Earlier this year, my older sister was reading Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, a radical engagement in the politics of heterosexual sex and love. As I plucked it from her bookshelf (according to sister law, anything my sister does must be copied!), drawn to the watercolor cover and provocative title, my hands traced over the broken spine. The copy was sourced from a second-hand store –– Dworkin had been out of print for years, a voice far too controversial for modern day feminists.
With time, Intercourse went from being a tantalizing night-stand decoration to an engrossing read. I fell completely and utterly in obsession with the text. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with a feminist attitude that seemed to go beyond the superficial, serving as a haven amongst the excess of the commodified #girlboss and sex positive feminism I was surrounded by. For Dworkin, sex was not an act of confidence or an expression of female liberty, but rather “the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” She was angry with the world and demanded a voice, often imaginative with her displeasure. The feminine experience of sex was seen for what it oftentimes is for many young women –– a degrading, dehumanizing, and even violent act. A corporal violence that we are meant to want, enjoy, ask for again and again, and say thank you afterwards. While reading further, I was struck with the harsh realization that the sex positive feminism I had become accustomed to is no more than misogyny repackaged in pink wrapping paper and ribbon –– an ideology that continues to benefit masculinity, all while perpetuating female suffering. Intercourse was published in 1987, Dworkin passed away in 2005. We have entered into a new era without her voice, and all that I’m left with is a bewilderment of when and how women will finally break free from the patriarchy. For me, one thing is for certain –– sex positivity is not the solution.
While reading further, I was struck with the harsh realization that the sex positive feminism I had become accustomed to is no more than misogyny repackaged in pink wrapping paper and ribbon –– an ideology that continues to benefit masculinity, all while perpetuating female suffering.
Although feminism is a dynamic and ever-expansive concept that can’t be dated, its widespread existence in the U.S. and Canada is best described in ‘waves.’ These waves are certainly not monolithic, and contradictory opinions have always been present throughout –– Dworkin, for example, arose from the bra-burning free-love bohemians of the 60s and 70s. The first wave, 1848 to 1920, was focused on gaining women the right to vote in the U.S. The second wave, 1963-1985, was dedicated to legalizing birth control. Both of these waves were highly concerned with the rights of rich, white women –– even though a majority of the work was done by Black activists. The third wave began in 1991 and addressed a wide variety of issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace or the wage gap; and provided a newfound normalization of intersectionality in mainstream discussions. The modern day fourth wave continues to engage with all of the above, yet has been increasingly focused on sexuality –– ranging from the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017 to sex positive education. This newfound ‘fourth wave’ often coincides with ‘choice feminism,’ a modern feminist theory that argues all choices and actions are inherently feminist if they are made by a woman. Modern day choice feminism is most prevalent in the sex positive feminist movement, which argues for female sexual liberation and the normalization of sex work.
The origins of our current day ‘choice feminism’ lie in comprehensive sexual education for young people, a pillar of feminist ideology. Certainly, it is a privilege for us to hold productive and open conversations on female anatomy, female pleasure, consent, and inclusive sex education. In the past, education was both largely unavailable for the majority of women and extremely reductive. This remains a reality for underprivileged, marginalized women. There is no question that education is crucial to empower people, especially as the sexual violence and domestic violence rates against women (primarily, women of color) only rise with time.
It is, at its core, female empowerment that not only pleases but praises the patriarchy, through the encouragement of sexual promiscuity and internalized misogyny.
Comprehensive sexual education, however, is not what choice feminists are engaging in today. Sex positive feminism has morphed from inclusive education into harmful, violent rhetoric that is dripping with misogyny. Perhaps best exemplifying this is the iconic controversial podcast Call Her Daddy, created in 2018 by Alex Cooper and Sofia Franklyn. Call Her Daddy rapidly rose to fame following its release, accumulating a cult fanbase of die-hard young listeners that take the word of creator ‘Father Cooper’ as gospel. The podcast provides sex and dating advice, essentially resulting in a hollow attempt at empowering women, but easily falling short. Cooper encourages her female listeners to engage in ‘locker room talk,’ objectify their sexual partners, and strive for male validation by changing their appearance during their conquests. It is, at its core, female empowerment that not only pleases but praises the patriarchy, through the encouragement of sexual promiscuity and internalized misogyny. In fact, Cooper describes her reasoning behind creating the podcast as a result of her lack of sexual education growing up –– but if these are the lessons she provides to young women, I’m not sure if it’s much more helpful than a lack of education. Call Her Daddy and the bubble of sex positivity are misguided at best–– a subdued, palatable, and pink-washed excuse for equality.
This harmful ideology extends to the normalization of modern day sex work, often synonymously associated with the creation of OnlyFans in 2016. OnlyFans is a subscription-based online platform in which creators can control their own content and engagement with their audience. Despite the seemingly empowering nature of the platform, the choice feminism of OnlyFans is equivalent to the blatant misogyny of the past. A BBC News report exposed that the platform accepted illegal sexual content, such as non-consensual acts or acts involving minors; meanwhile many creators have reported being harassed and stalked by their viewers. Certainly, it is important to advocate for the safety and support of sex workers, yet it can be done while acknowledging that it is actively benefiting the patriarchy. This sapid and commodified feminism is simply another instance of women being subjected to the same exploitative standards they would be in a male-controlled industry, yet with a veil of false-empowerment laid upon it.
The man cannot be faulted in the eyes of society because he did everything he was told he can do, precisely walking that line of mediocrity until he reaches the other side. We have been lulled into a pacified state, the cushions of pseudo-feminism catching us as we tumble down the rabbit-hole.
This threatening reality, however, runs much deeper than the media we consume –– the normalization of misogyny disguised as female empowerment is rooted in our everyday lives. Sex positive feminism can lead to a false sense of safety and can normalize harmful relationships. Young women are told that the moment they turn eighteen, they are liberated women who not only have the right to, but should be having sex. Yet, the reality is that many sexual encounters of our generation are infected by misogyny. Safe, educated, consensual, and enthusiastic sexual experiences are the ideal –– but for the impressionable women who feel influenced by the Father Coopers of the world to ‘keep a roster’ of questionable men to have sex with, falling into harmful relationships happens all too easily.
Under the regime of sex positive feminism, the worst part remains: there will never be a smoking gun. There is no offense, no blatant wrongdoing, as he did everything he was told he could do. Sure, the sex was abrasive, or violent, and you were treated not only disrespectfully, but sub-humanly within the vicious cycle of hook-up culture –– but in the eyes of sex positive feminism, this is the equality we signed up for. I witness discussions of sexual violence daily as the president of an anti-sexual violence student organization on campus. Too often, the groups that ask for workshops seem to be doing so to check off a box on their list for ‘inclusion training.’ They want me to give them a line –– to teach them where to step and where not to, how to carefully tow that line, how to be a good man in a one hour brief. A true interest or engagement in equality is out of the question. “It’s so hard to be a young man these days,” I once heard an out-of-touch aunt cry at a family gathering. The man cannot be faulted in the eyes of society because he did everything he was told he can do, precisely walking that line of mediocrity until he reaches the other side. We have been lulled into a pacified state, the cushions of pseudo-feminism catching us as we tumble down the rabbit-hole.
Sex positivity and a woman’s choice to participate within it should certainly be acknowledged as a vital pillar for modern feminism, but it shouldn’t be the ultimate definition. Perhaps this new wave of feminism, although currently harmful in its misdirection, is just part of the complex and interwoven process –– slowly, methodically prodding towards eventual equality for women. As the violence against women today not only perpetuates, but grows and flourishes, I’m drawn to Dworkin’s legendary quote –– “I’m a radical feminist, not the fun kind.” With time, I can only hope that I can learn not to be the fun kind either.