range of behaviors you want other people to be comfortable (and joyful) engaging in. Regardless of how we look on a continuum of socially recognized sexiness, sex-positivity is about what we think people should have the freedom to enjoy without social restriction. Sex positivity is the extension of that to other people: it cannot effectively be conflated with anyone’s idea of sexiness in other people, because it isn’t about how other people see anyone.

One of the best things about the sex-positive circle I travel in is the vast range of bodies I see at events–everyone at a Perverts Put Out! reading is there because they/we self-identify as sex-positive. Someone can have their own opinions about whether or not I am sexy, or feminine, or womanly, but any opinion they might have about whether or not I am sex-positive is useless, because the only person with any say in that particular issue is me.

6 Responses to “She’s Degrading Herself; You’re Performing Femininity; I’m Sex-Positive”

  1. Maia Says:

    Interesting post – I’m in two minds about this:

    And whether or not you are sex-positive is, to me, a matter for you in your bedroom (or your car, or the beach, or the elevator) and whoever you wish to share it with

    Surely this conflates sex-positive as an individual attitude – and sex-positive as a political position? I find sex positive as a political position problematic, because I think sex’s role in society is incredibly confident. I’m not sure it’s useful to then make it an individual thing – but it’s very different.

    Also just FYI Holly was actually responding to this post post on xojane (as well as other material she’d seen including twisty). The post you quote is actually Twisty’s response to Holly’s post. I mention this because I think Holly’s is a lot more problematic in response to the xojane post, than it would be to some of the things that twisty has said.

  2. Clarisse Thorn Says:

    Interestingly, I think I understand what you’re saying when you address Twisty/Jill Psmith and Mandolin (I think Twisty and Jill P. are actually the same person? but I’m not 100% sure — either way, neither should be confused with Jill Filipovic, the main blogger at Feministe). But I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying when you address me and Holly. I wonder if you could say it another way?

  3. Debbie Says:

    Maia, you’re saying exactly what I woke up this morning thinking, and I logged on to edit the post to fix it; check out my rewritten version in a few minutes.

    I haven’t read the xojane post, but I’ve been told that it’s superb. I’ll get to it today.

  4. Lori S. Says:

    Charlie Glickman also had some interesting things to say in relation to this blog discussion:

    http://www.charlieglickman.com/2011/10/expanding-my-view-of-sex-positivity/

    And yes, I recommend the xojane post highly.

  5. betsyl Says:

    a question that i am left wondering what other people think about it, then, is can something be sex positive but not feminist? my initial thought is obviously, yes. i agree with twisty about femininity being coerced appeasement; that pretty much sings to me right now since i am consciously (and uncomfortably) making myself present in a more feminine manner to see if it helps my career. i also agree with what she says about bdsm; it’s about eroticizing the patriarchy, and i don’t see a feminist way to do it. does this mean that there isn’t a sex positive way to do it, though? i am thinking that there might be. i am thinking that there are certainly people who do it with enthusiastic consent and pleasure and wellbeing, although then we start to fall down on the wellbeing of the people affected by it.

    i may not be up for discussing this much further on the internet; personal issues are making me quiet on the public net on a variety of subjects. however, i am up for discussing it more in email (if you know my email) or in person (if you know me in person).

  6. Joy Says:

    “i am thinking that there are certainly people who do it with enthusiastic consent and pleasure and wellbeing…” I love this description because I am an older lady for whom this would describe my erotic life with my husband. I am very much a feminist and also my sexuality is centered on power play. I simply view it as the fact that we as human beings have a multitude of potentials–and sex is tied up with some of the more animalistic tendencies within us. For whatever reason, I get turned on physically by certain acts, rituals, whatever. But I don’t identify with them as a personality; as if they were in some way defining my role as a person or a woman in our culture. My belief is that we are more than what we do or how we identify ourselves. I don’t take these things outside the home or the relationship. One thing I have done, as it appears some of this post is cause for some of you to do, too, is ask these questions of myself–it was long ago. I wondered, was it a great schism that I was very much a feminist and also had deep bdsm feelings and fantasies? I realized we have the seeds of many potentials in our lives, and whatever we water grows. I could take things and get hooked on them or I could just enjoy the things I enjoy freely and let go when it was time to let go. That attitude actually helps me unplug from the patriarchy, as well. So I feel free from the need to engage as anyone’s definition of a “female” in many ways. it’s a really interesting place to be, frankly, and I don’t know if I am expressing it well enough here. But I was inspired to try to share because I have enjoyed a level of freedom I never expected to know.

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