I recently came across the baffling phenomenon of Yasmin Benoit, who combines the seemingly opposed vocations of lingerie model and asexual activist and yet somehow finds the time, between these duelling identities, to sound off on every woke talking point under the sun.
I wasn’t flipping through a lingerie catalogue (assuming they still exist) — no, I was directing my male gaze to far more pornographic material: the Guardian website.
“Sex positivity” is really an attempt not to celebrate sex, but to deconstruct it
Apparently sex-positive feminism is over (says Gaby Hinsliff), and the way you know that is a pop star said it. At the risk of criticising the fine men, women and non-binary people who write for the Guardian, dare I suggest that this is how we got here in the first place? (Here being a world of women being strangled, slapped, sworn at and spat on as a routine aspect of “casual dating”.)
It is, after all, the Guardian which has over the last twenty years gleefully catapulted the most overtly sexualised media into respectability on its pages. It is, after all, the Guardian that happily printed (and still does print) endless columns about how stripping, promiscuity, polyamory, prostitution (sorry, “sex work”) and pornography are empowering.
If the Guardian didn’t lead the charge on the cultural shift that saw high-brow liberal media outlets suddenly decide they adore the most overtly sexualised culture of our day, then it certainly did nothing to resist the trend.
What fundamentally separates a broadsheet that prints stories about the abuse, rape and murder of women alongside celebrations of their objectification from the tabloid newspapers that put rape gangs on the front page and tits on page 3? Only the length of the words involved, and increasingly, not even that.
Sex-positivity and lingerie modelling may seem odd bed fellows for asexuality, but delve a little deeper and nothing could make more sense. The one thing our modern obsession with sex isn’t about is, paradoxically enough, sex itself. “Sex positivity” is really an attempt not to celebrate sex, but to deconstruct it.
If you want to understand the insanity of the past 20 years over sexuality and gender, you have to first get to grips with what liberalism is. At its heart is the concept of individual autonomy — the idea that the single highest principle of our society should be the absolute power and ownership of a person over their own body and being, and a no less absolute taboo on any outside force that seeks to compromise that autonomy.
Having stripped back many prior norms about male and female roles, sexual ethics and family life in the name of a broadly conceived “freedom” for the individual, liberalism has now taken a more introspective turn. After removing most of the outward and formal demands of law and society on the individual and their body, the individual must now be absolutely freed by purging themselves of the interior restraints they may still possess, and at the same time claim absolute possession of their own physical and psychic self.
In this interior battle, it is biology itself that has become the enemy. Nothing more expresses the teleological nature of human existence than fact of our sexed bodies — sex and reproduction are a constant drumbeat reminding us that we don’t exist for ourselves, but for the sake of our descendants. Severing sex and reproduction have long been a liberal project, and technological progress has certainly helped accelerate that process.
However the ideological project must go still further — even when sex is fully contracepted and bodies safely sterilised, our sexed nature is still stubbornly pointing and gesturing towards reproduction, reciprocity and the renunciation of the self in the embrace of the other.
Liberalism has a logos (a rational ordering principle) as we have just seen and discussed, but it no less has a mythos — the stories and narratives that really do the work of persuading and mobilising people even when they are entirely unaware and untouched by the formal theories behind liberal politics and social policy.
The mythos of modern liberalism involves surrounding all reciprocal, social and communal sources of authority and wisdom with a sinister halo. Society is ruled by hidden “structures” that exist to exert covert power over you, whether that is “white supremacy”, “patriarchy” or “heteronormativity”. These structures can be first exposed, then deconstructed by playing games of language, perception and reformulation.
The individual once they have legally emancipated themselves from their neighbours must now conceptually and symbolically emancipate themselves from every factor in their existence that is not willed and determined solely by themselves.
This seemingly gentle epistemic game is but the outer layer of the profane mystery cult of liberal modernity — its inner secrets involve far more gruesome and violent rituals. Whilst external demands are lost in a fog of deflection and deconstruction, the brute fact of embodiment requires that ownership be violently asserted over the body.
Like generations of philosophers and mystics before them modern liberals are troubled by the openness of the body to impulses uncontrolled by rational faculties and the individual will. Every sense is open and yearning towards the world, and the appetites and needs of the body perpetually undermine the intentions of the rational subject.
A violent and gnostic world of mutilation and blood sacrifice
But the approach taken to this question has shifted considerably from the genteel disciplines of an enlightenment liberalism which took its cues from the stoics, and has turned to a more ferocious and quasi-religious drive to subjugate the body to the mind. In this new world the ethical and conceptual legacy of Christianity freely merges with a neo-pagan sense of pluralism and fatalism.
The imposition of the individual will on the body is a perpetual and open-ended quest, and one with ever intensifying levels of initiation and extremity. At the shallow end, inhabited by those living out but largely ignorant of liberal ideology, are such new cultural practices as tattoos, piercings, non-natural hair colours, and of course gender non-conforming grooming and fashion.
At the deep end are “gender affirming” surgeries which remove or reshape healthy tissue and organs, transhumanist “body modification” in which people seek to permanently mould their bodies to integrate technology or imitate animals, reproductive surrogacy with “rented wombs”, genetic modification, and voluntary sterilisation.
The seemingly irenic nature of liberal language games is an illusion, one concealing a violent and gnostic world of mutilation and blood sacrifice. Like a cross between the mediaeval flagellant scourging his sinful flesh, and the Dionysiac reveller in the grips of mystical excess, the ideal “countercultural” autonomous subject gains mastery over their own being, aiming at achieving a state in which they are purely self-defined.
In complementary contrast to the virginal lingerie model was another Guardian article (yes I know at this rate I’m going to go blind) which celebrated a new type of “sex club”. In particular it praised a club all too appropriately named “Crossbreed”. A playground for progressive perverts, it boasts having “a trans and femme-only play space”, a “mutual aid ticket scheme to help those on low incomes”, and is proud to “positively discriminate on the door to make space for trans, non-white and disabled people.”
But here too if you look beneath the gimp masks and the latex you discover a world that isn’t really about sex at all. According to the article, “While some people go to fetish events to ‘play’ — the BDSM scene’s sweet, euphemistic term for all sorts of activities, including sex — what keeps most people coming back to Crossbreed is the combination of music and community.”
After a brief period of purgative hedonism of the old sort, sexual morality is back with a vengeance — only rather than sex being religiously and ethically chaste, it must now be politically chaste: innocent of the sexually inheritable original sins of “cis-heteropatriarchy and white supremacy”.
Sexuality is transmuted into power
The seemingly improbable marriage between BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism) and liberal individualism is in fact a perfect match. Instead of the implicit and reciprocal compromises of a traditional sexual relationship, practitioners engage in a highly formalised and contractual system in which they play out hierarchy as a sexual game in which individuality is apparently (but never really) endangered, only to be perpetually recovered and restored.
In this world Yasmin Benoit is an ideal liberal type: she “owns” her body and sexuality by profiting from them, but has fully alienated erotic desire from sexual performance. Even as she sexualises herself in an affirmation of her total self-ownership, she fully denies the physical act of sex and the reciprocity that it entails. Like the “slut walks” that Hinsliff’s article references there is also a certain glee in knowingly denying any link between sexual display and sexual availability.
In less enlightened times a woman who took off her clothes but refused to have sex might be referred to as a temptress or a tease, and the latest wave of “sex positive” feminists exploit that tension skilfully. The provocative thrill of “look but don’t touch” remains, but is now gilded with a veneer of political virtue. By denying the sexual connotations of obviously and intentionally sexual displays, sexuality is transmuted into power: both a claim of ownership over your own sexual nature, and a subtle undermining of the (presumptively white, male) observer who is guiltily implicated by their desires.
The irony of the games that the “feminist” women of today who take their clothes off are playing is that its far older than liberalism itself — it’s the old, vicious role of women as beings who can only engage with their environment by acts of sexual manipulation.
Just as undeniably there is a sacral element to such displays and denials, that which is visible but forbidden participates in a deep sacrificial religious logic in which a thing has been given to the gods and is disallowed for mortal consumption or possession.
If the religious and occult interpretation of modern liberalism seems far-fetched, then consider the quite literal occultism that more and more progressives are now embracing. The rise of phenomena like “WitchTok” have seen ritual magic popularised and identified with liberal individualism. Yasmine Benoit herself is part of the movement, appearing in “Witches” magazine in 2019:
I’m in the latest issue of Witches Magazine, accompanying an essay by @lucyctalbot about cultural appropriation and white feminism! Photography by Adam Pegg. 🖤#ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike pic.twitter.com/TYOL7NvaSL
— Yasmin Benoit, MSc (taking a Tw*tter break) (@theyasminbenoit) October 16, 2019
Posing in white robes and clutching a ceremonial dagger, she plays the part of the witch to illustrate an article that celebrates “black witches” who apparently embody “primordial power and prowess”. Yes, these modern-day witches may get their idea of what a witch is from watching Charmed and certainly Yasmin is simply playing dress-up — but look closer. The inauthenticity and performativity are the point.
As with kink, as with sex positivity in general, a more prosaic magical act is being performed: misdirection. There’s no room for sex in liberalism because sex, like traditional religiosity, involves the surrender of power and the search for happiness. Displays both sexual and occult attract us due to our natural desire for the erotic and the numinous, but as our eyes and appetites are drawn to the beguiling performance, we miss the real intent: the transformation of the world of relationality into one of competing egos, and the loss of our lives as social and political beings.
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