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A feminist history of the hot topic Leora Smith



lizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy didn’t want to get married. She lived with her partner Bill Elmy while the two were unwed and was a vocal supporter of “free love.” She was later forced to give into pressure from fellow feminists and got married while pregnant with her first child. Her resistance towards marriage and affinity for “free love” defined her as a feminist at a time when these ideas were wholly unpopular, even among others in the feminist movement. “[Wolstenholme-Elmy] placed her commitment to feminism from the moment when, acting as a bridesmaid aged 17, she fully realized what marriage meant for women— a ‘lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence’ with no control over their actions or autonomy over their bodies,” blogger Sarah Irving wrote. In the late 19th century, Wolstenholme-Elmy’s views and actions were radical. Most feminists at the time wanted to change feminism’s view on sexuality in a less drastic way than Wolstenholme-Elmy. They thought that women should hold power over their own sexuality but only within the confines of marriage. Had Wolstenholme-Elmy lived a few decades later, her ideas and opinions would have been praised. Feminists in the 1960s and 70s advocated with a similar agenda to Wolstenholme-Elmy’s decades before. These second-wave feminists wanted women to feel comfortable expressing their sexuality whether they were married or not. This was finally possible when “the pill” was legalized and birth control became

Though the feminist movement has changed its ideas about sexuality over time, feminists today struggle with how to confront the hot topic and related issues such as raunch culture and the pornographic industry. The Feminist Review examines both the Sex-positivity is accepting, empowering history of feminism and sexuality and three modern opinions on Lola Femme how the feminist movement should approach sexuality. Through the eyes of sex-positive and sex-negative feminists as well as one I who wants to rid our movement of these labels, we take a look at how current culture either hurts or helps the feminist cause depending on how one approaches the issue. +-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+Columnist

To learn more about the history of sexuality in the To delve into varying modern feminist views on sexuality, check out these sources: feminist movement, check out these sources: »Leila J. Rupp’s “Feminism and the Sexual Revolution in the Early Twentieth Century: The Case of Doris Stevens” »Sarah Irving’s blog Manchester’s Radical History »Entries under “feminism” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, one of the first feminists to argue for single women’s right to freely express their sexualiy. photo courtesy of John Simkin


»Cindy Gallop’s TED talk, “Make Love, Not Porn”

»Ariel Levy’s “Female Chauvinist Pigs” »Jill Filipovic’s column on

»Meghan Murphy’s blog Feminist Current

Cindy Gallop, a modern supporter of sex-positive feminism and creator of the website photo courtesy of

walk down the hallways at my high school and hear the word “slut” thrown around as if it’s nothing and “prude” used with a tone of disgust. Sometimes I want to approach these strangers and force them to consider the double standard they’ve created. They use both slut and prude as derogatory terms, creating a sort of paradox that traps teens who are confused which word they should strive to embody. I don’t have a problem with these words themselves, but the culture that has popularized their use is the same one that has encouraged me to become a sex-positive feminist. Sex-positive feminism is for me exactly as the name implies: positive. It’s about celebrating the actions that cause my peers to be labeled sluts or prudes. For myself and many other women, sex-positive feminism is the best way to approach sexuality through a feminist lens because it values women’s sexuality and understands that there are a myriad of ways in which it can be expressed. It is difficult for feminists to make lasting and permanent changes in culture, but it is easi-

er to adapt current culture to fit a feminist viewpoint. Sex-positive feminism’s acceptance of raunch culture is the perfect example of this. Raunch culture lets women take control of their own sexuality and feel empowered by this control. I can’t think of anything more feminist than that. In a world where it’s still difficult for women to obtain positions of power, raunch culture allows women to be in control. By supporting this aspect of raunch culture, we make feminism more accessible to those who participate in raunch culture or partake in pornography. Raunch culture is popular, so rather condemn it like sex-negative feminists do, we should focus on its benefits from a feminist standpoint. We can bridge gaps between the rest of society and the feminist movement, which is often seen as a movement so radical that it is disconnected from the rest of society. I believe that we must embrace pornography and raunch culture because it shows that, as a movement, we are capable of adjusting to modern ideas. Sex-positive is often used as


widely available for both married and unmarried women. “Suddenly, sex didn’t have to come along with anxiety and fear of pregnancy,” blogger Jill Filipovic wrote. “...Life before the pill often meant choosing between sexual anxiety or no sex at all, and between a fully-realized career and motherhood. After the pill, women could increasingly have both.” From the first mentions of sexuality within the feminist movement, empowerment through sexuality has been an important goal for feminists. This push for empowerment through sexuality was often backed up by philosophies such as those of Michel Foucault. “One of Foucault’s most fertile [insights] into the workings of power at the micro-political level is his identification of the body and sexuality as the direct locus of social control,” University of Queensland professor Aurelia Armstrong wrote. “Foucault insists on the historical specificity of the body. It is this emphasis on the body as directly targeted and formed by historically variable regimes of bio-power that has made Foucault’s version of poststructuralist theory the most attractive to feminist social and political theorists.” However, the conflict of how to achieve female empowerment through sexuality has caused rifts in the feminist movement. Although this is especially true today, University of California at Santa Barbara professor Leila Rupp wrote that even early 20th century feminists were divided on how to approach the topic. “The ‘charity girl’ marched in the vanguard of the sexual revolution but had nothing to do with organized feminism, while the ‘spinster feminist’ fought for women’s rights but denounced the sex-

a dirty word by feminists who oppose my views, but this is usually caused by misconceptions about sex-positive feminism. The feminist ideas I believe in are focused on making women proud of their sexuality. We want women to be free to showcase that pride and empowerment however they see fit, whether that’s by joining raunch culture, posing for pornography, sleeping with a dozen men or sleeping with none. As long as informed consent is part of the equation, the other aspects of someone’s expression of sexuality are entirely up to them. Many of my female peers feel torn between being the “good girl” that society expects them to be while exploring their sexuality and wanting to be part of the raunch culture that surrounds them. Sex-positive feminism supports their right to choose between those options and any others that are available. The most important thing is that women feel proud of their sexuality and feel free to express it in whatever manner they prefer. Now please tell me if you don’t think that sounds positive.

ual revolution as oppressive to women,” Rupp wrote. “Although it is impossible to reconcile these polarized versions of the New Woman, they do suggest that the relationship between feminism and the sexual revolution is central to understand the broad social changes that affected U.S. society in the first decades of the twentieth century.” When feminists began fighting for single women to feel free to express their sexuality, this concept was unheard of. Today’s feminists face a world in which sexuality is plastered in the media and considerably less taboo than it used to be. The question for feminists now is how to respond to the culture that has created norms and dominant ideologies about sexuality that are often degrading to women. “Beauty magazines (such as Cosmopolitan, Elle, Seventeen, and more) preach sexuality, femeninity and display images which are damaging to our society’s youth,” Todd wrote. “Because of the wellknown slogan in marketing, ‘sex sells,’ our society has become obsessed with celebrities, with perfect bodies.” Reporters at the Feminist Review represent a wide variety of viewpoints on the issue of sexuality within the feminist movement, and three of them have written about how they think that the feminist movement should approach sexuality to encourage gender equality. Columnists Lola Femme and Betty Wright represent the two opposing camps on this issue: sex-negative and sex-positive, while editor Logan Kramer has written an editorial on why we should abandon this system of labeling entirely in favor of a more united feminist movement.

Sex-negative feminism: anything but negative Betty Wright


hen I read Ariel Levy’s “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” something clicked. It was as if someone finally understood my thoughts as a sex-negative feminist. In my opinion, “Female Chauvinist Pigs” is the manifesto of sex-negative feminism and it brought up points that both shocked me and resonated with me. Levy researched every aspect of raunch culture imaginable and interviewed those who shape their lives around it. At the same time, she managed to stay strong in her sex-negative standpoint by pointing out the flaws of this industry. As a teenager, I’m expected to explore my sexuality. However, Levy’s descriptions of raunch culture made me feel more sickened than curious. I couldn’t believe the things that women would do for their own pleasure or for the pleasure of those around them. Even more surprising was the fact that many of these women believe that what they’re doing is feminist. They claim that somehow raunch


culture and pornography are empowering. They submit to sexual standards created by the patriarchy and act as if doing so makes them empowered feminists. In reality, I believe these women are perpetuating gender inequality. There seems to me to be something inherently unfeminist about pornography. Posing for Playboy or working on an adult film reduces a woman to her body. Her smarts, personality and emotions are forgotten and she is seen merely as a sexual being. While this is degrading in the first place, it’s also worth noting that it is very rare that a man is ever put into this position. Men are the ones who drive raunch culture and the pornographic industry, but they aren’t the ones who are often subject to harassment and assault because they work within the sex industry. One of many arguments made by sex-positive feminists is that if men are doing it, we should too. They hope to justify raunch culture by suggesting that we

must have the same mindset about sexuality as men do to achieve equality in this arena. However, this is not the type of equality we should be fighting for. We shouldn’t be equal to men in our efforts to degrade women. We shouldn’t be equal to men in our support for an industry that puts women’s bodies before anything else and treats female sexuality as a commodity. We should be equal to men in our willingness to let women choose how they would like to express their sexuality, and offer avenues to do so that are not as degrading as pornography. Although it may seem like an unpopular position, I think sex-negative feminism is the future of the feminist movement. Just as early feminists promoted radical ideas that were rarely accepted until decades after their deaths, sex-negative feminism may not catch on quickly. It may take decades for feminists to change the status quo, but I hope that future feminists will never have to deal with the unjust and anti-feminist pornographic industry and raunch culture that I am fighting against today.

For more feminist news coverage and the latest on feminist issues like sexuality, visit The Feminist Review’s website

Getting rid of labels will reveal united feminists Logan Kramer


Feminist Section Editor

ometimes I feel as if the feminist movement is pulling me in two directions. On one side is the sex-positive camp and on the other is the sex-negative camp, each with respective pros and cons. I have been wooed by both sides, but I currently find myself somewhere in the middle. This spot is rarely brought up in conversation, but I think it’s an important one. If both sides of this debate over sexuality and feminism could peel off their labels and take the chance to mingle, I think most would be surprised at how much they have in common despite minor differences. This is not to say that there aren’t divisions between feminists on the hot topic of sexuality, specifically as it relates to raunch culture and the pornographic industry. For some, raunch culture represents the freedom women have to express their sexuality. For others, it represents how far we still have to come in the fight for gender equality. These are two drastically different opinions, but they can both still be feminist. We as feminists need to recognize that we won’t always see eye to eye on every topic. That’s okay, because it means that we are encompassing a wider range of ideas and opinions as we become a more diverse movement. If someone believes that their sexuality is best expressed through pornography or other methods and wants to do so with feminism in mind, I have no right to say that is wrong. While I may not think it’s empowering to pose for Playboy, I can’t negate someone else’s experiences or claim they are unfeminist. Invalidating an experience that someone else believes is ending gender equality seems to taking a step backward in our pursuit of feminist justice. Each of us has a unique perspective on what’s empowering and what’s degrading, and we should feel free to support whatever we believe will bring us closest to equality. The problem begins when feminists focus on convincing other feminists that their side of the debate is the “right one.” Often I want to scream a chant that was popular among parents on the sidelines of my younger brother’s soccer games: “remember you’re on the same team.” A soccer team achieves nothing when their players are wrestling the ball from each other. Only when they work together to protect the ball and move it down the field will they make any progress. Similarly, we as feminists need to set aside our differences in opinion so that we can all work together towards gender equality. There are too few vocal feminists for us to be wasting our time wrestling the ball from each other in the hopes that a few other feminists might change their minds. Scrolling through #YesAllWomen on Twitter a few weeks ago, I saw thousands of women (and men) recognize that gender equality is nowhere close to being achieved. Despite this depressing realization, I also became excited because #YesAllWomen was an example of what can happen when we peel off labels like sex-positive and sex-negative. There weren’t separate hashtags for those feminists who have a certain opinion on one topic. Sex-positive and sex-negative feminists came together to fight for gender equality and have their voices heard. For a brief moment, it almost seemed as if my version of utopian feminism came true. All feminists were united without one word to divide us.

Feminists march together at the University of California at Santa Barbara after Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage that began the #YesAllWomen trend mentioned by Kramer. photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Great Ideas Project: Feminism & Sexuality