Bed, Bitch & Beyond: No Sex, Please, We're Sex-Positive Feminists


I wanted to let readers get the last word on the “Is No Sex Sex-Positive” post–between Bitch, Facebook, Harpyness and e-mails I received, it was clear that everyone had an opinion about not having sex, and why/whether conscious celibacy is an inherently feminist or sex-positive decision. Once again, people thought of aspects to the debate that I hadn’t, including discussion of non-intercourse sex acts and asexuality.

There was much back-and-forth over what constituted “sex” and “being sexual.” What about all that fun non-penetrative stuff? Are you really celibate if you’re giving/receiving oral sex? How about mutual masturbation? Not only do those things carry little to no risk of STI transmission or pregnancy, but a couple commenters made the point that they tend to be underappreciated over once hetero couples move on to p-in-v intercourse.

There is a whole range of things you can do that have much lower risks of STI’s (because almost nothing is 100% absolute) and no risk of pregnancy and can allow you to express yourself sexually with someone else without the possible consequences of sex. We skip over this whole phase of the relationship once we started having sex, and frankly, that sucks.

I decided for a while to stop having penetrative sex, and discussed it with my gay male roommate, who had an HIV positive partner. We talked about how much fun our “no sex” sex lives were. We had to be so much more creative, and we ended our nights sweaty, exhausted and satisfied. Where are these nights in those STI prevention talks and those wait until marriage lectures?

This reminded me of an awkward but useful conversation with my own mother, when I was a high school sophomore. When discussing sex and boys, MamaSharper counseled me that sex is risky but “hands are fun.” At the time I remember turning red and thinking “OMG, my mom just told me it’s okay to get fingerbanged!” But in retrospect, it was some good advice. I wish some of the “abstinence only” dictators would encourage safe, non-penetrative sexual exploring, but I’m not holding my breath; their problem seems to be with any and all expressions of normal sexual urges and curiosity.
Another commenter pointed out that our own hands (or a vibrator or cucumber or pulsing showerhead) can be fun–and sex-positive– too:

I would also like to bring up the question whether some people’s views of celibacy includes masturbation or not. I think a healthy body image and self exploration is a necessary for women who want to be informed and enjoy their sexuality, and i’ve just wondered at the amount of celibate or proclaimed abstinent people that masturbate. Exploring your sexuality and embracing it, whether or not you’re having it with a partner, is definitely a part of the sex positive feminist movement right?

I am 1000% in agreement on this. As I said in the post, my own experiences with masturbation were a big part of the reason I approached penetrative sex with a positive, but unhurried attitude. I think that if you enjoy and appreciate your own body, you have a knowledge and confidence about your sexuality that benefits you in all kinds of ways, whether you’re having partnered sex or not.

When former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was asked if promoting masturbation might be a good way to discourage riskier forms of sexual activity, she said, “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

Obviously, she didn’t mean that every student would get a vibrator and circle jerk with it in health class. But of course, some people interpreted it that way. The right wing lost its shit and Dr. Elders lost her job, which was a damn shame, because she was absolutely right in her thinking. Masturbation is a healthy part of human sexuality, and should be included in any discussion of sexual behavior, both for the celibate and the sexually active.

Another commenter pointed out that the post didn’t address the issue of asexuality, i.e. women who do not experience sexual attraction or urges:

I am asexual and I do not believe that asexuality is abstinence, because (generally speaking) abstinence is refraining from indulging one’s desire for sex - and if one doesn’t have that desire in the first place…I just don’t see it as the same thing and I don’t like unnecessarily equating the two A-words when the “abstinence” one comes loaded with negative connotations.

Asexuality is distinct from abstinence/conscious celibacy, and asexuals fall into a separate category from the sexually active or the consciously celibate. Another commenter explained:

[Asexuality] doesn’t mean that they condemn sex or judge or shame other people who have sex – they may even encourage other people to go out, have fun, and safely fuck their brains out if they want to – it just means that they’re personally not interested in having sex. I’m not going to call them sex-negative for that.

Neither should we. Regardless of one’s reasons for not having sex, the consensus seemed to be that you could be “sex positive” regardless of what you do with your genitals:

Sex positivity is, IMHO, about respecting individuals’ autonomy over their own bodies, whether that means choosing to have sex or choosing not to.

And for some people, having that autonomy is a vital part of a healing process that is the essence of feminist empowerment:

I decided that I was not going to fall into the vicious cycle of addiction, abuse and promiscuity present in my family for generations. To complicate matters, I was a closeted lesbian in a society where sexual orientation simply wasn’t discussed. I decided not to have sex at all until I found the person with whom I wanted a committed relationship. For me, the choice *not* to have sex until I met my partner (and even then not right away) was an empowering decision and part of my feminist awakening.

The contrast between the anti-sex, anti-feminist movement and the sex-positive feminist movement seems to come down to–surprise!–privileging and judging women’s sexual behaviors.

I think that [conscious celibacy and sex positivity] are not polar opposites, instead puts the idea of a person’s bodily autonomy and integrity in the forefront of human sexuality and pleasure (regardless of sex and gender)… without privileging one form or type, and othering those do not conform.

I think the last line of that comment is the heart of the matter: our hyper-sexualized society definitely privileges the sexually active and others the conciously celibate. For example, last night while I was zonked on the couch, I watched part of Kourtney and Kloe Kardashian’s (phenomenally shallow and stupid) show, in which they kept pressuring their older sister to drink by chanting “Be a whore, don’t be a bore!” “Whore” was clearly their term for being sexy, cool and fun and OMG, not a prude! It was fucking embarrassing. Problem is, the dumbass Kardashians aren’t the only people who think this way, and frankly, that’s the whole fucking reason we need feminism in the first place–so that we can make decisions about our own bodies without being pushed into them by the wider culture, which in nearly every instance, does not have women’s best interests at heart.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

Thanks so much for this post

Thanks so much for this post and the one before. Hearing from other feminist women that waiting for sex was an empowering decision has made me feel a 100% better about my own decision to whereas I used to feel I was a weirdo for not feeling ready.

Thank you!!!

Thank you so much for these choice-positive posts! It is so relieving and wonderful to hear feminist commentary that is not othering, hurtful, degrading, or judgmental of asexual/consciously celibate/abstinent women from other intelligent, sensitive people! Being an asexual, celibate, or abstinent person does not mean that one is abnormal or unsupportive of other sex-positive people, or that one is not sex positive one's self. I think that it is really important for more people to be educated regarding those facts so as not to consciously or unconsciously alienate their would-be allies, family, and friends.

Thanks again!


am I the only one that considers the acts described above to be sex? Maybe I'm the only queer in the room (who also has "p-in-v" sex sometimes) but I think that mutual masturbation, oral sex, sex with toys...these are all sex acts. This is great to talk about non-penetrative (in the traditional, hetero view) sex as being sex-positive (totally in agreement here) but it's pretty dismissing to consider the rest of those acts as being "no-sex". it's also misleading because those things can actually lead to STI's, even though they have a much lower risk. Talking about them like they aren't even really part of the sex act makes them sound like you don't need to be safe about them and that they aren't still risky. they are sex acts, and as such you need to take the same precautions and doing them still carries the same physical and emotional risks. they still "count"!

Totally agree.

I think the elevation of certain sexual acts above others (usually p-in-v) is really problematic. It all comes back to the question of "What is sex?" I tried to make this point in the last post too: if you and you partner are pleasuring each other, you ARE NOT abstinent. The End. You wouldn't call a sexually active gold-star lesbian a virgin, would you? I sure hope not.

I agree, I think it's

I agree, I think it's important to keep in mind that non p-in-v sex counts. To keep things in context, I think it's also important to keep in mind that we live in a world where some teenagers think having anal sex is a way to preserve their virginity and a world where some prominent lesbians claim that they are virgins because they've never had p-in-v sex. I'm looking at you Suze Orman.

For many people, p-in-v sex does have a special place in straight sex. That's how you make babies. As any 18 year old straight boy will tell you, if girls don't perform that sex act, the human race will go into extinction. I agree that we shouldn't relegate other sex acts to the not sex category. But I don't think talking about the reality that penetrative sex is elevated is tantamount to relegating other sex acts to non sex.

Now, the fact that some girls and women think they haven't had sex if they haven't put a p in their v is an interesting and sticky issue. It's certainly not accurate by a number of definitions, but using a certain narrow, straight kinda male-centric definition, it does make sense. Is it our duty to tell them they're thinking about that a little wrong, or is it their "choice" to be respected?

re: Suze Orman

Ugh, I didn't know she'd said that. Bothers me on so many levels.
I'm a gay woman, certainly not a "virgin" -- and whatever the reason, it's NOT that I had p-in-v before coming out. Nothing seemed less momentous than that.
One of the reasons I have such a problem with the idea of virginity is that my own lost-it age is endlessly debatable. Even before the but-these-aren't-the-parts-I-want! time frame, there was the issue of consent. I know that a lot of feminists don't think violation is sex, and it makes complete sense to me, but I also can't deny that it affected the way I thought of my own sexual experience at the time.
All kind of a tangent, I know, but I do think the ambiguous concept of virginity is relevant to a discussion of abstinence. One way of thinking I find useful is from Laura M. Carpenter's sociological study Virginity Lost: she proposes thinking of virginity in terms of a process if it's to be thought of at all. In other words, its loss is just a step or steps in the process of life. Think of it as a lopsided staircase...not a mountain (heheh.)

Queer comment, and masturbation

kophelia--I'm queer, and I completely agree. But I don't think Bitch is purposefully fetishizing p in v as sex while dismissing everything else as not. Okay, maybe it's an oversight, but I don't think it's intentional. It is, of course, important to be safe no matter what type of sexual activity you practice (and that includes emotional responsibility).

I'm really sad that people like Dr. Elders are silenced when they can only help people to embrace their natural sexual (or asexual, whatever the case may be) desires. I discovered masturbation at a young age, and though I grew up in an open-discussion, sex-positive household, my mom never told me about it. I became convinced that it was a shameful, evil practice and finally broke down in tears 'confessing' years later. My mom was devastated that I'd somehow picked up the notion that masturbation was evil. No one had directly told me. But open discussion should absolutely be prioritized to normalize safe sexual activity. Thanks, Bitch!

It disturbs me that women

It disturbs me that women (or anyone for that matter) should ever feel pressured to be sexually active in any way as a means of showing their sex-positive or feminist identity. By definition, sex-positive feminism is an idea that promotes sexual freedom-- meaning the freedom to abstain if so desired; and negates the patriarchal constructs of sexuality-- in which we often find pressure to be sexual regardless of readiness or desire. Most importantly, sex-positive feminism is meant to respect women's bodies and the right to complete control over what one does with her body, whether that means sex with multiple partners, sex with one's self, or no sex at all.

Nicely put.

The fact that the feminist community even has to use the term "sex-positive" is a subtle constant reminder of what you've stated and why it is disturbing.

I don't mind the topic of sex positivity, but I mind the actual term and what it entails. My own personal feelings say that if we are "doing feminism right", there wouldn't be a need for a term about what we are choosing to do with our sexuality. It isn't the same as "eco-feminism" or even akin to "anti-pornography" feminism. You can be those things and still be sex positive. Being "sex-positive" shouldn't place someone in a special section of the feminist movement.

" case you were wondering!"

I can't help but wonder about a person's perception of feminism when they hasten to label themselves a "sex-positive feminist." I feel like the implication is that just plain feminism is, what, "sex-negative?" Sex-positive should be considered a quality of feminism, not a subcategory.

Thanks for the great post! I

Thanks for the great post! I really enjoyed reading it and totally agree with its every word. Long time ago I realized that absence of "p in v" intercourse in my life doesn't mean not having pleasure at all. I turned my bedroom into a wonderland full of sexual fantasies where I'm the producer authorized to select the cast. Definitely, "no sex please", I mean boring.

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