I recently came across a deeply personal, acutely intelligent examination of the shortcomings of sex-positive feminism that once again reminded me of the limits of feminist dialectics. Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, like most self-described feminists I know, has experienced an expression of feminism that doesn’t fit her identity. This leads to her criticism of that feminism, and her suggestion that the category needs to be expanded to “address the myriad forms of oppression that violate women’s lives and bodies on a global scale.” It’s a totally fair point, but by making it, hasn’t she proven it’s also a moot one?
Pflug-Back’s evaluation of sex-positive feminism is at first a response to her recent encounter with the Cliteracy project, a work of/for sexual empowerment by artist Sophia Wallace, but she provides a tidy sum of evidence from elsewhere around the internet proving that Wallace exemplifies a broader trend:
[Sex-positive feminism] still seems to be a movement geared towards middle-class, mostly white, liberal, cis-women for whom liberation may indeed be a simple matter of achieving greater sexual satisfaction, ending the culture of slut-shaming, and re-appropriating femme aesthetics.
Unfortunately, feminism always seems to be turning over on itself in exactly this way: a lot of feminists relate to the political through the personal, and yet the inevitably subjective iterations of feminism that arise from this practice are always scrutinized as if they were intended to be universal. For some women, challenging slut-shaming and achieving sexual satisfaction are critical struggles. For others, as Pflug-Back rightfully points out, they’re not. Why does one perspective have to be discredited in order to make room for another? If advocating for the expansion of sex-positive feminism to include experiences like her own, then why not do it herself — or really, acknowledge that’s what she’s doing?
Instead, and in accordance with the title of her piece, Pflug-Back thinks of herself as looking in from the outside of sex-positive feminism:
For people who face more obstacles in the path towards reclaiming and realizing their sexuality, this sort of uncompromisingly positive and monolithic view of sex can come off as anywhere from frivolous to brutally alienating. During the long period of my life in which I felt that I was completely incapable of having any kind of healthy manifestation of a sex life, I often felt wracked by the guilt of not being a “good” feminist.
Pflug-Back’s sense of alienation from sex-positive feminism seems to prevent her from admitting something she already knows to be true: there is no good/bad feminism. If there is an authority on feminisms, it’s only because feminists construct it, just as Pflug-Back did by critiquing sex-positive feminism while, quite obviously — and with no small amount of courage and intellect — establishing herself as part of the dialogue.