What should feminists do about sex? This is a question that has haunted generations of women; a question from which we cannot escape. What kind of society should feminists strive to build, and what place will sex take in this society?
For a while, the millennial answer to this question was sex-positive. For about a decade, we’ve been told that being young, happy, and sticky is one of the best things a person can be. We were told that women could be just as gluttonous as men, and that fingers and fists could be put anywhere, as long as both parties were happy with it.
We have been told that sex has the potential to be a radical and liberating act if we only allow it. Then the wind changed. sex Positive Feminism, we have now been told, is erroneous because it assumes that women are the same as men, have the same urges and desires. It is wrong because it exaggerates the power and potential pleasures of chance encounters. This is wrong, because deep down most women would prefer marriage to promiscuity.
The ebb and flow of feminism is not new, but there is something particularly frustrating about this particular discussion. First, both sides are right. There are, always have been and will be women who are attracted to carnal pleasures. They should be able to indulge without fear of judgment or violence.
Similarly, there are, always have been, and always will be women for whom sex will always be only an intimate act, filled with meaning and best shared as part of a committed relationship. Their choice should be respected. How to build a world that suits both of them and everyone in between?
While sex-positive feminists may not want to hear it, peer pressure is very real. If you say that people can make whatever choice they want, but mercilessly exalt the virtues of mindless sex, some young women will join you even if they don’t really want to.
I remember one day an old housemate said that she decided that a one night stand was not for her. She sounded apologetic, almost ashamed; society told her that the best way to live was to sleep with just anyone, and she felt like she had failed. Sex you don’t want can be a traumatic experience; terrible that she felt compelled to do so.
Similarly, postliberal feminists, as they call themselves, cannot deny that marriage has long been—and for many remains—a misogynistic institution. If their biggest concern is women’s safety, they can’t ignore the fact that 44 percent of women who have been raped or sexually assaulted have done so by a partner or ex-partner, according to the Office for National Statistics. If patriarchy is on the street, then it is in the house.
Sex-positive feminism eventually felt devastated because it assumed that men would not try to take advantage of the situation. Post-liberal feminism sees men as inherently malevolent, who can only be tamed by harsh conservatism. The former believe they can create an environment where all sex is fun and safe; the latter suggest that sex hurts women more than it doesn’t. Optimism meets pessimism.
However, they do have one thing in common: the pedestal they put sex on. Both of these currents of feminism place a lot of emphasis on the sex women have and don’t have, the sex they want to have, and the sex they should have. Can there be a place for a feminism that doesn’t care about sex?
This movement should have been born in the 1960s, but did not happen for reasons skillfully explained by Mark Greif in an essay for n+1. “Because moralists have been saying for so many centuries, ‘Sex must be controlled because it is so powerful and important,’ sexual liberators have been tempted to say, in contrast, ‘Sex must be freed because it is so powerful and important’,” wrote he. wrote. “But in fact, the liberation would be better if the reformers liberated sex, not because of its central role in life, but because of its triviality.”
It is not too late to try to imagine such a world. Instead of arguing about how men and women have sex with each other, perhaps we should first ask why we talk so much about sex. As is often the case in electoral politics, it’s not so much what people think about an issue as how much they care about it.
Gender-neutral feminism would argue that sex can be good or bad, dirty or love, but either way it doesn’t really matter. It is a physical act between two consenting adults; it is not inherently empowering or humiliating. It may have all the meaning in the world, or it may mean nothing at all; for some it will always be special, for others it won’t.
It is important to note that sex will always reflect the ills of society as a whole. Sex-positive feminism faces backlash not because of its internal failures, but because of the world in which it operates. Post-liberal feminism cannot be the answer either. The solutions of the past rarely solve the problems of the present.
Both argue, in their own way, that sex will always be inherently political. I think there’s room for a feminism that says it shouldn’t be, a feminism that’s neither glib nor dark, it’s realistic yet hopeful. What is this ideal world that we are trying to build? One in which sex is largely irrelevant. We eat, drink and fuck; it shouldn’t be anybody’s business.
The personal can be, and often is, political, but we must strive for a world where it should not be.