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.