Sex-positive feminism is far from perfect when it comes to asexual inclusion – or indeed including anybody who isn’t a white, middle-class, cis, straight, fully able woman. So I completely understand why a sizable portion of the asexual community steers well clear of this movement, where too many activists are openly acephobic and dismissive of our experiences. I myself stopped engaging in activism for several years because I was fed up with spending all my energy attempting to persuade other feminists to be more inclusive of marginalized/minority groups. But still, I don’t think writing off the entire sex-positive movement is the way forward.
I still believe an ace-inclusive sex-positivism is possible (and desirable!). The asexual community doesn’t talk about sex-positive politics wildly different than the movement as a whole. We come from a different perspective and experiences – as do queer and trans* folks, people of colour, people with disabilities, and working class people. But we all speak the same language, which has always been rooted in sexual freedom, agency, and self-expression.
Trying to define exactly what sex-positive and sex-critical feminism are, I think is a mistake. Sex-positive, sex-critical, and feminism are all used so diversely that the labels lack any concrete meaning. To a sex-positive feminist, the meaning of sex-positive feminism invariably coincides precisely with those issues that they personally believe in and prioritise. What sex-positive feminism is, is a disparate grouping of people – with a multitude of conflicting views – that they individually feel are important for women’s (and other genders’) liberation.
There are issues that have historically (and currently) been associated with sex-positive activism – porn, BDSM, and sex-workers rights. But different activists prioritise these (and other) issues differently, and there are differing views on how to implement them in practice. There is no standard sex-positive – nor sex-critical –party line. All these issues are far more nuanced than simply being for or against.
Obviously there are differences between the most sex-positive and sex-critical viewpoints. But these are vastly overblown by some dogmatic feminists insistent on continuing fighting the “Sex Wars”, and a media that can’t handle anything beyond a simplistic divide between “pro-sex” and “anti-sex” camps. Sex-positive and sex-critical viewpoints aren’t binary, but exist on a continuum with a whole heap of common ground in between. Sex-positive feminists can, and do, criticize misogyny and problematic practices in the porn and sex work industries. Sex-critical feminists are not automatically against all forms of sexual expression. Even views within the very sex-positive BDSM community vary as to where to draw the line in what is acceptable between consenting adults – some things are considered too risky or harmful – and there are debates within the community between people adopting a more “Safe, Sane, Consensual” or “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink” approach.
The “Sex Wars” itself originally centred on a pretty subtle distinction between anti-porn feminists arguing porn is always exploitative with the sex-positive side countering with there exists circumstances where porn can empower women. Susie Bright, an early sex-positive feminist, even credits the anti-porn Andrea Dworkin with inspiring the sex-positive movement to start “looking at porn with a critical eye”.
That there was hostility between the the sex-positive and sex-critical movements had less to do with wildly different ideologies – they were both feminist after all – and more to do with the personalities involved, and the zealous followers they inspired. Media giving attention to the most polarized views, and both sides caricaturing each other as “puritanically anti-sex” and “believing sex is always good” also hasn’t helped. In the decades since, feminism has evolved a greater emphasis on intersectionality, with more desire to find common ground from both sides.
This is the context that asexual sex-positivism finds itself. We are no different from other sex-positive feminists – we lean towards sexually libertarian approaches, whilst being influenced by our experiences as asexuals. Inevitably that means more focus on people’s freedom not to have sex, and on making sex-positive spaces more inclusive for people who don’t desire sex. Whilst other sex-positive feminists will pay more attention to those issues that they are more conscious of and feel more acutely.
The sex-positive movement in its current incarnation isn’t perfect. There are activists who take a dogmatic stance, who aren’t tolerant of anybody who thinks differently to them – which I think is problematic in itself as it obstructs debate and working together – but becomes infinitely worse when it is directed at asexuals, trans* and queer folks, people of colour, etc who have different lived experiences.
But, perhaps more common within sex-positive feminism (in my experience at least) are sex-positive allosexuals who don’t give enough thought to the experiences of asexuals, rape survivors, or anybody less desiring of sex – and consciously or not, inappropriately assume that their personal positive experiences of sex must apply to all of us. In the same vane white sex-positive feminists (including myself) too often don’t pay enough attention to race – and likewise with all the other privileges that feminists embody. Most feminists are aware of this deficiency in our movement, even when we fall short in addressing it.
As asexuals, it is tempting to divide the sex-positive movement into those who are with us and those against us. But I don’t think this is helpful, in just the same way as I don’t think it is helpful positioning the sex-positive and sex-critical as being opposed to each other. It fosters artificial divides between the asexual and sex-positive communities, furthering hostility. There is no great ideological gulf between sex-positive feminists and asexual activists – or sex-critical feminists for that matter. We all want equality, we just come from different perspectives and experiences – and sometimes reach different conclusions over what issues to prioritise and how to bring about change.
Many sex-positive allosexuals are little different from the rest of society when it comes to asexuality – lacking in awareness beyond the usual acephobic myths. This as well as the sex-positive focus on issues relating to sex, combined with us asexuals (mostly) differing drastically from how they experience sex, can lead to sex-positive spaces being pretty hostile for aces.
In attributing this misplaced hostility to lack of awareness of asexuality, I am in no way trying to excuse the behaviour – ignorance is never an excuse. But it does mean that I believe that it will improve in the same way that sex-positive spaces are becoming more inclusive of other marginalized groups. The more sex-positive asexuals engage with the movement, the more the lack of awareness will be challenged.
I don’t think it is asexual activists responsibility to educate sex-positive feminists over asexuality – the onus should always be on individuals to self-educate about issues marginalized groups, other than one’s own, experience. And personally I am reticent about mentioning asexuality around sex-positive feminists, given that I have experienced disproportionately more acephobia (and queer/transphobia) in activist “safe” spaces than in society at large.
But it is by small awareness-raising steps – by both asexual activists and sex-positive allosexual allies recognizing asexuality in sex-positivism, that progress will be made towards a sex-positive feminism that is inclusive of marginalized/minority voices in both ideals and practice.
Throughout I’ve used sex-critical to describe sex-negative/critical feminists as has less derogatory connotations than sex-negative. If anybody from this community thinks a better label would be more appropriate, I will happily change it.