Content warning: prostitution, pedophilia, incest, sexual violence
Saturday was a bad day. First I found out that @shaun_jen, who I know from his videos pointing out the stupidity of Anita Sarkeesian “critics” (good work on that), is in support of your average porn-sick trans activist Zinnia Jones. Then I saw a tweet by @absurdistwords, who I’ve been following with the hope of getting more insight into race issues, saying that getting fucked for money isn’t much different from driving a taxi. I kind of lost it at that point.
Sober again now, I decided I’d write about sex liberal ideology and how crooked it is. I touched upon this in my previous piece on pedophilia, but I think it wasn’t very good. I’ll focus more generally on sex liberal ideology this time.
So here’s everything that’s wrong with mainstream sex liberalism.
“There’s nothing special about sex”
The core tenet of the ideology is that sex is like any other arbitrary activity. There’s nothing “special” about it. This statement comes as an opposition to socially conservative morals about sexuality, in which it’s made a taboo subject and “indecent” to talk about and amoral to exercise frivolously. Things would be easy if everything was black and white and “anti-conservative” automatically meant progressive and good. Needless to say, it’s never that simple.
Apart from leading to the idiotic statement that “sex work is just work” (which I’ll revisit later), there are two very damning implications of this idea.
Firstly, if sex is nothing special, why is it such a pernicious crime to take sexual advantage of someone while they’re drunk? If sex is nothing special at all, then being made to have sex while too drunk to consent should be no biggie. A bit rude maybe, but not a serious crime. In this way, the “sex is nothing special” mentality leads fairly directly to justification of rape, so long as the rape doesn’t include physical coercion or violence. Further, it leads to victim blaming: the woman who feels violated after sobering up is said to have a “prudish” reaction when she feels violated. Using her body for sexual pleasure while she’s unconscious, the logic goes under the “sex is nothing special” mantra, is not much different from using her kitchen utensils without asking her first. My general feeling is that there is indeed an abundance of young men who think exactly like this when it comes to sex, which is one of the core tenets of rape culture. They seriously refuse to understand the graveness of non-consensual sex, because they don’t see sex as anything significant, so why should there be such a strict informed consent requirement around it?
Secondly, this logic leads pretty soon to pedophile apologia. Most people hooked on sex liberal ideology refrain from considering (let alone expressing) this view because it has been made a massive taboo, but it is a logical conclusion of the ideology, so people will come back to it again and again. It was there in earlier days of the sex liberal movement (see e.g. Allen Ginsberg), and surely it will surface again if we aren’t sufficiently vigilant against it. Pedophile apology is a logical conclusion of “sex is nothing special” because if indeed it’s nothing special, why should it not be OK for children to take part in, so long as they aren’t physically coerced or hurt? In the ensuing Twitter debate with @absurdistwords and his followers about “sex work,” people have compared sex to cooking, and to reading books to a child. (These were in response to me pointing out that sex is a particularly intimate activity and not a form of labor; the counter-argument was that it can be either, like cooking for one’s family vs. as work, or reading books to one’s own children vs. as part of work in a Kindergarten.) If sex can be just work in the same way that cooking can be work and reading books to a child can be just work, then the logical conclusion is that sex is comparable in a general sense to cooking, or reading books to children. If it’s that trivial of an activity, one is forced to assume it’s fine to do it with children. One could be cooking for one’s child, or one’s teenage child could be cooking for one, so I suppose they could as well be having sex? (So long as it’s safe sex to prevent inbreeding!) An adult could be reading a book to a child, or they could be sexually touching each other? All just arbitrary forms of intimacy, after all?
Side-note: although I haven’t read his paper in full, my ideas were influenced in part by David Benatar’s paper “Two Views of Sexual Ethics: Promiscuity, Pedophilia, and Rape.” Reading the abstract of the paper already made it click with me, after which I’ve developed the above thoughts. He seems like kind of a weirdo so, strange minds think alike I suppose. Here’s an article discussing the content of said paper: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201302/is-sex-ever-morally-unacceptable
The stock response to my complaints about sex liberal ideology leading to rape and pedophile apology would probably be an appeal to the notion that sex requires informed consent. But that in itself is an admission that there’s something special about it. One doesn’t require a child’s informed consent to read a book to them. Why does one require informed consent before initiating sexual contact? You are forced to admit that there’s a significant difference at this point. But can you tell me what it is? Feminism-influenced sex liberals at least intuitively know that there’s something special about sex, hence the understanding that non-consensual sex is a special kind of horrible, and yet all is fine when there’s an economically coerced “informed consent,” even at the absence of true willingness? Aren’t we just fooling ourselves to justify pornography and prostitution? Shouldn’t it be obvious that people who are deep into selling sex suffer from a form of desensitization? If you think sex without a woman’s consent is horrible but sex without her true willingness is fine, you’re simply cutting your feminism at half. You’re cutting your commitment against rape culture at half. “That rape is bad, this rape is OK.” Yes, sex without willingness is rape, “informed consent” be damned. Sweatshop workers give their informed consent too, yet I don’t hear any silly mantras like “sweat factories are just factories!” We know it’s abuse, “informed consent” or not.
Another side-note: enthusiastic willingness is necessary but not sufficient. Sex is good when there is BOTH enthusiastic willingness and informed consent. Contrary to popular misconception, children are often groomed into enthusiastic willingness to sexual performances by abusers. This doesn’t mean they won’t feel violated as they grow older. The social misunderstanding around this topic causes some victims of child sexual abuse to feel a doubled shame. See the book “The Trauma Myth” by Susan Clancy regarding this topic.
OK but WHAT makes sex special?
This is where it’s getting complicated, and I may not be able to give a 100% answer. This is in part because, I think, the “specialty” applies to a bigger degree to women than men, and I’m not a woman. I’m very sensitive by nature, but have also been desensitized in some ways by pornography. It’s also a very emotional topic, in the sense that a collection of lived experiences form a person’s intuitive understanding of the situation, without them necessarily having the words to describe it in fully objective terms. Which doesn’t mean there’s no objective truth behind it; only that a person’s perception of reality can be so different due to their different experience of life in total, that they aren’t able to grasp, for instance, what is really meant with particular uses of some common words.
I’m definitely not suggesting that the increased specialty of sex for women is by nature by the way; i.e. the conservative trope that women are pure creatures by nature and that sex is carnal by nature and therefore in contradiction with women’s nature.
Rather, I think, the “specialty” of sex, especially for women, is a result of men’s sexual sadism upon women under patriarchy, as well as the associated inter-generational trauma and fear that’s passed on from women to girls, the sexual shame social conservatives continue to instill in girls, and the all together resulting climate in which sex that is “committed” by men “upon” women functions as a form of dominance display, humiliation, and control.
Seduction is often difficult to distinguish from rape. In seduction, the rapist often bothers to buy a bottle of wine.~ Andrea Dworkin
It is this climate that lead some of the most radical feminists to conclude, as far as I understand, that true consent and sexual freedom for women is simply not possible under patriarchy. That one either submits through naivety, or becomes politically conscious, and once one is conscious, one either chooses to submit to a “good enough” man or decides never to submit. An authentically free sexuality, under this view, is made an impossibility for women through a social fabric that instills a dominance and submission paradigm of sexuality into the deepest corners of every individual’s mind; to convince oneself that one can be individually free of this is to fool oneself.
While I find this to be a respectable and very useful position to understand, one need not agree with it in full to point out the crookedness of sex liberal ideology. The two views could be said to be polar opposites, and it’s fine to find a point in between, or attempt to combine the better parts of both.
To expound on the position: some common linguistic constructs in the English language that represent this cultural mentality towards sex as a form of dominance and submission are: the notion that man fucks woman — subject verb object (credit: Catharine MacKinnon), or the notion that someone is “fucked” or “got fucked” when something particularly bad happened to them. I remember a past employer of mine, a young porn-loving man, using the phrase “getting fucked in the ass” to talk about a bad situation in one of his company-internal presentations. Something tells me that despite their “sex liberal” attitudes, men like this are probably not very keen on having their prostate stimulated via phallic objects. One has to wonder why!
Another result (and circularly, a cause) of our situation with sex is that about 82% of scenes in best-selling pornography contain acts of physical violence against women, 90% of scenes show women giving oral sex to men, more scenes show them getting anally penetrated than showing them receiving oral sex from men, many scenes contain the horrid “ass to mouth” sequence that is colloquially referred to as “making her eat shit” and so on. (credit: Bridges et al., 2010)
Second, the study at hand is quantitative in nature, helpful in investigating patterns and frequencies but less productive in investigating meanings of the findings, such as, what exactly does ejaculating on a woman’s face mean?Bridges et al., 2010
This should be sufficient to sum up the reasons for the “specialty” of sex under patriarchy.
What are the implications?
We’ve established that sex is special under patriarchy (in a negative way) due to the predatory sexual behavior of men, and this kind of explains why it would require informed consent: as depressing as it sounds, you sort of take responsibility over the fact that your partner could make you feel violated through the sex.
But I haven’t elaborated much on why sincere willingness is equally important.
One of the main things a sexual sadist gets off of is the knowledge that his victim hates what’s going on. In other words, that his victim isn’t willing. How thrilling do you suppose it is for the sadist to know that his victim isn’t willing, yet consents? If that sounds like complete submission, it’s because it is. Some of the more privileged sex workers may negotiate what acts are and aren’t allowed and retain some amount of control, but even that exchange normalizes the behavior of using someone for sexual pleasure despite their lack of willingness. This behavior ties directly into the larger problem with men and sexuality. Their callousness and sadism when their dicks are involved. Their desire to feel control over the women they fuck.
Under capitalism, employers make money off of the unwilling consent of their workers. Under patriarchy, men get sexual pleasure from the unwilling consent of women. To regulate prostitution is indeed in a sense like regulating employment: it justifies the larger system of oppression by reducing, not eliminating, its harms. The system remains intact.
And yet there is a also crucial difference between capitalism and prostitution, in that the exploitation within the former concerns making the workers produce goods, whereas the exploitation within the latter concerns the direct expression of bodily dominance over the prostituted person for carnal pleasure. That is, once more, the “specialty” of sex under patriarchy. Capitalism involves coercion to labor; prostitution involves coercion to explicit and direct physical submission to another person. This is why people in prostitution suffer disproportionate amounts of physical and sexual violence.
Prostitution is one of the main incarnations of patriarchal sexuality. The only other institution in which men exercise a similar dominance over women, to my knowledge, is the traditional relationship between man and woman. (Historically mainly in the form of marriage, nowadays also among non-married couples involving a controlling boyfriend.) And now take a look at domestic violence and within-relationship rape statistics, and tell me there isn’t a link to be drawn to the violence within prostitution. Where ever men get “intimate” with women, there’s a risk factor involved for the woman.
One of the differences between marriage and prostitution is that in marriage you only have to make a deal with one man.~ Andrea Dworkin
This should make it clear why there’s a fundamental problem with a system in which men can pay money to get “intimate” access to women regardless of their willingness. Saying “sex work is just work” is exactly in line with saying “sex is nothing special.” The latter erases the wholesale problem with male sexuality under patriarchy; the former is a focused version that erases specifically the same problems within prostitution.
A commitment to the principle of sincere willingness within sex, on the other hand, is a solid way to fight rape culture.
If you want to learn more about the radical feminist perspective on sexuality and critique of sex liberalism, I can always recommend books by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Further, the book “The Sex Liberals and the Attack on Feminism” regards itself with this issue specifically, containing articles by a wide range of radical feminist women and collectives, including even one article that explains the ideology of radical abstinence. These books can be found in radical feminist archives in digital form for no cost: http://radfem.org/