Skepticism and Sex

As I was trolling the internets looking for feministy and skepticy things to read, I ran across an article by Karenx from More Women in Skepticism that suggested that the skeptic movement should be more open to all kinds of feminists (and women), not just sex positive feminists. At first glance, this seems like a great idea. If the skeptic movement wants more women to be involved, they shouldn’t be picky about the kinds of women they want: they should accept all sorts of women, right? It doesn’t help anyone to ONLY allow those people who agree with you in terms of sex and your attitudes towards sex to hang out with you. All of these on some level are grounded in a good, true idea. The skeptic movement has to listen to women instead of telling women what kind of feminism to subscribe to. It can’t be focused on sex all the time and only allow women who are willing to accept porn, prostitution, and have a sex positive attitude because those things are not necessarily relevant to skepticism as a position. But how does sex positivity fit into skeptic beliefs? Is it possible to truly be a skeptic and still have beliefs that shame others about their sexual choices, or to act as if there is one correct way to be sexual? Is it possible that those skeptics who push for sex positivity might be on to something? I’d like to argue that skepticism and sex positivity should go hand in hand, and that anyone who wants to join a skeptic movement should be willing to look at their preconceived notions about sex and rethink them. I think that most often, this will lead to a sex positive feminism.

First, in order to understand why sex positivity and skepticism are complementary, we should come to a basic understanding of what sex positivity is. In the article cited above, the author draws the line between sex positive and sex negative (or normal as she calls them) feminists as follows: “There is lots and lots of overlap between the two groups, but it can be grossly simplified into the idea that sex-positive feminists approve of sex work, and believe that it is a job like any other that should not be criminalized or stigmatized, and might benefit from government oversight and regulation. Non-sex-positive feminists believe that sex work institutions are harmful to women, as individuals and as a class, and fight against legitimizing it.” This is simply not the true definition of a sex positive feminist. A simple wikipedia search gives us the definition “Sex positivity is “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation. The sex-positive movement is a social and philosophical movement that advocates these attitudes. The sex-positive movement advocates sex education and safer sex as part of its campaign.” The movement makes no moral distinctions among types of sexual activities, regarding these choices as matters of personal preference.” In particular, “sex-positive feminism centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom.” In essence, sex-positive feminism is a kind of feminism that suggests that the shame, taboo and fear surrounding sex has been used in an oppressive way towards women, and that in order for women (and all people) to be treated equally and freely, they should be allowed to make their own sexual choices and be respected regardless of their sexual choices. Clarisse Thorn on Feministe gives a list of the things she believes are included in sex-positivity, and they primarily surround showing respect to a variety of sexual desires, behaviors and attitudes. This is not the attitude that Karenx decried as unrelated to skepticism, or as unnecessary to being allowed into the skeptical movement. So how does it fit with skepticism? I argue that it is a belief which is supported by skepticism.

An important attitude of skepticism that should lead us towards sex positivity is that skepticism asks us to give up preconceived notions that don’t have evidence: this includes empty taboos, conceptions of the sacred that are unfounded, pointless rituals and useless superstitions. In addition, if these sorts of things are unfounded, skepticism particularly asks us to look at whether or not they are harmful. A pointless but harmless ritual may not have to go, but if it’s a ritual that reifies a problematic belief system, it probably should be abandoned. For this reason, skepticism should lead us to reexamine our conceptions of sex and the body, and abandon those ideas that are unfounded. From the skeptical point of view, the body is something natural and sex is a process that happens to that natural thing. It is something that most people will do in their lives, that is not shameful for any reason, it is simply a use of our bodies. It can easily bring a great deal of joy, but it also must be done with care not to harm others (just like any other action). Perhaps the only difference a skeptic would see between sex and another action is that sex often involves heightened emotions, and thus has a higher potential for joy and a higher potential for emotional harm. Beyond that, there is no scientific reason for a person to believe that there is something wrong, shameful, or dirty about sex. It is a perfectly natural action. As skeptics, there is no reason for us to continue to buy into negative sexual stereotypes that are culturally conditioned.

In addition, if the skeptical movement wants to accept more women and take on a more feminist position, there are certain feminist attitudes that should push us towards sex positivity as well. First, sex is often used as a negative tool against both genders. The conception of virginity is often used to keep women controlled in many ways, and men are expected to be obsessed with sex, or ridiculed if they can’t have sex. Both genders are shamed for nearly all possible sexual choices. It seems that in our society there is almost no “right” way to be sexually: either you’re a prude or a whore. Society particularly likes to foist that dichotomy on women, and have impossible expectations of them that don’t allow a woman to ever act correctly. In addition, the shame surrounding sex plays into rape culture and victim blaming, and suggests that those people who do have sex openly and happily should be punished for it in some way, or that it’s their fault if something goes wrong. As feminists and skeptics, we should recognize that these stereotypes and culturally conditioned attitudes are harmful, and that promoting an attitude towards sex that encourages safe sex and promotes the use of birth control and care against STDs is a way to make everyone happier and break down problematic gender roles and expectations. Safe sex and sex positivity can allow women to embrace their bodies and selves in an embodied/strong way that resists a patriarchal narrative that says women should be ashamed of their bodies/their worth is in their bodies. It also gives ALL people the ability to keep themselves safe and healthy, happy, and on equal footing in sexual encounters.

If we combine skepticism and feminism, we see that there is no reason to hold on to the conceptions of sex that surround it with shame. It is natural, it can be enjoyed, and there is not naturally one form of sex that is superior to another. Sex should be enjoyed in a way in which all partners are on equal footing and respected. These are the main concepts of sex positivity. If we look at sex from the perspective of skepticism and combine it with a female friendly (or even feminist perspective), we end up with sex positivity. Skepticism dismantles unfounded myths about sex that lead to double standards for different genders, shame surrounding sex, misinformation, and the belief that sex is bad. Feminism promotes healthy sexual behaviors and gives us a foundation from which to understand that a variety of sexual behaviors are acceptable even if they break gender stereotypes and roles. It is possible that within the sex positive movement there may be some debate about whether or not sex work or porn is an appropriate, non-harmful form of sexuality. However that’s a different debate. It is not about whether we should approach sex with a positive attitude or not, but rather about whether or not one particular form of sexuality is harmful or degrading. We can have that debate, but first, as good skeptics and strong feminists, it seems that the only logical conclusion we can come to is that there is nothing inherently wrong with sex (or having sex, or wanting sex, or not having sex, or having sex with people of the same gender…).

Karenx suggests that only seeking out sex-positive feminists to join the skeptic movement is “not good skepticism” because it does not allow for a dialogue about what is the best way to go about something. She suggests that sexuality has nothing to do with skepticism. However just as the skeptic movement has no obligation to go out of its way to bring in more chiropracters, it does not have to go out of its way to bring in feminists whose views are colored by cultural constructs of sexual shame. That is making a choice as a movement about what is an empirically founded piece of belief, not shutting down other people whom you don’t agree with. We can have a dialogue about what attitudes towards sex are justified because sex is part of human life and a skeptical attitude reaches to all parts of life. And I firmly believe that the evidence suggests that sex positivity is the only position backed up by evidence.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. June 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm —

    This is how I’ve felt about sex since I started thinking skeptically and decided I was atheist. If we follow PZ’s general layout of an objective morality (http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/05/22/the-objective-morality-gotcha/), there’s really nothing wrong with sex. I totally agree with sex positivity!

    I don’t think we should specifically seek out sex-positive feminists, but the sex-negative people better be ready for an intellectual smackdown. I agree that sex positivity (with all the safety and information it provides) is the only position backed by evidence.

    Texas teaches abstinence-only, has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Sex positivity would help fix that problem.

  2. June 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm —

    This article seems to assume that sex-positive feminists are all about sexual autonomy and “sex-negative” feminists (if there really is such a thing) are opposed to sexual autonomy. I think it would be more accurate to say that different schools of feminism disagree over where the line is between being sexually autonomous and being objectified.

    • June 13, 2012 at 11:59 pm —

      Based upon the definition of sex positivity, it is focused on sexual freedom, respect etc. Perhaps you’re right about disagreement over objectification, but I think it is fair to say that sex positivity focuses on respect for a variety of kinds of sexuality and promotes sexuality as healthy, whereas other forms of feminism may decry sexuality as simply a tool of patriarchy, or promote lesbianism, or suggest that something like BDSM is degrading. I think there’s more to that debate than simply whether or not someone is being objectified or not, and it does go to a more root disagreement about the place of sexuality in feminism.

  3. June 15, 2012 at 4:07 pm —

    I’d agree that any argument based only on tradition or unchallenged preconceived notions about something are unwelcome in the skeptical movement, to say “it’s wrong because it’s been wrong” or “because I/the bible says so” is an absolute derogation of skeptical thinking.

    But I think you’re mischaracterizing KarenX in your last paragraph as much as you think she’s mischaracterizing sex-positive feminism. To understand what KarenX is saying we have to work within her own definitions (even if we don’t agree with them). Thus when she says it’s a bad thing for the skeptical movement to exclude “non-sex positive feminists”, she doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to exclude feminists whose arguments are based simply on sexual shame. Rather what she means is that it’s bad to exclude feminists who bring up legitimate arguments that pornography or sex work is oppressive to women. These arguments are much more sophisticated and nuanced than an argument based on unchallenged preconceived notions, thus they shouldn’t be silenced in our movement since they don’t automatically fail under methodological skepticism. (atleast not obviously)

    So I think KarenX is right that anti-pornography feminism shouldn’t be automatically excluded, but I don’t think such debates are entirely irrelevant to skepticism, as least as a methodology.

    Further even if we aren’t talking about the pro vs. anti pornography debate and instead just sexuality, there are still feminists who argue that, for example, heterosexuality is inherently oppressive to women in the context of a patriarchy. These arguments aren’t based on some culturally constructed sexual shaming, but on your beliefs about the role of heterosexuality in a patriarhcy.

    So I don’t think either side, given the “nature” of the eivdence required, are easily supported or objected to by methodological skepticism. It’s not like we can reject on side because “there’s no verifiable documentation of oppression” like we can for ghosts and other supernatural occurences (or maybe there could be but then there’s the question of how to interpret the documentation), it’s not like we can easily support or object to one side with some kind of double blind clinical study (or lack thereof) like we do for vaccination and alternative medicines, or turn the entire debate into something scientific and quantitative like evolution and global warming.

    Our movement sees certain kinds of evidence (like scientific) as legitimate and appropriate, which makes the application of methodological skepticism much easier, but I think in this issue these evidences aren’t easily applied and so it’s harder to apply methodological skepticism. So it seems to me this whole issue revolves more around philosophical inquiry and beliefs about the patriarchy, sexuality, oppression, autonomy, etc.

    (I really wanted to say all this in a lot less words, oh well, sorry. lol)

    Anyways Great Article, I really liked reading both yours and karenX’s posts.

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