"What remains to be developed is a view of sexuality that allows for the possibility of feminist change, even before the overthrow of the patriarchy." -Wendy Stock
I believe that both the anti-porn and sex-positive movements have made efforts to make egalitarian or feminist sex possible, but both have fallen short in figuring out what that is and how to make it happen.
The anti-pornography activists have attempted to criticize and undermine the current modes of sex to make way for a healthier kind of sex. However, they’ve come just short of saying what this new sexuality would be.
The sex-positive feminists have suggested that consent, self-knowledge, and mutual respect are necessary for a healthy sexuality, but they have not related these feminist ideals to the lack of them in popular culture (porn and film, books, news, etc). I see these as two sides of a single argument that have simply failed, as of yet, to meet in the middle.
So let's look at what egalitarian sex could be.
In order for egalitarian sex to happen, both partners must have equal value in the relationship. Their feelings, thoughts, desires, and sensations must have equal importance. Their orgasms must have equal importance.
They must both have the right to say yes and no to sexual acts. This consent should not come just from one partner striving to “get” something and the other giving in. They should each have an investment in the other’s pleasure and happiness, and in their shared positive experience.
Within these parameters, however, the sex itself could look like anything. If two heterosexuals were both interested in, for instance, an S&M scene where the woman hits the man with a paddle and tells him he’s been bad, that sex act could happen, but with certain prerequisites.
They would need to talk about it beforehand, share with each other what they wanted to do and find out if there was a mutual interest. They would need to negotiate specifically what was to happen. They would need to have some contingency for either partner changing his or her mind midway through the act, like a safe word. They would need to periodically check in with each other to make sure they’re both enjoying what’s happening.
The S&M community has actually made a great contribution to this dialogue about egalitarian sex, encouraging careful negotiation, mutual respect and caring, continued consent, and concern for psychological well-being. Kink.com, easily the foremost producer of BDSM pornography, has some of the most rigorous filming guidelines for directors that I’ve seen.
In addition to several rules outlining exactly what constitutes consent and ensuring that the models continue to have it throughout every scene, they require an interview with the submissive partner at the beginning of each film. In this interview he/she is asked about how he/she feels about what’s about to happen and asked to consent to it. This consent is shown (for once) not just to the authorities, but to the viewers.
So long as a mutual respect and care for another's well-being is present and all partners have the opportunity to state their desires and to say no to sex, even extreme BDSM porn and sex can be egalitarian.
Although it involves a narrative of submission and dominance, the sex act described above (with the paddle and the discussion) does not harm either participant. It is not predicated on an assumption of male privilege. If there are gender dynamics at play, they can and should be discussed and addressed as part of the negotiation over sex.
And gender dynamics will play a part in sex. Nobody is suggesting that we can banish patriarchy tomorrow. Until it is fully gone, of course it will affect our desires and the ways we act on them.
I frankly see nothing wrong with a conscious and open exploration of eroticizing the patriarchal patterns that oppress us. Taking a pattern in life (say, for instance, the systematic domination of women by men) and turning it into something erotic can be a way of psychologically controlling it, of regaining power over it until you are able to live with it without fear.
I don’t think we can suggest that people shouldn’t do this. It can be a very powerful psychological tool when done, as mentioned, carefully and consciously. I don’t buy the idea that eroticizing something automatically means you don’t question it.
That would suggest, as Catharine MacKinnon dismisses, the idea that “having sex is antithetical to thinking.” (MacKinnon, 17) I think anything we do without question is likely to be a problem, and understanding things as erotic is just another thing we can choose to question.
Cross-posted at Paper Cuts and Plastic.