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sex-positive feminism

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Sex-positive feminism, sometimes known as pro-sex feminism, sex-radical feminism, or sexually liberal feminism, is a movement that was formed in the early 1980s. 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 center of a feminist explanation of women's oppression (McElroy, 1995). 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". Other less academic sex-positive feminists became involved not in opposition to other feminists but in direct response to what they saw as patriarchal control of sexuality. Authors who have advocated sex-positive feminism include Ellen Willis, Susie Bright, Patrick Califia, Gayle Rubin, Avedon Carol, Tristan Taormino and Betty Dodson.

Key ideas[edit]

Sex-positive feminism centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom. As such, 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. Sex-positive feminism is connected with the sex-positive movement.

Gayle Rubin (Rubin, 1984) summarizes the conflict over sex within feminism:

...There have been two strains of feminist thought on the subject. One tendency has criticized the restrictions on women's sexual behavior and denounced the high costs imposed on women for being sexually active. 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 liberalization to be inherently a mere extension of male privilege. This tradition resonates with conservative, anti-sexual discourse.

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 the entire range of human sexuality. They argue that the patriarchy limits sexual expression and are in favor of giving people of all genders more sexual opportunities, rather than restricting pornography (Queen, 1996). Sex-positive feminists generally reject sexual essentialism, defined by (Rubin, 1984) as "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.

Sex-radical feminists in particular come to a sex-positive stance from a deep distrust in the patriarchy's ability to secure women's best interest in sexually limiting laws. Other feminists identify women's sexual liberation as the real motive behind the women's movement. Naomi Wolf writes, "Orgasm is the body's natural call to feminist politics."[1] Individualist feminists oppose laws restricting the sale and advertising of contraceptives and support the legalization of marijuana, which has been reported by a pro-marijuana magazine to prolong female orgasm while delaying male ejaculation [1]. Sharon Presley, the National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists,[2] writes that in the area of sexuality, government blatantly discriminates against women.

Historical roots[edit]

Authors such as Gayle Rubin (Rubin, 1984) and Wendy McElroy (McElroy, 1995) argue that sex-positive feminism's roots date back to the 19th century, in the work of sex reformers and workers for sex education and access to contraception such as Havelock Ellis, Margaret Sanger, Mary Coffin Ware Dennett and later, Alfred Kinsey. However, the contemporary incarnation of sex-positive feminism appeared more recently, following the increase in feminist focus on pornography as a source of women's oppression in the 1970s. The rise of second-wave feminism, which began in the 1960s, was concurrent with the sexual revolution and legal rulings that loosened legal 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 proscribing what proper feminist sexuality should look like. This was especially characteristic of lesbian separatist groups, but some heterosexual women's groups, such as Redstockings, became caught up with this issue as well. Many feminists began to see sexual pleasure itself as problematic. 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; radical 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.)

The late 1970s found American culture becoming increasingly concerned about the aftermath of a decade of greater sexual freedom, including concerns about explicit violent and sexual imagery in the media, the mainstreaming of pornography, increased sexual activity among teenagers, and issues such as the dissemination of child pornography and the rise of so-called "snuff films". (Critics maintain that this atmosphere amounted to a moral panic, which reached its peak in the mid-1980s.) These concerns were reflected in the feminist movement, with radical feminist groups claiming that pornography was a central underpinning of patriarchy and a direct cause of violence against women. Robin Morgan summarized this idea in her statement, "Pornography is the theory; rape the practice."

Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan began articulating a vehemently anti-porn stance based in radical feminism beginning in 1974, and anti-porn feminist groups, such as Women Against Pornography and similar organizations, became highly active in various US cities 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 (notably Samois), 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.

One of the earliest feminist arguments against this turn in the movement was Ellen Willis's essay "Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography" (Willis, 1992a) 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 favorable to themselves. (Willis' 1981 essay, "Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex?" (Willis, 1992b) is the origin of the term, "pro-sex feminism".[3]) Gayle Rubin (Rubin, 1984) calls for a new feminist theory of sex, saying that existing feminist thoughts on sex had frequently considered sexual liberalization as a trend that only increases male privilege. Rubin criticizes anti-pornography feminists who she claims "have condemned virtually every variant of sexual expression as anti-feminist," arguing that their view of sexuality is dangerously close to anti-feminist, conservative sexual morality. Rubin encourages feminists to consider the political aspects of sexuality without promoting sexual repression. She also argues 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 un-influential sexual minorities.

McElroy (1995) argues that for feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, turning to matters of sexual expression was a result of frustration with feminism's apparent failure to achieve success through political channels: in the United States, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) had failed, and abortion rights came under attack during the Reagan administration.

Major political issues related to sex-positive feminism[edit]


Dyke March, in 2007


The issue of pornography was perhaps the first issue to unite sex-positive feminists, though current sex-positive views on the subject are wide-ranging and complex. During the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, as well as activists inspired by their writings, worked in favor of anti-pornography ordinances in a number of U.S. cities, as well as in Canada. The first such ordinance was passed by the city council in Minneapolis in 1983. MacKinnon and Dworkin took the tactic of framing pornography as a civil rights issue, arguing that showing pornography constituted sex discrimination against women. The sex-positive movement response to this argument was that legislation against pornography violates women's right to free speech. Soon after, a coalition of anti-porn feminists and right-wing groups succeeded in passing a similar ordinance in Indianapolis. This ordinance was later declared unconstitutional by a Federal court.

Rubin writes that anti-pornography feminists exaggerate the dangers of pornography by showing the most shocking pornographic images (such as those associated with sadomasochism) out of context, in a way that implies that the women depicted are actually being raped, rather than emphasizing that these scenes depict fantasies and use actors who have consented to being shown in such a way (Rubin, 1984). 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 (McElroy, 1996; Strossen, 2000). Anti-pornography feminists however disagree, often arguing that the very depiction of such acts leads to the actual acts being encouraged and committed.[4]

Sex work[edit]

Some sex-positive feminists believe that women and men can have positive experiences as sex workers, and that where it is illegal, prostitution should be decriminalized. They argue that prostitution isn't necessarily bad for women if prostitutes are treated with respect and if the professions within sex work are de-stigmatized.[unverified]

Other sex-positive feminists hold a range of views on prostitution, with widely varying views on prostitution as it relates to class, race, human trafficking, and many other issues. [unverified] Sex-positive feminists generally agree that prostitutes themselves should not be stigmatized or penalized.


Some feminists have criticized sadomasochism (BDSM) for eroticizing power and violence, and for reinforcing misogyny (Rubin, 1984). They argue that women who choose to engage in BDSM are making a choice that is ultimately bad for women. Sex-positive feminists argue that consensual BDSM activities are enjoyed by some women and validate the sexual inclinations of these women. They argue that feminists should not attack other women's sexual desires as being "anti-feminist", and that there is no connection between consensual sexually kinky activities and sex crimes. While some radical feminists suggest connections between consensual BDSM scenes and non-consensual rape and sexual assault, sex-positive feminists find this to be insulting to women. It is often mentioned that in BDSM, roles aren't fixed to gender, but personal preferences.

Sexual orientation[edit]

Though feminists are often stereotyped as being lesbians, McElroy (1995) points out that many feminists have been afraid of being associated with homosexuality. Betty Friedan, one of the founders of second-wave feminism, warned against lesbianism and called it "the lavender menace" (a view she later renounced). Sex-positive feminists believe that accepting the validity of all sexual orientations is necessary in order to allow women full sexual freedom. 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.

Gender identity[edit]

Some feminists have attacked transsexual women (male-to-female) as men attempting to appropriate female privilege while retaining male privilege, and transsexual men (female-to-male) as women who reject solidarity with their gender. (See transphobia.) One of the main exponents of this point of view is Janice Raymond (Raymond, 1979) Some feminists also find the belief of many transsexuals, that the tendency to feel male or female is something innate, is a threat to their own beliefs that gender roles are forced on them by society, and are not related to any natural factor.[5] 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. Pat Califia has written extensively about issues surrounding feminism and transgenderism, especially in Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism (2003).

Debates within sex-positive feminism[edit]

Like feminism itself, sex-positive feminism is difficult to define, and few within the movement (particularly the academic arm of the movement) agree on any one ideology or policy agenda.

An example of how feminists may disagree on whether a particular cultural work exemplifies sex-positivity is Betty Dodson's critique of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. Dodson argues that the play promotes a negative view of sexuality, emphasizing sexual violence against women rather than the redemptive value of female sexuality. Many other sex-positive feminists have embraced Ensler's work for its encouragement of openness about women's bodies and sexuality.

Critiques of sex-positive feminism[edit]

Works that critique sex-positive feminism include those of Catharine MacKinnon (1987), Germaine Greer (1999), Pamela Paul (2005), and the essays in Dorchen Leidholdt (1990), among others. Their main arguments are that certain sexual practices (such as prostitution) have historically benefited men rather than women and that thus, the indiscriminate promotion of all kinds of sexual practices merely contributes to female oppression.

Ariel Levy in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs also critiques sex-positive feminism. While not being opposed to sex-positive feminism per se nor wishing to specifically proscribe certain forms of sexual behavior she sees a popularized form of sex-positivity as constituting a kind of "raunch culture" in which women internalize objectifying male views of themselves and other women. Levy believes it is a mistake to see this kind of "raunch culture" as empowering and further holds women should develop their own forms of sexual expression. The response by sex-positive feminists to Levy's book have been mixed; Susie Bright viewed the book quite favourably, stating that much of what can be seen as "raunch culture" represents a bastardisation of the work of earlier sex-positive feminists such as herself.[6] Others, such as Rachel Kramer Bussel, see Levy as largely ignoring much of the female-empowered sexual expression of the last 20 years, or misinterpreting it as internalization of male fantasy.[7][8] Kara Jesella argued even sex not necessarily empowering may not actually be disempowering.[9]

Further resources[edit]

Authors and activists who have written important works about sex-positive feminism, and/or contributed to educating the public about it, include Ellen Willis, Gayle Rubin, Susie Bright, Carol Queen, Kathy Acker, Tristan Taormino, Betty Dodson, Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle, Nina Hartley, Josephine Ho, and Inga Muscio. Several of these have written from the perspective of feminist women working in the sex industry.

Information on formal organizations that endorse sex-positive feminism seems lacking but one major outpost of sex-positive feminism is the former cooperative business Good Vibrations founded by Joani Blank in 1977 in order to sell sex toys and publications about sex in an environment welcoming to women. Blank also founded Down There Press which has published various educational publications inspired by sex-positivity.

Other popular sex-positive feminist businesses who thrive on a combination of sex toy sales and distribution of educational materials are:

Nonprofit groups supporting sex-positive feminism include the currently defunct Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force associated with Carole Vance and Ann Snitow, Feminists for Free Expression[2], and Feminists Against Censorship associated with anti-censorship and civil liberties campaigner Avedon Carol.

The Center for Sex and Culture was founded in 2004 by Carol Queen and others in order to disseminate sex information and promote sex-positive research.

The magazine On Our Backs was founded to promote a more positive attitude towards erotica within the community of lesbian and bisexual women.

Sex-positive literature[edit]


  • Dodson, Betty. "V-Day, Inc." (self-published:) 2001. (last accessed 9 September 2005)
  • Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (last accessed 9 September 2005)
  • Benjamin, Jessica (1983). Master and Slave: The Fantasy of Erotic Domination. In Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (Ed.), Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, pp. 460–467. New York (Monthly Review Press). ISBN 0-85345-609-7
  • Califia, Pat (2003). Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism. Pittsburgh (Cleis Press). ISBN 1-57344-180-5
  • Carol, Avedon (1994) "Nudes, Prudes and Attitudes: Pornography and Censorship", New Clarion Press, ISBN 1-873797-13-3
  • Easton, Dossie and Catherine A. Liszt (1998). The Ethical Slut. CA: Greenery Press. (ISBN 1-890159-01-8).
  • Friend, Tad, Yes (Feminist women who like sex). Esquire. February 1994. * Gerhard, Jane. (2001). Desiring Revolution: Second-Wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought, 1920 to 1982. New York: Columbia Univ Pr. ISBN 0-231-11205-X (paperback) ISBN 0-231-11204-1 (hardbound)
  • Greer, Germaine (1999). The Whole Woman. New York (Knopf.) ISBN 0-385-72003-3
  • Hopkins, Susan. Girl Heroes: The New Force In Popular Culture. Annandale NSW: Pluto Press Australia, 2002. (ISBN 1-86403-157-3)
  • Leidholdt, Dorchen and Raymond, Janice (1990) The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism (Pergammon Press) ISBN 0-08-037457-3
  • Levy, Ariel (2005). Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-4989-5
  • MacKinnon, Catharine (1987). Feminism Unmodified. Cambridge (Harvard University Press). ISBN 0-674-29873-X
  • McElroy, Wendy (1995). XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. New York (St. Martin's Press). ISBN 0-312-13626-9
  • Paul, Pamela (2005). Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6.
  • Queen, Carol (1996). Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture. Pittsburgh (Cleis Press). ISBN 1-57344-073-6
  • Raymond, Janice (1979). The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male". Teachers College Press. ISBN 0-8077-6272-5
  • Rubin, Gayle (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. In Carole S. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and Danger: exploring female sexuality, pp. 267–319. Boston (Routledge & Kegan Paul). ISBN 0-04-440867-6
  • Sprinkle, Annie & Cody, Gabrielle H. (2006) "Hardcore from the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits And Politics of Sex in Performance", Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 978-0826490698
  • Strossen, Nadine (2000). Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. New York (New York University Press). ISBN 0-8147-8149-7
  • Willis, Ellen (1992a). Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography. In: Ellen Willis, Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6255-6
  • Willis, Ellen (1992b). Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex? In: Ellen Willis, No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays. Wesleyan University Pr. ISBN 0-8195-6284-x



External links[edit]

Advocacy of sex-positive feminism[edit]