Sex-positive feminism, also known as pro-sex feminism, sex-radical feminism, or sexually liberal feminism is a movement that began in the early 1980s that centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom. Some became involved in the sex-positive feminist movement in response to efforts by anti-pornography feminists 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. Women who have advocated sex-positive feminism include Kathy Acker, Megan Andelloux, Susie Bright, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Diana Cage, Avedon Carol, Patrick Califia, Betty Dodson, Nancy Friday, Nina Hartley, Josephine Ho, Amber L. Hollibaugh, Brenda Howard, Wendy McElroy, Inga Muscio, Joan Nestle, Carol Queen, Candida Royalle, Gayle Rubin, Annie Sprinkle, Tristan Taormino, Ellen Willis, Lorde, and Laci Green.
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.
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.” Sharon Presley, the National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists, writes that in the area of sexuality, government blatantly discriminates against women.
The social background in which sex-positive feminism operates must also be understood: Christian societies are often influenced by what is understood as ‘traditional’ sexual morality: according to the Christian doctrine, sexual activity must only take place in marriage, and must be vaginal intercourse; sexual acts outside marriage and ‘unnatural sex’ (i.e. oral, anal sex, termed as “sodomy”) are forbidden; yet forced sexual intercourse within marriage is not seen as immoral by many social and religious conservatives, owing to the existence of so-called ‘conjugal rights’ defined in the Bible at 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. Such organization of sexuality has increasingly come under legal and social attack in recent decades.
In addition, in certain cultures, in particular in Mediterranean European countries influenced by Roman Catholicism, traditional ideas of strong masculinity have interacted with the cult of Virgin Mary that required female purity, leading to strong double standards regarding male sexuality and female sexuality, with men being expected to be sexually assertive as a way of affirming their masculinity, but ‘good’ women being required to be uninterested in sex. Indeed, Cesare Lombroso claimed in his book The Female Offender that women could be categorized in three types: the Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman. As such, highly sexed women (prostitutes) were deemed as abnormal.
Authors such as Gayle Rubin (Rubin, 1984) and Wendy McElroy (McElroy, 1995) see the roots of sex-positive feminism in the work of sex reformers and workers for sex education and access to contraception such as Havelock Ellis, Margaret Sanger, Mary Dennett and, later, Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite. However, the contemporary incarnation of sex-positive feminism appeared more recently, following an increasing feminist focus on pornography as a source of women’s oppression in the 1970s. The rise of second-wave feminism was concurrent with the sexual revolution and 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 prescribing 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. 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 purported rise of “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 anti-pornography trend amongst feminists was Ellen Willis’s essay “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography” first published in October 1979 in the Village Voice (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”.) 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.
China scholar Elaine Jeffreys (2009) observes that the ‘anti-prostitute’ position gained increased critical purchase during the establishment of the international movement for prostitutes in 1985, demanding recognition of prostitutes’ rights as an emancipation and labour issue rather than of criminality, immorality or disease. By the 2000s, the positive-sex position had driven various international human rights NGOs to actively pressure the Chinese government to abandon its official policy of banning prostitution in post-reform China and recognise voluntary prostitution as legitimate work (Jeffreys 2009).