Some of us are already battling people who want to ‘rescue’ us. Putting emphasis on sex in liberation movements ignores that we all have different relationships with it
The message that you can’t have women’s liberation without sexual liberation is practically forced down women’s throats by society, patronising men and even feminists these days. But what was originally meant to give women space for political liberation, has transformed into a marketable capitalist venture that utterly ignores intersectionality. For sex workers and Muslim women, the concept of sexual liberation is much more complex.
Modern-day sex positivity feminism manifests right now in fashion, art, film and TV shows, more than anything else. But the issue with sexuality-centred feminism as a tool for liberation is that it doesn’t entirely engage with the variety of understandings and body relationships women have towards sex and sexuality. Sex positivity feminism affirms that consensual activities are “fundamentally healthy and pleasurable”. But framing sexual pleasure as central to feminism denies entire classes of women their own experiences, thereby erasing their narratives and understandings of sex.
So, what of those who do have regular, consensual sex as part of their jobs? Sex workers often care little about the liberal imagination of sex positivity. It’s work. To view sex solely as enjoyment and for pleasure is to thoroughly disregard labour politics – it discredits sex for work rather than just for pleasure, and by extension, narrowly defines politics of pleasure that leaves no room for relationships with sex to be redefined.
Recognising valid consensual activities as a spectrum from “yes, of course, I’d love to do that!” to “eh, I’ll do it, but I’m not that thrilled just so you know” is a better means of acknowledging the more vibrant range of women’s sexual agency and autonomy. Giving consent without enthusiasm or a degree of eagerness does not automatically mean that it’s suddenly invalid or inauthentic.
Just like service staffs, and just like any other worker, sex workers shouldn’t be expected to wholly enjoy and be pleasured by every encounter. They shouldn’t be met with “you’re trafficked!” when they don’t enjoy it either. The point is: why should I be enthusiastic about something that could potentially just be mediocre? This is where our body politics have to be critically re-evaluated – sex-positive feminism doesn’t fully act in service for workers in the industry.
Thinking about sex positivity and politics of sexual liberation – it doesn’t even fully benefit women who occupy more than one marginal space at the same time, does it?
From the burka to the burkini, any article of clothing Muslim women choose to put on while simply trying to exist become hyper-politicised symbols. In the eyes of this arguably colonial feminism, the mere prospect of being a Muslim woman is often equated with oppression. Liberal-minded activists, thanks to Islamophobic tropes, perceive Muslim women as people without sexual control. It’s no surprise then, that in an attempt for liberal feminists to “free” Muslim women, Muslim women are expected to showcase their sexuality. It’s a conversation that plays directly into an Orientalist framework – one which spotlights western feminism’s binary of being suppressed and in need of emancipation.
The assertion on sexual liberation and the freedom to have sex emboldens exclusionary feminism to fit into capitalist society – the very society from which it emerged. Avid consumption of sex was the basis of the hit Netflix’s series Sex Education. With one swoop of a digital eraser, there are already attempts to position the show as “the inclusive, feminist show you need to watch” – erasing many very real experiences of young Muslims (especially young Muslim women) who reject the premise that casual, sexual pleasure has to be the centrepiece for social freedom.
The whole emphasis on sex and sexualisation in liberation movements allows the taming of radical feminism. We see it among feminist groups like Femen and many other spaces. Just two weeks ago, during a World Hijab Day conference in Sweden, a British Muslim woman presenter – one of the panelists at the conference – was targeted by a bunch of anti-hijab protestors who spoke against the hijab, regarding it as a symbol of oppression and sexism. In reality, it was an Islamophobic attack against a Muslim woman who chose to exercise her basic right to wear the hijab. Put simply, women who wish to wear things that have personal significance to them should not only be free to do so, they should have that choice respected. It’s not that hard to swallow.
You can’t conveniently fail to take the culture, class, race, and gender of people into consideration when the point of intersectional feminist liberation is to speak to the unique needs and vulnerabilities of all women, especially those who are already battling stigma and fighting against those wanting to “rescue” them. These women don’t need capitalistic gendered structures where “sex positivity” can be weaponised against them.
Our public conversations about these nuances and talks of consent, sex, and sexuality, certainly need more reworking and calibration, with a couple touches of sensitivity. And surely, sex workers and Muslim women can help to lead some of them.