Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sex-positivity is a muddle

The following is a post I put up on The Asexual Agenda.

Several weeks ago, I was surprised to see the following quote, in an otherwise good post:
Many asexuals are ‘sex positive’ and therefore more than willing to have sex…
Whaaaaaaat?  Is that what “sex positive” means to the kids these days?  It used to be that being a sex positive asexual meant that you were “positive” about other people having sex.  So, when we have ~70% of asexuals self-identifying as sex positive, that’s what they’re trying to say about themselves.  The number of asexuals who are willing to have sex is lower than that.

I thought this might just be a one-time error, but some searching indicates that it’s somewhat common on tumblr, and has appeared at least once on AVEN. Most often, people contrast “sex-positive” with “sex-repulsed”.  This is a pretty egregious misunderstanding, because it’s collapsing so many different concepts.  It inadvertently equates people who are willing to have sex with people who are okay with other people having sex, and contrasts it with people who experience sex-repulsion.  A significant fraction (over half?) of the asexual community fails to fit these boxes, because lots of sex-repulsed aces are either willing to have sex, or are okay with others having sex.

The above definition of “sex positive” is a mess primarily because it completely fails to match the “mainstream” definition of sex positive in asexual communities.  But let me tell you, the mainstream asexual definition is a complete muddle as well.

Sex-positive, in asexual spaces, is variously defined as “okay with other people having sex”, or “celebrating all consensual sexual activity” or “feeling comfortable in the sex positive movement”.  So, for instance, take that 70% figure again.  The survey specifically defined “sex positive” as being okay with other people having sex.  But does that really mean, as the New York Times reported, that only 70% of asexuals are okay with other people having sex?  Or is it perhaps that a lot of people simply didn’t agree with that definition?  I mean, I’ve read a lot of aces saying that they don’t identify as sex-positive, and it’s usually either because they don’t want to be sex cheerleaders.

All these definitions of sex positivity are a muddle, not only because they contradict each other, but also because they mismatch the definition of sex positive in mainstream culture.  “Sex positive” is a term that’s been around since the 1930s.  It’s been associated with the free love movement, the 1960s sexual revolution, and later sex-positive feminism.  Do you really think all those non-asexual people were just trying to say they were okay with other people having sex?  The very idea is absurd!  And if you think those people only meant they were “celebrating” sex, that’s just as wrong.  Even the most conservative groups celebrate sex, despite the stereotypes.

The definition of “sex positive” as “willing to have sex” is a muddle because it fails to match the mainstream asexual definition of sex positive.  The asexual definition of sex positive is also a muddle because it fails to match the mainstream definition of sex positive.  But let me tell you, the mainstream definition of sex positive is also a muddle.  It’s a muddle all the way down!

Plenty of aces have observed that there appear to be two meanings of sex-positivity.  In some cases, people have argued one of these meanings is the correct one, and all the other people are not really sex positive.  But I don’t think this quite gets to the heart of the confusion.

To understand what sex positivity means today, it’s necessary to consider its current strong association with sex-positive feminism.  Sex-positive feminism arose out of the “feminist sex wars” in the 70s, which was a disagreement among feminists on the acceptability of porn and sex work.  Sex-positive feminism grew to encompass acceptance not just of porn and sex work, but also BDSM, polyamory, homosexuality, and bisexuality, not to mention standard feminist positions on abortion and contraception.  So sex-positive feminism is at its core about a bunch of concrete issues–and asexuality is not among those issues.

It’s easy to lose sight of all those concrete issues, and just think about the principle behind them.  For instance, the first line on Wikipedia was:
Sex-positive feminism centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom.
This is not unlike the many inspirational quotes we have about feminism in general:
Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.
-Marie Shear
But we should be able to see through the inspirational meaning.  The reason for these vague, idealistic, overly-inclusive definitions is that people want it to all be so simple.  “I believe women are people, so I must be a feminist, no matter that it’s a bad word.  That person is not a feminist, they must not really believe women are people.”  I guess It’s just too hard for people to say that maybe their opponents sincerely believe in gender equality, but have the wrong idea of how to achieve it.

But of course, it makes sense that asexuals care not so much about the concrete issues of sex-positive feminism, and care a lot more about the principle behind them.  Asexuality is not a core sex-positive issue.  To extend the sex-positive ideology to asexuality, we have to consider what sex-positive really means, underneath all the issues.  And as we can see in practice, sex-positive people do not consistently come down on the right side of asexuality.  It’s only natural that we would divide sex-positive people into two groups–the ones we like, and the ones we don’t like.

But I fear that there is only one group, not two.  It’s just one group, a group which hasn’t thought about asexuality all that much, and hasn’t come to any consensus on it.  Conversely, asexual people think a whole lot about themselves, but don’t seem to talk a whole lot about porn or sex work.