I am many things. I am a journalist. I am European. I am a woman. I am the oldest of three sisters. I am 5’2”. I am naturally blonde. I am a sex-positive feminist.
So what? Well, that’s a good question. I suppose the reason I’m telling you is because I have been thinking a lot about how my identity – or perhaps I should say the way I identify – has shaped my views. For me, a huge part of understanding and communicating what I believe comes through working out why I believe it. Everything I have listed above has contributed to my experience of the world. It is part of the way I see myself, and consequently it has become integral to the way I see everything else. Even relatively simple things like my height have an impact on how I experience life, not least literally (I’m hopeless in crowds, can’t see a damn thing). But there’s no doubt some have a more conscious effect on me than others.
If you read this blog regularly, you will doubtless already have worked out that I am female. You may have assumed I am European (British, to be precise) and you know that I’m a journalist. These are identity labels most people understand. You all know where Europe is. You know what a journalist does. But a sex-positive feminist? That one might require a little more explanation. And so as my first post of 2013, I wanted to set out a few basic principles that I see as intrinsic to my approach to… well, everything if I’m honest, but primarily to writing about sex and gender politics.
Let’s start with feminism. What does feminism mean? Well, as you probably know the jury’s still very much out on what feminism means, even after all these decades. At best it can be described as a social movement. At worst… well, there have been many uncomplimentary things said about feminism over the years but actually my (least) favourite is probably when it gets described as a ‘school of thought’ as though we are a group of bumbling professors sitting round discussing an academic point instead of activists fighting for real, tangible change.
The problem is that feminism does not come with a constitution. Its principles can be interpreted and applied in myriad ways. To my mind it boils down to the shared conviction that men and women of all sexualities, cultures, races and ethnicities should have equal access, freedoms, rights and opportunities.
Sounds obvious, right? Sounds straightforward. Unfortunately, because the world has a long, long history of opposing this idea, it is not something that can become a reality overnight. In many parts of the world women’s rights are still being actively curtailed. In others, the opposition is less conscious. A subtle yet constant undermining of women will have inhibitive effects on their access, freedom, and opportunities, even if their rights are officially equal.
If we ever want to see this kind of equality realised, we must continue fighting. And that fight takes place beneath the metaphorical banner of ‘feminism’. Those of us who join it will not always agree on strategy, we may not even agree on the target. The fight is and has always been messy; it’s been arduous. At times people have marched in the wrong direction, or round in circles. From time to time, weary and battle tired, people have deserted or crossed sides. As new people join they bring new ideas, dismiss old ones, or (more often than not) they bring old ideas repackaged and present them as new. Older members will adapt, they will embrace fresh perspectives and rethink their views or they will stand by their beliefs and cling to their old goals. In sum, everyone involved is human.
In labelling myself a feminist I identify myself as part of this fight and as one of these people, even the ones I disagree with. But I will not follow blindly in the crowd. There are many arguments out there that infuriate and frustrate me and I will rail against these, whether my views are popular or not. In doing so, I will try my best to be informed, coherent and considered. If at times I seem confused, unreasonable or ignorant… well, I’m human too. There are things in the world that confuse me, things that defy my sense of reason. And I sure as hell don’t know it all.
Which leads me to sex-positivity. No, it’s not just about liking sex (although I do) and it’s definitely not about being a ‘sexpert’ (which makes me cringe just typing it). A person’s approach to sex-positive feminism will no doubt be coloured to some extent by their personal sexual experiences and many sex positive feminists have their own personal campaigns or bugbears but broadly speaking, sex-positivity is the conviction that all forms of consensual sex are valid.
That includes sex with both men and women, sex with trans people or those who choose alternative gender identities. It includes group sex, solo sex, kinky sex, casual sex; it includes regular sex with a long-term partner, a one-time hook-up with a person off the internet, or the decision to have no sex at all. It means sex in exchange for money, it means sex as a performance; it means sex as consolation, celebration, reproduction, as a painkiller, out of curiosity, out of boredom, for exercise, for relaxation. It means oral, anal, vaginal, digital, and frankly any other body parts you can think of to play with.
As long as it takes place between people who consent then yeah, it’s okay.
[A problem some people encounter here is the idea that sex work can be defined as consensual since it is done in exchange for money which they see being a form of coercion. This is an interesting area and one that I’d like to explore in more depth another time so for now I’m just going to say yes, it can.]
Sexuality is complex and of course sex itself is incredibly subjective, shaped as it is by individual desires, beliefs, and even fears. This makes it simultaneously incredibly difficult and hugely important not to make assumptions about types of sex and to eschew stereotypes associated with them. We all like to think ‘our way is the right way’ but the fact is we are all individual beings and we need to work on understanding that individuality, not condemning it.
But what has this got to do with feminism? Well, I would argue that adherence to sexual stereotypes and a refusal to accept different types of sex as ‘real’ or ‘normal’ is profoundly at odds with feminism. When you reject the validity of people’s consensual choices on some level you deny their agency. When you denounce a sexual behaviour as abnormal, you marginalise those who practice it. This is no basis on which to begin a conversation about equality.
Furthermore, I believe that deference to certain paradigms of sex is at the root of a lot of the world’s gender inequalities. For centuries masculinity has been equated on some level with sexual power and femininity with sexual passivity. It sounds outdated perhaps but this theme of power vs passivity continues to inform sex and gender politics and until we properly confront it, what chance do we have of ending discrimination?
That’s not to say you can’t be sexually passive and call yourself sex-positive. You can. Hell, you can be celibate and identify as a sex-positive feminist. The point is not what you yourself choose to do (or not to do), but that you are open-minded about what other people choose to do and prepared to be understanding and communicative when it comes to forming sexual relationships. However, it’s fair to say that understanding your own sexuality is a good first step towards this.
I said before that everyone has their own little pet issues within sex-positive feminism and one of mine is sex education. Currently I feel first and foremost that the sex education we offer young people is too heteronormative. It also focuses, not wrongly, on safety – how to avoid pregnancy and how to avoid contracting and spreading diseases. What it lacks, however, is any kind of proper discussion of what it is to be sexual and to encounter sex – the desires, the reserves, the negotiations, the compromises, the compulsion and the aversion. Yes, teenagers need to know about contraception but they also need to know how to interpret their sexuality, and that of others. And at the end of the day I believe that people who feel confident and secure about their sexuality and sexual identity are more likely to seek safe and mutually consensual sex.
Finally, as I said, I do like sex. I like talking about it, reading about it, watching it, doing it. I like hearing about other people’s experiences of it and I like learning about different practices and behaviours. I’m immensely glad to live in an age where medical advances make it possible for me to have risk-free recreational sex and I’m happy to live in a culture where the stigma attached to this are (relatively) mild. Not only that, it’s totally free and it’s actually good for my health unlike pretty much every other hedonistic pursuit out there. So yes, I suppose that for me, being sex-positive and positive about sex are one and the same. And like any serious hobby, I am interested in the issues surrounding it, the problems, the pitfalls, the ways to improve it, make it safer, more satisfying and – yep, you’ve guessed it – more equal.