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Columns

Sexing Discourse

Does pushback against oppressive conservative imperatives call for sex positivity?

By Reed E. McConnell

As you might know, this past week was Sex Week. Harvard College Munch hosted events. Free vibrators abounded. But this past week was also “White Ribbon Against Pornography Week,” a series of events hosted by—among others—the Anscombe Society. WRAP week was seemingly planned as a sort of protest of Sex Week, an “alternative” to it, and included events with titles such as “Collateral Damage: How Pornography Affects Women” and “Hookup Culture: Slavery or Freedom?” Beyond the highly offensive terminology of these titles, they underline the Anscombe Society’s long and strange history of pretending that it is fundamentally acting in women’s interests.

Back when I was a first-year student and it was still called “True Love Revolution,” I remember being drawn to a table at the activities fair with a sign that promised “true feminism!” and then jetting away like a speed demon once I was informed that “true feminism” involved lots of abstinence and probably housework. The group has continued, over the years, to speak out against abortion availability, deny that genderqueer people exist, and bring speakers to campus to bemoan the evils of hook-up culture, all under the guise of “women’s rights.”

So their choice of pornography as a topic for a week-long event does not seem surprising: an opposition to pornography is often espoused in feminist circles, and the desire to paint various kinds of sex workers as victims and only victims is something that is present both on the left and on the right. And from liberal Nicholas D. Kristof ’81’s New York Times column that explores the evils of sex trafficking (not to say that this isn’t an awful reality that needs to be addressed) to right-wing depictions of the sex-worker-as-victim, popular discussions of sex work are very one-sided and tend to deny sex workers across the board—be they prostitutes or porn stars—any agency. In reality, there are, of course, porn stars happy with what they do. Pornography is a fascinating issue to discuss, but it cannot be productively discussed if we write it off as evil from the start.

So WRAP Week, with its pat regurgitations of conservative norms, makes all too clear the fact that the need for nuanced discussion around issues like pornography and sex is real. And though I do think that Sex Week provides a necessary pushback against such conservatism, I am interested in questioning the way that it pushes back, and in examining the sex positivity that pervades the entire week.

The question of sex positivity has a fraught history within feminist and queer movements. For decades, the political left and many strains of feminism in particular have adhered fast to a certain discourse: Our sexualities as women and queer individuals are repressed, and we need to free them. Furthermore, sexuality is a part of every person’s identity, and it holds a certain truth about us that we must reconcile ourselves with in order to be our fullest selves. With this sort of discourse, however, often comes certain imperatives—you must want to talk about sex; if you are uncomfortable talking about sex or listening to others talk about sex, your discomfort is a useful and productive kind of discomfort, and it should teach you to change your ways.

I would argue that this is not necessarily a useful sort of discomfort, and that aiming toward a world where everyone is completely comfortable talking about sex isn’t necessarily an essential or important goal. Aversions to discussing sex can indeed be heavily colored by homophobia, misogyny, and other sorts of oppressive ways of approaching the world, and these cases are, of course, political and legitimate sites for change-making.

But for some, talking about sex—across the board, no matter the form, no matter the iteration—just makes them uncomfortable, and no one has the right to tell those people that this is not okay, or that it’s something they have to work on. For some survivors of sexual assault, being expected to talk about and be deeply comfortable with issues surrounding sex can be alienating and triggering. Sex-positive doctrines also punish and goad people who are uncomfortable talking about sex for religious reasons. And then there are those for whom sex is relatively unrelated to their personal conceptions of themselves, and talking about sex is not a site of liberation, usefulness, or interest.

So as much as WRAP clearly requires a response and a pushback, I find myself surprised to be saying that I think Sex Week might need a pushback, too—to a much, much smaller degree, of course, and coming from a very different direction. We need to think critically about the usefulness of discomfort, and the relationship between the personal and political dimensions of talking about sex. Attending Sex Week events was entirely optional, but the sort of unflagging sex positivity that pervaded the week is definitely not optional in many feminist and left-of-center circles—and we certainly shouldn’t let WRAP Week be the alternative for those made uncomfortable by the giant vagina outside the science center.

Reed E. McConnell ’15 is a Social Anthropology and Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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