I am Not Sex Positive: A Riff On the Collusion Between Sex Positivity and the Carceral State

The past few days, I’ve been pondering why I have not embraced ‘sex positivity’ in liberal/Western feminisms. I was too keenly aware of the ways that my sexuality as a Black woman with a disability is shaped by histories of coercion by community members, the State and non-State actors. As a Black woman with a disability, I am doubly a candidate for the forcible sterilization touted by the ‘elite’ eugenicists. In fact, had I been born 40 years ago, I would have been a prime candidate in 31 US states.

Furthermore, I cannot escape the ways in which African-descended women’s sexual agency has been circumscribed in the ‘new world’ since its inception. As enslaved persons, as nominally free persons, and as 2nd class citizens, our bodies, our sexualities have always been the subject of intense scrutiny under the white gaze, the State, and our immediate communities (which have internalized and reproduced the patterns and practices that police the bodies and sexualities of Black and brown femme bodies).

In that context, I am not “sex positive.” This is not a matter of mere prudishness, either. If, indeed, I do embrace sex positivity, I must still contend with discourses which hypersexualize my Black, femme body. I can be as ‘sex positive’ as I want, but my embrace of that ethos opens me up to further fueling stereotypes (controlling images) of the Jezebel and Sapphire. If I go to the polar opposite (assuming a binary) and say that I am “sex negative,” consciously rejecting the notion that more sex = liberation (whose liberation?), then I risk fueling the stereotype of the Mammy- assumed asexual, but paradoxically fecund- nurturing in service of whiteness.

I read these two pieces:

The first piece, while it is compelling, does not go beyond racism/settler colonialism 101, and thus leaves its conception of sexuality ensconced in classed notions of whiteness. The second piece is much closer to my own position, eschewing analyses of sexuality that leave whiteness centered and intact while bringing the experiences of queer, indigenous, people of color to the fore. The following excerpt, in particular, caught my attention because it alludes to the way in which ‘sex positivity’ retains capitalist hetero-patriarchy’s compulsory sexuality:

“What’s wrong with the generalization that more sex = liberation? It locates sexual liberation in an experience of white heterosexual femininity. It does not take into the account the different experiences of racialization and sexualization of women and queer people of color. While straight middle-class women may have been stereotyped as pure, asexual virgins, women of color were hypersexualized as exotic, erotic beings (see hottentot, harem girl, lotus blossom, fiery Latina, squaw, etc.) For women of color and queer POC, adopting a sex-positive attitude does not “liberate” them of such stereotypes, in fact, it fuels them further. In addition, sex-positivity does not offer a critique of capitalism and the way our sexualities are commodified and exploited, preventing “free expression” of sex, in the favorite words of sex-positive feminists.”

I do see connections between white liberal sex positive feminisms and carceral feminisms. SlutWalk, in its inception, centered the experiences of white women with sexism, misogyny, slut-shaming, harassment and rape. Its aim of ‘reclaiming’ ‘slut’ was sex positive to its core. Indeed, taking to the streets in attire typically deemed ‘slutty’ raises important points, but it ignores the ways in which women of color (Black women who contend with the controlling images “jezebel” “sapphire”, Latin@s who contend with “fiery Latin@” stereotypes, Asian women who grapple with “submissive lotus flower” “chinadoll” controlling images, muslimahs who are defined by their niqabs, hijabs or “veils”) embody notions of sexuality differently in the same social contexts. As a Black woman, I may never be called a “slut” but I have been called everything but a child of G*d (“nigger bitch” “ho” “stuck up bitch” “lonely bitch” “just another stank female”) just for walking down the street. I was hypersexualized as early as 9 years old, when my mother exhorted me to carry myself a certain way to escape the predatory gaze of men in our community. I am hypersexualized when I wear the same clothing as my white femme colleagues and am deemed ‘provocative’ because my Black, femme body is disruptive to their white spaces.

I mention carceral feminisms in light of the SlutWalk-affiliated HollaBack!’s recent announcement of an app that reports street harassment to NYPD ‘in real time.’ This is a tactic of carceral feminisms because it relies upon the State to redress sexual harassment and violence as though state actors, such as those to whom they report, are not culpable in the same violence. It ignores the ways in which brown, queer, poor bodies are targeted with ‘stop-and-frisk’ (a state-sanctioned form of street harassment- which NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn supported), and again centers white, middle-class, femme bodies. Sex positivity also affirms the right of white, middle-class, cisgender femme people to express themselves sexually without shame, but, often, it fails to account for the ways in which brown, poor, queer and disabled bodies are policed by State and non-state actors, and how those bodies and their expressions are disproportionately surveilled, criminalized and incarcerated.

Related:

“Like the contentious Slut Walk, One Billion Rising runs the risk of sensationalising gender-based violence activism. It abstracts the on-going struggle of GBV organisations, individuals and survivors, to a brief, quirky and enjoyable moment. A walk in your knickers or a dance…As other commentators have made clear curbing GBV means changing the way we talk about woman, about sex and about gender, it means re-authoring masculinity, and sexuality, and changing the power relations our society is premised on. It is no slight task, and it will not be achieved in a singular heady, choreographed moment.”

“It is my contention that sex-positive rhetoric ignores the reality that for many of us, our attractions function as a mechanism of our oppression. Realizing our short-term sexual desires may not actually be positive for our larger project of self-love and emancipation.”

10 Comments

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10 responses to “I am Not Sex Positive: A Riff On the Collusion Between Sex Positivity and the Carceral State

  1. aconerlycoleman

    I didn’t go into detail here:

    IMO, what white/liberal/western/individualistic feminisms have failed to do is imagine alternatives to the Carceral State- e.g. community accountability mechanisms, restorative justice. But, in the context of neoliberal policies and their privatization/destruction of public spaces, that is increasingly difficult.

  2. Thank you. It feels good to have words to explain that nagging feeling…

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  5. Ishfet

    See the thing us that’s true for white feminists too. White women are called slut and other names. If they are thin they are assumed to be so, and if fat to be such. They are told by their mothers to take care when walking home that they don’t attract the wrong sort of attention. They are betrayed by the state which doesn’t protect them.

    In short, whatever critique that can be applied to sex positivity is the same for white women.

    • aconerlycoleman

      You haven’t accounted for the ways that racism and classism shape women of color’s relationships with the State.

  6. I think this is well-said. Very insightful and personal

  7. Thank you! I am really grateful that you’ve broken down and added clarity to the discussion of “sex-positivity” surrounding race and white privilege.

    This spring I wrote my own post about why I chose not to call myself sex-positive any longer. (http://marginaldialogue.blogspot.com/2013/05/a-shift-in-focus-why-ive-chosen-to-say.html). It barely touched on how importantly race relates to the imposition of sex-positivity. I honestly had not thought about it as thoroughly as it deserves and decided to focus on my (white) experience. Thank you so much for your voice it add necessary complication to this discussion. And thank you giving me new reasons to eschew the oversimplification/erasure that the sex-positive movement so often tends toward.

  8. Thankyou for this piece, it was really enlightening and well put. Looking forward to reading more of your words.

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