I'm writing this post in response to Lina's call, though I'm not entirely sure whether it fits exactly with what the call is calling for. I'm writing it as a person who does scholarship on sexually explicit scenes in literature, and as a person who teaches a lot of literature that includes explicit sexual representations. I think it's both important to be open to this stuff and to analyze it. And I'm writing it as a person who identifies as a feminist.
You'd think, with all of that, that I'd have no reluctance in identifying as a "sex-positive" feminist. So where does the reluctance come from? What exactly is my issue here? I like sex, and I like being a feminist. How could I not be positive about sex as a feminist?
Well, obviously, I'm positive about sex itself (anybody who isn't, well, that sort of sucks for them, doesn't it?), and I'm also positive about the sex in representation (for I think that it is a really interesting site of aesthetic experimentation, which is why I work on it). And yet, I resist the "sex-positive" label. Why?
Well, before I answer the "why" explicitly, let me take a detour into my academic past. Let me give you some context.
Age 21: I attend my first academic conference, and I end up in a conversation with a Fancy-Pants man whom I didn't realize was a Fancy-Pants. I begin telling him about how I'd like to examine representations of sexuality in X and Y, and he offers to buy me a drink. I demur, and we continue talking, though I notice that others are responding negatively to the attention that I'm being paid. We're interrupted when some need to say goodbye to him, and I attempt to join the conversation of my mentor. She tells me "don't talk to me - keep talking to him!" and I say, "but..." and she says, "I'll explain later!" [She does, and it becomes clear that she was all, "he's a Fancy Pants and if he's paying attention, you keep that going, sister."]
Age 22: I'm working on my MA thesis, and my second reader is a youngish male professor. I was looking at representations of sexuality in a Notorious Text by an American Author (one featured in a Seinfeld episode). We were looking at the draft of my thesis, and the only passage that he wanted to discuss with any specificity was a very explicit one, with the office door closed, and with mood lighting as opposed to florescent, and I felt extremely uncomfortable, and then he handed me his copy of Norman Mailer's Prisoner of Sex, complete with marginalia, to read between then and the next reading - which let's just say freaked me the fuck out as I perused it).
Age 23: Let's return to Fancy Pants. Another cocktail hour, and a discussion that detoured into the area of Victorian porn. (From this point forward in my academic career, I worked only under the supervisory of gay men and women. I don't think that this is a coincidence.)
Age 27: Fancy Pants again. A weird hug after an MLA party, and then he called my hotel room, when I'd not told him he should or could call me, saying that he wanted my contact information. (I should say, I don't think Fancy Pants is some sort of sexual predator or anything, but I was freaked out by these things. This is partly because I'm weirdly suspicious and Victorian. This is not to minimize what I felt, but Fancy Pants is actually a very nice person and a good colleague now, but at the time, yes, I was freaked.)
Age 32: A comment from a review of my book manuscript: "Furthermore, the author believes in sex. She is not afraid of it; she is interested in its power, its fun, its pull. When so much talk about sex ends up being talk about either danger or ethics, it is wonderful to read a feminist account of sex in X that does not see sex itself as the problem but rather analyzes the pleasures of sex and sexuality and shows us new ways to think about X and sex." (And yes, I realize that this is a totally glowing comment, and part of me really loves it, but another part of me feels like it's an uncomfortable evaluation of what I do.)
Why did I take you on this little journey through my academic past? I suppose it's because I believe that my history demonstrates why I'm ambivalent about the label. I have felt, at various times, that my interest in sex either puts me on the wrong side of other feminists or it puts me on the wrong side of lotharios who think that my interest in sex generally is an interest them. I'm positive about sex, and I'm a feminist, but I'm not uncritical about sex, nor do I think that the label "sex-positive feminist" is one that is altogether positive.
In part, I think my difficulty with the label stems from the fact that it preserves a virgin/whore binary. Either one is anti-porn or one is sex-positive. How is that any different from being a prude or being a slut? How is that any different from being a good girl or a bad girl? What if I'm a good girl who has an intense interest in representations of sex? What if I'm a bad girl who doesn't want to be defined by the academic work that I do on sex? I might be all of those things, but the label "sex-positive" puts me in a category. Either I'm a "bad" feminist (according to some) or I'm a "good" feminist (according to others). But what if it's more complicated than that? And what if my work on sex doesn't define my feminism? Or define me? What if I wish that reviewer of my book, as positive as that review was, wouldn't have called me out on how feel about sex? Would that reviewer have responded in the same way to a monograph by a male author? What the fuck does it matter that I think that sex is "fun" or that I'm interested in the way that it's "fun"?
And then I think that I'm an asshole, in some ways, for resisting the label. Is this just me not wanting to be "bad"? Is this me wanting to say that I "work on" sexual representations but that I'm "not a whore"?
I suppose the difficulty for me is that I'd like to be able to be interested in sexual representation without it defining how I am regarded as a person and as a scholar. I'd like to be "Crazy" first and foremost - I'd like to be regarded as a person - and not to be regarded in terms of sex or gender. That's a ridiculous thing to want, but that's the thing that I wish for. Or at the very least I wish to be regarded as a woman - without reference to how I regard sex or how I engage with sexuality.
The fact of the matter is, I'm only regarded in relation to my attitudes to sex or sexual representation because I'm a woman. And that's fucked up. And so no. I don't want to be seen or judged because of my interest in sex or because of how I evaluate its representation. And I don't want my feminism to depend on how I evaluate sex either. For me, feminism allows me to think about what I want to think about. And I shouldn't have to choose a label within that - "sex-positive" or "anti-porn." The fact of the matter is that I'm more complicated than that. All women are. All people are.
2 years ago