Sex positive feminism is a bit like communism: to a certain type of person — one who has never had to live at the sharp end — it will liberate us all. It just hasn’t been done properly yet.
Come the true sexual revolution, there will be no violence, no exploitation, no coercion masquerading as choice. If, as Eva Wiseman recently wrote in the Guardian, we are currently facing an anti-sex backlash, it’s only because “we were never truly liberated”, not least because “the sex-negative feminism of the 1970s and 80s never really went away”.
Damn those sex-hating prudes of yore! You’d have thought, given that the year is 2022 and we’ve had three decades of third-wave liberal feminist enlightenment, we’d have successfully destroyed the evil legacy of feminism past.
After all, there’s no doubt who won the Sex Wars, and it wasn’t Andrea Dworkin. Never has good ol’ agency-enhancing, stigma-destroying porn been more available. That’s good, right?
Yet self-styled “sex positive” feminists still behave like lost soldiers, unable to accept the war is over, even one in which they are the victors. They’re feminism’s Brexiteers, who won but can’t get over it, unable to admit that every challenge they now face is a practical consequence of their own politics.
But what else can a sex positive feminist do? As Louise Perry argues in her provocatively titled new book, The Case against the Sexual Revolution, “they have made the error of buying into an ideology that always best served the likes of Hugh Hefner and Harvey Weinstein, his true heir”:
And from this they derive the false belief that women are still suffering only because the sexual liberation project of the 1960s is unfinished, rather than because it was always inherently flawed. Thus they prescribe more and more freedom and are continually surprised when their prescription doesn’t cure the disease.
This argument has particular resonance for me; it’s what I used to believe, too.
Like most Generation X women, I was born too late to play any part in the “sex negative feminism” derided by Eva Wiseman. A young liberal feminist of the nineties, I was exactly the type of woman about whom Ariel Levy complained when she wrote 2005’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, her trenchant critique of third-wave “raunch” feminism.
I refused to read Levy’s book when it first came out, certain it indulged in precisely the kind of puritanical slut-shaming which fuelled the sexual double standard which my generation of women were slowly dismantling, one blow job at a time. If women were still being treated like objects, it couldn’t possibly be because the so-called “sex-negative feminism of the 1970s and 80s” had been onto something.
It’s easier to kick back at Mummy than challenge men
On the contrary, I felt it far more likely that these older feminists’ view of women — a sexless, virtuous caricature — was to blame. They were the ones persuading men that women were incapable of being sexual subjects in their own right.
Like many early third-wavers, I largely invented what second-wave feminists believed, making liberal use of stereotypes. As Astrid Henry noted in 2004’s Not My Mother’s Sister, “reading some self-described third-wave texts […] one wouldn’t know that feminists in the 1970s and 80s even considered some of the issues that the third wave now champions as its own: masturbation, non-monogamy, bisexuality, pornography, sex work and, of course, orgasms”.
A feminism that makes of older women a prudish, pearl-clutching enemy, creates an illusion of control in the midst of chaos. It’s easier to kick back at Mummy than to challenge the men around you, easier to denigrate the past than to question the present, easier to say yes — and to work at reframing any personal misgivings as caused by “stigma” — than to face the social consequences of saying no.
It is painful to view your female body as a site of vulnerability, so why not treat it as the offering with which to bargain for its own liberation? And if liberation is not forthcoming? If the promised rewards — no more rape, free abortion, the end of shame — are nowhere to be seen?
Well, then, you always have more to offer. Maybe unlimited blow jobs and the end of pubic hair weren’t enough. What about anal? How about choking? Perhaps there’s another female orifice we just haven’t found yet.
No one can say my generation of women did not put the hours in. If the cure to the sexual oppression of women had been more sex and more porn, magically eradicating “stigma” and “shaming” one shag at a time, we’d all have been sorted long before Geri left the Spice Girls. Instead we’re watching the women who came after us face a sexual landscape even more violent and misogynistic than anything we had to endure.
It is hard to abandon the security of a well-maintained lie
This is why books such as Perry’s matter, and also why I fear there are many who may respond to it in the same way I responded to Levy’s. It is hard to abandon the security of a well-maintained lie, even one that ultimately hurts you. While I have misgivings about some of Perry’s practical suggestions, many of her arguments — that consent is an inadequate measure of what is and is not abuse, that the valuing of sexual freedom over mutual dependency benefits the most privileged at the expense of the least, that physical strength differences between men and women matter enormously — seem to me hugely important, yet completely absent from so much of the feminism I have known.
As Perry documents harm after harm inflicted on female bodies and minds in the name of “choice”, “freedom” and “empowerment”, it becomes more and more amazing to think that there are some who will call her bigoted or unsympathetic to the most marginalised, simply for telling the truth. That the sexual revolution has failed women ought to be uncontroversial, yet to say this is to risk accusations of prejudice, far-right leanings, anti-feminism, frigidity, puritanism and a host of other sins. Most women who are willing to do this are older than Perry herself.
The sexual liberalism of Generation X women is well-documented. To suggest that we were never ourselves cheerleaders for self-objectification requires a rewriting of history. Convenient though it would be to conflate us with 1970s anti-porn feminists, or 1950s housewives, these are different cohorts of women, each misrepresented in their own way. The truth is that today’s Helen Lovejoys are yesterday’s female chauvinist pigs.
There is a pretence that the ageing, “sex negative” prude is a cohort-specific phenomenon, a creature who will die out once the next batch of women, born on the right side of history, come to take her place. This is nonsense. “Sex negativity” — more accurately put as a clear-eyed awareness of the realities of male sexual entitlement — tends to be a lifecycle phenomenon. This is why the “frigid older woman” is such a longstanding stereotype, coming into being, as Sheila Jeffreys documents in The Spinster and her Enemies, long before the start of feminism’s second wave.
By the time we reach middle age, we have lived through enough false dawns to know a remarketing of “just let the men do whatever they want” when we see it. Ageing has meant leaving the eye of the storm, then watching our own daughters enter it, transforming our own perspective on how much choice we ever had. We tried this solution already; we know it doesn’t work.
I can predict what the “sex positive” response to me telling the truth about Generation X’s sordid past might be: we just didn’t do things properly. We didn’t shag hard enough, or imaginatively enough, or in a sufficiently binary-breaking manner. We must have been retaining some residual prudery, even when insisting, Cool Girl-style, “go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind”. We still retained some ludicrously outdated beliefs, such as kink might be “unfit for children”.
It cannot possibly be that the more boundaries we ceded, the more we were expected to cede, with the promised payback in respect and safety always kept just out of reach. The spiral will continue unless we start to think differently. Or until the next generation of women runs out of pieces of herself to give.
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