*Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault, survivorship, and overcoming sexual violence. Please take care of yourself if this is a triggering subject for you to read about. Recently, an article was published on the HuffPost Living Canada by author Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, entitled “Why ‘Sex-Positive’ Feminism Is Negative For Me”. The article, which hones in on the much-lauded Cliteracy Project as focal point, is quick to present a much-needed perspective on how sex-positive feminism/sexual pleasure could be a triggering subject for many survivors of sexual assault.
“Like many popular presentations of feminism today, the Cliteracy project seems to propagate the idea that sexual empowerment in the 21st century means that women should enjoy getting off and that men should enjoy getting women off. While society has long been plagued by suppressed knowledge of the female sexual anatomy, a superficial and reductionist critique like Cliteracy results in men being able to think that they are being "good" feminists by mere virtue of enjoying giving oral sex to women. The idea that "good sex" or a "healthy sex life" can be quantified by levels of arousal or frequency of orgasms fails to meet the needs of people who have a complicated relationship with sex because of past trauma, gender dysphoria, or other factors,” Pflug-Black writes. She continues the argument against sex-positive feminism by detailing her history as a survivor, her concerns with the movement as an alienating and often frivolous examination of sexual pleasure as reclamation.
Though I believe Pflug-Black makes an excellent testimonial to her own personal narrative, I believe that she may be directing her frustration and feelings of alienation towards a movement that is designed to help her and other survivors heal and come together in solidarity. After all, I want to believe in a community and society that takes threats of violence and assault seriously, that does not victim-shame, alienate, or further oppress/traumatize survivors. That said, I also think it is extremely important to examine the roles that whorephobia, slut-shaming, transphobia*, and internalized misogyny play in this article when considering the argument for and against sex-positive feminism as a movement.
To begin, I’d like to propose that sex positivity be viewed as a non-binaried movement that encompasses not only reaction against the Madonna-Whore complex, but also as a mobilization of choice: the choice to engage in hot, consensual sex with another person (or other people), the choice to make one’s own decision about what makes them feel sexy/how they want to be touched/if or how they want to be appreciated. For me, sex positivity has not, as Pflug-Black argues, rested on the orgasm as a sole end-point for being a true feminist, but rather as the autonomy described in a post, entitled "A Few Thoughts on Sex Positivity...," by Trudy from Gradient Lair:
Where I prove my politics is unending support for everyone else’s rights to choices, deconstruction of the oppressive forces that shape, marginalize, limit or block these choices and in the process of listening and learning, accepting the fluidity and nuances of gender, sexuality, sex and desire. Where I prove my politics is being true to my own desires and deconstructing them as well, but not to prove a thing to anyone else, but to challenge where my own oppressive thinking may lie. As I often write and say, how we embody the oppressor within is where all feminist work begins.
Trudy is spot-on with this analysis; it is important to remember that we were largely raised in societies that taught us to be misogynist, racist, ableist, and transphobic, societies that taught us Kantian and Puritanical ideas of sex that oppress people who are read as or socialized as female. When Pflug-Black throws downward punches at sex-positivity as a movement that oppresses survivors because of its reclamation of femme aesthetics, interest in the clitoris as a vital organ, or discourse and deconstruction of whorephobia, then she not only presents a reductionist argument of sex positivity, but she also exhibits how she embodies the oppressor within.
Is it problematic that sex positivity often gets construed as a dichotomous representation of prude/whore binaries? Absolutely. Do the terms ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ prove easier to reclaim by privileged white women than women of color? You bet. Do cisgendered women have more visibility and voice? As usual. Sex as the basis for a movement is a tricky thing to reign in—because it is so private, has such a history of secrecy and shame, and has repeatedly proven to be a source of trauma because of the way bodies of marginalized people are fetishized and commodified.
That said, what I think Pflug-Black’s argument lacks is the acknowledgment that a huge part of sex positive feminism has been the movement towards centering survivors and survivorship in a way that uses sex and pleasure as a source of reclamation, rather than shame or trauma. Staci Haines, a Cleis Press author, wrote The Survivor's Guide to Sex: How to Have an Empowered Sex Life After Child Sexual Abuse, which is just one of many crusades to allow for empowerment after the disempowering experience of repeated sexual assault.
As I stated above, I do believe that Pflug-Black gives voice to an important concern when discussing empowerment through sexuality; the voice of the survivor must always be centered in discussions of eroticism of any kind. However, attacking the movement or the Cliteracy Project seems counter-intuitive and harmful. The ideas that these projects represent (survivor-centric sex, non-oppressive communication, reclamation of slurs, education about the clitoris, and discourse around consent and choice) can be valuable resources to survivors, and provide information and access to a community where shared experience makes visible the hardship of trauma.
I would challenge Pflug-Black’s closing statement, “Women's sexual empowerment is not an issue which can be separated from broader struggles for gender justice, and in order to support its realization, we must fight collectively for serious social and political change with the same passion and uncompromising desire we bring to our bedrooms.” I want to take this proclamation one step further by challenging the author to fight the way her thinking embodies oppressive and misogynist ideas of femininity.
“Almost 10 years later, the face of popular, "sex-positive" feminism seems to have changed very little. It still seems to be a movement geared towards middle-class, mostly white, liberal, cis-women for whom liberation may indeed be a simple matter of achieving greater sexual satisfaction, ending the culture of slut-shaming, and re-appropriating femme aesthetics.”
Not only is this statement reductionist (there is nothing simple about sexual satisfaction, ending the culture of slut-shaming, OR femme identity), but she also let’s her own femmephobia fly. Femme identity has a long history within the queer community of being a community of survivors/healers/badasses who, if they present as feminine, have reclaimed femininity in a way that acknowledges that walking around in the world as a femme is an everyday act of war against systems of oppression (see “The Femme Shark Manifesto”) . Though I appreciate and honor well-presented critiques of any movement, I am frankly growing weary of the old feminist tirade against femininity (not that femme identity and femininity are one in the same! Quite contrary). Misogyny, unchecked privilege, patriarchy, violence, oppression—these are the Clydesdale power-houses behind inequality. Femininity, other women, clits—these are decidedly not the problem, here! And nothing makes me sadder than when I see powerful voices with respectable things to say railing against other oppressed groups of folks.
Sex positivity is a movement that, like every movement, is fractured by imbalanced power dynamics, privilege, and the ever-present fight to overcome the oppressor within. It is not perfect by any means, and struggles with many of the same systemic problems that exist in overarching systems of oppression, however to exclude the survivor’s voice in the movement is to do a great disservice to the mobilization of pleasure-centric empowerment that is discoursing right now in feminism. Instead of focusing energy on furthering slut-shaming and an anti-femininity agenda, perhaps we should be having more conversations about how to better support and care for the survivors in our midst, as well as challenging the ways internalized misogyny further hurt and harm our traumatized family. The clitoris may be an iceberg and not a button, but so is the concept of consent, and this discussion is part of what furthers the fight. Pflug-Black may be right that we need to reach beyond the orgasm and take context and history into consideration, but she falls flat on caring for the multifaceted and complex structure of sex positive feminism.
*I found problematic language in Pflug-Black’s article, as she repeatedly uses the terms “female-bodied” or “male-bodied” to talk about genitalia. This is an unacceptable and often oppressive way of talking about bodies, and makes the argument that transwomen, for example, are male-bodied if they happen to have penises. Saying that someone is female-bodied, regardless of how they identify, is saying that gender relies on anatomy or biology, and does not pay due respect to the fact that gender is complicated, and that assignment at birth may not match one’s identity.