There’s this thing called “sex positive feminism1” which seems to involve talking about sex and your sexuality a lot, even when people politely point out that they are uncomfortable with having your sexuality forced on them and they wish you would stop. Because, you see, if you say that you’d actually rather not hear about someone else’s sexuality, you’re a bad feminist because you hate sex. And you obviously have issues around sex and you are judging people and saying that they are being all icky and gross.
This being feminism, you can bet that there’s a load of prescriptivism involved, and it really shines in the good slut/bad slut dichotomy, perhaps here more than anywhere else, honestly. It’s funny that a movement which is supposedly all about supporting women and empowering them to take control of their sexuality is perfectly ok with judging, shaming, and mocking women who do not fit within a narrow definition of “feminism” and that much of this judging comes up in the context of acts which are viewed as reclamatory (but only when they are reclaimed in the right way).
Some feminists (sex positive and otherwise) are reclaiming “slut” as a label. I personally think it’s not necessarily a bad thing to say “hey, some people like sex and they should not be policed.” But that’s not in fact what a lot of “slut” reclaimers are saying. They seem to believe that there are good and bad ways to be slutty. And hey, that brings us right up to prescriptivism and the idea that it is ok and perhaps even necessary to tell women what to do when they are doing things which are perceived as “bad.” Because, obviously, those women need to be lectured so that they know what’s good for them and how to be feminists.
Women who opt to reclaim the “slut” label must follow the good slut manual, because otherwise they will be bad sluts who are ruining feminism and we cannot have that, now can we? But, don’t worry, there are lots and lots of resources available to teach you how to be a good slut, from The Ethical Slut to discussions about sexuality on most mainstream feminist websites which will inform you quite precisely about the dos and don’ts. And “feminists” will be happy to inform you if you’ve made a mistake!
I do not subscribe to this dichotomy, but it’s worth pointing out the attitudes people have about good/bad sluts.
A good slut: Gets tested for STIs regularly, talks about her sexuality “openly” and “isn’t ashamed” of using/talking about sex toys but of course does so in a tasteful way, is physically neat and clean, feels empowered by doctor visits (“taking charge of my sexual health!”) even when they involve unnecessary testing, reads lots of sex guides, enjoys “experimenting,” “takes care of” her body, doesn’t sleep with other people’s husbands without prior arrangement, always uses protection, does regular self exams, picks up partners at the right sort of bars/social events, is likely white or a pale woman of colour and physically attractive. If she is a sex worker, she gets tested at least every two weeks, doesn’t work for “sleazy” establishments, works for “woman friendly” porn companies, follows strict safety rules, and blogs about it.
I want to note, again, that I do not hold these ideas at all and I actually disagree with some of them pretty violently. But these are the kinds of things you see being praised as examples of what it is to be a “good” slut.
A bad slut: Is dirty/unkempt, doesn’t always use protection, doesn’t go to the doctor regularly (enough to satisfy those who police that sort of thing, at any rate), degrades and debases herself (again, only women can be sluts!), is only a slut because she was abused, is “damaged” or maybe mentally ill, engages in “risky behaviour,” is willing to do the “bad kind” of sex work, is really ashamed of herself somewhere deep inside, lets men manipulate her, sleeps with other women’s husbands, has lots and lots of sex partners (the jury seems to be out on how many sex partners, exactly, is “too many”), is crass.
Again. Not things I believe. But things which other people believe when it comes to taking opportunities to police the sexuality of others. You can be a slut and it’s an “empowered, feminist choice” but only if you do it the right way, you see.
I think I don’t need to belabour the point here. The good slut/bad slut dichotomy is harmful and, dare I say it, antifeminist. It allows people who identify as feminist to ignore and marginalize women who make them uncomfortable by dumping them in the bad slut category. And it allows them to blame “bad sluts” when bad things happen to them, because maybe if they had been better sluts, those things would not have happened. To admit that bad things happen to all women no matter who they are is to admit that good sluts might be at risk of bad things too.
You might think that the blaming and judging occur on a sublevel, but they really don’t. I have seen mainstream feminists quite openly and blatantly shame other women. In fact, some of them seem to take an odd sort of pride in it.
What kind of message does that send about your supposedly inclusive movement, sex positive feminists?
- I feel obliged to note that while I am making a generalization about sex positive feminism here, there’s a pretty broad spectrum within this particular branch of feminism, and therefore the generalization does not apply to everyone who identifies with this label. So if you aren’t the kind of sex positive feminist I am talking about, but you do identify as a sex positive feminist, I am not talking about you (but you might consider doing some work to clean up attitudes within your movement). And I’d note that I at one point labeled as a sex positive feminist before being so deeply troubled by attitudes within this movement that I stopped identifying with it. ↩