Chus Martinez On Pro-Sex Feminism

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There have been two strains of feminist thought on the subject of human sexuality. One tendency has criticized the restrictions on women’s sexual behaviour. This tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that would work for women as well as for men. The second tendency has considered sexual liberalisation to be a mere extension of male privilege. This latter tradition forms a part of conservative, anti-sexual discourse.

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Sex-positive feminism, also known as pro-sex feminism, sex-radical feminism, or sexually liberal feminism is a movement that began in the early 1980s. It champions the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom. Some became involved in the sex-positive feminist movement in response to efforts by anti-pornography feminists, such as Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan and Dorchen Leidholdt, to put pornography at the centre of a feminist explanation of women’s oppression. This period of intense debate and acrimony between sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists during the early 1980s is often referred to as the “Feminist Sex Wars”. Authors who have advocated sex-positive feminism include Ellen Willis, Kathy Acker, Susie Bright, Patrick Califia, Gayle Rubin, Carol Queen, Shar Rednour, Annie Sprinkle, Avedon Carol, Tristan Taormino, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Nina Hartley and Betty Dodson.

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Sex-positive feminists oppose legal or social efforts to control sexual activities between consenting adults, whether these efforts are initiated by the government, other feminists, opponents of feminism, or any other institution. They embrace sexual minority groups, endorsing the value of coalition-building with members of groups targeted by sex-negativity.

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The cause of sex-positive feminism brings together anti-censorship activists, LGBT activists, feminist scholars, sex radicals, producers of pornography and erotica, among others (though not all members of these groups are necessarily both feminists and sex-positive people). Sex-positive feminists reject the vilification of male sexuality that they attribute to many radical feminists, and instead embrace a broad range of human sexuality. They argue that the patriarchy limits sexual expression and are in favour of giving people of all genders more sexual opportunities, rather than restricting pornography Sex-positive feminists generally reject sexual essentialism: the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions. Rather, they see sexual orientation and gender as social constructs that are heavily influenced by society.

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Sex-radical feminists in part come to a sex-positive stance because they distrust patriarchy’s ability to secure women’s best interest through laws limiting consensual sexual expression Indeed feminists identify women’s sexual liberation as the real motive behind the women’s movement. Naomi Wolf claims: “Orgasm is the body’s natural call to feminist politics.” Sharon Presley asserts that in the area of sexuality government blatantly discriminates against women.

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The rise of second-wave feminism, which began in the 1960s, was concurrent with the sexual revolution and legal rulings that loosened restrictions on access to pornography. In the 1970s radical feminists became increasingly focused on issues around sexuality in a patriarchal society. Some feminist groups began to concern themselves with prescribing proper feminist sexuality. This included both lesbian separatist groups, and some heterosexual women’s groups such as Redstockings. On the other hand there were also feminists, such as Betty Dodson, who saw women’s sexual pleasure and masturbation as central to women’s liberation. Pornography, however, was not a major issue; right-wing feminists were generally opposed to pornography, but the issue was not treated as especially important until the mid-1970s. There were, however, feminist prostitutes-rights advocates, such as COYOTE, which campaigned for the decriminalization of prostitution.

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From the onset of the oil crisis in 1974, there was a political backlash against the percieved liberalism of the sixties, and which ultimately took the form of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom and Reaganism in the United States. This conservative turn was embraced by parts of the feminist movement, with some activists claiming that pornography underpinned patriarchy and was a direct cause of violence against women. Robin Morgan summarized this idea with the slogan: “Pornography is the theory; rape the practice.”

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Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan began articulating a vehemently anti-porn feminist ideology from the mid-seventies, and anti-porn feminist groups, such as Women Against Pornography became increasingly active during the late-1970s. As anti-porn feminists broadened their criticism and activism to include not only pornography, but prostitution and sadomasochism, other feminists became concerned about the direction the movement was taking and grew more critical of anti-porn feminism. This included feminist BDSM practitioners, prostitutes-rights advocates, and many liberal and anti-authoritarian feminists for whom free speech, sexual freedom, and advocacy of women’s agency were central concerns.

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One of the earliest feminist arguments against this turn in the movement was Ellen Willis’s essay “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography” first published in October 1979 in the Village Voice. In response to the formation of Women Against Pornography in 1979, Willis expressed worries about anti-pornography feminists’ attempts to make feminism into a single-issue movement, and argued that feminists should not issue a blanket condemnation against all pornography and that restrictions on pornography could just as easily be applied to speech that feminists found favourable to themselves.

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Around the same time Gayle Rubin began encouraging feminists to consider the political aspects of sexuality without promoting sexual repression. She also argued that the blame for women’s oppression should be put on targets who deserve it: “the family, religion, education, child-rearing practices, the media, the state, psychiatry, job discrimination, and unequal pay…” rather than on relatively uninfluential sexual minorities.

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Gayle Rubin also argued that anti-pornography feminists exaggerated the dangers of pornography by showing the most shocking pornographic images (such as those associated with sadomasochism) out of context, and in a way that implied the women depicted were actually being raped, rather than emphasizing that these scenes depict fantasies and use actors who have consented to being shown in such a way.

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Sex-positive feminists argue that access to pornography is as important to women as to men, and that there is nothing inherently degrading to women about pornography. Likewise, sex-positive feminists believe that accepting the validity of all sexual orientations is necessary in order to allow women full sexual freedom.

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Rather than distancing themselves from homosexuality and bisexuality because they fear it will hurt mainstream acceptance of feminism, sex-positive feminists believe that women’s liberation cannot be achieved without also promoting acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality.

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Many transgender people see gender identity as an innate part of a person. Some feminists criticize this belief, arguing instead that gender roles are societal constructs, and are not related to any natural factor. Sex-positive feminists support the right of all individuals to determine their own gender, and promote gender fluidity as one means for achieving gender equality.

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