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 in American Booksellers v. Hudnut.
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.
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.
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. Sex-positive feminists generally agree that prostitutes themselves should not be stigmatized or penalized.
Sadomasochism (BDSM) has been criticized by anti porn feminists 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 many women and validate these women’s sexual inclinations. They argue that feminists should not attack other women’s sexual desires as being “anti-feminist” or internalizing oppression, and that there is no connection between consensual sexually kinky activities and sex crimes. While some anti-porn feminists suggest connections between consensual BDSM scenes and 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. Furthermore, many argue that playing with power (such as rape scenes) through BDSM is a way of challenging and subverting that power, rather than reifying it.
Though feminists are often stereotyped as being lesbians, McElroy (1995) argues 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.
Some feminists have criticized transgender women (male-to-female) as men attempting to appropriate female identity while retaining male privilege, and transgender men (female-to-male) as women who reject solidarity with their gender. One of the main exponents of this point of view is Janice Raymond (Raymond, 1979)
Many transgender people see gender identity as an innate part of a person. Some feminists also criticize this belief, arguing instead that gender roles are societal constructs, and are not related to any natural factor. 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. Patrick Califia has written extensively about issues surrounding feminism and transgender issues, especially in Sex Changes: Transgender Politics (second edition, 2003).
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.