What Does Sex-Positive Feminism Look Like?
Joan Nestle. I’d never heard her name. A Jewish lesbian writer and activist, fighting against war, segregation, sexism, and homophobia. Perhaps I was drawn to read about her due to the identities we share: I am a Jewish woman writer and activist as well. Or, perhaps, I was drawn to her because the words “porn,” “sex,” and “erotica,” surprised me in the articles about her life and activism. Nestle is a feminist: a proudly intersectional, pro-sex, erotica-writing, pornography-supporting feminist.
Learning this caught me by surprise; when I think of historical feminist movements, the representative image that comes to my mind is not typically a women-loving-woman with a taste for porn.
But why? Why is my vision, even of the most progressive feminist movements, still one that centers around heteronormativity and sexual taboo? Why has it been so ingrained in my mind that a woman’s sexual role is to please men? Why is it that my male classmates in school make comments about their porn consumption and masturbation habits on a weekly (if not daily) basis, while not one of my female friends has ever referred to their own engagement in these activities?
Society looks down upon women who participate in these activities because they involve control of one’s own body and pleasure. Women are taught that control and pleasure are not priorities when it comes to their sexual role. They are expected to submit to male wishes for everything, from the way they maintain their body hair, to the type, time, and location of the sexual activity they engage in. And they are expected to act satisfied with these circumstances and experiences.
Therefore, porn consumption and masturbation (for those who enjoy it) are acts of rebellion. I stand with Joan Nestle in breaking the stigma around women pursuing sexual pleasure. We must challenge the heteronormative, cisnormative, and overall oppressive narrative that pleasure is something for cisgender women to give to cisgender men.
I also cannot ignore the complexities of pro-porn, sex-positive feminism. Because the truth is, not everyone enjoys porn, and not all porn is pro-women.
First, in the fight for sexual acceptance and equality, activists must embrace the fact that sexuality is a spectrum. Not solely from homosexual to heterosexual, but also encompassing asexuality and allosexuality. Sex-positive feminism must balance the reclamation and celebration of women’s sexual pleasure with the acknowledgement that not everyone experiences sexual attraction or interest in sexual pleasure. Sex-positive feminism must include positivity towards asexual and gray-asexual individuals.
Second, mainstream porn is often unethical. There is nothing feminist about watching porn with underage children, sex-trafficked individuals or underpaid actors. Sex workers deserve the same protections as any other workers, and additional ones unique to their jobs. Their fantasies and sexual preferences should be taken into consideration by directors, contraception and STI testing must be made available to them, and every scene must be consensual.
Additionally, the narratives and dialogue in mainstream pornographic scenes often promote incest, unhealthy relationships, unrealistic expectations about how sex looks and feels, gender stereotypes, and fetishization of various ethnicities and sexual orientations.
The list of problems go on. These flaws are all a reality of mainstream porn. However, by seeking out ethical porn sites (although one may have to pay for them), it's possible to avoid promoting these injustices and still use porn as a positive tool in one's sex life.
By proudly writing and defending lesbian erotica, Joan Nestle opened the door to important conversations about women and sexuality. Contemporary feminist activists must continue these conversations, balancing sex-positivity with the acknowledgement that mainstream media is not always inclusive or pro-women. There is no one right answer about how to explore sexuality in accepting and ethical ways, but the beginning is clear: break down barriers of stigma and encourage conversations and curiosity.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Gage, Belle. " What Does Sex-Positive Feminism Look Like?." 25 March 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 18, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/what-does-sex-positive-feminism-look>.