September 3, 2013

JOHN: Rethinking Sex-Positivity

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Sex positivity: The sacred tenet of liberal, white, feminist dogma that no one has dared to question. Sex-positivity is an attitude that embraces and promotes the open expression of sex. A lot of women of color have ventured to question inherent whiteness in the way sex-positivity is imagined in our culture. One recent example of this questioning of the widespread acceptance of sex-positivity was a group of women of color’s critique of the Slut Walk movement. “Slut” is a racialized term that not all women can “reclaim” and “liberate themselves” from as easily as white women can. In this way, the Slut Walk movement, though motivated by principles of gender justice and sexual liberation, actually reproduced a lot of racism. You can read about this critique and online dialogue through a simple google search.

On a personal level, however, I have always felt that sex-positivity was inadequate. For one thing, it universalizes a narrative of sexual liberation. The more sex you have, the more “liberated” you are. The less sex you have, the more “repressed” you are (and perhaps, in dire need of some liberal feminist saviors to save you from this state of being). This is the dominant and overarching theme of sex-positive rhetoric.

So, what’s wrong with the generalization that more sex = liberation? It locates sexual liberation in an experience of white heterosexual femininity. It does not take into the account the different experiences of racialization and sexualization of women, queer and trans people of color. For example, while, straight, middle-class women have been stereotyped as pure, asexual virgins, while women of color have been hypersexualized as exotic, erotic beings (see: Hottentot, harem girl, lotus blossom, fiery Latina, squaw, etc.) For racialized people, adopting a sex-positive attitude does not “liberate” them of such stereotypes, in fact, it fuels them further. In addition, the framework of sex-positivity does not offer a critique of capitalism and the way our sexualities are commodified and exploited, preventing the “free expression” of sex, in the favorite words of sex-positive feminists. Sex-positivity is also ahistorical; it does not take into account the ways attitudes about sex are related to histories of colonialism, especially the colonial imposition of gender and sexual norms. None of this is a particularly new way of thinking by the way, many feminists of color have critiqued sex-positivity for similar reasons.

What if it’s hard to discern the difference between your desire/attractionality and your oppression? In fact, what if our desires are enablers, through which such oppression takes place? Sex-positivity ideology tells us to blindly submit ourselves to such constructs, rather than interrogating and critically exploring them, seeking out our own unique paths toward true sexual liberation. After all, sexual liberation does not exist in a vacuum; it is entangled with the ongoing project of liberation from coloniality. I don’t even want to call it sexual “liberation,” because that word suggests that there is a magical point when we will be “free.”  There is not such a “point;” if coloniality is ongoing, then “liberation” is ongoing as well.

Thinking about sex-positivity in this way has made me scrutinize liberal feminism, in general. I feel like feminism has allowed me to replace one kind of self-hatred with another. I feel like feminism has replaced my internalized misogyny with internalized racism and coloniality. I have always deeply believed that justice is an imaginative project, a project of re-interpretation that allows us to imagine new ways of being, thinking, believing and existing in those ways. A liberal feminist narrative that uncritically embraces sex-positivity as the single path to liberation is no longer that space of re-imagination for me, though I don’t know where that space is, or if it has ever existed in any ideology.

I’m not arguing for an attitude of “sex-negativity” as much as I’m hoping for a world where we can all be more “sex-critical.” I know, deeply, the harmful attitudes about sex, sexuality and gender in my own culture that are pervasive. Many of them exist because of colonialism and neocolonialism, many of them exist as inadequate responses to ongoing colonization too. But most of all, they exist because we aren’t willing to do the imaginative work of rethinking what “sexual liberation” — if we even want to call it that — would look like in a neo-colonial and capitalist world. We would simply rather not talk about sex at home, and then allow the white man/woman’s language to speak for us when we are outside the home. Yet, as we all know but are unwilling to confront, the revolution starts at home. And I mean home in the most broad sense — the home, the family, the nation, the community or the place inside of you where all of these ideas and messages and expectations collide.

Rebecca John is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at rj224@cornell.edu. Mushroom Rage ap­pears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Rebecca John