What should feminists make of sex? It is a question that has haunted generations of women; the question we cannot escape from. What kind of society should feminists aim to build, and where would sex fit inside that society?
The millennial answer to this question was, for a while, sex positivity. For about a decade we were told that being young, happy and sticky was one of the best things a person could be. We were told that women could be as voracious as men and that fingers and fists could be stuck anywhere, as long as both parties were happy with it.
We were told that sex had the potential to be a radical and liberating act, if only we would let it. Then the wind changed. Sex-positive feminism, we are now told, is flawed because it assumes women are the same as men, have the same urges and desires. It is flawed because it overstates the power and potential delights of casual encounters. It is flawed because, deep down, most women would choose matrimony over promiscuity.
Feminism ebbing and flowing is nothing new, but there is something especially frustrating about this particular discussion. For a start, both sides have a point. There are, always have been and always will be women drawn to the pleasures of the flesh. They should be able to indulge without fear of judgement or violence.
Similarly, there are, always have been and always will be women for whom sex will only ever be an intimate act, laden with meaning and best shared as part of a committed relationship. Their choices should be respected. How to build a world that fits them both, and everyone in between?
Though sex-positive feminists may not wish to hear it, peer pressure is real. If you go around saying that people can make whatever choice they want but relentlessly extolling the virtues of meaningless sex, some young women will join in even if they do not really want to.
I remember an old housemate once declaring that she had decided that one night stands were not for her. She sounded apologetic, nearly ashamed; society had told her that the best way to live was to sleep around and she felt she had failed. Having sex you do not want to have can be a traumatising experience; it is terrible that she’d felt forced into it.
Similarly, post-liberal feminists, as they call themselves, cannot deny that marriage long was – and, for many, still is – a misogynistic institution. If their main worry is women’s safety, they cannot dismiss the fact that 44 per cent of women who’ve experienced rape or sexual assault have done so at the hands of a partner or former partner, according to the Office for National Statistics. If the patriarchy is in the street, it is also in the home.
Sex-positive feminism wound up feeling hollow because it assumed that men would not try to take advantage of the situation. Post-liberal feminism views men as fundamentally malevolent, only tamed by dour conservatism. The former believe they can create an environment where all sex is fun and safe; the latter assume that sex is more likely to be wounding to women than not. Optimism, meet pessimism.
Still, there is one thing they have in common: the pedestal they put sex on. Both these strands of feminism have put great emphasis on the sex women have and do not have, the sex they want to have and the sex they should be having. Can there be a space for a feminism that doesn’t care much about sex?
It is a movement that should have come out of the 1960s but did not, for reasons deftly explained by Mark Greif in an essay for n+1. “Because moralists had said for so many centuries, ‘Sex must be controlled because it is so powerful and important,’ sexual liberators were seduced into saying, in opposition, ‘Sex must be liberated because it is so powerful and important’,” he wrote. “But in fact a better liberation would have occurred if reformers had freed sex not by its centrality to life, but by its triviality.”
It is not too late to try to envisage such a world. Instead of arguing about the sort of sex men and women are having with one another, perhaps we should ask why we are talking about sex this much to begin with. As is often the case in electoral politics, where people stand on an issue is not nearly as important as how much they care about it.
A sex-neutral feminism would argue that sex can be good or bad, filth or love, but that it does not matter a whole lot either way. It is a physical act between two consenting adults; it is not inherently empowering or demeaning. It can have all the meaning in the world and it can mean nothing at all; to some it will always be special, to others it will not.
Crucially, sex will always reflect the ills of society at large. Sex-positive feminism is facing a backlash not because of its internal failures but because of the world it operates in. Post-liberal feminism cannot be the answer either. Solutions of the past rarely solve the problems of the present.
Both argue, in their own way, that sex will always be inherently political. I think there is a space for a feminism which argues that it does not have to be, a feminism that is neither glib nor glum, that is realistic yet hopeful. What is this ideal world we are trying to build? One in which sex is largely irrelevant. We eat and we drink and we fuck; it does not need to be anyone’s business.
The personal can be and often is political, but we should strive for a world in which it doesn’t have to be.