Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Notes & Comments

Sex Positivity

What does the sexual revolution look like today?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy

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Curio · The Hedgehog Review | What does the sexual revolution look like today?

I’m not Michel Foucault, but here’s a history of sexuality, greatly abridged: First came the slut shamers. The traditionalist, patriarchal religious haranguers. Things weren’t great for men in the before times, but they were particularly unpleasant for women. Then came the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, which involved chucking all the rules. This had some good effects (ambitious women at last permitted to leave their houses and become doctors, lawyers, bosses) and some less good ones (moviemakers permitted to assault underage girls). In the 1990s and early 2000s, following however many backlashes against backlashes, the sexual revolution re-emerged as sex positivity.

In theory, sex positivity is friendlier to women than sexual liberation (more negotiated nonmonogamy, fewer bunny girls). It involves applying an open-minded but gender-neutral approach to sex and relationships. This is not the same as overtly catering to men but amounts to the same thing. Sex positivity brings about situations like the one described in a recent Paris Review essay, Jean Garnett’s “Scenes From an Open Marriage,” in which the mother of a six-month-old baby graciously consents to her husband’s wish to sleep with other women. Garnett asks the reader to understand their arrangement as consensual, and to set aside the extreme constraints of a woman in that situation. If you’re a member of the sex that can get pregnant, and that is stigmatized for promiscuity, and that is considered over the hill past age twenty-five, there are limits to how far easy-breezy can take you.

Often, sex positivity manifests itself as positivity toward sexiness, a.k.a., the right to be hot without judgment. As such, it has some shared mission with feminism, insofar as feminism is not not about the right of women to be appealing without being mistreated. Most obviously, sex positivity takes a favorable stance toward sex work, going beyond sympathy for those who find themselves selling sex.

But there are more PG-rated manifestations as well. It’s fashion model Emily Ratajkowski moonlighting as a feminist, one whose feminism involves writing things like, “As a fully grown woman, I continue to be shocked by how, in 2019, we look down so much on women who like to play with what it means to be sexy.” It’s SlutWalks (marches against rape culture and victim blaming), and more broadly, the genre of protest that involves young women looking attractive in the service of a worthy cause. More recently, it’s young women looking attractive while calling themselves “bimbos” on TikTok, playing at what it means to be dumb. And how could I leave out the young women who call themselves “hot” while professing indifference to the male gaze?

Sex positivity is supposed to be about consenting adults maximizing pleasure. But in practice, it involves the convenient epiphany that, actually, what women find pleasurable is pleasing men. Female sexuality, then, is about the thrill of being found sexy, as though this (if true) were something intrinsic to womanhood, and not about how billboards and magazine covers inundate people of all genders and orientations with images of attractive women.

Even while it lives on among the self-identified hot bimbo set, the contemporary ideology of sex positivity faces three varieties of pushback: #MeToo, neotraditionalist, and posthetero.

The 2017 #MeToo moment was the first big break. By #MeToo I do not mean the fleeting crackdown on workplace sexual harassment. I mean a web of unwritten and ultimately incoherent rules, according to which, on the one hand, all that matters is consent, but on the other, any power imbalance can make consent impossible. It is a kind of woke puritanism, in which hookup apps are not an acceptable way, but the only acceptable way, to find a partner, because approaching someone in public is considered a violation. The goal of #MeToo feminism is for women to be able to put themselves into any situation they please, without being propositioned. A sound goal in some respects, if one that never knows what to make of those times when women actually want some good old-fashioned propositioning.

The neotraditionalist critique of sex positivity takes the #MeToo line of thought to its logical conclusion. Rather than argue for better guardrails during hookups, the neotraditionalists suggest abandoning casual sex altogether. Apparently by coincidence, authors Christine Emba and Louise Perry, two leaders in this shift, have published an article and a book chapter, respectively, called “Consent Is Not Enough”—the idea being, in both cases, that a still more stringent sexual ethics is needed. Perhaps even a bit of love and marriage.

Like the #MeToo proponents, neotraditionalists tend to focus on the sex women don’t want. They overlap with #MeToo in their tendency to see women in the victim role, and differ mainly in their willingness to offer strategies for avoiding male unpleasantness. (The progressive #MeToo version insists on holding men solely responsible and understands the neotraditionalist approach as victim blaming.) Both of these critiques prioritize women’s safety over women’s sexual enjoyment.

The posthetero critique has the advantage of offering a, well, positive portrait of female desire, one in which women do things other than deflect unwanted advances. The idea is that as long as cisgender men (that is, men who are not transgender, who were assigned the male gender at birth) are avoided, any arrangement is fair game. Remove the oppressive weight of cis-heteropatriarchy, the thinking goes, and a whole world of amorous possibilities opens up.

This approach, a transgender-inclusive version of what was once called political lesbianism, has a lot to offer the small minority of women whose sexuality falls outside the cisgender, heterosexual sphere. Get rid of those stodgy dudes, and stifling gender roles dissipate. Well, maybe. But this strategy has nothing whatsoever to offer the women who, in the most boring sense possible, want men.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg ended a recent article on the backlash against sex positivity with the observation that “what passes for sex positivity is a culture of masochism disguised as hedonism. It’s what you get when you liberate sex without liberating women.” It’s there I’d like to pick up. What does liberating sex and women look like?

Instead of asking, What do women want? one could start with the premise Women want. This simple assertion is oddly missing from conversations ostensibly about female heterosexuality. The reason it matters if a lot of young women are having sex they don’t want with men they don’t want is, in part, that these women are human beings with desires of their own that are not being fulfilled.

Women might stop thinking about what we look like and start thinking about what we like to look at. Or if we are thinking about our own looks, we might do so strategically. In a detached, unemotional way. Think about how your self-presentation might help you find yourself in a romantic situation with a man you are interested in. You are not trying, in some vague and generic way, to be attractive.

But most of all, the intimacy women want to be having with men but aren’t is as important as the relationships they’re having but are ambivalent about. Or in simpler terms, what women do want matters as much as what we don’t.