Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beyond sex-positive

Because I write to a skeptical and pro-science audience, I can be reasonably sure that most of my readers consider themselves sex-positive.  That is, most of you believe that sex is a good thing, as long as all parties give informed consent, and no one is harmed.  You probably think that abstinence-only education is ineffective, that porn can be positive, that premarital sex is a good thing.  You also probably believe that abortion should be legal, same-sex marriage should be legal, and perhaps even prostitution should be legal.

I consider myself sex-positive too.  I think that the best basis for a sexual ethic is informed consent and harm reduction.  Tradition is frequently wrong.  Purity is meaningless.  Gross-out reactions are not a moral compass.  God's intentions don't exist.

But "sex-positive" isn't consistently defined in any particular way, so many people use it to mean different things.  Many people also interpret sex-positive attitude as, "Sex! Rah rah rah!  Everyone should have more of it because clearly that's what everyone wants."

"Everyone wants sex" isn't necessarily meant as a universal rule. For example, no one thinks that rape victims wanted to be raped.  Indeed, the idea that "she was asking for it" is a repugnant myth fought by many who consider themselves sex-positive.  And yet, some people universalize the rule more than they should.

That people take "sex-positive" too far becomes clear the moment you step in the asexual community.  When you're asexual, coming out to people is a crapshoot.  Even liberal-minded people can have negative reactions.  Those liberal-minded people are usually sex-positive, and some sex-positive people just can't process asexuality.  What do you mean you don't want sex?  You must be attracted to someone, we just need to find who.  Were you abused as a child?  Do you have hormonal problems?  Did you just have a bad relationship?  It's okay if you're gay, so why don't you just come out already?  You're repressing yourself.  You've bought into a puritanical culture.

Why do people bring up all these objections?  It's not because they've seriously considered each one (as asexuals have).  It's because the idea that everyone wants sex is embedded too deeply in their heads, and anything that might dredge it up just bounces off.

Oh, there's more.  Sex-positive people are always fighting norms against sex.  They fight the idea that women are "sluts" while men are "pimps".  They fight the idea that premarital sex is dirty, that virgins are pure, that fetishes are freakish, that same-sex sex is unnatural.  But they sometimes replace it with the opposite norm, that everyone should have sex.  It's not a frequent thing, but frequent enough to be a problem.  When asexuals first enter the forums all insecure because they've felt broken and abnormal all they're lives, then we have a problem.  When some depressed asexuals declare that they must lose their virginity so that they will no longer face shame for being a virgin, then we clearly have a problem.

And you know what?  This isn't even about asexuality, or sexual orientation at all.  It doesn't matter that I only consider myself borderline asexual.  If there were no such thing as asexuality, this would still be a problem, it's just that we would have a harder time recognizing it as such.  The bottom line is that people have different levels of interest in sex, different kinds of interest in sex.  We need not deny it or treat it normatively.

Some people will react by saying, "those people aren't really sex-positive."  But I don't care about that.  I care about the people and norms that piss me off, I don't care what you call them.

Let's consider a specific issue: celibacy.  In the standard asexual presentation, celibacy is contrasted with asexuality, because asexuality is an orientation while celibacy is a choice.  I have made this contrast too, though I prefer to frame it as a difference between desire and behavior, rather than orientation vs choice.  In general, a behavior can be non-chosen, as is the case for involuntary celibates.

There is a pretty good reason that asexual rhetoric tends to distance itself from celibacy.  It's because the main audience of this rhetoric is sex-positive.  Sex-positive people tend to associate celibacy with bad things like clerical celibacy and abstinence-only education.  But they have it wrong.  Celibacy is not intrinsically good or bad.  Celibates are not unnatural, and not necessarily repressed.  It can be an entirely respectable decision, one that's available to people of all orientations I might add.

To accept asexuality and reject celibacy is a little like accepting gay people but rejecting gay sex (as the Catholic Church does).  It can hardly be considered proper acceptance at all.

That's not to say that we can't criticize clerical celibacy, which is a more specific kind of celibacy.  If celibacy is part of a religious vow, then the vow becomes the primary consideration, and the specifics of the individual are secondary.  It should be the other way around.  Furthermore, requiring all leaders to be celibate implicitly places undue value on celibacy.  Also, if these leaders want to talk about sexual moral values, they're going to have a very narrow perspective.  Finally, I am skeptical about the idea of sublimating sexual energy into other kinds of energy.  That just has pseudoscience written all over it.

But I cannot criticize clerical celibacy by declaring that celibacy in general is bad.  In general, celibacy passes the test of informed consent and harm reduction.  That's all we need ask for.

(Some influence for this post comes from Asexual Explorations)


Anonymous said...

Is "sexual freedom" perhaps a better term for the combination of views you would promote? It certainly has some ambiguity and could easily be misinterpreted, but it would imply the idea that people should be free to enjoy whatever kinds and amount of sex they want (including no sex).

The idea of sex-positive individuals criticizing the idea of celibacy reminds me of something I hear sometimes among young women like myself who like to knit: some of my friends have been knitting away when they have been approached by another woman who proceeds to berate them for letting down the feminist cause by doing "women's work". Apparently being feminist or sex-positive are not about choice, they're about reacting to traditional stereotypes by conforming to the opposite stereotype.

Larry Hamelin said...

People do not tend to think things through. Normally, we don't have to think things through; we can do quite a lot (perhaps almost all) of our day-to-day cognitive work with fairly straightforward rules and shortcuts.

I'm just the same way, frankly. But, as a hetero/vanilla-sexual white Western middle-class male who has spent a great deal of time hanging out with a wide variety of people of different backgrounds, I've added an extra meta-rule: look for a diagnosis and don't offer advice until someone explicitly asks for it. I've also had the benefit of some formal training is sex education and information.

People, I think, are pleased with themselves that they've learned one new set of rules (sex and uncommon sexual practices are not evil), and they have an irrepressible desire to show off their new-found open mindedness.

And, to be fair, asexuality is fairly uncommon, and the concept that most people do want sex and one of the big problems of society in general is sexual repression.

I think people you mention who self-identify as sex-positive mean well, although they are without a doubt mistaken about asexuality at a couple of levels. I've found that a flat, unequivocal, nonjudgmental correction is very effective in educating such people.

(Your analysis of clerical celibacy is spot on. Celibacy is not bad per se; the problem with clerical celibacy is first that making any requirement or restriction on consensual sexual practice a condition of anything else is terribly bad, and making celibacy per se a condition reveals an underlying sex-negative and sex-choice-negative attitude.)

Larry Hamelin said...

don't look for a diagnosis and don't offer advice until someone explicitly asks for it.

I would also add: don't prompt someone to ask for a diagnosis unless they show clear evidence of distress and unhappiness.

miller said...

Intrinsically Knotted,
I don't really want to overthink the terms, because all of the terms are ambiguous. The problem with "sex-positive" is ambiguity; it nearly implies sex-normativity. The problem with "sexual freedom" is also ambiguity; it nearly implies that there are no norms to be applied, when clearly I have norms against clerical celibacy to start.

In asexual discourse, it makes more sense to call myself sex-positive. No one interprets this as sex-normative. Instead, it's interpreted as active opposition to antisexual attitudes which occasionally appear in the asexual community. Asexuals, after all, are not immune to believing that everyone should behave like them. Luckily, antisexual attitudes are usually short-lived.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

I dunno if you wrote this post in a vacuum or if, like me, you've been following the hints of this argument, this percieved opposition between sex-positivism and asexuality, brewing in the community for a few weeks. Either way, I consider this post to have summarised that argument, resolved it and made it worthless to discuss.

And then opened a bigger and older can of worms with your take on asexuality/celibacy. I've got to admit, I can see a lot of flaws in the cult of celibacy, and I'd love to quash it completely, but celibacy itself just means not having sex, for whatever reasons. And the point is, however good or bad your reasons are, whether they're interpersonal or through lack of options or because you don't like sex or because you're asexual or you want to focus on your relationship with god, you should be respected in your wishes not to have sex.

Larry Hamelin said...

you want to focus on your relationship with god, you should be respected in your wishes not to have sex.

First, the phrase "respect one's wishes" (and its variants) is a red flag.

There is a truth about asexuality. miller demands respect, in my reading, for the truth about asexuality: people should not say false things about asexuality and asexuals. He is not making the blanket statement that we should respect (in the sense of refuse to criticize) an opinion just because it is an opinion. People can still have false opinions which are deserving of criticism.

If an individual freely chooses to be celibate for whatever reason, this decision is exempt from criticism not because it is a decision, not because it is freely chosen, and because it rests on opinion, and not even because it necessarily rests on a true opinion, but because the decision does not materially affect me. (There are some more sophisticated criteria, but this criterion will suffice for a comment)

When, however, an institution establishes an institutional norm, we are outside of the domain of individual decisions that materially affect only that individual. We are always justified in critically examining institutional norms, especially of institutions such as an organized religions that claim substantial privilege to influence and establish societal norms.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Barefoot bum:

I just realised that I phrased my comment in ways that I probably shouldn't have on a skeptic blog, such as saying that ideas and beliefs couldn't be criticised. What I meant was that of course we should question ideas and beliefs. After all, how else could someone come to an informed decision? However, criticism of someone's beliefs about sex, which I think are especially important if they believe that sex is wrong, should never be pushed to criticising them for not having sex- the decision to not have sex lies entirely with the person, even if it's based on bad decisions.

And I agree with you 100% that we need to criticise certain institutional norms.

Larry Hamelin said...

I phrased my comment... as saying that ideas and beliefs couldn't be criticised.

I didn't read you personally as saying so; I meant only that people who do in fact believe that their own opinions should be immune from criticism regardless of their content often use this phrase.

[C]riticism of someone's beliefs about sex... should never be pushed to criticising them for not having sex.

We are in agreement on this point. The controversy is about why this particular belief should be immune from criticism.

Larry Hamelin said...

er... why this particular belief or behavior should be immune...

miller said...

Isn't there always something brewing about asexuality and sex-positivity? Sure seems like it to me.

I bring up celibacy because it's obviously an issue that will resonate with my mostly secularist audience.

Another issue that may resonate: pre-marital sex! Proponents argue that it's great because sex is great and it's important for couples to know they're sexually compatible before they marry. Opponents argue that sex is great and super-special, and should be saved for couples committed enough to marry.

Why are both sides so careful to offer arguments that strongly affirm the value of sex? I mean, out of sex and marriage, I would have thought marriage was the more special of the two. Obviously I just don't get it.

(Note that I am not criticizing abstinence until marriage in general, but criticizing a particular reason why people value abstinence until marriage.)

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

I think the insistance- "yes, we like sex. Just in a very strict, christian, heterosexual set of circumstances" is because they know that they need to be at least a little bit sex-positive to get any sort of popular approval.

Anon said...

Great post! People need to start respecting everyone's orientations without trying to impose their own views on them. And I agree with intrinsicallyknotted.