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30 June

Why “sex-neutral feminism” is a dangerous proposition

Society will continue to politicise women’s sexuality even if feminists choose not to.

By Zoë Grünewald

“Wouldn’t it be more freeing to let [sex] be irrelevant?” wrote Marie Le Conte for the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago. Le Conte was considering heated debate over what role sex should play in modern feminism. No role, she argued. In fact, she suggested that feminists have been too preoccupied with this question for too long and that there should be “a space for a feminism that doesn’t care much about sex”.

While it is a tempting conclusion, the problem is that it is impossible to talk about, or understand, sex without acknowledging the context in which it exists. You cannot separate the act from its meaning, a meaning which is crafted in a world of misogyny and gender-based violence.

In 2019 the Guardian reported that we were starting to see a rise in non-fatal strangulation during sex. Gail Dines, president of Culture Reframed, a campaign to address hypersexualised media and pornography, called choking “the number one standard act” on porn sites, and said women look at this “to see what men want and they see choking”. Hardly a surprise, as women, men and non-binary people are all subject to sexual appetites which have been formed in a world of misogyny and violence. Sex, an act of vulnerability and unchecked desire, becomes a projection of this hatred. Although there should be space in feminism for kinks to be expressed safely, this is ultimately not what the rise of strangulation during sex is about. Increasingly, these incidents occur without consent, and in some cases (most notoriously that of Grace Millane, who was murdered in 2018) these women end up dead.

Subjugation does not stop there, however. Even after the act of sex is over, some women and non-binary people are then subject to the potential risk of pregnancy. The overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US has demonstrated how bodies, and a woman’s decision to have sex, has become a political battleground. “They think that women have an absolute right of bodily autonomy in this matter,” the Tory MP Danny Kruger of his colleagues in parliament during a debate on abortion. “The fact is I probably disagree with most members who have spoken so far about this question,” he said, adding that he believed that in the case of abortion the right to autonomy was qualified by the fact that “another body is involved”. There it is, plain as day. Power over oneself is transferred to the state as soon as sex results in pregnancy. How can that not be political?

Even when women are not having sex, sex is heaped upon them. From female genital mutilation, harassment and rape culture to uniform codes, breast-feeding and objectification, the male gaze is constantly turned upon women, reducing them to their sexuality. Women are subject to an entirely different code of behaviour from men to ensure they do not fall prey to men’s sexual appetites. How can we let sex be “meaningless” when the sexual desires of men control and violate women?

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[See also: The problem in schools isn’t cancel culture – it’s rape culture]

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Le Conte is not alone when she wishes for a post-political view of sex. Post-liberal feminists approach sex as a tool for navigating a world they consider too dangerous for most sexual encounters to truly be liberating. For sex-positive feminists, sex should be normalised to empower women and reach a place where it can be valueless. Arguably, most strands of feminism are fighting to see a world where sex isn’t tangled up in power or politics, they just disagree about how to get there. What they certainly recognise is that, at present, it is not possible to simply declare sex meaningless.

There is a space between the two stances. My feminism does not always deem every individual sex act either inherently harmful or empowering. There is always an accompanying context, which is crucial for determining whether it was harmful, empowering, boring or important. This view makes it entirely possible for feminists to sit somewhere between the two camps of sex-positive and sex-cautious.

A feminist can support the rights of sex workers and women who wish to have casual sex, and can see why sex could be an empowering means to level the playing field. The same feminist can also recognise the normalisation of sexual violence and the conspiracy of silence against the provision of adequate education on consent and rights. I support a woman’s right to have as much sex as she wants, to say she doesn’t care or to find the act violating. What I cannot fathom is the view that if feminists stopped talking about sex so much it would simply become meaningless, and we could all sit around, breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Isn’t that better?”

Feminist explanations of the relationship between gender, sex and power have helped countless women and minorities to make sense of the world around them. While attempting to reconstruct the borders of feminism, critics fail to acknowledge the power that the movement has given to women: the capacity to put truth to power. Sex, whether we like it or not, is fundamentally political because it is tangled up with expressions of power, submission and violence. Countless women, every day, experience sexual violence, harassment and coercion. To declare sex meaningless is to deny reality.

At present, the act can not be separated from its meaning and its impact can not simply be dismissed. It is the institution of sex – what is has come to represent for women – that pushes it firmly into the political realm, in that politics is an explanation of power and who has it. For now, as women are murdered on our streets and their reproductive rights are chipped away, we must acknowledge that sex is meaningful, even if we disagree about what exactly it means.

[See also: Roe vs Wade and the land of lost liberty]