Sex positivism and slut-shaming in reverse

// 16 August 2012

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This is a guest post by Louise McCudden. Lou lives in London, and blogs at Left Eye Right Eye, where, depending on her mood, she either writes calm, balanced objective blogs about UK politics, or else rants about sexism, homophobia, mental health, welfare reform, and human rights. She tweets as @LouMcCudden.

Content note: This post mentions rape, violent/rape porn and sexual exploitation and abuse.

 The rejection of slut-shaming and the reclaiming of “slut” to mean “sex positive” is a definite notch on the bedpost (sorry) for feminism. But with it, something dangerous is happening. The sexists have got a bit clever with us. And their tactics are working. They have a new way of guilt-tripping women out of the right to sexual autonomy – and, ironically, they’re using our own rejection of slut-shaming to do it. More and more, we’re stumbling into a kind of slut-shaming in reverse.

When questions about the ethics of porn and prostitution get dismissed as sex-hate or conservatism, perhaps it’s a genuine misunderstanding, but I’m reaching the point where I’m done tiptoeing around those who enjoy hate porn, when they have such little respect for how it makes me feel. Debate after debate gets hijacked by people who claim sex positivity because they fuck a lot or watch porn. This might be tolerable if they didn’t bring with it an inability to differentiate between sex positivism, and never saying no.

The cognitive dissonance employed when it comes to sex is enormous. We know sex trafficking is wrong. Yet, Brits go on stag dos abroad in huge numbers and sleep with trafficked women and girls. We know drugged “consent” is neither informed nor enthusiastic. But thousands download drugged women being penetrated, for personal pleasure. We know rape is horrific – but entire genres of porn use it for sexual entertainment. (Personally I think if you’re a porn director and can only come up with one way to show sex, you’re in the wrong line of work, but that’s just me.)

Those who have a clear conscience indulging in any or all of the above largely have our relentlessly hyper-sexualised, sex negative culture to thank for it. Myths have been telling them “it’s not rape if…” for years. Even the Justice Secretary thinks “classic rape” is “where someone jumps out from a bush.”

Let’s get a couple of things straight. Firstly, rape isn’t edgy. It’s one of the most old-fashioned things in the world. If rape turns you on, that’s insulting enough; don’t be proud of yourself for it by pretending it makes you an open-minded liberal. It’s more likely it makes you a conservative prude who only relates to sex in its most clichéd, non-challenging, non-threatening form.

Secondly, just because an act of violence happens to involve genitals and you like it, that doesn’t make it a sex positive thing. If the difference between using your penis to degrade a woman for your own arousal, and two people enjoying sex together for mutual enjoyment, is confusing to you, then it is most definitely not others who have a negative attitude to sex.

Thirdly, consent is not some technicality, and morality is about more than avoiding a prison sentence. If someone lacks the physical ability, or luxury of circumstance, to say no to a sexual activity, how is it a choice when they say yes to it?

Something weird happens to our understanding of freedom when there are orgasms at stake. People who would never celebrate a woman’s “choice” to stay in an abusive relationship because of financial dependency, or assume a drugged up person is consenting because they’re quiet, refuse to acknowledge that some of the sex workers they use or watch have exactly the same reality of “choice”.

It’s not just men. I’ve lost count of the number of women bragging about how liberated they are because they have no moral questions about this. And that helps others get away with calling us anti-choice for making sure people have a choice about their lives; anti-sex for thinking that sex should be fun. Is our culture so sex negative that people genuinely cannot differentiate being anti-violence, and anti-sex?

This may hurt the egos of the self-styled defenders of all things pornographic, but I don’t think they’re liberals at all. I’m not sure they even like sex much. When you nudge around the edges, they repeatedly show themselves as nothing but regressive conservatives. After all, how else could anyone differentiate so easily between the treatment of women who have sex for money, and the treatment of women who don’t?

So nice try, but we’re not fooled. It’s the virgin-whore dichotomy, where humanity doesn’t translate from your mother or sister to a woman who is a sex thing. This celebration of women’s right to get donkey punched on drugs is nothing more than telling women when we are allowed to say yes and when we are allowed to say no, then amending the levels of respect we deserve accordingly.

No genuine liberal would shame or guilt women for expressing an opinion about ethical boundaries as sex-haters. They might as well go all out and just call us unnatural or unwomanly. So, sorry if we offend you, but we will keep calling out that cowardly silencing tactic for what it is: boring, puritanical slut-shaming.

Photo of a placard at SlutWalk London that reads “This virgin/whore dichotomy is getting pretty fucking old” by msmornington, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Rose // Posted 16 August 2012 at 12:59 pm

Totally agree.

I consider myself a very sex-positive person. In my opinion, if everybody involved in a sex act isn’t having a whole lotta fun – something has gone seriously wrong.

I consider unwanted sexuality being forced on someone to be utterly toxic. I could never engage sexually with someone that didn’t freely, openly, and ‘really’ want it, (that means a big NO to porn, my sexuality is shared with people I meet, not pictures of strangers – how is there moment-by-moment consent if theres no interaction?).

It continues to shock me how many people seem to think that sex-positive, (or, indeed, bisexual), means ‘will screw anybody, any time, on demand’. Completely ignoring issues of interest, attraction, ‘likes’, respect, being busy having my own life and not just being a passing tool…. etc.

sianmarie // Posted 16 August 2012 at 1:09 pm

thank you so much for writing this. i totally agree.

I believe i’m an anti sex industry, sex positive feminist, because i don’t believe violent p0rn, trafficking and violence within prostitution is liberation or empowering.

And yes to this:

“If rape turns you on, that’s insulting enough; don’t be proud of yourself for it by pretending it makes you an open-minded liberal. It’s more likely it makes you a conservative prude who only relates to sex in its most clichéd, non-challenging, non-threatening form.’

It’s like how i always say there’s not many things more prudish than Page 3 – a one dimensional, one directional view of women’s sexuality!

The Goldfish // Posted 16 August 2012 at 3:21 pm

Thank you Louise, for writing this. As a younger feminist, I struggled so much with this, having a powerful libido which sex-positivity says is perfectly okay, believing in the liberal values of freedom of expression and sexual freedom, but feeling so very uncomfortable about a lot of porn and sex work which appeared to involve at the very least, a degree of pressure that seemed completely incompatible with the “everyone’s having a good time, making money doing something they love” perspective I had been sold.

One of the reasons was that I struggled so much with this was the virgin/ whore dichotomy; I felt I had the strongest sex drive of anyone on Earth, I am pansexual and spent years feeling very guilty about my ladylust, only to find acceptance for that stuff among people who went on to say, “So you must love enjoy any sexual activity I can dream up, and you must love watching the kind of porn I’m into, and you must be desperate to have a threesome with me and some other random person I fancy!”

I love food, and it is a source of tremendous sensual and social pleasure in my life. But my love of food makes me more thoughtful and discriminating about what I eat, not less so. My love of food makes me interested in what I eat and whether the people, animals and environmental resources that brought it to my plate have been treated decently. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t assume the same about the enjoyment of sex.

Louise McCudden // Posted 16 August 2012 at 4:50 pm

“I love food, and it is a source of tremendous sensual and social pleasure in my life. But my love of food makes me more thoughtful and discriminating about what I eat, not less so. My love of food makes me interested in what I eat and whether the people, animals and environmental resources that brought it to my plate have been treated decently. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t assume the same about the enjoyment of sex.”

Brilliant analogy :)

slightlyodd // Posted 16 August 2012 at 7:36 pm

This, so much. I’m absolutely sex positive, but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine sex and sexuality in a critical way. And, although in theory I don’t think porn/sex work are inherently antithetical to the concept of enthusiastic consent, the way those industries operate in practise very much is. Sex work especially is also deeply tied up with other issues such as class – a middle class Belle du Jour type has a hell of a lot more choice than someone who’s below the poverty line/suffering from an addiction. And the thing is, the way the system operates is absolutely shitty and misogynist, but criticising that system is in no way shaming individual sex workers (any more than, say, critiquing patriarchal attitudes to body hair is shaming indivual women who shave). To me, being sex positive by necessity means aiming to make sure no one is ever coerced into doing anything they don’t want to – whether that’s by rape, or financial circumstances, or a male dominated porn industry.

Speaking of the porn industry – this whole attitude among people who claim to be sex positive that if it turns someone on it should be above criticism, and any criticism is kink shaming, pisses me off. Consensual BDSM where the partners involved respect each other, and discuss boundaries and safewords beforehand, is one thing – porn where none of that’s shown, and what the viewer sees could be a genuine rape is quite another. The media we consume – including porn – affects the way we think so much more than we’re aware, and anyone who regularly watches things where consent is ignored and women are objects is going to have their attitudes to women and consent affected, regardless of their consciously held views.

Thing is, we live in a misogynistic society, and everything is affected by that. Nothing should be exempt from being examined critically – but that isn’t remotely the same thing as slut shaming or kink shaming.

Michael // Posted 21 August 2012 at 6:41 am

I stumbled on this discussion and was blown away.

For what it’s worth, I think that the legal and ethical framework for debating porn is seriously flawed. Copulating couples (or whatever number you want to come up with) is not immoral or unethical. The four things that I judge material to be pornographic or not are (a) informed consent, (b) harm, (c) where there is a promise of a benefit then that benefit is provided and (d) legality. Which unfortunately takes me into ever greying shades of ethical dilemma.

How much does a person need to know to make informed consent? The producers of the content probably don’t even know how the material will be cut and pasted and reproduced. Can a person with a serious mental illness give informed consent (I’m somewhat bi-polar and would like to rule myself out from time to time for making any decision – but I don’t want others to do that to me).

Harm? Harm to whom? The cast, the audience or some vague notion of the public good? And who decides and on what criteria? There is always someone who will feel harmed by any decision- an infringement of their right to express themselves or an invasion of their sheltered world free of phallic symbols and heavy breathing.

Benefit. Most of the time people do things because they think it will make something better – their life, the welfare of their friends and families, the environment… whatever. I suspect that a lot of the ‘revenge’ media involves women (mostly) pleasing a guy (mostly) because of some mistaken belief that indulging his desires will lead to some form of commitment. Or if they’re doing it for money, did they get paid. I reckon that there are a lot of broken promises in the porn industry.

And the law. What happens when the law is inadequate or excessive? How do we respond to a jurisprudence that is inherently flawed?

Rather than attacking the ambiguous creature called ‘porn’ I think that we would be better served by ethical and legal debates that explicitly address the questions of informed consent, harm, and honouring of benefit.

Anyway, thats my rant and (with luck) I plan on writing a book on the topic over the next year. If it is OK with the hosts of this site then I’d invite people to visit me at (but also I understand that you don’t want to have your site as a staging post for others’ web sites).


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