Words: they’re important

(via dannipenguin at Flickr)

Ozy Frantz’ recent post on the issues with the term “sex-positivity” made me think about the ways in political movements sometimes use language in an interesting way: instead of using words that accurately represent their ideals or goals, the chosen words are actually perfectly chosen to be in complete opposition to the cultural forces that they are combating.

Sex-positivity (so called to combat sex-negativity, or the clandestineness and dirtiness with which sex is often treated in North American society) is only one example of this.

I sometimes feel the same way about LGBTQ pride. Being queer is just a thing that you are, and not something to strive for or take pride in. Really, the ultimate goal of most LGBTQ activists is really just for sexual orientation to be a value-neutral characteristic that people have. So why “Pride”? Well, there’s a couple of ways of looking at it.

The way I explained it to my mother when she got all upset the first time I went to a pride parade (“It’s not something to be proud of”) was that the point is “I’m [insert brand of queerness here], and I’m proud of who I am”. And I think this is sometimes the message that pride demonstrations get across.

But more often than not, the real message is “I am queer, and I am not ashamed“. It’s pretty clear that this is the message that anti-LGBTQ groups take from pride demonstrations, who like to describe the celebrations in terms of their unabashedness or shamelessness. These aspects of Pride bother hate groups because their power depends on queerness being a shameful thing; they depend on queer people’s fear of being open in order to keep up the idea that queer people are a mysterious, insidious evil that hides in the shadows and infects children, or whatever it is that they say to scare people into agreeing with them.

In fact, Pride demonstrations were originally created to combat this very kind of control. At their inception, they were intended to combat gay shaming tactics. So, while the real goal is to eliminate the shame, rather than create artificial pride in queerness (and an implicit devaluing of heteronormativity, when heteronormativitiy is only a negative thing when it’s held up as an ideal, or the right way to be), “Gay Pride Parade” has much more rhetorical power than “Gay Not Ashamed Parade”, and is a much more positive statement of opposition to the LGBTQ shame squads.

The same sort of argument doesn’t quite work for sex-positivity, though. Because by and large, the people who get labeled as sex-negative aren’t people who actually say “sex is bad”; their message is more akin to “sex is a wonderful, beautiful gift from some sort of deity, but only if it is practiced within a certain very narrow context and/or in these particular ways and for these particular purposes“. They don’t hate sex; they hate “bad” sex. So the sex-positive movement hasn’t just constructed a rhetorical position in opposition to the messaging of the cultural forces they’re combating – they’ve also rhetorically constructed sex-negativity so that they would have something to directly oppose. The reasons that I am less comfortable with identifying as sex-positive (which are the same as Ozy’s reasons) than I am identifying with queer pride as because the language of sex-positivity is a few steps more rhetorically removed from the actual intent of the movement.

Sex-positivity is easier to misinterpret than gay pride, and even if people do see the rhetoric of gay pride as suggesting that gay people are better than straight people, I don’t see what great harm can come of that, other than some straight people kind of wanting to be gay. But really, they’ll have the support of all their straight family and friends, and I’m sure they’ll be able to get through that tough time in their lives and somehow, some way, find a path to fulfilling straight existence. I’m sure there are some role models out there somewhere.

Sex-positivity, on the other hand, runs the risk of sending the message that sex is inherently good, and that turning down sex is bad. This is a very real problem for asexuals (who don’t have role models for fulfilling lives to the same extent that woebegone straight people do), or for anyone else who has ever not been in the mood.

The rhetorical construct of sex-positivity is more akin to pro-choice/pro-life rhetoric; since each side falsely presents their opponents as anti- whatever they claim to be pro- (though I feel like anti-life is more disingenuous than anti-choice), both sides have pulled the trick of rhetorically constructing both sides of the argument in their own way, whereas with gay pride, the movement is set up against the actual stated rhetoric of the haters.

So, how do we fix it, then?

Planned Parenthood is moving away from using “pro-choice” rhetoric in favour of talking about “reproductive justice”. The main reason for this – that it removes the binary nature of the argument and allows for their to be a spectrum of perspectives; “reproductive justice” is what anyone with any opinion on abortion is seeking, in their own way – is solid. And I like it a lot.

Rebranding any political or activist position or debate can be very powerful, and I think this is something that needs to be done for sex-positivity. Because what the sex-positivity movement wants isn’t for everyone to think that all sex is awesome all the time; it’s something more like the gay pride movement, about removing the stigma around many sexual activities, and making sexual preferences a value-neutral trait.

So what can we call that, and celebrate the true diversity of human sexuality without alienating or erasing the people who simply don’t like sex, or who only like certain things and feel like they aren’t adequately “sex-positive”?

I lean toward “Sexual freedom”, which at least rhetorically contains the concept of freedom from sex (or any kind of sex you want to be free from), as well as the freedom to have whatever sex you enjoy. But I don’t know. There might be something better.


      1. :D

        I don’t know if it really fits the rhetoric the way you’ve described above, but it does sound impressive. Although, as I said on Ozy’s blog, maybe “sex acceptance culture” fits better?

      2. I was actually going to say that I think it fits the rhetoric just as well – justice is broad enough that it contains room for messages beyond “sex is awesome”. It’s the idea of everyone being treated well and respected; whether they like “deviant” sex, or don’t want to have sex doesn’t matter.

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