A t Penn, there is a growing respect for feminism. Issues of gender equality are on their way to being given the attention they deserve, and there is no denying that this is an important step in the right direction. However, a lot of mainstream feminist activism on this campus has centered on rhetoric and tactics that actually hurt people who would otherwise be included in these important discussions. One of the major problems that has caused this rift is the inability of mainstream campus feminism to move beyond sex positivity.
Sex positivity is a movement within feminism that aims to promote the importance of women embracing their sexuality and reclaiming agency over their bodies and their sex lives. This is ultimately a reaction to a long history of women’s sexuality being ignored and demonized.
While it is important that feminists advocate for women’s ability to express themselves sexually, the extreme focus on sexuality tends to alienate many people, including those who are asexual, transgender, non-straight, non-white, belonging to various religions, sexual assault survivors or not seen as “conventionally attractive.” College sophomore Liz Barr , who identifies on the asexuality spectrum, notices that activists at Penn often forget that not everyone is comfortable engaging in feminist discourse that is overwhelmingly focused on sex.
“We live in a sexual culture, and lack of sexual desire/interest/activity are stigmatized, too. There’s this undertone that obviously everyone likes and wants sex, it’s just a matter of who you’ll consent to having it with. Not every feminist issue should be seen through the lens of sex positivity, and not every event should be centered around genitalia and orgasms.”
One of the most visible manifestations of this is the prevalence of the phrase “consent is sexy.” While well intentioned, this phrase takes something that is a fundamental part of sex (obtaining a partner’s consent) and makes it into something that people should do because it can be seen as fun. Feminists should stress that obtaining consent is a way of expressing basic respect for other people. Consent is not sexy. Consent is mandatory .
When feminist spaces focus so heavily on intimate discussions of sex, they can very easily do a lot of harm to the same people for which they claim to be advocating. One Penn student, who wished to remain anonymous, recalls a situation at a meeting with a feminist group in which the icebreaker required participants to recall the strangest place they’ve had sex or fantasized about having sex.
“I felt that this was a very inappropriate and potentially triggering question,” she recalls. “There were so many better ways to ‘break the ice’ in that situation that wouldn’t have been potentially harmful and alienating for a group of people that was even more statistically likely to include victims of sexual assault than the general population.”
While it is true that recl aiming women’s sexuality is something that is extremely important, talking about personal or general sexual experiences can be very triggering for sexual assault survivors, especially when combined with the fact that they are supposed to be in a safe space.
College sophomore Jade Huynh believes that this extreme focus on sex positivity reflects a greater problem with Penn’s feminist activism: a lack of intersectionality. She notes that it is extremely important that we are sensitive to the fact that the greater feminist movement has historically put forth a single narrative of a white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class and able-bodied woman and has thus silenced those that don’t fit this model.
“It is incredibly important to celebrate female sexuality, champion consent and promote women in leadership, but we shouldn’t concentrate on just these areas. Let’s champion consent while accounting for what consent means to our asexual sisters. Let’s help our fellow women rise to positions of leadership, paying special attention to women of color facing discrimination on multiple grounds. Let’s celebrate a womanhood that’s inclusive of women with and without vaginas. We’re so privileged here at Penn to have such a diverse community. Let’s have our feminism reflect it.”
I want this to be a call to action for feminists on campus. Continue to fight for women’s right to express their sexuality in the ways that they want. But please remember those in the asexual community, those who are survivors, those with dysphoria and the many more who feel more alienated by this sex positivity than included. Expand your discussions and your outreach so as to go beyond sex positivity, and your activism will help many more people.
Roderick Cook is a College sophomore from Nesquehoning, Pa., studying gender, sexuality and women’s studies. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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