We are sitting in some café on King Street on a Thursday evening. The conversation turns to our plans for the night – will it be a big one? Are we going to get wasted? And then of course, a painful non sequitur. “Who’s feeling sexually frustrated?” a friend asks, in all her blonde, leggy, outrageously attractive glory. Everyone at the table raises their hand – I don’t. She turns to me, apparently incredulous. “Admit that you’re sexually frustrated. Who have you even had sex with recently?” I reply meekly that I just don’t feel that “sexual” at the moment, finish my coffee and head home disgruntled but apathetic. As a queer, wom*n of colour with many well-meaning, but painfully perfect white, heterosexual friends, negotiating one’s sexual anxieties is difficult. And of course, the constant pressure to adopt the open, fun-loving and liberal attitude – which they, and dominant feminist discourse, assume – doesn’t make it any easier.
‘Sex critical’ is a vexing term. By its very nature it implies something negative, and in comparison to ‘sex positivity’, it might seem so. For those in the dark, sex positivity, as defined by YouTuber Laci Green, is “the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life”. It celebrates “sexual diversity, differing desires and relationship structures, and individual choices based on consent”. Laci’s definition seems uncontroversial and we wish it was too, but unfortunately we don’t live in a post-racial, post-class, post-systematic-structures-of-oppression-that-suck-and-warp-everything world.
With its fixation on self-care and self-responsibility, sex positivity can often fall into the neo-liberal trap of self-reliance and prescriptive victim-blaming language of “you should”. This means that systems of privilege are continually obfuscated by a fun, free-for-all mentality that regurgitates second-wave feminist notions of all women having an ‘equal choice’. However, if one concedes the complex, intersectional experiences of oppression that many wom*n negotiate, this is problematic. As two wom*n who have experienced how sexuality can be inconsistent with “just embrace it” rhetoric, the expectation to perform to the rose-tinted dialogue of sex positivity has often invalidated our experiences and perpetuated self-shame.
Further, by placing all the emphasis on the individual subject to ensure they practice enthusiastic, liberating sexual experiences, sex positivity inherently resists self-interrogation and criticism on a collective, structural level. Instead of championing the idealised world of a million sexualities that are embraced and regarded “equally” as Laci and we would like, sex positivity becomes a guise for promoting the very patriarchal, hetero-normative vision of sexuality that feminism should be destabilising – not abetting. We only need to look at the increasing support for Cosmo as a tool for empowerment; because last time we checked, flawless eyebrows and “19 signs he wants you” doesn’t scream accessible.
Laci assures us sex positivity is about “potential”, but its discourse is not positioned so. Seeking an aspirational reality where sex is not complex and confusing requires diminishing the fact it presently is. We can’t support a feminism that acts as though access to choice is uniform, that sexual violence isn’t a tool of colonialism and that differently-abled wom*n should fight hegemonic structures alone. By giving sex and consent the complexity and respect it demands, we can practice a philosophy that stands for all wom*n by placing at its center those who are systematically erased. That doesn’t mean rejecting the potential that sex can be positive, but accepting that it does not need to be and that presently it is not for many. For those wom*n who can embrace sex positivity comfortably, you are privileged. However, exclaiming it to others and expecting them to adopt the same attitude is not only inconsiderate, it’s unfair. So for solidarity’s sake: remember sex positivity is the future ideal, but not our current reality.