A Feminist Freak: What Sex and Politics Look Like

I love sex.

More specifically, I love kinky sex. I love to get my hair pulled while I’m being fucked doggy style or bent over a knee for a spanking in a Daddy/Daughter roleplay. I am turned on, at times, by submissiveness; being tied up or held down by my partner during a rough pounding. I masturbate to gangbang porn. I like to deep throat on my knees and swallow after I’ve finished. I love the satisfaction of being sore the next day.

I’m a freak. I’m also a feminist. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

The way that feminism and sexuality intersect divide itself into two polarizing ideologies. The first, carved out of second-wave radical feminism, is mostly characterized by anti-sex. It renders sex work, sexy clothing, sexual public display, and pornography (especially hetero/mainstream) as demeaning and objectifying. It implicitly encourages women to detach themselves from conventional ideals of patriarchal beauty and sex appeal; to inhabit a sort of asexuality to be seen for their intellect as opposed to their bodies.

But rather than freeing women, what develops is a form of feminist respectability in which women are expected to present modestly to challenge the male gaze. An ideology that erroneously blankets all female sexual expression as self-denigrative regardless of context, and performs benevolent slut-shaming of its own. It claims to “protect” women from objectification through policing sexuality but only repositions them in a space of objectivity; wherein sexuality is still validated (or invalidated) via patriarchal proximity. It continually “rescues” women from sexual choices with the assumption that those choices can never be made for their own benefit.

The oppositional ideology (embraced by younger feminists) is vehemently pro-sex. It rests on the notion that women are empowered by brazen sexuality; that through nudity, raunchy sexual expression, and masculine sexual imitation, they subvert feminine expectations of chastity and reclaim ownership of their bodies.

But this ideology, too, is ineffective. It mostly benefits cis, straight white women whose privilege allows the adaption of “slutiness” (unlike LBTQ women or women of color) without the stigma of sexual deviance. It automatically conflates sex with power which fails to acknowledge that sex in and of itself is not inherently progressive for women.

Patriarchy socializes women to see sexuality as inextricably linked to reproduction or self-worth. We don’t possess the male privilege needed to sexually operate in heteronormative masculine spaces; to have sex in the mechanical ways in which men are expected. We approach sex cautiously, for pragmatic reasons—fear of unplanned pregnancy (cis), or the threat of danger from unknown partners—but also because it’s entangled with messages of shame, respectability, and male pleasure that hinder our sexual autonomy differently. Our sexual choices don’t always empowering because they’re so often made in relation to men: I want to fuck him, but I want him to respect me or I don’t want to fuck him, but if I don’t he might cheat or he paid for dinner, so I guess I have to fuck him. LBTQ womens’ sexuality is deemed irrelevant altogether unless it can be re-imagined for a male audience. So women generally do not pursue pleasure—as men are trained to do—but negotiate pleasure with the Rules of femininity. Framing sexual liberation as role reversal only recaptures women in equally restrictive expectations of sexual rapaciousness and emotional detachment.

Pro-sex feminists also refuse to critique sex by painting it as “natural” and apolitical; a separate entity somehow untainted by social conditioning and power dynamics. But if we believe that heteronormative socialization is the site of womens’ oppression (as most feminists do) we can’t also hold that private spaces of sex, love, and relationships are somehow exempt from its effects. Sex is so irrefutably bound up in womens subjugation—rape, (social control via sexual violence) reproduction, (state sanctioned sexual control) beauty standards (social control via male pleasure)–that to render it benign and neutral, to claim it’s “just sex” underestimates its weight in dangerous ways.

I think feminist sex is somewhere in the middle. It’s that sweet spot between political prudishness and uncritical hypersexualization. Those flashes of pop cultural lusciousness— Janet Jackson moaning orgasmically in the interludes of a track, or Lil’ Kim bragging about her Head game in the “Magic Stick” or Ciara twerking in the “Ride” video—that conceptualize the potentials of sex-positivity. That crevice of unapologetic libidos and unveiled lust that women can rarely occupy.

Feminism isn’t dogmatic. It’s not reductive to any specific individual behaviors but a collective environment in which women are human and free; so our sex and our politics are able to coexist through the presence of erotic agency.

Agency is what allows me to enter to the un-feminist parts of sex. The ambivalent, politically incorrect, problematic bits of sex without cognitive dissonance. It’s how I can be fully aware of the misogynistic implications of any particular sex act or fantasy with which I engage—to interrogate it intellectually—and simultaneously admit that it turns me on at the most primitive level. I neither (guiltily) ignore my politics nor forfeit the self-care that comes from a complex and enjoyable sex life. Agency is how I make a truce between the battles  of consciousness and self-indulgence, a feminism—as Joan Morgan put it–“that’s brave enough to fuck with the grays.”

The concept of erotic agency also reminds me that submissiveness and powerlessness are not always the same thing. One can take on a submissive (or objectifying) role from a space of power if they also see it as a sexual identity unrelated to the self, to be used for the fulfillment of fantasy and pleasure. The difference between sexual empowerment and exploitation can’t be determined by a woman’s subordinate positioning at any given time, but whether or not she is limited to it, by virtue of gender. If we only ever contextualize feminism in dom/sub binaries, we essentially see domination (and masculinity, by extension) as the only source of legitimate power; that a woman’s failure to be anywhere but on Top is an affront to her politics and her self. But if women don’t have agency, even if they engage in the kind of egalitarian sexual cliches that Good Feminists are supposed to; they are still trapped, still marginalized, still powerless.

And I think feminism has done the work of articulating the many things women don’t want, but we sometimes neglect to think about what we, in fact, do want. How when we have agency in the context of pleasure, it is inherently radical because it rejects the notion that sex has some bearing on our morality, our politics, our personhood; that our bodies and the private things we chose to do with them are still up for public discussion.

When women are allowed to inhabit sexuality in the pursuit of raw pleasure or self-expression–when we can revel in it with utter selfishness without the burdens of shame, censorship, or inhibition, when we can focus on how sex feels, instead of always what it means—that is empowerment.

There’s no real paradigm from which to measure feminist sex because it is tricky and fluid and changes through context–but there are markers of it’s existence.

I know I am having feminist sex when I can unwrap my desire from all of the patriarchal ambiguity, pinpoint it, and act accordingly. When I don’t hesitate to tell my partner how to please me and when or if they’re doing it wrong. When I refuse to fake an orgasm for convenience. When I’m not preoccupied with the way the male gaze perceives my body when the lights are on. When I don’t feel like a slut or a saint or a hypocrite for doing it whenever, however I chose. When I am ultimately fucking for me, and no one else.

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20 thoughts on “A Feminist Freak: What Sex and Politics Look Like

  1. jayjayblackk says:

    Someone questioned me if I was a feminist because I like to feel liberated through clothing and sexuality that I encourage the vulgar behaviour of men I say no I respect myself and other women I will not hide the shape in which distinguishes men between women and i will not limitate my exploration and creativity during sex. love this article though so interesting but it’s true it is in the middle. A lot of people battle to maintain a balance. Thanks for this a great read

  2. Animaine says:

    Brilliant! So often we hear about how sex is supposed to be liberating for women, but that sex is usually painted as something that exists primarily (in not exclusively) for men. But when a woman truly owns her sexuality, takes command of her own sexual experiences, and pursues sex for her own pleasure and desires, then it can be seen as liberating. Sex on patriarchy’s terms is it’s own shackle.

    Keep Changing Lives and Challenging Minds.

  3. I think it’s so important for women to take ownership of, and not be threatened by, their own sexuality. I think most women have gone through phases where sex and eroticism is a private or shameful thing, whereas men usually get the luxury to have it out in the open or shrug it off as natural. This starts us off with the notion that sex is for men- something we have to ‘give up’ of ourselves leading to the sad misbalance of power.

    It will be great to live in a world where if a woman dresses or walks or dances in a way that shows off her figure people assume it’s because she likes her figure, not because she wants men to like it. That would imply that the sole purpose of a beautiful woman is to sexually satisfy a man, once again throwing the sexual power (undeservedly) into man’s playing field.

    I love the fact that you own what you are and that you are confident about it! I have to agree with the other comments and say this is a Vital step toward any kind of female liberation

    • negress007 says:

      I agree, we have to give women erotic space to claim for themselves.

    • Elissa says:

      “It will be great to live in a world where if a woman dresses or walks or dances in a way that shows off her figure people assume it’s because she likes her figure, not because she wants men to like it. ”

      I fucking love this.

  4. Bucko says:

    How is it that a woman in 2013 can even relax for a one-nighter when bombarded with this message? :

    “women are empowered by brazen sexuality; that through nudity, raunchy sexual expression, and masculine sexual imitation, they subvert feminine expectations of chastity and reclaim ownership of their bodies.”

    Its men who are supposed to subvert these expectations thus eliminating the marriage-girl vs screw-girl dichotomy that absolutely infuriates feminists.

    .

  5. Deidra says:

    I think the main problem with sex isn’t that it’s inherently anti-feminist, but that sex itself, and the role that women play with it, are very much still entrenched within society’s concept of where women belong. Typically, women have been given the idea that they hold power with sex; in refusal, “allowing” it, or appearing sexual, they hold the key to “controlling” a man. That’s not a new idea, and actually, it’s been used by many cultures to justify the rape, violence, and ensuing actions against women, claiming that they “asked for it”, through being overly sexual in some arbitrary way.

    Which of course is bullshit, but women are not going to change that idea by becoming more overtly sexual just because it “feels” liberating. It’s a pseudo feeling of liberation or control, since women never actually controlled anything about sex in the first place. In attempting to express themselves sexually, many still limit that expression of sexuality to the typical culture stereotypes of what constitutes female sexuality (submissive roles, typical clothing, postures, presentations, dances, etc.), rather than being able to identify themselves as sexual beings outside of those gender-identifiable roles. Which, generally speaking, is also not their fault, because really, how do we know what expressions mean anything without using our culture as context?

    But that means they still aren’t being liberated, and they still don’t control anything about the culture around them (even though it feels like they do), because the manifestations of being sexual in a “feminine” way are still playing into the typical cultural expectations of women in the first place. Doesn’t actually solve anything about making sex in general more acceptable for women. If anything, it offers a dangerous false sense of freedom and liberation, since the expressions are still tied into a controlled culture.

  6. coltonallenreeves says:

    As a relatively uneducated male who is currently trying to understand and promote feminism, this is a wonderful piece. I have been confused for a while now about how women view sex and this article is unapologetically provocative and enlightening. It also seems very true. We shouldn’t box up feminist sex into either pro-sex or anti-sex, rather we should let the individual decide for herself what is liberating. Preconceived notions about feminist sex don’t matter, the individual matters. Thank you for this.

  7. […] pretty common that the ideals of feminist sex get split up into two camps: anti-sex and pro-sex. http://negress.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/a-feminist-freak-what-sex-and-politics-look-like/ This article explains both of those positions very well and this article is also what I will be […]

  8. BreakingGood says:

    Sex, by definition is a two person (or more) act. Whether you’re a male or a female who is pursuing sex solely for the feel of it, make sure the other person is on the same page as you. It is a common experience for women to be seduced by a sex-driven male, made to believe that the male wants them for them and NOT just for the sex, and then the woman is left to pick up the pieces of their heart. This very thing can, and does, happen to men as well. No one deserves to deal with that, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Yes, women should be empowered by their sexuality. If you’re a woman (or a man) that’s exploring the world of sex, no one should judge you. But please keep in mind the other side of the coin. Matters of the heart are not to be fooled around with.

  9. Trudy says:

    Utterly brilliant essay. Seriously. I became extremely fatigued with the direction of anti-sex versus compulsory sexuality that seem to occupy feminist discourse on sex, when both are reactionary and form a patriarchal binary. I like how you examine this and reveal where empowerment truly lies. This is everything! Thanks for sharing.

  10. kaited says:

    Thank you for this! Wonderful post…I am always thinking about how my sex life relates to my feminism, and you untangled some things so well. I have a monogamous male partner that I have been with for about a year. We live together and have a wonderful sex life. I am queer and fantasize often about having another woman involved sexually with us. I know that this is something I want and I think I am unwrapping “my desire from all of the patriarchal ambiguity”, and yet there is a big part of me that is hesitant and scared, fearful of my own emotional complications and jealousy…but I want to do this for me. We do talk about this, and he is very supportive and just leaving it in my hands should I ever want to pursue it further…Thoughts?
    Thanks again for your post.

  11. Dan says:

    You are amazing. THANK YOU! Your intellect and nuance and understanding of so many positions is so refreshing.

    You rock. Keep shakin’ things up!

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  13. Frank says:

    I read the post when it first came out, but I’m just now catching my breath.

    When you unwrap your “desire from all of the patriarchal ambiguity, pinpoint it, and act accordingly,” you are doing a great service for feminism, I would think. Desire usually operates at an unconscious level, even at “the most primitive level,” doesn’t it, so much of the resistance to feminism would too. The empowerment of women sounds better than it feels for men.

    But yes, you are thinking at a very high level these days and I can’t say I can completely follow you but it’s fun trying. This is one of those readings I have to study in order to hold enough concepts and thoughts in my mind at one time. At the risk of sounding like a fan, you are up there with the big girls and boys, taking part in a conversation that’s beyond the average person but will ultimately affect all of us profoundly. OK, I am a fan.

    I’ll say this. I’m so glad you put twerking in a context before Miley Cyrus did.

  14. I’m glad the author can untangle a “kinky” sexuality from patriarchy. I wish I could do the same.

    I enjoy the things that the author mentions, but I have trouble convincing myself that I would like being sub if I did not live in a society that sexualizes this specific type of power inequality (hetero male dom, hetero female sub) to the point of ubiquity. That feels patriarchal to me. Patriarchal being that I’m in my proper “place” as a woman during sex (and it feels ohso good to be there..let me stay in my place even harder).

    So in a way, I “choose” my sexual ID, and guided by my own pleasure, and feel “unbridled” by the male gaze as the author describes. But I am also attracted to a specific type sexual inequality that I don’t think would exist without patriarchy. That’s key – my sexuality isn’t guided by the “male gaze” at all. Rather, it’s guided by sexualized power inequality – I don’t care what I “look” like during sex, so long as I “act” in submission. And I act in submission because that kind of power inequality is hot. In that respect, I feel as though my choice to pursue this particular sexual pleasure is somewhat predetermined, my agency less of an…agent in that aspect of my sexual ID.

    I think the author describes some part of what I’m saying as “second wave.” And I guess it is to some degree, although I would never apply this analysis to people other than myself. Not sure if what I’m thinking is a Bad Thing for Feminism or not. But I won’t deny that I *do* feel guilty about my pleasure – essentially orgasming to gender-specific power inequalities.

    Side note – I did not like the phrase “to inhabit a sort of asexuality to be seen for their intellect as opposed to their bodies.” I understand the sentiment of the phrase, but it’s sort of insensitive to ace people. Asexuality =/= walking brain. You can be asexual and want to look sexy for people. And wanting to detach yourself from conventional sexuality is not same as asking someone to become asexual (feeling no sexual attraction toward people). I think it would be better described as 2nd wavers asking people to acknowledge that their sexualities are products of patriarchy and encouraging people to reconstruct those sexualities in a non patriarchal way, however that might look (*not* completely divest oneself of sexual attraction).

    • negress007 says:

      Thanks for reading.

      1) It’s good that you are questioning your preferences and its origins in socializations, as we all should do. I agree that your (or my, or anyones) sexual attraction toward things like submission/power inequality are due to our socialization within patriarchy. That precisely what makes BDSM/”taboo” fantasies so hot and alluring are the power dynamics at play in the society in which we live. This is, in some ways, patriarchal. But was is also patriarchal is (as i imply in my piece) seeking for domination as the only source of power, especially when that power comes at the expense of personal pleasure or desires. In fact, contextualizing your sexuality or pleasure or power or sense of self only as it relates to men, is itself patriarchal, regardless of whether or not you have “reversed roles”, because the axis is still male centered.

      Furthermore, i think you are still thinking of patriarchy is limited ways. Patriarchy isn’t just male domination, its a larger power structure in general that relies on the domination/subjugation of other people (via hierarchies, sub/dom dynamics, heteronormativity etc) that is filtered through gender and gender identity but it doesn’t always need women to exist. For instance, in spaces where women are absent (like prisons for men) you see that patriarchal structures still exist. Masculine presenting men will often subjugate feminine men in submissive roles similar to women and perpetuate ideas of heteronormativity and femmephoba. Women too, can also uphold patriarchy without the presence of men, which we see in bi/lesbian relationships that rely on stud/femme-dom/sub roles. When we see women in “leadership” positions and we consider powerful and women in “supporting” positions as weak, that is still patriarchy, because it continues to grant power only in the presence of domination of someone else. So i think if that is the concern, we see that both ends have potential to be patriarchal, which means what we’re left with is our agency in figuring out what feels best for us.

      2) We also have to realize that while we are all heavily socialized in patriarchy, it does not blanket our entire identity or free will. We do not only act in ways we are socialized (or else we would be machines). You can be trained to do things via patriarchy but still experience pleasure in it as a human being. As a woman, patriarchy trains me to see makeup/fashion as inextricable to femininity and therefore my identity, and i recognize this but also recognize that i love as an act of creativity and gender expression AND that there is nothing inherently wrong with makeup, or inherently gendered about makeup, its only my social associations with it. So again, to see sub as only and always feminine and dom as only and always masculine is patriarchal. Switching roles only reverses the dynamic it doesnt destroy it and feminism is about destroying it altogether. Again, the key is context, agency, and interrogation of our actions.

      3) well the line was “a sort of asexuality” so similar to, but not equating it with Asexuality, which i still think is fitting. But since there tends to be alot of misunderstanding around asexual identity, i will change it to “de-sexual”

  15. […] is approaching it from a feminist perspective. I really, really love what The Negress writes in her “A Feminist Freak: What Sex and Politics Look Like” […]

  16. Noëlla says:

    I am a 18 year old black girl and I recently became very intressted in feminism, black feminism in particular. And I have a question: Isn’t it wrong for a girl to be sexually turned on by the idea of rape? Because the first time I saw a woman enjoy a roleplay rape, was in porn. But that is in no way free from patriarchy, right? I wonder if as a feminist you still can enjoy submissive role, because they have been thought by the patriarchal culture? And you said your article that feminist sex is freeing yourself from that?

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