Editors' Letter: Sex
When I told people that this issue of Bitch was going to be devoted entirely to sex, the most common response was a sarcastic, “Oh, you mean as opposed to what all the other ones were about?” It’s true that we tend to spill a lot of ink about sex—and so I started to think about why.
Sex is a favorite topic almost everywhere—but within the feminist movement, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. There are two basic sides to the debate: old-school feminists who see porn as universally degrading and sex as a frivolous topic at best (and an oppressive one at worst); and a newer breed who explore the liberatory potential of sex and porn, and label their ideological opponents prudes. While sex-positive, pro-porn, anti-censorship feminism has emerged more and more into the mainstream, the terms of the debate haven’t shifted much within the past decade and a half. The landmark collection Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, which grew out of a controversial feminist conference in 1982, is still as relevant now as it was the day it was published. That says something about the quality of the authors and their theoretical acuity—but it also says something not quite so complimentary about the current state of feminist debate about sex. Reading Pleasure and Danger, one feels poised on the brink of argument and discovery. Its contributors have asked all the right questions and set us on paths to some answers. Why have we been unable to continue along those paths? Those on each side of the debate repeat their arguments over and over, each responding to oversimplified versions of the opposing view, further entrenching the discourse. Date rape has become recognizable and punishable only to have it made into a symbol of feminist overreaction. The nature of consent has been pondered only to provoke sarcastic comments on the need for written contracts before sex. Nadine Strossen defends pornography by misrepresenting Catharine MacKinnon; Ms. magazine assembles a fine group of articles on sex, gender, pleasure, and equality, and On The Issues responds with “How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement”; Katie Roiphe throws up her hands and tells us all to get over it, as if ignoring rape will just make it go away. If anything, we’re moving backward simply through our stubborn refusal to go ahead.
Meanwhile, mainstream representations of sex and sexuality are shifting rapidly, disconcertingly, violently. Sex is more contradictory than ever on tv, in movies, in magazines: There are out gay characters on tv, but their sexuality is so muted that they hardly ever even get to kiss; women in movies are actively sexual, but they still get punished for it; magazines grudgingly admit that women like sex, but still advise us to play passive-aggressive in order to get it.
We need to speak women’s sexual truths—our own, not those that have been produced for our consumption—more publicly, more loudly, and more often.
With this issue, we’ve pondered some of those mainstream messages and contradictions, and sought out people who are moving beyond them. Enjoy—because far too often, enjoyment is what gets lost in the debate. —Lisa
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