Saturday, March 15, 2008

On Being Reluctant to Call Myself a Sex-Positive Feminist

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.


Feminist Avatar said...

clap, clap, clap, clap.

ks said...

Great and reflective post that has me thinking. Like you, I have found myself feeling very uncomfortable with the advances so comfortably made by others--esp. when they held some position of authority over me. I have to say, though, that I don't think this makes one less sex-positive.

My impression of "sex-positive" feminism (and maybe this is my own spin on it) is that is separates sexual oppression from gender oppression, rather than conflating the two. (Gayle Rubin makes this point in her classic mid-eighties essay, "Thinking Sex."

Go ahead and dislike, disavow, and reject labels though! They can be so constraining, can't they? WHich I guess is ultimately your point.

Hilaire said...

Very nice post, Crazy. :)

Anonymous said...

Damn, I love this post. I agree too. When we were all talking about creating this carnival, we referred to it as SPFC (sex positive feminist carnival). Then when it came to the practicalities, Sex Positive ws rejected for these reasons. If you're not sex positive, you're sex negative. Sex positive means, eg, liking porn, so if you don't like porn you're sex negative. No. It just doesn't work like that.
Good post though - was cutting and pasting bits for the quoty bit of the carnival - so many really good points.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks, everybody, and I'm glad that what I wrote fits into what you were thinking for the carnival, Lina.

KS: I think you're right in your definition of the term, and yes, I think that's what Rubin gets at in her essay. I think my difficulty is that while I think it was important in theory to separate sex/sexuality from gender in order to move forward in the 80's that such a distinction elides certain complexities about how the two *do* intersect. So while it's important not to conflate the two, I think it's equally dangerous to pretend that we can take gender out of the mix when we talk about sexuality, or vice versa, and that's ultimately my primary point of disagreement with Rubin's essay. I don't really know how we can talk about sex without talking about how gender influences the way that we think about it, or how we can talk about gender without thinking about how sex (in the sense of the sex that it's appropriate in terms of gender norms to have) informs our understanding of it. One of the things that I find in teaching queer literature is that the primary difficulty that students have, particularly with same-sex desire between men - is that it disrupts their ideas about masculinity. They don't seem to have the same difficulty with same-sex desire between women - or at least it is less so - primarily because it "makes sense" that women are objects of desire. (Obviously this is complicated by representations of butch lesbians, but even still, I think both female and male students find it easier to think about female masculinity than they do to think about a "man" who doesn't conform to conventional masculinity.)

Dr. Crazy said...

Actually, I just thought of something else, and I think this gets to the heart of why I resist the "sex-positive feminist" terminology: it effectively reinscribes the link between gender and sexuality, i.e., as soon as you tack the "feminist" onto the "sex-positive" you're talking about a particularly female subject position. We don't talk about "sex-positive men" for example. So a term that perhaps is intended to distinguish between gender oppression and oppression based on sexuality ultimately works further to entrench the link between sexuality and gender for women, not to disrupt it. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but yep, that's my quarrel with identifying myself that way or with thinking about feminism as split along those lines. As Lina says, one can dislike porn while one can have a positive attitude about sex, and I'd go even further: one can like porn, and one can easily *not* be positive about sex. Thus, I guess I feel like the term is not only divisive but also really limited as a way of allowing us to think about gender and sexuality.

Kate said...

Oh, you identified my discomfort with the label so well Dr. C! Thank you! I would add that something about the label "sex-positive" reminds me too much of "choice feminism," because I don't think we yet live in a society where any of are truly able to make completely rational, oppression-free decisions, around sex or any other thing related to sexism (or racism, or queer oppression...).

Dr. Virago said...

Between your post and the further comments here, Dr. C. -- including the comments by other -- you have totally nailed (no sexual pun intended) what wigs me out about the term "sex positive feminist." Add to that the fact that the particular turn of phrase implies that a plain old feminist is *necessarily* sex-negative. Oy. Drives me crazy.

figleaf said...

Wow, nice post, Dr. Crazy. Also in your follow-up comments I think you nicely laid out the problem of trying to tack "sex positive" onto "feminism." The question I'm percolating at the moment is whether it's possible to be a sex-positive anti-feminist.


I remember it used to be pretty popular in 60's and 70's era text-based porn to talk about being sexually "liberal." Often in decidedly non-liberal contexts. Along the same lines I think I remember not-terribly-enlightened Victorian pornographers writing about "enlightened" attitudes towards sex.

So it makes sense that a word as overtly sexual-sounding as "sex positive" would be similarly popular among people who aren't themselves terrifically sex positive.

If you consider that sex in a sex-positive world will usually be *less* extravagant and boundary-pushing than it is today I'm pretty sure the it's one of those "I don't think that means what most people think it means" terms.


whatsername said...

Great post. Fuck labels.

I don't want a GD blog DELETE. said...

Reading this has helped me to lift from a deep depression that I might not ever find SOMEONE who thinks and feels like I do. It has been a black/ white issue and when I read "I just want to be a person" I almost cried...again...because the last time I cried, I said "I just want to be a person."

Down with labels. Down with ideology. Thanks for helping me feel alive again.