If you can stand the whorephobia, transphobia, and sex negativity, I recommend reading Sheila Jeffreys’s The Spinster and Her Enemies, a history of early sex-positivity from 1880 to 1930. What this book makes clear is that in our culture sex-positivity has a distressing tendency to collapse into compulsory sexuality.
What happens in a lot of cases is something like this: in conventional patriarchal culture, there are people women are supposed to fuck (their husbands) and people women are not supposed to fuck (everyone else). There is a socially legitimate reason for a woman to say ‘no’ to sex to anyone who isn’t her husband. And while there might not be much concept that women can say ‘no’ to sex with their husbands (remember that marital rape only became illegal in every US state in the nineties), most husbands are not rapists, genuinely love and care about their partners, and have no desire to have sex with their wife when she doesn’t want sex. While this is a terrible system in a lot of respects, it did reduce the harm of compulsory sexuality for many women.
Unfortunately, in this system, the natural way to do sex-positivity is to expand the set of people women are supposed to fuck. It is limiting to only have one person you’re supposed to fuck! Now you are supposed to fuck all your friends, or all the people in this intentional community, or everyone! Isn’t that great? We’re helping!
And, of course, if you’re supposed to have sex with a lot more people, then you’re much more likely to have sex with a rapist, or with someone who grew up in a culture that doesn’t give a shit about consent and who doesn’t have any reason to care about your emotional well-being. You’re a stranger, after all.
The worst excesses of the free love movement in the sixties birthed radical feminism, which instituted the rule that sex that one person involved did not want is rape. Most alternative sexuality communities seem to work under a similar rule today. This is a serious improvement, which I am not going to criticize.
However, I worry that a lot of alternative sexuality culture lends itself well to compulsory sexuality in more subtle ways. A lot of rationalist parties have cuddle piles at them. So what happens if you don’t like cuddle piles? Well, you can sort of awkwardly sit near the cuddle pile, trying to talk with people there, or you can join the cuddle pile, or you can just accept that you are not going to get to talk with the people in the cuddle pile this party. None of those are really satisfactory; all are alienating.
Another example: I tend to have sex with my friends; hookups are a common part of early-stage friendship for me. Now, of course, I would never exclude someone from being my friend just because they don’t want to have sex with me. But there’s the implied expectation, the knowledge that everyone else is doing it– and it is probably true that, all things equal, being willing to have sex with me makes me more likely to be your friend than not being willing to have sex with me does.
Or think about the sex-positive slogans. “Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you!” Can’t you just hear someone saying “come on, sex is nice, everyone likes sex, why are you saying no?” And there’s this lovely quote from the Ethical Slut, where a hippie girl says “I believe it’s okay to have sex with people you love, and I believe in loving everybody.” And I relate to that quote, and I like it, but part of me just imagines someone thinking: So why am I not willing to have casual sex? Does that mean I don’t love everybody?
But this is a problem that’s hard to fix. The only way to completely fix the cuddle pile problem is to not have cuddle piles. But you can’t fix “some people are coerced into doing Thing” by saying “no more Thing!”– that’s as much of a violation of autonomy as the thing you were trying to fix in the first place. The ideal is that people do things they want to and don’t do things they don’t.
One might say that this only seems like a problem in alternative sexuality communities because our communities are marked, not normal. A tacit expectation that people fuck their friends is exactly as much of a problem as a tacit expectation that people fuck on the third date– it’s just that we think of the former case as a Weird Sex Thing and the latter case as normality. I think that’s part of it, but compulsory sexuality in altsex communities is still a concern. Mainstream sexual norms evolved because most people were basically okay with them: most people don’t have a huge problem with third-date sex and never having anal. Of course, “people do things they want, don’t do things they don’t want” is an improvement on “people do things most people want, don’t do things most people don’t want”– but they’re both an improvement on “everyone does what the most extreme people want.”
How can we fix this problem? I think part of the solution is just talking about it and trying to be aware of the pressures in our communities and the way that they make some people feel unwelcome. Another part is to explicitly work on including not just the sluts but the prudes in sex positivity– not just the people who want sex more or in different ways than society approves of, but the people who want sex less or don’t like some of the socially accepted kinds of sex. (Not, of course, that these are mutually exclusive.) And I do wonder if there are any simple changes we could make in communities dominated by kinky, poly, slutty, cuddle-prone etc. people to make them more welcoming to vanilla, asexual, monogamous, low-libido, not-in-favor-of-cuddling-strangers etc. people, without sacrificing our own needs and values. Does anyone have ideas?