I have been meaning to write this blog for a couple of years now, and the strange inbetweenenss of twixtmas seems very appropriate. First a confession, that I am not sex positive, and when I attend conferences and webinars, that can be quite an isolated position to be in. Often it feels a little like this;
So, if I am not sex positive, does this mean I am sex negative, or, does it mean that pretty much every binary needs to be deconstructed, examined and then left for the false promise that it is? I hope, like me, you are attempting to deconstruct those binaries, a process which has led me to conclude that sex critical is a far better term, for me, to describe my stance.
What is sex critical?
As a term it was first used, to my knowledge, by Professor Lisa Downing, although some vague voice in my post Christmas fug insists I also read The Trudz talking about it, this is the problem of not writing things when you first get the idea of “I really need to write about that”. In no way do I think Dr Downing appropriated the term, and MJ Barker credits her here, so I think what I am probably remembering is two people at around the same time exploring the same concept separately, rather in the same way as Leibniz and Newton both independently invented calculus. (As an aside the twitter battles over that, should the platform have existed back then, would have been a thing to behold. No doubt only settled once the k-pop fans took a side).
So, sex critical has been around for about 5 years, and from the very first time I encountered the term it spoke to me in a way the term sex positive never did. The centring of sex by so many sex positive people, the primacy it seems to have to them, and the near obsessive belief that the worst oppression possible is someone interrupting your orgasms all made it a group I never felt comfortable in. I realise I am exaggerating to a degree here, and most people do not take sex positivity to such extremes. They use the term to mean that people should not be shamed or blamed for their sexual desires, needs, wants and behaviours. A nod of recognition to those, and a very firm disclaimer that I do not expect anyone who is comfortable with the middle ground of the term to stop using it. Perhaps MJ sums its up well here;
It is also important because there is a tendency for some ‘sex positive’ writers to assume that all sexual representations and practices are inherently good and liberatory, when actually there might be reason to question the ways in which they operate, and problematic norms that may be present.MJ Barker Rewriting the Rules
I see horseshoes everywhere though – the horseshoe which means sometimes some of the noisiest sex positive proponents sound like they have escaped from r/incel. For me that leaves me needing another way to describe myself. I would say as a general piece of advice/wisdom, rule of thumb proposed by a stranger on the interwebs, if we allow one aspect of our life to define us, we are allowing that one aspect to control us. The person who works 70 hours a week is out of balance, just as the person who calls them self Uber Dom97 and insists they cannot survive without sexual contact with the 93 online subs. Balance and hinterland mean that if we can’t orgasm today, well the sunrise is nice, if we don’t have a sexual partner, well, hands are wonderful things, and if our sex life isn’t seen as the most important thing on the planet, well, good, because it isn’t. Of course sex can be fun, and transcendental, and pay the bills, and irrelevant, and boring, and painful, and joyful, and in the case of asexuality, sometimes irrelevant, and a whole host of other things. It’s multiple meanings is, to my mind, at the heart of taking a sex critical stance.
- All forms of sexuality and all sexual representations should be equally susceptible to critical thinking and interrogation about the normative or otherwise ideologies they uphold.
- The discursive trappings of heterosexual relationships, intercourse, and reproduction deserve just as much critical scrutiny as non-normative identities/ behaviours/ presentations and “extreme” bodily practices (if not more, given the historical lack of critical attention brought to bear on what is perceived to be the norm, leading to unquestioning acceptance of potential inequalities and harm).
- To what extent do we need to question the usefulness of the term “sexuality” and its reach as an umbrella? Foucault advocated in his 1976 work La volonté de savoir (The Will to Knowledge) replacing “sex-desire” with “bodies and pleasures”. He believed that the reification of “sexuality”, in all its discursive forms, contributed to the constraints on social subjects to perform assigned identities, and to invest in the medical, psychological and ontological meaningfulness of those identities. We have not moved very far in the direction of Foucault’s declassification of sex in the 30-odd years since he wrote those words. If anything, we are proliferating ever more discourses about it and believing more ardently that it is the truth of who we are. It might be time to become altogether more critical about “sex” qua classificatory field.
It may be a little too early on a bank holiday Monday to dive deeply into Foucault, indeed is it ever the appropriate time to dive deeply into Foucault? However I think this last point is an exceptionally important one. If we define ourselves by the sex we are having, or not having, then we invest in meanings that are being imposed on us, often without considering those meanings. If we believe we must have big squirty orgasms to be “liberated” are we free of the shackles of patriarchy, or tying ourselves to it? As I wrote here, on faking orgasms, there are many reasons to have sex (and many ways to define sex). The binary of positive and negative can become just another form of gatekeeping as we decide who gets to be acceptable by new rules.
Reading back I am aware that it may appear that I see sex positivity as harmful a sex negativity. Let me say clearly this is not the case. The bodies, and minds, of marginalised people have been imprisoned and controlled by sexual shaming, and the imposition of hetropatriarchal norms. Women have labiaplasties because they feel ashamed of perfectly normal labia, products are sold to disguise natural body scents, queer people are labelled deviant and perverted, trans people murdered, people of colour hypersexualised, and gaslit. Our culture (by which I mean the dominant white anglo culture of the UK, North America and much of Europe) is one which has used the powerful driver of sex as a tool to ensure the dominance of the controlling classes (where we broaden out class from a Marxist sense to include race, sexuality and gender.) We are alienated from our own bodies in a way which Orwell understood in 1984. If we can control the instinct to have sex, what can we not control? Sex positivity is undoubtedly better than sex negativity, however it was, or should have been a half way house, before embracing the idea that all attitudes towards sex must be examined for the underlying assumptions and cultural norms which may be revealed. As MJ says;
being sex critical we wouldn’t assume that any sexual representation or practice was beyond question, or inherently positive. Rather we would ask questions about it such as how it fits within wider culture, what ideologies it upholds, and whether it really offers any kind of truth about who we are (something that is often assumed about sexuality).
Before concluding I need to address a newer term which has arisen, that of gender critical, as a cloak for transphobia that transphobes have adopted. Rather in the same way racists try to call themselves race realists, rather than what they are, bigots have adopted the term gender critical. It is worth reflecting for a moment on the similarities and overlaps between both sets of extremists. The concept of purity is important to both, the purity of womanhood, and confining it to cis women only, and the purity of the white race. As Adam Rutherford so excellently explains in his book – How to Argue with a Racist– the purity myth is based on a misunderstanding of science in general and genetics specifically. White supremacists believe there is a superiority in having a collection of genes which mean you have appear to have less melanin, cis supremacists (a far better and more accurate term) believe their is a superiority in having a collection of genes which mean you appear to have the primary and secondary sexual characteristics which we associate with cis men and women. I use appear for both of course because very often appearances can be deceptive. Cis supremicists are in no way critical of gender, they do not deconstruct gender norms, examine their own gender assumptions or challenge the binary constructs*. As I argue on this short twitter thread I think it is time we treated the term gender critical in the same way as we would the term race realist – as obfuscation and bullshit. To be sex critical is to say that all ideas about sex are open to examination and challenge, including the ideas everyone needs, wants or benefits from sex. The only truly gender critical position would be to say that all ideas about gender, including the ideas there are only 2, or that ones gender cannot shift from the one which is assigned at birth, are open to challenge.
- I am aware some transphobes do claim to deconstruct gender in a critical sense, they can claim all they want, when one ties gender to an outdated and unscientific claim about DNA you are reifying, not redefining.
Does rather an obscure label matter? In the grand scheme of things probably not, however, as an anti-oppressive therapist I am committed to challenging those structures which oppress marginalised people. A sex critical stance is I believe an integral part of that, even if it sets me apart from many of my peers. It is rather like the move from affirmative to anti oppressive, it is not enough to say “yay sex good” but instead to ask, what do you want sex to be, if anything, and how can that be achieved.