Salvo 09.29.2021 6 minutes

Real Sex-Positivity Has Never Been Tried

Woman in bed giving thumbs up

A second-wave feminist fails to discern failure

Now that The New York Times has reported what dissident Twitter and writers for The American Mind have known and asserted for many months, maybe it’s official: sex-positive feminism is falling out of fashion

In the article published last week by that title, Michelle Goldberg lays out the scene. The deregulation of sex has made the millennials hookup-rich but relationship-poor. Sex-saturated and intimacy-starved, younger generations own TVs but not homes, so to speak. Young women feel sexually degraded by the culture which “prizes erotic license over empathy and responsibility.” Young men wonder whether sex that is mutually loving is even possible.

Goldberg gives an anodyne description of the philosophy introduced by her generation of feminists, the one that young people now blame for their sexual dissatisfaction: “sex positivity.” In her words, its mission is “to privilege sexual pleasure and fight sexual repression.” 

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Goldberg concludes in response to millennial sadness. She further explains, “Somehow, as sex positivity went mainstream and fused with a culture shaped by pornography, attention to emotion got lost. Sex-positive feminism became a cause of some of the same suffering it was meant to remedy. Perhaps now that the old taboos have fallen, we need new ones. Not against sex, but against callousness and cruelty.”

In other words, real sex positivity—which would ostensibly account for emotion by placing taboos on manners but definitely not sex—has never been tried. According to Goldberg, the problem wasn’t her generation’s aggressive attack on all sexual mores, borders, and distinction, neatly branded “sex-positivity,” nor its failure to specify the terms of its mission (Whose sexual pleasure? Repression of what exactly?)—the problem, instead, is that these poor young people simply aren’t being nice enough to each other between sexual partners. Treating human beings like sex toys is fine, you see, you just have to say please and thank you to each machine before and after use. You’re all still essentially disposable to one another, but the brutality of that fact should be concealed by an endearing smile. 

Goldberg’s conclusions fail to address reality because her priors fail to address reality. The second-waver deludes herself and the world by taking for granted that 1) the emotional response to sex is somehow distinct from the sex itself, and is instead wrapped up in all the other ways that sexual partners treat one another as they dance around it, 2) that men and women have non-distinct sex drives, and that every indistinguishable individual pursuing their own perceived good so long as they do not violate the non-aggression principle (consent) results in some sort of common good, and 3) that sexual repression is invariably bad. 

Of course, in the real world, the interplay of emotion and sex is biologically rooted. Men and women’s distinct tendencies are biologically driven. The inevitable delta between those tendencies, and the drama those emotions can stir, are what make rules, i.e. repression, necessary. Only by dispensing with reality, with biology, can you continue to subscribe to a mission statement like “privilege sexual pleasure and fight sexual repression,” and explain away its failure simply by blaming its victims. Never does it occur to Goldberg that “sex-positivity”—in reality, sex-anarchy—is falling out of fashion because it simply doesn’t work. 

The mainstream response to the generational backlash Goldberg pretends to understand will likely follow her example. That is to say, establishment feminists will not interrogate their assumptions, because doing so would be self-implicating. They will instead broadly blame men’s failure to be more sensitive to women’s sexual dissatisfaction. Never mind that men are harmed by sexual anarchy, too. Despite naming pornography as deeply corrosive to the male psyche, they will only, and very weakly if at all, call for an end to extremely violent porn, and only do so for the sake of women’s sexual pleasure. “More female-directed porn!” they will cry. “More state-sanctioned sensitivity training for boys!” They will determine that if women feel coerced into sex, it is not the fault of media culture which incentivizes and encourages girls to be sexually available from a young age, but instead the fault of the individual man she feels taken advantage of after the fact.

The real answer is that fault for millennials’ neverending cycle of tragic trysts is shared by many parties, the female component included, with the feminist cultural milieu being perhaps most implicated. But for corporate feminist America, its not about specificity or reality. These people, like the architects of the War on Terror, will pull out all the stops to deflect responsibility away from themselves, so that they may continue to exert their will and influence over the culture, despite radical failure. So long as they remain in power, the narrative makers will continue to absolve themselves of the damage they inflicted on younger generations—unless they are explicitly held to account. The cycle won’t break until it’s broken. Young people need alternative answers, an alternative narrative, and an alternative lifescript yesterday

The coming generational backlash may look a few different ways. Explicitly sex-negative movements have already begun to bubble up. In the hyperreal realm of Twitter, that means you get frog Sharia, and you get sex strikes. These over-corrections, right and left, are examples of mutual hatred between men and women, driven apart by the intractable bitterness that a lawless world creates. There may also be a basically sex-neutral movement, a general sense of ambivalence about sex and the opposite sex: sexlessness in response to the current saturation.

No matter the flavor, skepticism should be encouraged. But before we join up with the Junior Anti-Sex League, negative or neutral division, we should exalt the third position, the highest political and spiritual good available to the average person: marriage. 

As the cracks and contradictions of mainstream feminism become increasingly too large to ignore, now is a ripe opportunity for sexual realists, traditionalists, and counter revolutionists to communicate the truth to younger generations: You hurt for good reason. You have been lied to. The feminists lied to you about who you are, the world you live in, the worth of your body, and its purpose. Men and women are fundamentally different creatures with distinct biology. The institution of marriage is preferable to the current chaos.

Goldberg is right about one thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe, just maybe, millennials can be convinced.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Suggested reading from the editors

to the newsletter