A Response to ‘Anti-Sex Feminism’ by Jerry Barnett

by

Louise Pennington

 

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Written in response to Is Anti-Sex Feminism a Step Backwards for Women’s Rights? by Jerry Barnett

Whenever I hear the term “anti-sex”, I sigh. The term ‘anti-sex’ implies that feminists who campaign against pornography and other parts of the ‘sex industry’ hate all sex. This is inaccurate but equally a very clever tactic to dismiss the concerns of feminists on the (ab)use of commodified bodies of women and children. It is used in the exact same way that the “pro-life” term is used to limit women’s bodily autonomy and health: it is a misnomer used to deflect attention from the paucity of the argument being made. Using the term “anti-sex” to define feminists who are anti-pornography and who believe prostitution constitutes violence against women is a deliberate misrepresentation of the arguments being made. The article “Is anti-sex feminism a step backwards for women’s rights” by Jerry Barnett is no different.

I am not going to address Barnett’s misrepresentation of the theoretical writings of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, although these are deeply problematic; nor will address in depth Barnett’s misuse of rape statistics to attempt to disprove a point about the correlations between rape and pornography. Both of these issues have been addressed elsewhere, on numerous occasions and are quite clearly being misused in order to promote a theory that punishes women who do not behave the way Barnett believes is acceptable. Instead, I want to focus on the way Barnett uses language to insist that an anti-pornography position is anti-sex; a theory which supposedly increases the possibilities of human sexuality but instead both limits it and denies the existence of any sexuality which is not heteronormative.

Barnett’s use of language to misrepresent the feminist arguments against pornography and prostitution start in the second paragraph:

 But by the time I myself became politically active in the early-80s, much of the feminist movement appeared to have gone through a drastic transformation: from joyous to humourless, from sexual to sexless, from a celebration of everything female to an embrace of androgyny. The 1980s was a deeply conservative era in which much of what Women’s Lib and the sexual revolution had achieved came under attack, and the feminist movement was not immune from that conservative tide.

I must say I never found discussions of male violence against women – rape, physical assault, emotional abuse, torture, and reproductive control – a topic that was ever “joyous”. On the other hand, celebrations of women’s relationships and achievements have never been anything but joyous.  So, what, precisely, is Barnett referring to here: feminist campaigns against male violence that involved reclaiming women’s sexuality? Since when does women reclaiming their sexuality require women to do what men dictate, which is clearly the point of the article. Women who don’t perform sexually in a way that Barnett deems appropriate are ‘sexless’.  Claiming that the women’s movement is ‘humourless’ for having serious discussions on pornography, prostitution and rape culture is disingenuous at best. This type of hyperbole undermines Barnett’s entire article.

It is, however, the next statements that are deeply troubling, particularly when written by a man.  Androgyny is not synonymous with ‘sexless’, as any fan of David Bowie can attest. The equation of female with sexual is the reductive, heteronormative and patriarchal definition. It is nothing more than the replication of women’s subordination by attacking women who are not sexually available to men at all times.

The statement also reinforces the belief that being asexual is a negative characteristic, which is tremendously unkind and, frankly, sex-negative. The womanist blog Gradient Lair has published numerous articles on the problematic constructions of sex-positivism, which is the term to denote pro-pornography feminists, on people who are asexual, which is a form of human sexuality, and those who chose to be celibate: [1]

 Thinking about sexuality in a positive way, in an empowering way also means being able to say NO. Not having to prove anything. Not having to perform any stereotypes related to any sexual orientation or actual sexual behavior. … It means a liberating concept of sexuality is not having to use my own asexuality to prove my solidarity with other marginalized people and their sexual politics but knowing that they simply need the space (and some need more space than others; this speaks to one’s particular experiences with privilege, domination and oppression) to articulate those politics (albeit intersectional for it to really be progressive) and live life as they choose.[2]

Arguing that women who have concerns about pornography must hate all sex is reductive and, well, silly. Being truly sex-positive requires recognising that women are more than objects of sex; that women have the right to say no to pornography and that women have the right to question the sex industry without being labelled frigid or anti-sex.

Barnett’s article clearly excludes anyone who self-defines as asexual or who chooses to be celibate. More importantly, it also ignores the reality of the trauma of sexual violence and the fact that some survivors make the choice to become celibate. In Barnett’s construction of female, these rape survivors are no longer women because they are not ‘sexual’. It also ignores the physical trauma to women’s bodies following rape that can make PIV painful. Does this make them less female? Or, women who have experienced physical damage following childbirth or for whom childbirth was so traumatic that PIV is too painful? Reducing ‘female’ to sexuality erases the experiences of many women and actively harms women’s liberation.

Barnett’s statement “(t)here is no evidence that sexual and erotic expression involving consenting adults is harmful to women”  is also disingenuous . There is quite clear evidence that pornography is having a damaging effect on human sexuality by reducing women to no more than fuckholes for male consumption. Sexual practices involving consenting adults are not harmful; however the possibility of consent in a culture that constructs women as a sex class is questionable.[3] Suggesting that the “most dangerous thing a society can do is to try to repress natural sexual urges” is ahistorical; after all no one would suggest that Genghis Khan or Caligula were living in ‘sexually repressed’ cultures and the treatment of women wasn’t exactly a huge concern to either of them. The idea that the “naked female body is at its most “sexualised” when it is covered up, and made taboo” demonstrates Barnett’ failure to engage effectively with the arguments of anti-pornography feminists. His dismissal of the campaigning groups UK Feminista and Object further proves Barnett’s refusal to acknowledge any evidence that interferes with his personal enjoyment of pornography.

Barnett’s suggestion that anti-pornography feminists are diverting ‘society from tackling the true causes of’ rape and domestic violence is a deliberate misrepresentation of radical feminist theory. Radical feminists believe that pornography is a direct result of the dehumanisation of women. They do not argue that pornography elides male responsibility for violence. Radical feminists are the most likely to talk about male perpetrators of violence against women and children rather than using obfuscating language like ‘gender-based violence’. To suggest otherwise is fallacious.

The correlation between the creation of feminist porn, a term I find questionable, with the creation of Slutwalk demonstrates a fundamental misrepresentation of Slutwalk:

Anti-sex feminism is, of course, far from mainstream. Sex-positive feminism is perhaps as strong as ever. Increasing numbers of feminist porn directors, instead of attacking the medium, have set out to improve it. The annual Feminist Porn Awards convention in Toronto is growing year on year. The SlutWalk phenomenon of 2011 saw thousands of women (and male supporters) worldwide rallying against slut-shaming, and defending their rights to use their own bodies as they choose, without stigma.

Slutwalk was created to raise awareness of victim blaming in our rape culture. It was created by women fighting for women’s rights to be in public spaces without being sexually assaulted or raped and then blamed for that violence. It was not a pro-pornography march. Conflating the two allows Barnett to argue that an anti-pornography position is victim-blaming women for experiencing sexual violence. It is a sleight of hand that is both disingenuous and damaging.

Barnett then goes on to say this:

 As a man, I don’t see anti-sex feminism as “man-hating”, as some describe it; its hatred appears to be aimed primarily at sexually-liberated women.

Once again, Barnett is conflating woman with sex. Any woman who has concerns about the role of pornography and the sex industry in perpetuating rape culture must hate sex. This is just a fancy way of calling anti-pornography feminists frigid. This is woman-hating behaviour.

There are many more problematic statements within this article; all of which create women as objects for male sexual pleasure. The article is a defence of Barnett’s personal use of pornography rather than an attempt to engage with the arguments of feminists who are anti-pornography. Using language like ‘anti-sex feminists’ to describe women who have concerns about pornography is a deliberate smearing tactic designed to invalidate their arguments.

I will say that anyone who believes that Dworkin’s work on pornography and rape means that Dworkin doesn’t hold men responsible for rape has either not bothered to read her work or fundamentally misunderstood her message. Discussions on the correlations between pornography, the sex industry and rape culture are necessary. But, the cannot happen when disingenuous claims are made conflating the theory that pornography contributes to rape culture as pornography causes rape and, therefore, anti-pornography feminists are erasing men’s responsibility for rape. But, then, I do not expect rational discussion from a man whose campaign against censorship has this information on their website:

On the contrary, a generation has grown up with Internet access, and teenage pregnancy rates are at their lowest since 1969. Since domestic violence cases peaked at over 1.1m in 1993, they have fallen by over 70%. And these trends don’t just affect the UK. In the United States, rates of sexual violence fell by 64% from 1995 to 2010.[4]

I have no doubt that Rape Crisis[5] and Women’s Aid[6] would be very shocked to discover that rape and domestic violence are no longer a huge problem in the UK.  The FBI[7] would certainly be surprised by the theory that rates of sexual violence are falling considering their statistics show that not only is it increasing but also that a local police forces have consistently failed to count some reports of sexual violence as rape and, as such, believe that many ‘false rape’ accusations are simply failures of local police forces to investigate.

Barnett’s use of misleading language to reframe a debate away from women’s concerns about pornography is equivalent to men who label women frigid for saying no to their sexual advances. A truly sex positive society would recognise that asexuality is part of the spectrum of sexuality. A truly sex positive society would allow women to say no without labelling them as ‘sex-haters’. Barnett isn’t arguing for a new form of feminism. He is demanding a return to the construction of women as sex objects. That’s the same old patriarchal twaddle dressed up in fancy language.

 

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Louise Pennington is a feminist writer and historian with a background in education. She blogs for the Huffington Post and her personal blog, My Elegant Gathering of White Snows [http://therealsgm.blogspot.co.uk/], is part of the Mumsnet bloggers network. She is also the creator of A Room of Our Own: A New Feminist Network.