Swat Takes: What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex

Editors Note: This article is a part of “Swat Takes,” a curated conversation between two authors about a contentious topic. This article is in conversation with an article written by Hannah Watkins entitled “Let’s Talk About Sex (Better).”

Content Warning: Mentions of Sexual Violence

If sex is so good, why is it so often bad?

This is an enormous question, and I have no delusions about my ability to answer it comprehensively within a few pages of a school newspaper. Much ink has been spilled on the topic, and it would be pathetically prideful to presume I have more ability to answer it than the dozens of trained feminist authors who failed to create a complete account of it within the span of an entire book. Given that, my aim is not to answer the original question but to complicate the question itself and approach it in light of the historical context that surrounds it, a historical context that has led me to believe that an unabashed embrace of sexuality disregards women’s material existence.

Sex-positivity is not merely a positive attitude toward sex. It is an ideology, and ideologies do not arise or manifest in vacuums of academic theorizing. They are grounded in history and lived experience, and it is not the feat of argumentation as much as complication that I hope to incompletely achieve. To that end, I hope that a complication of sex-positivity may illuminate the reality that sexual liberation is not liberating for all, and that it is harmfully negligent to presume otherwise.

What tenets does sex-positivity hold as an ideology? We may find some answers in the history of feminist approaches to sex. A positive suggests a negative, and though this sex-negative is often connoted to mean some misogynist notions of female purity, such an assumption is at least somewhat ahistorical. It was not purity politics to which sex-positivity responded, but actually the emergence of Dominance Feminism and anti-pornography feminism in the 1980s.

Sex-positivity, as an academic tradition of feminist thought, is a response not to patriarchy but to a certain feminist view on patriarchy. And it is this exchange of arguments amongst feminists, rather than between feminists and those who “slut shame,” that constituted the Sex Wars.

It is hard to identify the exact date that the Sex Wars commenced, but given that arguably the most crucial issue of the Sex Wars was pornography, one possible date is January 1977, when a group of feminists in San Francisco held the “Women’s Centers Conference on Violence Against Women” and soon after founded the organization “Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media.” Among the many voices of the anti-pornography feminist movement emerged Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. In her seminal text, “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State,” MacKinnon writes:

In contemporary industrial society, pornography is an industry that mass produces sexual intrusion on, access to, possession and use of women by and for men to profit. It exploits women’s sexual and economic inequality for gain. It sells women to men as and for sex. It is a technologically sophisticated traffic in women.

She continues:

the liberal defense of pornography as human sexual liberation, as depressions […], is a defense not only of force and sexual terrorism, but of the subordination of women. Sexual liberation in the liberal sense frees male sexual aggression in the feminist sense […] pornography participates in its audience’s eroticism because it creates an accessible sexual object, the possession and consumption of which is male sexuality, to be consumed and possessed as which is female sexuality. In this sense, sex in life is no less mediated than it is in art. Men have sex with their image of a woman.

Before writing this book, MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin had crafted the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinances. They began by representing Linda Boreman, who performed in pornographic films under the pseudonym Linda Lovelace, in the charges she brought against her ex-husband, who had violently beaten and raped her into performing her scenes. MacKinnon and Dworkin, after also meeting with Gloria Steinem, used the case to bring charges against many more pornography producers on the ground that pornography was a form of violence against women. They lost the case but made themselves the most public leaders of the anti-pornography movement.

In 1979, MacKinnon wrote the book “Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination,” which served as among the first, and certainly the most important, legal claim for considering sexual harassment to constitute a form of sex discrimination. This text was, and remains, a grounding theory behind the work of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the organization charged with enforcing civil rights law in workplace discrimination. In 1986, MacKinnon served as co-counsel for Mechelle Vinson in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the case that established, to quote then-Justice Rehnquist, “when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, that supervisor “discriminate[s] on the basis of sex.” MacKinnon’s 1979 book remains amongst the most cited legal texts and serves as the dominant framework for our current understanding of sexual harassment and the unique type of workplace harm that it causes. As for her work beyond sexual harassment and pornography, in 2000 she represented Bosnian women in the case against Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb war criminal who presided over Republika Srpska during the Bosnian War. Kadić v. Karadžić created the legal claim for rape as an act of genocide in the Bosnian-Serbian war and resulted in the plaintiffs being awarded $745 million. MacKinnon argued that, in a genocidal context, ethnicity- or religion-based forced prostitution and forced impregnation qualify themselves as acts of genocide.

And yet it is MacKinnon against whom the tradition of sex positivity positioned itself. So what makes MacKinnon, as well as other radical feminists, fall on the “wrong” side of the sex wars? Some answers may be found in the type of sentiment that rendered her supposedly most famous quote, in fact, a cruel and perverse misquote, “all sex is rape.”

MacKinnon never argued for such a statement, so why would someone say she did? Well, what she did argue was that sex can serve as a mechanism for female subjugation and oppression, and that notions of a completely free-willed sexual encounter are negligent to the reality that many women do not, in fact, have the completely unbridled autonomy to freely will sex. In “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State,” MacKinnon also writes, “Male dominance is sexual. Meaning: men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy […] if violation of women is understood as sexualized on some level then sexuality itself can no longer be regarded as unimplicated. Nor can the meaning of practices of sexual violence be categorized as violence not sex.” She continues, “Sexuality, in feminist light, is not a discrete sphere of interaction or feeling or sensation or behavior in which preexisting social divisions may or may not be played out. It is a pervasive dimension of social life, one that permeates the whole.[…] Dominance eroticized defines the imperatives of its masculinity, submission eroticized defines its femininity.” On consent, she writes, “the appearance of choice or consent, with their attribution to inherent nature, is crucial in concealing the reality of force. Love of violation, variously termed female masochism and consent, come to define female sexuality, legitimating the political system by concealing the force on which it is based.” I will not explicate these quotes, mostly because I have little faith in my own abilities to say anything on the topic of sex more eloquently than MacKinnon, and would prefer to entrust her with her own words. I will only remark that similar views were shared by many of the radical (and supposedly villainously sex-hating) camp.

In her “Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions,” Josephine Donovan writes, “Sex (and, as other radical feminists urged, love) is sold as a magical experience that is supposed to justify otherwise dreary lives. Instead, it functions as an opiate keepìng women from thinking about their overall condition.” The Marxist connotations of this statement are deliberate. Marx’s famed quote, “Religion is the opium of the masses” is not a blanket statement about the evilness of all religion. To borrow from Andrew McKinnon’s (no relation to Catharine) analysis in “Opium of the People’: Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion,” Marx’s 19th century context understood opium as a once primarily healing medicine which had been adulterated and become overprescribed to children. Opium was not merely a soporific to distract the masses from their oppression, as has often been misread from Marx’s quote. Opium’s capitalist commodification had made it into a source of physical harm where it had not been before.

Given the complexity of opium as metaphor, the complexity of religion as metaphor also abounds. Perhaps a more accurate interpretation is Theodor Adorno’s, namely that, “[Religion] is cheaply marketed in order to provide one more so-called irrational stimulus among many others by which the members of a calculating society are calculatingly made to forget the calculation under which they suffer.” Religious suffering and opium abuse are what McKinnon (not MacKinnon) calls “expression of” and “protest against” capitalism. Their consumption is beneficial to the capitalist enterprise in that it is lucrative, but they also mark a distinct attempt at protest through escapism.

So what is all of this to say about sex? Well, maybe it’s time to return to our understanding of sex itself. If neither religion to Marx nor opium to 19th century British proletariat signified in-principle harm, merely that they had been “cheaply marketed” by capitalist enterprises, we may situate sex similarly. If Donovan is right, and sexual liberation has functioned as a patriarchal distraction from oppression, as a way of forgetting the “calculation under which they suffer,” we ought to thoroughly re-examine the embrace of sexual liberation. One can find meaning for life and comfort for the afterlife in religion. One can find release from excruciating physical pain in opium. One can find intimacy and bodily pleasure in sex. One ought to practice religion without harsh and unfair judgment, one should have the right to be prescribed painkillers for one’s pain, one ought to have sex without shame. Does my agreement with those statements hinder my ability to offer a thorough-going critique of how all of those “goods” are practiced, supported, upheld, manipulated, and used to strengthen systems of power? No.

I wish to consider sex in its true practice and exchange and production. Can notions of sex be extricated from our notions of how sex ought to be produced pornographically? Do consumers of porn not replicate sex in the image of sexuality as they visually perceived it? Do college students not exchange sex in modes that mimic social hierarchies, and in systems where nonchalance signifies power? Do women truly have the power to say “no,” and if not, what does that mean about those times we say “yes”? I do not mean to suggest that every single sexual act is burdened by these implications of power. Queer sexuality for one operates in a unique position both thoroughly interior and exterior to a heteropatriarchal conception of sex. I accept the anecdotal account of a college student from a “feminist” household and “feminist” community that she orgasms regularly, has never experienced coercion into sex, and finds personal satisfaction in pursuing men in similarly objectifying ways to the way men pursue women. But I can also speak for myself, and can refer to the perverse sexual liberation I sought out at the ages of sixteen and seventeen within a community of Eastern European boys for whom violence in all capacities was the rule and not the exception. If by the time I reached my current age I had slept with more men trained in military combat by order of the Russian and Ukrainian compulsory military service than men who had ever heard of the word “affirmative consent,” where does that leave my supposed sex liberation? Nor is it true that my trauma derives from my transgression of a purity, for that was never something I was afforded. Romania is regularly named Europe’s sex capital, and Romanian women constitute both the largest percentage of sex workers and sex trafficking victims in the EU, overwhelmingly in non-Romanian states. My hypersexualization in the Western gaze was granted prior to the upholding of my purity. Sex was not what I was denied, but was what I was demanded to perform.

If I can assert that in my closest communities, which are not those communities of the American intellectual elite that comprises much of Swarthmore, there is no such thing as sex without violence, there is no such thing as sex without acquiescence to the demands of a man, there is no such thing as sex without a temporal abandonment of one’s autonomy. And so if there was no good sex to be had, though sex was as available and arguably less frowned upon than at Swarthmore, what could my sexual liberation consist of?

Condoms do not protect against trauma, nor does an orgasm, nor does the terrified “yes” my seventeen-year-old self uttered when yet another violent boy asked me to leave a party with him. And so, if I can at least point to the fact that I have existed, and participated far more often, in a sexual community of violence and patriarchal domination upon my body and sense of self, might we not question if the very concept of a sexual liberation that can only exist for the elite and privileged? One may, though I do think they would struggle, argue that the contexts of MacKinnon’s non-sex positive stance do not exist at Swarthmore. Though I personally disagree, I can temporarily concede this point. Nonetheless, does that permit those human beings who behold unrepresentative sexual agency to universalize about notions of consent and sexuality? I do not believe so. I can only conclude by saying that if sex is our opiate, deep and thoughtful reflection may be our rehab.

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