epershand: Tyler Glenn, with his face reflected in a window. (Tyler reflects)
epershand ([personal profile] epershand) wrote2012-02-26 10:43 pm

Feminism, sex-positivity, and sexual prescriptivism

I put more time than I probably should have tonight into being unhappy about the comment threads on the Feministing post An Asexual Map for Sex-Positive Feminism.

There were two things that bugged me a lot. The first was seeing a bunch of sex-positive people acting like assholes in all the ways that people who don't like the sex-positive movement always claim sex-positive people act. I really, really hate it when people in movements I feel strong intuitive agreement with start making the straw man arguments that our enemies put into our mouths. I've already had to significantly renegotiate my relationship with feminism on that front; sex-positivity, you're on notice.

The other thing that frustrated me was... when various asexual members of the conversation said things that pushed my sex-positive buttons, hard, and made me want to jump down their throats. /o\

So, there are two big things that I think were happening in that comment thread. The first, as several people in the comment thread noted, is the ambiguity between the statements "What you're saying is at odds with my intuition and so wrapping my head around it is going to take some work--please explain further!" and "What you're saying is unintuitive and incomprehensible--explain yourself!" and the ease of saying one when you intend the other.

The other is, I think, a bit more deeply rooted in sexual identity politics and the nature of conversations about them. The normative range of human sexuality is a very narrow segment of the available spectrum, with the normative female range drawn even more narrowly than the normative male range (see: virgin/whore complex). Any level of sexuality outside that range is marginalized; though the vocabulary is different for each end of the spectrum, the overall effect is similar, and anyone whose normal level of sexual interest falls outside that range is likely to have internalized a set of hot-button phrases that set off defensive "my identity is being attacked" alarms. Unfortunately, it turns out it's really difficult to explain life on one end of the spectrum without stumbling onto phrases that are often used as weapons against the other end of the spectrum.

Further, people who live outside the norm, especially when they gather together into communities, tend to develop narratives that center their own experience in opposition to the norm in ways that are just as marginalizing not only to people who are non-normative in different ways than they are, but to people who happen to be normative as well.

Normative people are not the problem. The systems that describe the norm, coerce people into it, and punish those who don't comply, are the problem. People (and companies, cough legos reference cough) are a problem to the extent that they engage in enforcement and punishment. But compliance with a rule doesn't necessarily imply being duped by it. And enforcement and punishment can come just as often and just as vindictively in defense of counter-cultural norms.

So, for instance. Let's talk about me a little bit. I'm a fan of talking about me. I'm the grand-daughter of a Women's Studies professor. I grew up in a former commune surrounded by environmental activist feminists. I grew up and went off to a women's college, where I came out and started dating. Then I graduated and moved to San Francisco and found a home in the LGBT, fannish, kinky and poly communities, with their substantial overlap.

In my head, the most transgressive sex I've ever had was penis-in-vagina missionary position sex. I was 25 before I ever tried it out, and WOAH was it a head trip. There were all these unspoken, non-negotiated power dynamics that played out in fascinating ways. There was a fascinating ritual of specific actions that happened in a specific order. There was never any trading off of roles like in normal sex! (Ok. Eventually there was trading off.) And it had all these fascinating inherent risks--like, there was just this thin latex bag preventing me from a life-altering mess of hormonal and other biochemical changes that would result in another human being growing inside me like in Alien.

Seriously, it was so trippy. Also it was really fucking hot. Unfortunately, it came along with all this intense emotional baggage about being a bad queer or maybe even a bad feminist for enjoying it so much. And while part of me found that guilt fascinating and transgressive and hot (lol masochist), it was also really, really hard to process.

Somehow, while they tried to help me out, my grandmother and mother and very many practically-aunts; and all the picture books about suffragettes and female scientists and how women could do everything; and Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sociology 101 and hanging out in the Jeanette Marks house and with my gay chorus and in fandom had... taught me an additional set of norms. One that's just as insidious and pervasive as the first set, even if what they said was different.

And while I've been working to neutralize them, to figure out how to pick and choose the ones I value and the ones I want to leave behind, I keep bumping unexpectedly into their strange and slimy trails and the fascinatingly sticky bits where they cross over one another.

I never told my parents about that boy I was having missionary PIV sex with (and never considered myself to be dating him) for fear that if I admitted I wasn't 100% gay they'd assume I was straight; it's highly likely that the only reason I was as comfortable as I was telling my parents about my current boyfriend is the fact that he's trans. (And yeah I know exactly how fucked up and lesbian gender-essentialist that is; trust me. Definitely working on that one.) I'm way more comfortable talking about my sexual interests when I'm in a toppy headspace, not just because I'm more confident when I feel in charge but because talking about my interest in control feels less shameful, less iddy, than talking about my interest in submission. I obsess over my body hair, and my pubic hair in particular--normally I shave it all but if I'm likely to have sex I suddenly get thrown into a tizzy--what assumptions will my partner make about me if they see the bare skin? Will they see, as I do, intentionally created vulnerability and a swath of highly-sensitive skin; or will instead they see a bad feminist a dupe and capitulation to patriarchal infantilization of women? I always, ALWAYS simplified any explanation of one of the most important relationships of my life, one that shifted back and forth along the spectrum between complex more-than-friendship and a deep romance where the sex thing only rarely hit wavelengths that worked for both of us, for fear that it be reduced entirely to friendship.

Because apparently when I was learning norms, I picked up "non-normative is better than normative" right alongside "masculine is better than feminine." Which left me believing not quite that masculine was better than feminine but... that I needed to be more masculine than feminine to defy norms appropriately, no matter what was intuitive, and no matter what my fantasies insisted.

So yeah, when I see an asexual person talk about how they don't understand why some women sexualize themselves, I get pretty damned defensive. I've been hearing the same thing from my internal Good Feminist monitor (and from many internet feminists) for ages and I'm only just learning to silence it. And when I hear sex-positive people claiming that coming up with a million categories to splice apart the complexities of sexual attraction and romantic attraction and intellectual attraction is nonsensical and pedantic? I get defensive about that too.

(And I get very grateful that there are intellectually curious and didactic people like Julia Serano and Hanne Blank and Clarisse Thorne to write very clever things that help me sort this all out in my head.)
shadowbird: (other destinations)

Yes, this.

[personal profile] shadowbird 2012-02-27 11:14 am (UTC)(link)
"Non-normative is better than normative" is a really hard one to get around for me. I appreciate the time you've taken to say this, and am right there with you on several points. Thank you.
brainwane: My smiling face, including a small gold bindi (Default)

[personal profile] brainwane 2012-02-27 12:42 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for writing and sharing it. I appreciated reading it.
melusina: (Any bisexuals)

[personal profile] melusina 2012-02-27 01:58 pm (UTC)(link)
This is very clearly stated. I have a lot of complicated and not entirely coherent thoughts about a lot of this, but I agree with everything you've written here and I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you examine your own feelings and the careful way you unpack the various positions you saw in the comment threads.
meloukhia: Red stockinged legs in black heels, standing next to a watering can with a red flower. (Default)

[personal profile] meloukhia 2012-02-27 02:25 pm (UTC)(link)
I think you are really onto something here with the way marginalised communities form groups that can themselves create a new norm--and as a member of the asexy camp, well, that whole 'don't become the straw man' comment right back at you. And argh I hate it when grown-ass adults are told they're being brainwashed into compliance with norms. It's so patronising.

One thing I think many people really forget is that in the fight to end oppression, it is important to avoid becoming the oppressor.

(Edit: I don't think that asexuality and sex positivity need to have an oppositional relationship. I was no longer comfortable identifying as sex positive several years ago not just because of asexuality-related matters, but because I saw a lot of prescriptivism going on about the 'right kind' of sex and bodies...and I decided I was more comfortable working in solidarity with rad sex positive people than I was being inside the movement. That said, I still don't think the ace community and sex positive community need to be ast war with each other. Both communities need some work on internal crap, and both have a lot to offer each other.)
Edited 2012-02-27 14:30 (UTC)
meloukhia: A winged death's head with a crown, carved in what looks like ivory (Skull)

[personal profile] meloukhia 2012-02-27 11:01 pm (UTC)(link)
It's so frustrating when movements grounded in ideas I love have a few members who advance ideas so...not in line with what I believe that I feel deeply uncomfortable. And those ideas then kind of taint the whole movement. (Just forex, a lot of the ace community is transphobic and particularly resistant to nonbinaries--which is why I don't really hang out in ace spaces.)

I feel like we need a meme of aces hugging sex pozzies, going 'can't we just be friends?'
metaphortunate: (Default)

[personal profile] metaphortunate 2012-02-28 04:15 am (UTC)(link)
And argh I hate it when grown-ass adults are told they're being brainwashed into compliance with norms.

And from the other side, I cannot stand talking to people who are all "I have no culture, I am not in any way affected by the messages of Society, I spontaneously manifested all the clothing on my body and my views about the roles of men and women and all my life plans from a perfect state of Nature, how dare you call me brainwashed!"
meloukhia: Graffiti reads 'no justice anywhere' (No justice)

[personal profile] meloukhia 2012-02-28 04:24 pm (UTC)(link)
...uh, okay, but neither [personal profile] epershand nor I are suggesting that this is an either/or thing.
metaphortunate: (Default)

[personal profile] metaphortunate 2012-03-01 01:39 am (UTC)(link)
Previous comment deleted for, I think I'm letting the week I'm having make me be an asshole, and I should cut that out.
Edited 2012-03-01 03:12 (UTC)
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2012-02-29 06:17 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't think you or anyone else needs to hide or disguise their anger, but at the same time, brainwashing is a real thing that involves torture that actually happens to people, like rape and other forms of torture. It's probably not a word you or anyone else should be throwing around because you don't like the way I or anyone else dresses.

I think "how dare you call me brainwashed" is a valid thing for anyone to say. Surely there is some way of expressing this thought without using that word. It is not only an insulting way for you to make your point, it's also pretty demeaning to people who've actually experienced aggressive mental indoctrination using physical force.

The big problem that I have with people who insist that femmes are "brainwashed" (aside from their use of that word) is that it always seems to come from people who think everyone would look the same if they weren't "brainwashed" and only dress for practicality or the weather or whatever. Frankly, I think the grey jumpsuit/flannel & denim for everyone people are frightening in their own way, in their insistence that personal tastes have nothing whatsoever to do with anything, plus the general feeling of enforced asceticism I get when I'm around people like that, like it's wrong for me to take pleasure in such trivial and sensual things as scents or the drape of fabrics or colour.

Put me in a cismale body, I'd still be fem, so far as I can tell--I think I might even be more comfortable with expressing some of those interests because I wouldn't have the problem with people assuming my femininity equals a properly submissive nature when I'm pretty assertive and even quite dominant. I wouldn't dress exactly the same because as you point out, my available options would be limited, plus I would be less safe. But I wouldn't be in denim and flannel all the time or cut my hair really short. I just wouldn't. I remember watching my brother growing up and being really grateful that I wasn't him, that I fought with my mother about clothing and other things but at least I was allowed some of the things I wanted.

Frankly I have a really difficult time with the fact that I can't wear a lot of the things I'd like to wear to work, not because they're impractical (though some of them are), but because society demands that people of any gender dress soberly if they wish to be taken seriously, and also because I have enough trouble with people throwing fits at me because they think I am supposed to be demure based on the way I look--and then get angry when I'm not. Some people wig out when any woman dares to assert herself or speak with authority or set boundaries, but those people are always nastier when it comes from a woman dressed in frills.

The other thing I have trouble with, with regard to statements such as this one, is that I refuse to justify myself to people every time I turn around--especially to people who don't accept my word as valid when I state that actually I have thought a lot about all this with society and I still like what I like (and feel the need for those things I feel I need) strongly enough to take rather a lot of shit for it, including a relatively large amount of shit from people who claim that they are on my side as a person who is oppressed in various ways (while also having various sorts of privilege).
Edited (clarity is nice) 2012-02-29 18:22 (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)

[personal profile] metaphortunate 2012-03-01 01:51 am (UTC)(link)
Previous comment deleted for, I think I'm letting the week I'm having make me be an asshole, and I should cut that out.
Edited 2012-03-01 03:12 (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)

[personal profile] metaphortunate 2012-03-01 04:14 am (UTC)(link)
Oh no, I am extra sorry then!

It's not a shitty week exactly, just kind of a high-willpower, dealing-with-scary-stuff-that-has-already-been-put-off-too-long one, and I think I've run out of brain. Huh, more meta-y thoughts on that now, but am taking them to my journal so as not to make your comments section All About Me. Sorry!
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2012-03-01 08:55 am (UTC)(link)
I hope you feel better soon!

I do get what you mean about asking someone to consider whether social pressure might influence whether they might want to be doing something when none of their reasons seem to have much logic behind them and having them flip out on you--that always sucks.
dancingsinging: (Default)

[personal profile] dancingsinging 2012-03-01 11:58 pm (UTC)(link)
It seems to me that we can often get into the sort of graduate-level conversations about gender issues and gender presentation and forget that most cis women who dress femininely really do it because they were socialized that way, because it's safer in many ways and people are nicer to them if they do. Most folks really never think about it at all, or don't get past basic "girl power" ideas.

When I read metaphortunate's comment, what I took from it was the idea that it's frustrating to live in a world where all these damaging, oppressive systems really exist, but most people actively, defensively deny it if you try to point it out.

Absolutely there are folks like tiferet (and like me!) who have thought deeply about gender presentation and gender politics and self-expression and then consciously choose to be very feminine sometimes. And it is super annoying to have people assume that you're thoughtless about it just because you look really "good" by gender-norm standards. But I think they are two totally separate issues.
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2012-03-02 05:21 am (UTC)(link)
There are also transgressive feminine identities that don't get rewarded in the way that more conventional feminine identities do. A lot of the Japanese street fashion movements (the unfortunately named "lolita" style, mori-style, and so on) are about doing femininity in a way that emphasises not being sexually available or submissive or demure or appealing to men ("mote" style is meant to be appealing to men--lolita is in some ways the antimatter to the matter of mote) but rather in valuing things that women have traditionally valued for their own sake and in being pretty and aesthetic rather than being sexy. Lolitas and mori-girls are always hearing from men what a "boner-killer" the way we dress is, and of course, we don't give a flying fuck about that, and they know it and resent it. Lolitas dress like Victorian dolls and rococo princesses and British schoolboys (kodona/boystyle/ouji) and mori-girls dress like wanderers in an enchanted forest piling sweaters over long flowing skirts and hiking boots and not a bit of it is "sexy"--plus there's something very inyourface about OTT sweet lolita (which I don't do, because I don't like the way it looks on me); a girl wearing a huge pink wig and circle lenses and a dress with kittens and teddy bears and cake on it over a crinoline not only doesn't care if you find her sexy or not, she also takes up space and demands attention in a way that is not at all what kyriarchal femininity is about.

Anyhow, I assure you that when I wear lolita, I don't get treated the way girls in ordinary dresses with fake-natural makeup and uncomfortable shoes and nylons do, and if I wore it to work (sigh) I'd never hear the end of it.
Edited 2012-03-02 05:22 (UTC)
dancingsinging: (Default)

[personal profile] dancingsinging 2012-03-01 11:59 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, and tiferet, I /love/ your icon!
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2012-03-02 05:12 am (UTC)(link)


(Anonymous) 2013-05-22 06:23 am (UTC)(link)
Thanks for all those links! I shall have to check them out.Re: education in gearenl, I have a lot of thoughts on this and hope to do a full post on this after I get my lecture notes for tomorrow written, grocery shopping done, important email written, etc. We'll see if I get to it today! Anyway, I agree with you about the false premise thing except that it's not really so false. Based on the numbers I've seen on income with vs. without a bachelor's degree, it seems that going to college really is a requirement for a middle-class (or even non-poverty) lifestyle. The problem is that there's this unspoken agreement, that if you do go to college you will get the middle-class lifestyle, and at twenty-two. That is a big part of the problem.I think your kids are lucky to have such a wise mum!
wild_irises: (Default)

[personal profile] wild_irises 2012-02-27 03:24 pm (UTC)(link)
I would love to add something incisive and useful, but you set the bar too high. :-) Seriously, this all sounds very clear and dead on target. The only thing I would add is that humans as a species seem to move always towards the reductionist, so setting your bar for embracing complexity high is an ongoingly painful experience. Oh, and that I am delighted to hear from you.

(Anonymous) 2012-02-27 06:29 pm (UTC)(link)
Dude, you are so out of my league on this one. I loved reading it.

-Digitalemur, who has forgotten her damn password
allchildren: kay eiffel's face meets the typewriter (Default)

[personal profile] allchildren 2012-02-27 06:45 pm (UTC)(link)
Too benadryl'd out to say anything other than: yeah.
eccentric_hat: (Default)

[personal profile] eccentric_hat 2012-02-27 06:53 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for writing this. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and honesty that you've put into your posts on these subjects, though I have absolutely nothing useful to add to this one.

This post also suggests I am not very up-to-date on what is happening in your life! Which is fine--that is, please don't feel guilty--but it would be nice to talk to you sometime.
eccentric_hat: (Default)

[personal profile] eccentric_hat 2012-02-27 07:22 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I was thinking along more telephonic than commentarial lines. (I guess I am also thinking along the lines of making up words.)
jedusaur: Stephen Fry as Jeeves with his hands held to his face. (jeeves facepalming)

[personal profile] jedusaur 2012-02-27 07:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, the thing about norms is a hard one. I've struggled with it too.
krait: a sea snake (krait) swimming (Default)

[personal profile] krait 2012-02-28 07:22 am (UTC)(link)
apparently when I was learning norms, I picked up "non-normative is better than normative" right alongside "masculine is better than feminine."

*winces* I picked up both of those, yep. They're hard to shake. Especially that first one, when you're a geek; I think some of the Geek Social Fallacies hearken back to its underlying principle.

As for sex-positivity...

I think my reactions hinge on the other person's definition of "sex positive". Sometimes it seems they're using it to mean "sex should not be negative", I can get behind that. Sex shouldn't be a negative thing. Unfortunately it often seems to me that many use it to mean "sex is good", which is where I dig in my heels. Even leaving out the "and absence of sex is less-good" rider that often comes implied along with it, I find myself unwilling to go along with this one.

As far as I'm concerned, sex simply is: a human action that is neither good nor bad, in itself; it's what you do with it that matters... a view I've held since before recognising my own asexuality, whatever that's worth. Which sounds rather like what the linked writer feels, though s/he doesn't say it in quite those words.

Regarding the link, I am happy because I now have terms for two of my narrative kinks re: asexuality. :D I am ALL ABOUT fic exploring the Compromise Problem and (versus?) the Enthusiastic Consent Yardstick!
krait: a sea snake (krait) swimming (Default)

[personal profile] krait 2012-02-28 07:23 am (UTC)(link)
Editing (or not) to add: I confess to not yet having read the comments. Now I'm wondering if I quite dare to venture in...
(deleted comment)
aamcnamara: (Default)

[personal profile] aamcnamara 2012-02-28 11:05 pm (UTC)(link)
I keep trying to formulate my thoughts on this and failing, but it is very interesting and definitely made me think (both the linked post and its comments, and your post and its comments). So. Yay, post! Boo, brain!
wordweaverlynn: (Xena)

[personal profile] wordweaverlynn 2012-02-29 07:53 am (UTC)(link)
This post applies to a lot of issues with the kink community, too. May I (well, my MsLorelei identity) link to it?

And my very best to you, and I hope you get some sort of blessing from whatever you've been going through.

Also: The profession of your grandmother makes me really happy.
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2012-02-29 06:25 pm (UTC)(link)
This post is super awesome and explains a lot of shit to me :)
caminante: An Ideal Afternoon (books)

[personal profile] caminante 2012-03-01 09:10 am (UTC)(link)
I don't actually know enough about what either of these two movements are saying (in general or to each other) and I'm not particularly inclined to wade into the articles and such since, apparently, that way leads only to fighting and frustration BUT I did want to chime in and tell you that I really enjoy that your blog has been full of big, thinky thoughts lately and I admire your candor in talking about your own life. Also, whatever the hell is going on between these two movements, this particular asexual will never judge you ;)
dancingsinging: (Default)

[personal profile] dancingsinging 2012-03-01 11:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Reading your post totally makes me want to see you in person and hang out! Are you going to be at FOGcon, or around the vicinity? I'd love to get coffee or something.

(Or we could go for drinks and I'd have something dorky like a Shirley Temple. Nothing makes me want to drink like being pregnant. I mean, not that pregnancy drives me to drink! But the you-can't-have-it thing.)