Sex-positive feminism cloaks patriarchal notions
From the promiscuous brigade of “Slutwalkers” to Femen, the topless white saviors of womankind, sexual liberation is resurging as a means for women to have authority over their sexualities, thus wresting control from men who have long possessed female sexuality for their own self-serving purposes. Unfortunately in an attempt to make feminism sexy and accessible — transforming the movement from stereotypical hair-legged hippie lesbians to high-heeled powerful sex goddesses — sex-positive feminism ends up missing the point.
Theoretically, sex-positive feminism could radically transform the concept of female sexuality. Ideally, each woman owns her sexuality — it is not something to be possessed or critiqued by men or by other women, for that matter. However, sex-positive feminism in practice ends up being — more often than not — a repackaging of misogynistic impositions on women’s bodies, sexualities and gender performances sealed with a waxy lipstick-stained kiss. Rather than eradicating sexist oppression for all women, sex-positive feminism deludes privileged women into believing that by supposedly taking control of their individual sexualities, they are revolutionizing the way all people perceive female sexuality. This ideology erases the racial, cultural and personal influences that shape each woman’s sexuality and forgets to account for the chokehold that society has on our choices, no matter how self-aware we think we are.
Women are socialized to think that if they dress provocatively or have multiple partners, their respectability plummets. The focus is always placed upon how men will perceive sexually active women rather than how the woman perceives herself. Advocates of sex-positive feminism seek to subvert the male-centric notions that shackle female sexuality — rather than be ashamed of her body and her sexual desires, a woman should feel free to explore her sexuality on her own terms without succumbing to what men want. I see women on the news, social media and blogs embrace the idea of reclaiming sexuality because on the surface, it sounds very empowering. Only you own your sexuality. You decide, not him.
My biggest issue with this ideology arises with the concept of “choice” — that is, a woman chooses what to do with her body and her sexuality, and thus, all decisions regarding her physical appearance and sex life are personal statements of empowerment. But it is naïve to think that our ideologies exist in a vacuum, devoid of contamination from external coercions. There are a myriad of social influences that go into every decision we make. A sex-positive white heterosexual woman proclaims that she wears makeup and revealing clothing because she wants to feel attractive for herself — not to get attention from men. However, this supposedly autonomous choice raises so many questions: What physical features does this woman consider attractive in womankind? Where do such notions originate, and who is perpetuating them? Why does she want to replicate this definition of beauty? Why is there even a desire to have an attractive appearance in the first place? How are our choices really determined?
The concept of choice poses an additional challenge to women of color, who cannot engage with sexuality without being subject to discrimination. I can only speak from the perspective of an Indian-American woman, but it is hard to own my sexuality when I am subject to both cultural and social pressures that keep me from feeling empowered via my mode of sexual expression. The traditional brown family prizes the chastity of its women, who are expected to remain virgins until marriage, who are taught that “boyfriend” is a dirty word, who are told to dress and behave modestly for fear that her cultural community will besmirch her family’s good name and render her “too Western” for respectable associations. Yet, when white friends start to date boys in high school and everyone seems to be “hooking up” in college, we often get caught between trying to emulate sexually active white girls and hiding our Friday night escapades from our parents. And let’s not forget to mention the racial fetishization that often goes along with being a woman of color — even our sex lives cannot go untainted from racism, as men who once ignored us suddenly find our non-white bodies exotic, somehow imbued with a mystical sensuality and intrigue. Thus, women of color are constantly suffocated between having to perform both repressive and hyperactive sexualities, and sex-positive feminism doesn’t allow us any room to breathe.
As much as I wish every woman could undo this damaging gender socialization and develop a social consciousness that would completely deflect any patriarchal dogma from influencing her in the future, this is quite impossible. Parents, teachers, friends, the media and society as a whole constrict our ability to fully escape every aspect of internalized misogyny we harbor. But I don’t think that makes a feminist any less of a feminist to acknowledge the ways in which she internalizes patriarchal norms. Our personal and political ideologies are constantly being affirmed, challenged and changed, and complex contradictions of the self are inevitable. In the “Transfeminist Manifesto,” Emi Koyama states that “it is not the responsibility of a feminist to rid herself of every resemblance to the patriarchal definition of femininity,” and women should not feel alienated from feminism because they choose to maintain their physical appearance, or they choose to have sex with many partners. But when a woman asserts that these “autonomous” choices are the only way to be a liberated feminist without acknowledging the limitations of such an ideology, then it’s probably time to sit down with a nice cup of tea and rethink what it really means to be an empowered woman.
Rashmee Kumar is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with minors in women’s and gender studies and South Asian studies. She is the former copy editor of The Daily Targum.