Sunday, February 17, 2013

Framing and Re-Framing Feminist Sex, Part I

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What is, in theory, feminist sex? 

Feminist sex is egalitarian sex, because the term "feminism" is actually a synonym for "egalitarian". For women, feminist sex is sex when, where, and with whomever she chooses, so long as it is consensual. So, should a woman choose to wait until marriage and have sex only for the purposes of procreation, as long as it is the woman's choice and not something imposed upon her by her family or society, she is having feminist sex. If a woman chooses to have multiple sexual partners in non-monogamous relationships, as long as it is her choice and she is not doing it because her society has imposed a standard by which women must have a lot of non-monogamous sex to be respected or valuable, she is having feminist sex. If a woman pushes or bullies a man into having sex with her when he is not comfortable with it, that is not feminist sex, that is rape. (Let's remember that, for the moment, we are in the realm of theory, with the assumption of agency of individuals.) 

Feminist sex is sex-positive, because sex-positivity promotes no legal or social prohibitions on consensual sexual behavior, but it is also grounded in main-stream moral values, because it empowers women to take control of their own sexual behaviors and practices based on how they feel or what they feel is right. Feminist sex is about masturbation and orgasm, about abstinence and procreation, about bi-sexual, homosexual, or trans-sexual encounters, about heterosexuality, about marriage and other partnerships, and everything in between

Why then, does feminist sex need to be framed and/or re-framed?

It seems to me that many people, including women, have the perception that feminism promotes promiscuity and liberal sexuality and rejects monogamy and chastity as products of oppression of and weakness on the part of women, OR that feminism involves some kind of rejection of men and sex with men as not just unnecessary for pleasure, but also enfeebling for women. The idea for this post has been swirling around in my head for a while, but the impetus for actually writing it came from a hash tag that was trending on Twitter this week. “#TellAFeministThankYou” may have been begun by some well-meaning person, but by the time I became aware of it, a vast number of tweets using the hash tag were anti-feminist vitriol and ignorance.

Since including pictures of tweets appears to be something I do, here are some examples.

(Also, these people have thousands of followers combined, and are only a small drop in the sea of these types of tweets.)

How is this possible? What massive message failure has feminism made? 

I am certainly not the first to deplore the fact that much of popular media and even education in the United States (and, let’s be honest, the world) has elected to simply movements, ideas, and issues into sound-byte-friendly generalizations, but the problem is not just that, as mentioned in my previous post, people are capable of greater understanding than is oft expected, but that subtlety and nuance need not be complicated nor esoteric; many simple concepts are mischaracterized under the guise of simplification to serve a political purpose.

News about feminism lately has seemed to consist of Slut Walks, topless Femen, and Sandra Fluke's desire for free birth control so she can have state-sponsored sex (that last one to be read with the utmost facetious ire). All of these are examples of women fighting for control of their bodies, against sexual violence enacted on women, and for reproductive rights. Slut Walks are not supporting the idea of women having non-monogamous sex or dressing provocatively. The activists of Femen may be topless, but their purpose is to oppose the commodification and objectification of the female body and sexuality. Sandra Fluke was actually talking about access to birth control as a health issue, and there was nothing in her statement to Congress that promoted non-monogamous or extramarital sex. But that is not the message that was transmitted.

A hypothetical young woman, whether she be Iranian, Salvadorian, Ivorian, or North Carolinian, could hear these stories and perceive feminists telling her she should be proud to be a "slut", her qualms against baring her breasts are part of her oppression, and that she should take birth control. Without thorough inquiry into these issues, or with only a cursory understanding, a woman might feel that feminism requires a liberal sexuality that, in reality, most women in the world (including the West, and including non-religious women) do not identify with.

Allow me to provide some framing.

Feminism is not chiefly a movement that seeks to a. elevate women above men, b. encourage women to adopt male-gendered attitudes and roles, or c. force women to work outside the home, forgo marriage or children, be aggressive, and engage in sex outside of marriage or monogamous relationships. That said, feminism is also NOT a monolith, but is in fact very diverse with factions and debates within its ideological community.

For example, after what is known as "Second Wave" or  "Radical" feminism of Europe and the US mid-20th century, when feminism was perceived as limiting women's freedom by forcing a new concept of female identity that rejected traditional roles on women, feminists altered their message to one of choice and acceptance of difference among women. This new feminism, with strong currents of equality to choose one's gender-identity and behavior (no matter what your sex), is known as "Third Wave" feminism.

Far from unified, however, Third Wave feminist advocates have continued to debate points of both theory and practice, and no such debate is as significant as the critique of Western feminism by women of the developing world. The most prominent contributor to the "Third World" feminist conversation is Chandra Mohanty. Mohanty called attention to the lack of relevance Western feminism has for the less economically developed societies of the world, and the imperialism that is present in rich Western women seeing themselves as a promoting "civilization" by forcing Western cultural values on what they see as a uniform "other" of non-Western women. Feminists around the world have responded to Mohanty's and others' critiques by bringing consideration and critique of culture itself into the fold.

Culture is such a dangerous topic, because it is neither uniform within society nor particularly clear in its delineation. Culture is always constructed, sometimes purposefully for an intent that serves the producers, and yet culture can command people’s hearts entirely. In the context of women’s rights, culture is used to defend practices such as the promotion of a certain body-type or demeanor in the United States, of domestic violence and female genital mutilation in Guinea, and of son-preference in India. It begs the question, can culture be wrong? And, if so, can culture be changed from the outside? An Iranian woman dare not tell a French woman that she should not get breast-implants and a Slovenian woman dare not tell a Zambian woman that she should use birth control.  Can any woman tell any other woman that they way that she behaves sexually or practices (or not) sex is wrong?!?

Where does one draw the line between "right" cultural practices and "wrong" ones? Are we capable of critiquing our own culture effectively? Is cultural critique inherently imperialist?

While I do not even begin to think I have the answers to these popular philosophical inquiries (and I will address a post on the very subject later), in part II of this post, I will attempt to metaphorically wrap my head around how culture can be reconciled with feminist sex, therefore re-framing feminist sex to address these cultural concerns. 

...To be continued! 

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