Bed, Bitch & Beyond: No Sex, Please, We're Sex-Positive Feminists
I wanted to let readers get the last word on the "Is No Sex Sex-Positive" post--between Bitch, Facebook, Harpyness and e-mails I received, it was clear that everyone had an opinion about not having sex, and why/whether conscious celibacy is an inherently feminist or sex-positive decision. Once again, people thought of aspects to the debate that I hadn't, including discussion of non-intercourse sex acts and asexuality.
There was much back-and-forth over what constituted "sex" and "being sexual." What about all that fun non-penetrative stuff? Are you really celibate if you're giving/receiving oral sex? How about mutual masturbation? Not only do those things carry little to no risk of STI transmission or pregnancy, but a couple commenters made the point that they tend to be underappreciated over once hetero couples move on to p-in-v intercourse.
There is a whole range of things you can do that have much lower risks of STI's (because almost nothing is 100% absolute) and no risk of pregnancy and can allow you to express yourself sexually with someone else without the possible consequences of sex. We skip over this whole phase of the relationship once we started having sex, and frankly, that sucks.
I decided for a while to stop having penetrative sex, and discussed it with my gay male roommate, who had an HIV positive partner. We talked about how much fun our "no sex" sex lives were. We had to be so much more creative, and we ended our nights sweaty, exhausted and satisfied. Where are these nights in those STI prevention talks and those wait until marriage lectures?
This reminded me of an awkward but useful conversation with my own mother, when I was a high school sophomore. When discussing sex and boys, MamaSharper counseled me that sex is risky but "hands are fun." At the time I remember turning red and thinking "OMG, my mom just told me it's okay to get fingerbanged!" But in retrospect, it was some good advice. I wish some of the "abstinence only" dictators would encourage safe, non-penetrative sexual exploring, but I'm not holding my breath; their problem seems to be with any and all expressions of normal sexual urges and curiosity.
Another commenter pointed out that our own hands (or a vibrator or cucumber or pulsing showerhead) can be fun--and sex-positive-- too:
I would also like to bring up the question whether some people's views of celibacy includes masturbation or not. I think a healthy body image and self exploration is a necessary for women who want to be informed and enjoy their sexuality, and i've just wondered at the amount of celibate or proclaimed abstinent people that masturbate. Exploring your sexuality and embracing it, whether or not you're having it with a partner, is definitely a part of the sex positive feminist movement right?
I am 1000% in agreement on this. As I said in the post, my own experiences with masturbation were a big part of the reason I approached penetrative sex with a positive, but unhurried attitude. I think that if you enjoy and appreciate your own body, you have a knowledge and confidence about your sexuality that benefits you in all kinds of ways, whether you're having partnered sex or not.
When former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was asked if promoting masturbation might be a good way to discourage riskier forms of sexual activity, she said, "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught."
Obviously, she didn't mean that every student would get a vibrator and circle jerk with it in health class. But of course, some people interpreted it that way. The right wing lost its shit and Dr. Elders lost her job, which was a damn shame, because she was absolutely right in her thinking. Masturbation is a healthy part of human sexuality, and should be included in any discussion of sexual behavior, both for the celibate and the sexually active.
Another commenter pointed out that the post didn't address the issue of asexuality, i.e. women who do not experience sexual attraction or urges:
I am asexual and I do not believe that asexuality is abstinence, because (generally speaking) abstinence is refraining from indulging one's desire for sex - and if one doesn't have that desire in the first place...I just don't see it as the same thing and I don't like unnecessarily equating the two A-words when the "abstinence" one comes loaded with negative connotations.
Asexuality is distinct from abstinence/conscious celibacy, and asexuals fall into a separate category from the sexually active or the consciously celibate. Another commenter explained:
[Asexuality] doesn’t mean that they condemn sex or judge or shame other people who have sex – they may even encourage other people to go out, have fun, and safely fuck their brains out if they want to – it just means that they’re personally not interested in having sex. I’m not going to call them sex-negative for that.
Neither should we. Regardless of one's reasons for not having sex, the consensus seemed to be that you could be "sex positive" regardless of what you do with your genitals:
Sex positivity is, IMHO, about respecting individuals' autonomy over their own bodies, whether that means choosing to have sex or choosing not to.
And for some people, having that autonomy is a vital part of a healing process that is the essence of feminist empowerment:
I decided that I was not going to fall into the vicious cycle of addiction, abuse and promiscuity present in my family for generations. To complicate matters, I was a closeted lesbian in a society where sexual orientation simply wasn't discussed. I decided not to have sex at all until I found the person with whom I wanted a committed relationship. For me, the choice *not* to have sex until I met my partner (and even then not right away) was an empowering decision and part of my feminist awakening.
The contrast between the anti-sex, anti-feminist movement and the sex-positive feminist movement seems to come down to--surprise!--privileging and judging women's sexual behaviors.
I think that [conscious celibacy and sex positivity] are not polar opposites, instead puts the idea of a person’s bodily autonomy and integrity in the forefront of human sexuality and pleasure (regardless of sex and gender)… without privileging one form or type, and othering those do not conform.
I think the last line of that comment is the heart of the matter: our hyper-sexualized society definitely privileges the sexually active and others the conciously celibate. For example, last night while I was zonked on the couch, I watched part of Kourtney and Kloe Kardashian's (phenomenally shallow and stupid) show, in which they kept pressuring their older sister to drink by chanting "Be a whore, don't be a bore!" "Whore" was clearly their term for being sexy, cool and fun and OMG, not a prude! It was fucking embarrassing. Problem is, the dumbass Kardashians aren't the only people who think this way, and frankly, that's the whole fucking reason we need feminism in the first place--so that we can make decisions about our own bodies without being pushed into them by the wider culture, which in nearly every instance, does not have women's best interests at heart.
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