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.