bah, labels.
October 14, 2004 11:52 AM

I have friends, online and of the flesh and blood variety, who hesitate - or simply refuse - to call themselves "feminist" despite their clear and obvious fitting into the simple textbook definition of the word.

This bothers me, sometimes, because they tend to accompany this self definition with a lower level of direct involvement with the politics of gender issues. And frankly because a lot of lesser mortals do claim the appellation and do get involved and are sometimes a giant pain in my ass.

But.

Why do you have to choose a label to be involved? Really, who decided that? The label may make it easier to belong, but it doesn't affect your individual ability to act. Well, it does - but it doesn't have to. We could just accept other's actions and avoid trying to categorize them.

All of this is by way of introduction. Over the past couple of days, an issue that has been simmering in the various LiveJournal feminist communities exploded not unlike the polenta I cooked last night did (damned electric stove). There were injuries (psychic only, unlike the polenta), but it really came down to the same thing we'd been angry at each other about for awhile.

And it's summed up in labels.

There is a side of feminism, generally considered a sort of young-feminist, third wavey thing, that calls itself "pro-sex" or "sex positive". What is meant by this is that feminists of this group consider the issue of sexuality to be primary - that the battle of equality will be fought over women's bodies, and our right to choose our own form of sexual expression will eliminate some of the biggest inequalities - rape, the beauty thing, reproductive choice, gender roles, harrassment. Feminists who call themselves sex positive mean to say they want you to enjoy sex however you want, that it's safe to talk to them about sex, about sex work, about porn. They will not judge you.

There are, admittedly, feminists of this group who believe that anyone who isn't using whatever their brand of kink is (be that porn, prostitution, BDSM, whatever) just isn't really liberated. It's a common thread in liberal environments to assume a hierarchy of liberatedness, to make it unacceptable - or at least unevolved - to not delight in everything that was once largely taboo. Lately, puzzling.org speaks of it in a broader context of offensiveness and taboo.]

So, despite the overall theme of pro-sex feminism's support of a wide range of possibilities for sexual expression (including not having sex at all, let alone partaking in this kink or that), individual members of the group can - intentionally or unintentionally - broadcast this attitude that, if you don't like what I like and do what I do, you are... ANTI-sex.

Which understandably angers feminists who think pornography or prostitution or stripping or whatever - usually it's all the ways sex is commodified through the industry that specifically sells it - is inherently damaging to women. Implying that a woman (or group of women) is anti-sex is essentially calling her a tremendous prude, devoid of sexuality, and most of us - for whatever reason - have a lot of our identity caught up in our sexual selves. [The question of why that is and its really really really complicated answer will wait for another day. Why is it "bad" to be asexual? Or "too" sexual?]

To those of my feminist cohorts who ever felt that my identification as sex positive was an indictment of them as sex NEGATIVE, I apologize. Not what I meant. Not what any of us meant.

And yes, I'm talking to the members of the camp of feminists who refer to themselves as "anti-porn". Sounds uncomplicated enough, right? Except that there is frequently no agreed definition of porn used outside of any one community of pro- or anti-porn feminists.

One of the communities I belong to defines porn as explicitly that which sells the sexual degradation and/or violence against women. I personally see pornography as anything that promotes sex as a commodity - which is, admittedly, almost everything in mainstream media in this country. I do think the former is inherently bad for our culture, but I don't know about the latter - and both are, if anything, best described as symptoms of whatever's up culturally than they are as the cause.

Even the very simple prefix "anti-" can be surprisingly vague. Never mind what definition of porn you're against - how are you against it? Do you want to make it illegal? Change the mode of production? Stop demand for it? Stop its abuse? Support the workers? Make the workers into criminals?

I think each anti-porn feminist (which I also count myself among, as I think there are aspects of the whole mainstream porn culture that are fundamentally broken and must be changed if we're ever gonna get true equality) or community has a different idea about what it means to oppose pornography. So it's hard for someone outside that definition to understand it.

And so I apologize to any of my pro-sex feminist cohorts who've ever felt like my anti-porn stance was anti-them, cause that's also... you guessed it, not what I meant.

I believe these labels are our problem. We're not here in this movement to damn each other with labels like "slut" and "prude", but that ends up being what the other side hears when we try to summarize the complexities of our positions in a two-word label. We need to work through the complexities and the questions, not turn them into platforms.

I don't know if it's a sound byte phenomenon or a result of short attention spans or what, but not every issue can and should be boiled down into a handful of words. This is one of them. Honestly, I think the sex positive and anti-porn divisions are forced and artificial - even where the sex industry is concerned, feminists agree on a lot more than we disagree on.

So why not view each other through the whole of what we say and do?

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your wicked thoughts

I think that labels are useful in some ways and damaging in some ways, and this entry points out the flaws in using labels as broad-stroke identifications that usually don't mean the same things to everyone. I admit that I feel very confused about the terms "sex positive" and "pro-sex." I like the idea of normalizing consensual inter-adult sexuality (or inter-adolescent, for that matter), collectively getting over the seventh-grade blushing and giggling about the subject. But "sex-positive" and "pro-sex" can also hold tricky connotations for some people, especially given how far we so haven't come in our evolution towards that kind of broad-based normalization. I can't speak for anyone else, but as a person who has a difficult time holding a "normal" and "healthy" view of sexuality, and who is indeed celibate (not that I think anyone else should be - heck, not that I would be, either, given a comfortable enough situation), the terms and ideas can feel very threatening, in exactly the "you're not really liberated unless you like to be tied up and sold by your mistress" kind of way you touch on here. I think with any kind of emotionally-charged issue, which sexuality and the liberation thereof undoubtedly is, a lot of hurt and confused feelings invariably arise, simply because we're not always capable of assessing our sensitive spots objectively or taking a completely rational view.

Anyway, I'm intrigued by your viewpoint, as always.

these are the thoughts of house9 on October 15, 2004 11:06 PM
















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