Sex Isn’t Sexy, Sex Is Political

Taylor Mulcahey | Outreach Coordinator

My friends roll their eyes. “There she goes. Taylor is talking about sex again.”

It is a common trope that has been used to belittle the actions and goals of the feminist movement for years: the idea that “the modern, liberal feminists psyche has become obsessed with sex,” as one NY Daily News contributor, S.E. Cupp, recently argued. The historical roots of this attitude gained footing in the sexual revolution – or more accurately, the sexual counterrevolution.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s liberation movement came together, amidst social changes like the more widespread availability of the pill, to spark a sexual revolution, or a movement towards sexual liberation. This movement centered on the (then radical) idea that women have sexual desires, and ultimately supported loosening cultural norms around sex and sexuality. Sex became more visible in the public domain as women took to the streets in marches, published books and articles on sexuality that were widely read, and as discussions about abortion and contraceptives appeared in political spheres, including the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.

Such a radical idea could not advance without backlash, and the backlash in the 1970s was part of a long history of religious fundamentalists opposing women’s sexual autonomy. Led by right-wing religious fundamentalists, they shamed supporters of the sexual revolution, calling them promiscuous and arguing that the movement for sexual liberation was an attack on family values. When AIDS became a subject of deep concern, Reverend Jerry Falwell claimed that “AIDS is God’s judgment on a society that does not live by its rules.” Thus fundamentalists argued against women’s sexual autonomy, and by doing so, they pushed women’s voices on sexuality out of public discourse and back into the private sphere.

The regressive rhetoric surrounding the sexual counterrevolution has direct links to the GOP today. The Republican party claims to be the protector of traditional family values, which they interpret to be two parent households headed by those involved in a heterosexual relationship. They reject abortion entirely, and seek to limit access to contraceptives. The language they use to back these claims, such as that used by Hobby Lobby defending their right to deny birth control in their health insurance plans, sounds eerily similar to those opposing the sexual revolution.

They belittle women’s right to sexual autonomy by reducing control over their bodies to a green-light for reckless promiscuity, an idea which they reject on the premise that any sex not in pursuit of their idea of a traditional family is absolutely unacceptable.

In 2014, former Republican presidential candidate and Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee said that Democrats tell women “they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government.

This year was no different; the presidential election was one of the most publicly misogynistic in history. Not only was Secretary Hillary Clinton repeatedly shamed by her opponent and national news media – which was unfortunately expected – but the election sparked new conversations about sex and sexual aggression by electing a president whom numerous women accused of sexual assault.

Feminists might be “sex-obsessed” because sex and sexual aggression are one of the most powerful forms of oppression. Feminism’s focus on discussions of sex and sexuality stem from necessity, not desire.

We, as feminists, talk about sex in order to overturn one of the greatest tools of oppression. The idea that sex belongs in the private sphere, and is inappropriate to talk about in a public arena, is misguided. Ideas about sex play out in the public sphere on a regular basis, and feminists have a responsibility to drive these public discussions, lest they be overshadowed by those who police sexual behavior as a means of maintaining patriarchal public control. The patriarchy depends on the existence of a “private sphere,” and therefore, talking about “private” issues becomes a revolutionary act that challenges the very basis of patriarchal oppression.

When I was in middle school, we were not allowed to show our shoulders because it was distracting to the boys. Our bodies were shameful.

Over 95% of women reported experiencing some form of street harassment in their lifetime. Over 80%  said this came in the form of sexually explicit comments.  

Although one in four women report sexual assault on campus, conservative writer Milo Yiannopolous, who makes appearances to speak at universities, said rape culture is a myth and simply a form of man-hating.

Lessons on sexual consent are never required, and almost completely absent from sexual education.

A stranger tweets back at me a sexual and violent message.

Former Missouri representative, Todd Akin, claimed that pregnancy from rape is near impossible because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

Donald Trump, our future president, is recorded saying he likes to grab women by the pussy.

Sex is not private. It never has been, and it probably never will be. Sexual power dynamics play out in the public sphere on a regular basis. From politicians debating over contraceptive use and doctors treating STD outbreaks, to catcalls on the streets and rapists getting off with light sentences, sex is public. But in each of these examples, sex is being used to make women feel shameful, dirty, unworthy, timid, fearful, and powerless.

Sex is rarely sexy.

Sex is political.

We must stop buying into the idea that sex belongs in the private sphere because when we do, we support patriarchal methods of oppression.

In 1969, second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch wrote, “The personal is political,” in which she argues that personal issues are not personal at all, but rather a result of systematic failure.

This task is on all of us to steer the public discussion of sex and claim it as our own – to wrestle ownership of our sexualities and sexual decisions from the hands of our oppressors. To reclaim our position in the public sphere by removing the methods which seek to convince us that a private sphere exists in which we are supposed to keep the problems that wear us down each and every day.

In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Shereen El Feki discusses her research on sex in the Middle East. She learns that sex is one of the greatest tools of power and domination, but that is can also be a source of liberation.

According to El Feki, “If we do not anchor freedom and justice, dignity and equality, privacy and autonomy in our personal lives, in our sexual lives, we will find it very hard to achieve in public life. The political and the sexual are intimate bedfellows, and that is true for us all, no matter where we live and love.”

This will be our last official article of 2016. Join us in January 2017 for more!