Women are caught in a constant war between the pressure to have sex and the pressure not to. “Slut.” “Prude.” “I bought you dinner—why did you lead me on if you didn’t want to have sex?” Even within feminist circles, we face pressure from those who claim to care about our choices. “Sexual purity is a creation of the patriarchy.” “Sex is one of the ways men exert power over women.” “Liberated women have sex like men.” Feminism becomes divided into sex-positive and sex-negative. Sex is not positive or negative. It can be either, sure, but there is nothing inherently positive or negative about having sex. We should be framing our feminism as choice-positive or agency-positive.
A woman who has sex with a different person every weekend is no more or less liberated than a woman who waits to have sex until she has found someone she loves. Liberation is not measured in the number of sexual partners a woman has or doesn’t have. Liberation comes from agency.
In a conversation about rape culture and feminism, my conservative mom acknowledged that rape culture as I described it existed today. But when she was young, things were different, she said. Only certain “types” of women slept with men they had just met. Only those women were “fair game” for men’s unwanted sexual advances. The modern omnipresence of rape culture, then, could be tied to women’s sexual liberation. As more women have become sexually liberated, men have not abandoned the assumption that a certain type of girl is always down to fuck. The difference is that, now, we are all that type of girl.
As feminist author bell hooks wrote, “Men who were ready for female sexual liberation if it meant free pussy, no strings attached, were rarely ready for feminist female sexual agency. This agency gave us the right to say yes to sex, but it also empowered us to say no.”
Men who claim to support women’s sexual liberation if it means more blowjobs for them do not care about women’s agency. What has changed for them is not our role in the decision-making process, but their own ease of access. By equating sexual liberation with indiscriminate promiscuity, they can now pressure women to have sex with them in the name of feminism— because women who say no are puritans, held back by the patriarchy. Ding ding ding: rape culture.
Consent is positive. Choice is positive. Agency is positive. Sex itself is neutral. It can be positive or negative depending on the circumstances and the choice of the people involved. Both camps of feminists — sex-positive and sex-negative — offer valuable analysis of the way patriarchy controls women’s bodies and sexuality. But by valuing sex as positive or negative, feminists extend the limitations on agency created by patriarchy. The right to say yes and the ability to say no are a package deal. Any feminist would agree. So why does our language imply otherwise?