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[cw: discussion of social pressure into sex; brief quotation of justifications for rape]

I think a lot of people understand sexual politics as something like this:

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That is, on one side, there is the people who are “yay sex!”, like sex-positive feminists, kinksters, stereotypical frat boys, and Cosmo magazine, while on the other side there are people who are “boo sex!”, like abstinence-only sex educators and Jerry Falwell.

This model leads to various tiresome forms of Bad Feminism. For instance, as far as I can tell, this model is the origin of the Tumblr-popular idea that we need sex-positive feminism to say that sex is good for many people, and sex-negative feminism to say that sex isn’t always good for everyone. Conversely, this model leads to the classic sex-positive failure mode of “you’re sex-positive! That means you have to have tons of sex, right? Why aren’t you having more casual sex? Why aren’t you comfortable with me talking about my partner’s genitals?”, as well as the idea that Hugh Hefner is an ally to sex-positive feminists.

But I think reality works something like this:

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That is, the fundamental distinction is between people who think that someone other than you gets input into your sex life (a group which includes Jerry Falwell, the abstinence-only sex educators, stereotypical frat boys, and Cosmo magazine), and people who think that only you get input (sex-positive feminists and allies).

My mental model of Leah Libresco is telling me to say that this model is intended as value-neutral and empirical and not intended to cause insult to those more on the sexual constraint side of things than I am. In particular, I hope the religious will find “God gets input into how you have sex” a more accurate characterization of their beliefs than “ew, sex is gross.” I don’t want this to be interpreted as Good Sexual Liberationists and Bad Sexual Constraint Havers: I myself am not all the way towards sexual freedom; I think it is good to have social norms in favor of physically and emotionally healthy, mutually respectful sex, which is outside input into one’s sexual choices.

Sexual constraint leads to both sex-negativity (the idea that people shouldn’t have certain kinds of sex) and compulsory sexuality (the idea that people must have certain kinds of sex). Therefore, in general, the yay sex vs. boo sex model predicts that yay sex people tend to have more compulsory sexuality (sex is great, therefore you must have it) and boo sex people more sex-negativity (sex is terrible, don’t have any). Conversely, the sexual constraint vs. sexual freedom model predicts that compulsory sexuality and sex-negativity are positively correlated:

And I think they are positively correlated!

A lot of abstinence-only sex educators make an argument something along these lines: “people say we’re sex-negative. But we’re not actually sex-negative! We think sex is great! God wants you to have an exciting and fulfilling sex life. That’s why he’s decided to save it for marriage.” In fact, abstinence is often sold as improving your marital sex life: because you approach the marriage bed without habits learned from, expectations created by, or trauma inflicted by previous partners, you can explore sexuality together. For more about this reframe, I highly recommend the book Making Chastity Sexy.

Christian sexual constraint has a dark side. Many Christians argue that, following I Corinthians 7:5, it is actually morally wrong to refuse your partner sex. Popular evangelical self-help books say “God grants the marriage partner full access to his spouse’s body for sexual gratification. And remember, indifference is unwillingness.” (More, equally horrifying quotes at the link.) This makes no sense in the yay sex vs. boo sex model: if evangelical Christians are anti-sex, why are they coercing people into sex? It makes perfect sense in the sexual constraint model: just as you have no right to say “yes” before marriage, you have no right to say “no” afterward.

On the totally opposite end, let’s look at Cosmo!

Cosmo is ridiculously pro-sex: every issue is filled with the Thousand Best Ways To Please A Man or the Thirty Kinds Of Orgasm You Must Have or the Two Hundred Tips To Make This Summer The Hottest You’ve Ever Had. Never in Cosmo is it imagined that women (or men!) might prefer to catch up on Hannibal rather than trying the Lusty Leg Lift. And this continues to specific sex acts: if your partner doesn’t like dirty talk or blowjobs, or you don’t like cunnilingus or swallowing come, you just need to improve your technique! It is very rarely suggested that maybe people could just not have sex they don’t like.

But this fascination with sexuality combines with a horror of any sexuality that is remotely non-normative. Formerly, this was lesbians: I fondly remember the issue where a woman who fantasizes about sex with girls was told that this shows she needs to have more sweet, gentle, loving sex with her male man boyfriend who is a dude. But then Cosmo got a new editor and now we’re getting, like, True Confession: I, A Lady, Cheated On My Girlfriend With Another Woman, which is good for LGB rights but really bad for my amusing Cosmo reading.

Fortunately, Cosmo remains terrified of kink. Most articles about BDSMy things are interspersed with gentle reassurances that this doesn’t mean you are really kinky, it’s okay, you don’t have to be a dominatrix, why don’t you tie up your partner with toilet paper so it’s less scary. And then consider what’s simply unthinkable: Cosmo doesn’t run articles about sneeze fetishes, or balloons, or furries, or the rest of the glorious diversity of human sexuality. And before you say “but most people aren’t into furry sex!” I would like to point out that most people are also not into putting a doughnut on a man’s penis and eating it and yet here Cosmo is. To Cosmo, anything outside a tiny sphere of human sexuality is not just forbidden: it’s unthinkable.

Assuming you accept my model, how does this change sex-positive practice? Most notably: inclusion of people who don’t want to have sex is not optional. Allyship to asexuals, gray asexuals, and low-libido people is not optional. Prude-shaming is just as important to fight as slut-shaming. Talking about orgasms or genitals in a uniformly positive way is fucked up. Talking about not wanting to have sex as something people just need to get over is fucked up. Assuming that everyone else is as comfortable with sexuality as you are is fucked up. Sex-positive events or websites that include lots of stuff for sluts and a token “some people don’t like sex and that’s fine!” for prudes are fucked up and they are failing at the goal they are advocating.

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