Understanding “Sex Positivism” as Retrograde Ideology
I first realized that the “sex positive” turn in feminism––with its treatment of pornography, “sex work”, and sexual practice in general as emancipatory––represented a rightward drift in mainstream left activism in 2005. Before then I found it disagreeable but could, at the very least, countenance some of its arguments: I might have been uncomfortable, for example, with its pro-pornography position but I understood that there were indeed problems with the way in which some anti-pornography radical feminists agitated within the bourgeois legal system; I might have been annoyed with how it framed all radical feminists as “sex negative” due to misreadings of Dworkin’s Intercourse but I also recognized that Dworkin’s analysis––as masterful as it was––was not without its problems. But it was in 2005, when the film Sin City was released, when I decided this “sex positive” brand of feminism was intrinsically liberal if not implicitly reactionary.
Because it was in 2005, having been a comic book geek since elementary school, I saw Sin City in the theatres on opening night. Indeed, it was in elementary school that I first read and enjoyed Miller’s comic books (I recall that I was in grade five or six when The Dark Knight Returns was released, and I still own some original issues of the Sin City comics collected close to the same time) which doesn’t mean much beyond nostalgia. I mean, I also liked Dragon Lance books in elementary school––and yes, if the Dragon Lance Chronicles were made into movies I would go to see them despite knowing how shitty they were. (Oh wait, I did see that horrible cartoon adaptation of the first Dragon Lance book in the second or third year of my PhD––I almost deleted it from my memory!) Which is to say: I knew that Sin City was going to be problematic, especially since I was aware of Miller’s politics by that time, and yet I still went to see it.
In any case, after watching Sin City and realizing that one of my adolescent comic book favourites was (among other things) anti-feminist, I ended up in a discussion about the film with someone who, at the time, was an activist superstar. When I complained about the depiction of women in the film he argued, and with complete confidence, that the film was in fact feminist because of its depictions of “sex workers” as a “militantly organized union.” Leaving aside Miller’s over-sexualization of female subjects––always in line with the male gaze––this counter-argument left me flabbergasted. I recall saying something like “don’t you think that if they could organize with guns in a militant manner than they would also stop being prostitutes and, you know, shoot the johns and the pimps?” To which he replied that I was being “sexist” by assuming that women would not want to be “sex workers” if they were in control of their own bodies. It was then that I realized that the discourse of “sex positive feminism” had gained a certain level of unquestioned hegemony amongst the mainstream activist left to the degree that some people were incapable of thinking critically.
So now we have an ascendant discourse that permits leftists to legitimately call themselves feminist, and incorporate supposed feminist values into their activist framework, without having to give up all of the values and desires that feminism initially called into question. My past complaints about the "sex worker" discourse, the privileged engagement with the sex industry that is deemed “feminist”, and the whole polyamory-is-essentially-progressive ideology, should be seen in light of my disgust with this rightward drift that I cannot help but feel is intrinsic to contemporary “sex positive feminism”––which isn’t even a very good petty-bourgeois feminism but, rather, is just petty-bourgeois… if not bourgeois, if not semi-feudal.
As an historical materialist I do not believe that our interpersonal interactions, sexual or otherwise, are free from the taint of the ruling ideas of the ruling class. What the feminists of the past use to critique under the slogan of “the personal is political” is what communists have treated as ideological socialization where one’s social consciousness is partially determined by one’s social being. If you are born into a society still affected by the vestiges of patriarchy (if not, in a semi-feudal/semi-colonial context, a more total form of patriarchy) then the values to which you will be the most drawn––the “common sense” ideological universe––will be infected by this problematic. Our desire is not pure and it is completely ignorant to imagine otherwise.
And yet I find that the “sex positive” discourse would like us to pretend that an uncritical endorsement of personal desire is somehow emancipatory. There are, of course, compelling reasons to fall into this way of thinking: conservative puritanism and its moralistic hatred of sex, for example, should be rejected. To substitute a resentful hatred of the body with an uncritical endorsement of all desires regardless of their origin is to ignore the fact that an obsession with sexual taboo and fetish doesn’t escape the trap from which this puritanism emerged––as I noted in one of the aforelinked posts, Foucault drew our attention to this problem in the concluding paragraph of the first volume of his History of Sexuality.
Still we are faced with leftists who label all forms of fetish and “free” sexuality, simply because they are supposedly not conservative, progressive and liberatory. But as an historical materialist I refuse to accept that sexual desire exists beyond socialization: rape fetishes are not emancipatory, for example, and people should be made to feel bad about such fantasies even if some “progressive” advice columnists (i.e. Dan Savage) would have us to believe that no sexual fantasies are unproblematic simply because they are fantasies. While it is correct to assert that the realm of fantasy is far less harmful than the real, we also have to realize that concrete actions in the latter are often linked to desires that ferment in the former… and, simultaneously, the fact of concrete actions in the real world produce norms that code our desire. Rape is still globally normative and, since our desires are infected by social norms, it makes sense that rape fantasies are a common fetish––this does not make such fantasies unproblematic, even if it explains their origin, but should instead force us to realize that our desires are fucked up because the world is fucked up and that this needs to change. And it won’t change if we just keep thinking that our desires are a-okay, and just unconditioned desires, and don’t perform the simultaneous duty of doubling-back to reinforce the social relations from which they originate.
(I mean, good lord, shouldn’t all of you “sex positive” leftists take some time to step back, look at yourselves, and wonder why your understanding of sex and women’s bodies is eerily similar to what the average MRA thinks is normative? Also, and this is merely a tangental point, this “sex positive” discourse has already been around in some strange species of marxist thinking for a long time; the Spartacist League is still ahead of the game in backwards “sex positive” thinking in its defense of pedophilia and troubling assumption that laws against pedophilia are “bourgeois”… Of course, feminism is also “bourgeois” according to the Sparts.)
Look, I like sex and, contrary to some “sex positivists” who wander upon my blog and read some of my posts, I am not some anti-sex puritan (nor are the majority of leftists who question this discourse) invested in defending conservative monogamy. That aside, I am not so uncritical to assume that my sex life is somehow free from socialization, just as I don’t believe that my behaviour as a whole is unencumbered by normative social relations. I am a communist but I am not a communist subject, just as no one who exists now is a communist subject in virtue of the fact that such a way of being will not truly exist until classes are abolished. This does not mean that the answer to this problem is solved by chastity or some other conservative gambit; it simply means that we need to think through the ways in which our desire is articulated and attempt to imagine ways beyond the horizon of this desire.
In this sordid realm of a desire chained by the ruling values of the ruling class we encounter innumerable “fetishes” that we should not treat as positive or emancipatory, irregardless of how some people who express these desires claim they are “feminist” or “respectful”. Take, for example, the sexual phenomenon of “wife-sharing” that occupies a small province of polyamory: so many of those men who get off on being cuckolded locate their desire, consciously or unconsciously, in the fact that they are trading women as commodities. Or take the BDSM community and then try to imagine how such desire would ever be produced (if social consciousness follows social being) in a mode of production where oppression and exploitation are unknown. Take the sexual fetish community as a whole and investigate the class origin of the values they espouse… Some people have performed such an investigation and discovered that rape was not only normalized but treated as desirable. But hell, let’s be sex positive about this and not accuse someone of thought crimes even if they would like to perform such acts if bourgeois law hadn’t been forced, after decades of agitation, to make them nominally illegal.
Now let us return to the problematic of prostitution with which I began this post––the problematic that caused me to realize, nearly a decade ago, that the left hegemony of “sex positive” feminism was essentially rightist. Here we have a discourse that, under the brand “sex work”, attempts to nullify the brutal material fact of prostitution––especially if we understand it in its global sense––by entreating us to believe that the average “sex worker” wants to work in this industry and finds such work emancipatory. The timeliness of this discourse is represented in the recent Bedford Supreme Court ruling in Canada that will overturn various prostitution laws, an overturning that will not only decriminalize prostitutes (which should happen since the women working in this profession need legal rights) but also decriminalize johns and pimps. In fact, as a recent Partisan article insightfully and acerbically pointed out, the ruling was made in favour of the latter at the expense of the former––it was also made in favour of those “sex workers” who, unlike the vast majority of prostitutes, possess a level of autonomy and privilege and aren’t trafficked.
We are meant to believe that, since a minority of women involved in this industry think that “sex work” is the key to their agency, the entire system with its pimps and johns should be legitimated. Well, some workers in other industries imagine that capitalism is emancipatory and, based on this imaginary, have adopted the ruling ideas of the ruling class––they too want to throw the majority of workers under the bus of capitalist industry… We recognize them as class traitors, scabs, pinkertons. Why shouldn’t we treat the sex industry with the same critical standard as capitalist industry in general? Oh yeah, because it concerns sex and the “sex positive” discourse would have us to believe that sexual practice is always GOOD even if it is being sold as a commodity! Here, it is worth quoting the aforelinked Partisan article in some detail that, after defending those aspects of the law that will protect proletarian women forced into prostitution, boldly claims:
"Obviously, it is only a comparatively privileged fringe minority of prostitutes for whom freedom of contract, or the right to be recognized as “businesswomen” is a real priority! The Supreme Court members are not hiding the fact that, for them, it is not the effectiveness of the law that matters—that is, a law which would result in the total protection of women against violence, rape, sexual abuse, etc.—but the ability to access this security legally for those who can afford it. The principles on which the Supreme Court relies “do not look to how well the law achieves its object, or to how much of the population the law benefits or is negatively impacted.” Those who can afford private security must be able to do so… And fuck the others, even if they are the exploited majority—that is capitalism. […] However, the vast majority of those exploited by the capitalist “sex industry” are proletarian women. For us, prostitution is not freedom. Among our priorities are our daily survival, our emancipation from our exploiters, and our struggle to take power over our lives. Those who are perceived as “bad” prostitutes and associated with “public nuisance” do not have much control over their lives, nor they possess the means to hire a staff to protect themselves. Indeed, this notion of “public nuisance” is the only “negative” argument against prostitution that the Supreme Court members found to guide their thinking. Not women’s dignity, not our right to have a radiant sex life, not our right not to live in crap conditions… But the right of local landowners not to be disturbed by street prostitution."
Clearly, the above claims are sure to raise some eyebrows amongst the “sex positive” population that has begun to treat the very practice of sex work like lifestyle anarchists have treated dumpster diving. These are not practices that are liberating but, for the vast majority who are forced to engage in them, the result of capitalist exploitation and oppression; in this sense it is an insult to those who are forced into these practices by necessity for privileged individuals to fetishize them.
As leftists, however, especially leftists who want to develop a practice that will concretely lead to the destruction of capitalism, we need to begin drawing these lines of demarcation between ourselves and various “left” ideological tendencies that may in fact be promoting exploitation. By drawing these lines of demarcation we will be able to discover who is actually invested in overthrowing the current system, nor should we be afraid to draw them through practices and/or ideas that may, at first glance, appear as if they have nothing to do with making revolution such as the practices and ideas regarding sex. Even here we will discover our allies and enemies and force, in this demarcating, the emergence of revolutionary positions.