What is “Sex Critical” and why should we care about it?

The title of this blog — Sex Critical — is taken from a term I used (I don’t know if I could legitimately go so far as to say “coined”, though I hadn’t heard or read it previously) in a paper I recently wrote on the ubiquitous (and ever so tedious) Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James. One of the aims of my paper was to show how most existing commentary on the books is a bit limited and frustrating because it pursues rigidly dichotomous lines of response. The nature of these will be all too familiar to anyone who regularly reads academic, journalistic, and feminist writing on sexuality and gender. On the one hand, liberal or “sex-positive” feminists and activists criticized the book’s gender stereotyping and the (in)accuracy of its portrayal of BDSM, but defended strongly its exploration of sexual practices and behaviours and promoted the beneficent effects on female readers of exposure to erotic material — any erotic material. On the other hand, certain members of the radical feminist, anti-BDSM fringe used Fifty Shades as something of a pretext for furthering an agenda which holds that there is no difference between BDSM and domestic abuse, both being versions of the heteronormative patriarchal archiplot.

I wanted in my paper to try to talk about the trilogy in a way that avoided this polarization, a way that challenged those rather tired binaries of positive/ negative; good/ bad; healthy/ harmful. (My training in continental philosophy, the fact that I imbibed Derrida with my Alma Mater’s milk, makes the urge to challenge binaries almost an involuntary reflex.) And, more fundamentally — and reaching beyond that paper’s concern with Fifty Shades I wanted to question the value of the sex-positive/ anti-sex dichotomy altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefits of a sex-positive agenda and I admire the writing of some sex-positive academics and bloggers. (I particularly like some of the more recent writings of Cliff Pervocracy.) Women’s sexual possibilities have been historically limited and regulated, with iniquitous double standards being applied to our desires and behaviour. It is a legitimate feminist endeavour to think about how the relationship between gender, sex, and shame needs to be put into question. But a fair bit of so-called third-wave feminism or (heinous term coming up) “post-feminism” is less concerned with critical interrogation and more with celebrating a “liberation” that is only arguably won, and with arguing for the liberating nature of sex per se (a premise that, as a Foucault-sympathizer, I cannot totally accept). Moreover, the championing of forms of sex that look pretty identical to hetero-patriarchal ideals, rebranded as ironic, postmodern, and thereby “empowering” (a word I also loathe), troubles me.

A recent post by a blogger I admire enormously offered a spirited response to precisely these tendencies in sex positivism. A Radical Transfeminist proposed rehabilitating and adopting the term “sex-negative”, usually flung around in the guise of a slur, as a proud badge of resistance to the worst excesses of knee-jerk, neo-liberal, individualistic choice feminism and the worrying tendency of some of its adherents to adopt rhetoric that strongly resembles compulsory sexuality for women. What of asexuality? What of the fact that many women’s (indeed people’s) experiences of sex are traumatic, abusive or simply indifferent? Why should a whole social justice movement devote itself to the pursuit of orgasm? These are valid questions. While I very much liked the strategic thrust of A Radical Transfeminist’s post, I prefer to eschew altogether the either/ or logic that the lexicon of “positive”/ “negative” presupposes. I also dislike the way in which such language silences the questions that to me seem key: positive for whom? Negative in terms of whose ideological agenda and interests? The very notion that “positive”/ “negative” can ever be universal qualities, that anything can ever be equally “good” or “bad” for all groups and classes, strikes me as ultimately wrongheaded.

The following may be a few starting points:

  • All forms of sexuality and all sexual representations should be equally susceptible to critical thinking and interrogation about the normative or otherwise ideologies they uphold.
  •  The discursive trappings of heterosexual relationships, intercourse, and reproduction deserve just as much critical scrutiny as non-normative identities/ behaviours/ presentations and “extreme” bodily practices (if not more, given the historical lack of critical attention brought to bear on what is perceived to be the norm, leading to unquestioning acceptance of potential inequalities and harm).
  • To what extent do we need to question the usefulness of the term “sexuality” and its reach as an umbrella? Foucault advocated in his 1976 work La volonté de savoir (The Will to Knowledge) replacing “sex-desire” with “bodies and pleasures”. He believed that the reification of “sexuality”, in all its discursive forms, contributed to the constraints on social subjects to perform assigned identities, and to invest in the medical, psychological and ontological meaningfulness of those identities. We have not moved very far in the direction of Foucault’s declassification of sex in the 30-odd years since he wrote those words. If anything, we are proliferating ever more discourses about it and believing more ardently that it is the truth of who we are. It might be time to become altogether more critical about “sex” qua classificatory field.

Since delivering that paper on Fifty Shades at a session of the Onscenity network, I’ve become aware of folks using the term “sex critical” (and kindly name-checking me) in academic seminars, on Twitter, and elsewhere on the WWW. It seemed both appropriate and timely, then, to give that name to the blog I have been threatening to set up for so long, and to attempt to develop here, over the coming weeks and months, a viable sex-critical methodology for analyzing cultural phenomena pertaining to sexuality and gender.

[Disclaimer: I am an unapologetic professional academic, working from a critical humanities perspective, and with a broadly constructionist worldview. Although I intend to write here in a less formal style than I would deploy in, for example, an article for New Formations, I will use academic terminology. There is no obligation to read here if academese offends you or is otherwise not your “thang”. All opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the official views of my employing institution. Sometimes I might post about things entirely unrelated to sexuality and gender, just because I feel like it.]

[Edit: 1 January 2013: My paper on Fifty Shades of Grey discussed in this post is now published as an article in Psychology and Sexuality, available here.]

27 thoughts on “What is “Sex Critical” and why should we care about it?

  1. Hey there. This is the other Lisa, from ARTM – I found this post from referral traffic. This is a blog I'll follow with interest!

    I'd like to say a little about binaries. I can imagine a world where political tendencies of “sex-positive” and “sex-negative” constituted a binary in discussion of sex under patriarchy. But in fact both tendencies are marginal (“sex-negative” markedly more so). They're marginalised by strongly dominant ideologies of sex moralism / compulsory sexuality, which themselves are really one, both parts of the patriarchy functioning in a double bind.

    I see both sex-neg/pos tendencies, at their best, as two fragile ropes trying to restrain an elephant – that they are set in opposite directions simply avoids the elephant overrunning either. And it's better not to think of them as “opposite” in the first place. If we fight each other, that's a big joke, and patriarchy's laughing.

    I think a more healthy binary to consider is excess/inhumanity vs. health/humanity, where excess/inhumanity is what happens when patriarchy forces sexuality at any cost or suppresses it at any cost (remembering that it does both within even a single population or even within individuals). In that sense it's more similar to meditation practice, which is a strongly anti-binarist (such a funny phrase, that!) approach.

    I can understand the desire to fuse all criticism of sexuality under patriarchy into a single philosophy which could feasibly supplant patriarchal views of sexuality in the feminist far-future, but I think that approach is utopian. It seems to suppose that a feminist future is imaginable from where we stand today, that a healthy philosophy of sexuality is conceivable by the cramped minds, bodies and politics in which we operate.

    I think that isn't achievable. I prefer the approach of restraining/destroying/reimagining, one by one, the enemies we can already see, with the view that each one we defeat will leave us better prepared not just to fight the remainder but also to comprehend them. I think that anything less is underestimating how compromised we all are.

  2. (obviously, I meant ARTF, because I can't even spell my own blog…)

    While I'm at it, one more thought on the sex-neg/pos false binary. “Sex” should mean a different thing in each word. Sex-pos done right should be about woman-positive forms of sexuality, and sex-neg is a criticism of woman-hating norms of sexuality. Of course sex-pos without enough criticism ends up being pos about the wrong sex, which is why I've challenged it. But that's a challenge to mainstream compulsory sexuality, not to any true sex-pos movement which exists. In fact I invite the true sex-pos movement not to identify with what's being challenged and to join me in criticism of it (e.g. Kitty Stryker's engagement via Consent Culture).

  3. Thank you for your comments, Lisa. There's so much here of interest and it's really helpful that you clarify how “sex” has to function differently in the terms “sex-pos” and “sex-neg”. It's thorny, isn't it, to have the same word for a practice or system that is hegemonic and for the thing one might want to put in its place (impossible as that “thing” may be to imagine from within the constraints of our current system). As I understand it, that's how the power of naming works in the service of the ones doing the naming, without “their” specific intention or agency being in play.

    I don't think “sex critical” as a term or approach is utopian or universalizing. In fact, at the level of language and concept, it's much less totalizing than “positive” or “negative”, which are such weighted terms, pregnant with value judgment and traces of the morality that unhelpfully dogs “sexuality” in its compulsory sense and function. It is precisely to clarify agendas that I proposed finding an alternative to “pos”/ “neg”. A fundamentalist anti-choice Christian is “sex negative”; as are radical feminists. The former is negative about women's bodily autonomy; the latter about the compulsory patriarchal sex system. That the same words “sex” and “negative” can be used to describe both attitudes is a problem – for us and for our agenda. The fundamentalist Christian, however, is unlikely to be *critical* (in the sense of thinking critically about something, rather than talking shit about it, obviously). It's for this reason that I think it has valency.

    I am a real admirer of Kitty Stryker's work and totally in awe of her tireless pursuit of what is right in the face of the entrenched misogyny that soaks every corner of culture and its sub-s.

    I'd like to say more in response to your comments, but I'm still processing my thoughts on them. I have the feeling we agree, but that semantics are being sticky as usual. Thanks again for the conversation.

  4. I've always distinguished “sex moralism” and “sex negativity” in my work to reclaim the term. Of course reclamation can only ever go so far – in my case, all I wanted to achieve was to end the use of “sex-negative” as an argument-winning showstopper in discussions of sexuality, which I think I've achieved. “Radical feminism” and “lesbian feminism” function perfectly well for everyday conversation. 🙂

    In general, I think that you're trying to address sex-negative activism as if it's a complete philosophy of sexual living when it's actually a “single-issue” resistance tendency.

    (I've put “single-issue” in quotes, since there's no one point of resistance, more a broad spectrum, but in essence it's about holding certain aspects of patriarchy to account.)

    But it's no more a complete philosophy than “self-defence”. After you defend yourself, then you create the space to live. Other radical feminisms have addressed that, most notably lesbian feminism. But resistance is only wrongheadedly totalising when it's carried out even though the thing that you need to defend yourself from is not total.

    I believe that patriarchy is almost total, and that at the present time, total activity is needed to resist it. The approach of resisting patriarchy in a sex-negative way only looks like a universalising one if you erase the near-universal nature of patriarchy.

    For that reason, I think that arguments which appear to be about negative/positive are usually in fact about, “is patriarchy a big deal?” The bigger a deal someone considers patriarchy to be, the less relevant individual agency is, the more a “yes” is subverted or overruled and the more important it is to say “no” to oppressive structure.

    But because we live in a society in which politics is highly liberalised, this is reduced to individual political affiliation, even with a shade of innateness (“do you self-identify as thinking that patriarchy is a big deal? were you born that way? well, I wasn't, so don't thinking-patriarchy-isn't-a-big-deal-shame me”) without reference to social context.

    But you said you were doing more processing, and you felt we might be near to agreement, so I'll also leave this here, and I look forward to corresponding more in the future. If you'd ever like to chat via email, please get in touch via direct message on Twitter and I'll send you my email address. 🙂

  5. This has really got me thinking. I describe myself as “sex positive” on my Twitter bio, but recent discussions with people over some of the language I use – words like dirty, filthy and pervert, reclaimed and used in a positive way – got me thinking about different perspectives on the term sex positive. I don't think that the world should revolve around sex and orgasm, but I think it's very important to talk about it… so perhaps I should start referring to myself as sex critical instead? That would spark a few interesting discussions, I reckon.

  6. Crucially, for me, “sex critical” (and, indeed,”sex positive” & “sex negative”) have to be positions, strategies, rather than identities. Their power lies in their precariousness, in our ability to pick them up and use them when they serve our aims or a particular historically and culturally located agenda, and drop them again when they become redundant or start to work against us. Identifying too closely with a position is much less efficacious as a political tool. Once we “are” something it is harder to relativize it. So I would not say “I am sex critical”, but “I'm applying sex-critical analysis to x, y, or z.” (The only things I think I ever say I “am” are “author” and “academic”! – I probably need to do some work on over-identifying with my career. Everything else, I “do”.)

  7. Thanks for starting a very interesting discussion here – a 'sex-critical' stance is something I've thought was needed since I was considering doing my anti-porn direct action in a rubber dress! [I decided not to as being dragged away by the police was more comfortable in trousers – I digress]

    My experience of radical feminism during the 1990s 'sex wars' was that we were anti-porn / patriarchy-negative precisely because we were sex-positive and wanted women to be able to have freedom for sexual experience and autonomy. [Scholar Sara Ahmed has some interesting things to say about radical feminism and sexual expression]

    Despite the official battle lines I was, and still am, friends and comrades with SM dykes for example, and among the more anarcha-feminist ends of radical feminism this was common. We had many disagreements but also mutual respect for knowing we were perhaps trying to get to the same place by different means and a common dyke-cultural identity*.

    I feel that in the intervening years that radical feminists have been demonised and shamed to such an extent that some of these dialogues are very difficult to resurrect. I have seen sex-positive often become the showstopper that Lisa M points out – and we who were the fearless, fuck-you dykes that revolutionised feminist activism became addressed as though we were everybody's dowdy and dried up mother to be railed at with derision [no holds barred for misogyny directed to the old witch radfems].

    Meanwhile much sex-pos activity became indistinguishable from the hyper-pornificated mainstream, capitalist world. I have to say that I find very little bravery or revolution is sex positivism any longer – what I mostly see is capitulation.

    I agree both with Lisa M that sex-negative is a single issue defensive stance and also with Lisa D that sex-critical could be a useful strategy and analytical framework to question sexuality. I think an academic take on these issues is entirely valid, but I also think we need to interrogate how accademia has contributed to the erasure of radical feminism as a legitimate mode of intellectual enquiry.
    Feminism cannot exist in any authenticity if it lacks praxis – it is after all a liberation movement. Both sex-critical and sex-negative seem useful tools for use towards that end.

    *I’m fully aware that universalising dyke identity is no longer fashionable – but this is a personal narrative ;0)

  8. anywavewilldo – my next big project is going to look at models of agency and consent from comparative queer theoretical and radical feminist perspectives. I'm interested in what is best in radical feminism (class-based analysis), but also in models of power and resistance that come to us through queer.

    I happen to think academia is – or at least can and should be – a form of activist praxis. Students who study sexuality and gender with me don't go out thinking the same way about the world as they did when they came in. And writing and publishing can change minds too. The pen is mightier than the sword (or any other phallic object for that matter). That said, I agree radical feminist thought is not fashionable in academia at the moment and it is a pity that important voices are erased. Students need to read Shulamith Firestone as well as Judith Butler!

  9. I agree the dichotomy between sex-positivity and sex-negativity is a false one. This is especially true because we don't look at what's really behind “sex-positive” and “sex-negative”. Too often, being “sex-positive” as women has been about giving someone else whatever they want, and being available (i.e., being “game”). This has nothing to do with actual enjoyment of sex, which the term “sex-positive” somewhat misleadingly implies. It has to do with who gets what they want. And those who get what they want are usually the ones with privilege. In our patriarchal society, clearly, the ones who get what they want are usually straight men. It's easy to see, since we are far more saturated with *women* as assumed heterosexual eye-candy for men, than we are with images of men as presumed straight eye-candy for women. There's the litmus test. So being “sex-positive” in this context, when you are a woman, means playing along by giving men what they want. Your own desires are assumed to be directly linked to what pleases men – i.e., you want to suck his dick, because it makes you feel sexy and makes him happy, and this makes you complete. Etc.

    Conversely, being “sex-negative” comes across as refusing to play along, leaving the sandbox, taking your ball and going home. “Sex-negative” women are the biggest nofunners, to quote Melissa McEwen, in all of Nofunnington. This stigmatizes any woman with trauma from sexual assault, or whose identity and life do not depend on sexual activity.

    It isn't that these terms need have such connotations. But right now, they do. And yes, this is what we need to change.

  10. Thank you for starting this blog, Professor Downing. Don't get me started on the sex positive, post-feminist agenda. This 'every sex-expression is sacred, every sexuality is good”, mantra, is unfailingly spouted from individuals who are on the right side of the class system, the age, the looks, the sexual persuasion. They are white, middle class, professionals in their early to mid thirties, the kind of person who would feature in a TV ad promoting the joys of “non-normative' sex, while living the normative lifestyle. Or even if we aren't, we behave as if we belonged in this group (appearances can be very useful). Where are the non whites, the older, the unemployed, the badly dressed and the spotty? We defend them by embracing this non-critical umbrella where everything goes, but they are like remote tribes to Victorian explorers, we talk about them but don't give them a voice.

  11. This seems like a worthy way to start things here.

    Despite not being a woman, I have wrestled with these issues for some time. I worked in gender studies or whatever one calls this stuff and teach students year in year out who seem to have no clue…

    My main feeling is that something went wrong in the 90s. Prior to then the radical versus liberal (or liberational) ping pong of feminism on sexuality was well in swing. That was annoying in its polarities but at least it kept the debate going. It seems to be though that the radical end has collapsed (or at least the popular dissemination of the sex negative radical discourse – I mean Jeffreys, Dworkin and the rest of the “it's all bad and in the interests of men brigade”). I sort of blame the Spice Girls really… or at least girl power. This turned the danger into pleasure and collapsed the dualism so all that stuff like heels, make up and gyrating just became “empowering” cos “I chose it”. For me there have always been two problems – a) the danger of sex for women in rape, violence and coercion and b) the lack of autonomy and pleasure (it's all defined by men). A ended up lumped into B for me when they still exist in awkward dialectic. Of course if it was real “empowerment” then that would be a whole different matter.

  12. There's probably not enough YAY in the world to explain my feelings at reading even just the title of this blog!!! You somehow snatched several strands of things I've been musing over and interwove them. Now THAT is fucking sexy as hell! I'm stoked to read more. I keep telling myself and others that we cannot police desires, but we can certainly examine them quite critically and decide which to allow a toehold in the actual world of things, and which remain in the relative safety of our sick little minds. 🙂

  13. “Third wave” feminism usually upsets me with it’s notion of “Real women are really sluts, haha we call ourselves sluts now. Where’s my apron, time for cupcakes.” Meanwhile women still receive less pay for the same work, can’t catch up to men if they dare stop working to have children, and we in America can’t even get birth control if our pharmacist, or employer, is a Catholic.

    I love me some sex. LOVE. Need more if it. Write poems about it. Have vibrant dreams of lesbian orgies, and chained men. At the same time, I’m greatly displeased by the whole patriarchal, 50 Shades inspired “let’s play at D/s” trend, and being treated by fellow sexually enthusiastic peers as though I’m the freak because hookup culture isn’t for me. I could never identify as “sex-positive” simply because I never identified with the people using the term.

    “Sex-critical” is a great term/label. I look forward to seeing what comes of this blog, reading the 50 Shades paper. I do hope that you choose to look at how these issues affect disabled women, and combine The Clinic with our Pleasures. This is the juncture at which I live, and love, and other than to say that disabled people are more likely to experience sexual abuse it seems that we’re ignored in this area. Someone direct to the proper sources if I am wrong. I found Itziko’s post to be true, and I’m a member of many of those tribes. Come and find us.

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  15. Prof LD: It might be time to become altogether more critical about “sex” qua classificatory field.

    The thing about sex for constructionists is that it _is_ a ‘field’, not the designation of some positive (i.e. specific) set of practices. ‘Sexuality’, or the care of (or a science of) the body, is the background to many activities e.g. yoga or marathon running that may not be seen as sexual in a more limited sense.

    As I see it, you are always to have two binaries here, though they will be structured differently. The first will be some kind of distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘non-sex’. For instance, this distinction may come into play in a declaration that abuse is ‘non-sex’ in not forcing us to reopen questions of the fundamental moral or ontological nature of sex. The ethical valence of this distinction will be to avoid getting caught up in unproductive debates (am I ‘sex-positive’? ‘Anti-sex’?) when noting a variety of forms of injustice (anything from the sexualisation of childhood to discriminatory workplace norms) that pass through sexuality. Of course your analysis will try to demonstrate the intersection between prejudicial ideas of sex and e.g. age or gender, but it may well understand sexuality as an axis of domination/subjection, rather than a topic requiring its own explanatory logic.

    But even when you’ve unwrapped sexuality from what is primarily an analysis of power in this way, you will still be left with a second binary, of Normalised-Reified Sex/Foucault-Sex. The ethical force of this, as you say, will be to direct attention to individual and collective practices that are less visible when one assumes that acts reflect socially and discursively consolidated sex-identities. It will also open up what are taken to be dominant or majority practices and inevitably raise questions about the constitution of the ‘sexual’.

    As I understand it, your project in being ‘sex-critical’ will be to establish the shape of the homology between these two dualisms.

    I found your blog via a reference on a comment thread on _The Guardian_ and think it’s really good that you are actually thinking in a blog. I’m sure that you’ll reach people who wouldn’t be reached by academic writing and would encourage you to set down your most difficult, emerging ideas (like the sentence I quoted–to my view) in the blog, not just your academic work.

    • Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. Could you possibly let me have the URL for the Guardian article in the comments of which the blog was mentioned? I’m curious about the context. Thanks. LD

  16. Hi, yes, it was an article about Charlotte Raven’s Feminist Times (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2013/oct/03/charlotte-raven-feminist-times-controversial). Someone in the comments had said that there was no interesting feminist writing and activism out there, and someone else had replied, ‘no, there’s Lisa Downing’s blog’. I’m not an academic or activist so this was the first that I’d ever heard of your work.

  17. This is a fantastic blog! For me this is an eye opener, I am a guy who has always taken the stance that if one does not identify as a feminist in some regard then they misunderstand the term or they are not a good person to talk to. Yet in the past when I have identified as a feminist the topic of being sex positive has often come up. I am heterosexually inclined but don’t like sex. So a position of “sex-critical” I feel like allows me back into a discussion of sexuality without having to take a stance of chastity (a personal choice for me, but obviously a disastrous idea for others) or being entirely “sex-positive.”

  18. I stumbled across you blog in the way the Internet has one do.

    My first reaction when I read this post was to be really excited: I’ve often been uncomfortable around “sex-positivity” because of the way the culture celebrates wanting ALL THE SEX and seems to stigmatize people who don’t (I do recognize the challenges, given the predominant culture, of women asserting the OKness of having a sex drive and wanting sex). As a person who isn’t all that interested in sex (but is glad I have good correct pleasure-positive information about it), I often feel like a freak in sex-positive spaces. At the same time, something doesn’t feel right about the word still–when I think about Fifty Shades of Gray, I’m not largely critical of the sex per-say, in fact most of what I am critical of comes directly from Twilight. What I am critical of is the relationships, and the celebration of unhealthy relationships. I think this also goes for the porn that bothers me as well; that people are having sex is quite incidental to the issues, it is the way one person is treating another person (and the way that media is teaching the view it is OK to treat/be treated). So in this way, I might be sex-critical, because I am still willing to be critical of something sexual–I am not positive or negative about it just because it is sexual. I see no reason to be particular critical of something just because it is sexual–Twilight and Fifty Shades both deserve ire, while both book have things a feminist might find positive. Relationship-critical (sex-irreverent) doesn’t really roll off the tongue, but I think it better describes what I am critical of.

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