Sex-positive feminism isn't (just) about sex, it's about power

Submitted by AWL on 24 October, 2021 - 9:43 Author: Elizabeth Butterworth
Sex workers

Recently I’ve been reflecting on sex-positive feminism and whether it needs a revival. The term may not be immediately clear if you aren’t versed on second- and third-wave feminism in the west, so it’s important to point out that it came about as a rejection of some radical feminist ideas.

Radical lesbian feminist thinkers like Jill Johnston, Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love posited that heterosexuality itself upheld patriarchy through the “personal domination” of women by men. In order to be truly free from men and the influence of patriarchy, you must “be a dyke.”

The ideas of some radical feminists when it comes to pornography and sex work were persuasive to thousands of feminists and still are today. Writers like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argued that selling sex takes away consent: money invalidates someone’s ability to freely consent. Dworkin wrote “Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman’s body.” (1) Catherine MacKinnon wrote, “If prostitution is not a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?” (2)

The latter is a fair question. As a socialist feminist I wouldn’t dispute that work, or earning money, is a necessity to survive in a capitalist society. Of course, economic factors including class must drive large parts of sex work. But does this negate women’s agency entirely, or make us unable to consent? Possibly not.MacKinnon, Dworkin, Dines and others would argue that pornography is, like “prostitution”, an act of male violence where women are subsumed and commodified and “used as receptacles”. Robin Morgan wrote, “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.” (3) I don’t doubt that there is tons of violent porn and that porn actors/ workers are more often than not treated poorly.

The difficulty I have with ideas like this, though, is that, whatever our experiences or reasoning, if we disagree with them, we are simply duped by the patriarchy. There’s absolutely no room for questioning these all-consuming assumptions, or with coming up with ways we could empower porn/sex workers such as union organising or campaigning for better rights. Doing so, despite the tangible effects it could have on many people’s lives, makes socialists and feminists into rape-enablers and handmaidens of the patriarchy.

In asserting this, radical feminism actually subsumes women’s voices — unless they agree with them — and acts as a kind of bossy big sister feminism where the subtext is “I know best” and “do what I say”, replacing critical thinking and women’s agency.

For reasons I would struggle to explain (especially as someone born in the 1980s) I’ve recently found myself consuming feminist content on the social media app TikTok, where typically users are much younger than those on Facebook (everyone’s gran is on Facebook these days) or even on Instagram (which is much loved by millennials). There’s actually a lot of good feminist stuff on there — that’s why I’ve stayed, I guess — including brief, punchy explainers on things like the male gaze, hilarious responses to misogynist “dating coaches” and critiques of art and culture like a recent trend of “written by a man” showing the absurd sexualisation of women in some media (also very witty!).

It’s about time that we brought back the debates we were having 30+ years ago: not because younger feminists need to be patronised or “put right”, but because if you believe in your ideas you should persuade others of them. I found it instructive ten years ago to read and understand these debates and to also see with my own eyes the massive shift that occurred (partly due to our activists) in attitudes to sex work.

It needs to be explained to as many people as possible that sex-positive feminism isn’t about thinking sex is great or empowering in some way. (A lot of sex would appear to be just quite boring, from what I read, which is reason #3167 we need better sex education.) Sex positive feminism is about believing women when they tell us that their relationship with a man is not coercive or inherently poisonous. It’s about believing women who say they’d rather sell nudes than work a minimum wage job. It’s about believing women who say their home-made porn isn’t hurting anyone.

But, more importantly, it’s about finding solutions that actually make sense. If women, as MacKinnon asserts, have little choice, shouldn’t we campaign for them to have choice, rather than removing sex work as an option? Shouldn’t we instead be campaigning for much better safety nets for the unemployed, for massive pay rises for millions of people, for immigration amnesties and decriminalising migration? That’s not to say that we shouldn’t prosecute human traffickers or sexually exploitative pimps, but we should make it easier for people to work safely and less likely that they turn to them in desperation for exploiters safety or protection they need. At the moment, our sex work laws are just as likely to target two women working in the same residence for their own safety.

“Women who don’t have choices” is surely code for women without immigration papers, women on poverty wages or no wages, women doing unpaid reproductive labour to support dependents and the like. Capitalist economics and ideology are hugely important and will often use the remaining forces of patriarchy to continue to exploit us. Socialist feminism has the most satisfactory answers to working class women’s lives, and always has.

(1) Dworkin 1993, Prostitution and Male Supremacy

(2) MacKinnon 1993, Prostitution and Civil Rights

(3) Morgan 1973, Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape

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