Liberate Your Ass: Why Sexual Freedom Is Key To Fighting The Right

It’s hardly news that neo-conservative groups are waging a war on sex. But it’s often a surprise to me how rarely progressive movements integrate sexuality issues into their efforts. In my view, there is no freedom without sexual freedom. On June 7, I’m speaking on a panel at Netroots Nation: Liberate Your Ass: Why Sexual Freedom Is Key To Fighting The Right. I’m told that this is the first time that this particular topic has been presented at this event, which is in its 7th year. While I’m glad to see movement towards including issues of sexual justice, I’m surprised that it took this long, since the links between sexuality and social justice seem so clear to me.

For example, one connection between the two is the way in which groups that are seen as threats become hypersexualized. The myth of black men being sexually uncontrolled and raping white women is one example of that, and black men have been attacked (both figuratively and literally) as a result. Similar claims were made against the Chinese in the US during the 19th century and against Jews in Nazi Germany. And lest you think this is anything new, the same tactics were used against women, Jews, and Muslims in medieval Europe. Linking racism and sexual fears makes it harder to fight either one since as soon as we focus on one issue, the other rears its head.

At the same time, many other groups are desexualized and their sexual agency is stripped away. For example, disabled people are often seen as non-sexual or have their sexual choices taken away. When we refuse to see sexual desire as a right, or when we decide that some people don’t deserve it, we infantilize them and reinforce the structures of inequality.

And then, of course, some groups are hit with it from both sides. Women are slut-shamed and prude-shamed, often at the same time. The virgin/whore dichotomy is rooted in sex-negativity and fear, and until we can let go of judging women for the number of sexual partners they’ve had (whether it’s 0, 5, 50, 500, or more), we’ll never end sexism.

Whether a group is seen as a sexual threat, desexualized, or shamed, the common thread is that their sexuality is not their own. In the minds of the oppressors, it becomes distorted in order to justify the structures of violence and shame that reify and reinforce inequality. If we’re going to change those patterns, we need to stop allowing our perceptions and understandings of sex to be used like that.

Another way in which sexual freedom and social justice are linked is that gender and sexual minorities are attacked specifically because of their sexualities. How much homophobia would there be if people didn’t freak out about sex between folks of the same gender? What if we could make room for sexual diversity without feeling threatened by it? When we can’t see beyond our internalized erotophobia, we’re much more likely to see people whose sexual and gender expressions are different as dangerous because we get triggered by them. When we can move past that, we can honor and celebrate those differences. Until and unless we can take that step, we risk recreating the Myth of the Normal, which justifies the violence against gender and sexual minorities.

It’s been said many times that no oppression exists in a vacuum and that if we want to address one of them, we need to address all of them. I most definitely agree with that. That means that we need to be willing to look at the sexual components of each of them, as well as the ways in which sexuality is controlled and warped by shaming and violence. But more than that, we need to look at how our own sexualities are shaped by those dynamics and our personal experiences, as well as how we project our triggers, fears, and anxieties onto others (and the Other). If you want to see true justice and equality in the world, a good place to start is inside your own head and heart.

I think that one way to do that is to shift the way we think about sex. My belief is that the only relevant measure of a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who do it or are affected by it. That still leaves plenty of room for conversation about how we each define those components and how we act. But that starting point allows us to discover our individual sexualities with increased freedom. It also gives us much more space for people whose sexual relationships and practices are different from our own. And it makes us less likely to fall into the pattern of allowing sex to justify violence and oppression.

There is no freedom without sexual freedom. If our goals for a healthy society don’t include pleasure, sexual agency, diversity, and joy, we’re not moving towards a better world. Emma Goldman once said:

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

Or to rephrase the apocryphal version of her sentiment, if I can’t fuck, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

If you’re attending Netroots Nation, I’ll be speaking with Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, Elisabeth Fernandez-Kimmel, Kierra Johnson, Favianna Rodriguez, and William Winters on June 7 at 3 pm. Check out the event listing for details or more information about the speakers. You can also follow the #NN12 hashtag on twitter for live updates. Come join us!

One Response so far.

  1. Kelev says:

    Amen! I completely agree with all the points you made. That is also why I oppose routine infant circumcision — both male and female. Circumcision represents many of the things you indict in the war on sexuality.

    Circumcision is premised on the myth of the “normal”, that foreskins are “abnormal”, “ugly”, “unhealthy”, or “unclean.” Nothing could be further than the truth. The vast majority of men on the planet are intact, and the “health problems” that circumcision supposedly prevents are actually more common in cultures that practice circumcision.

    Circumcision of infants is also a violation of their consent and bodily integrity. The ONLY person who should ever have a say in what happens to their genitalia is the is the person whose body is in question. No parent, doctor, or religious authority has a right to cut an unconsenting child’s genitals for the sake of aesthetics, religion, or bogus “health benefits.” Unless surgery is immediately necessary, no child should undergo plastic surgery.

    Finally, circumcision is a violent physical act that represents thousands of years of shame surrounding sexuality and a desire to diminish sexual pleasure due to that shame. Ancient religious promoters of circumcision along with their later medieval and Victorian counterparts advanced circumcision precisely because it decreases pleasure for males and their partners. Sex was (and still is) seen as “sinful” so scarring boys for life was justified as a way to decrease pleasure and protect against “sin.”

    Like so many of the injustices perpetrated in the war against sexuality and pleasure, future generation will look back on us one day and wonder how we ever put up with these crimes against humanity. Many of us already ask that question.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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