Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dealing with the limits of "sex-positive:" Part 1

I guess this week is "questioning essentially good social movements" week here at Circumscription. I want to look at the limits of (circumscribe? ha.) sex-positive thinking and living. It's a movement of which I'm a big fan, generally: I'm a pretty vanilla guy myself, but I think that pretty much anything adults can do consensually is fair game and their business. But there are situations in which sex-positive thinking becomes complicated. I'm gonna look at some of those locations in sexual activity. I'm not going to address pornography, because that's a very very tired topic. Some other time. (Also, Feministe just addressed porn. Ending the debate forever, of course.)

This is going to be a three-part series, from the fairly basic to the extremely problematic. Part one (the one you're reading!) is about competing sex drives. Part two is about cheating. Part three is about taboos: incest, bestiality, and necrophilia (all those things the fundies think will happen if queers get married).

One problem with sex-positive thinking is that not everyone likes sex the same amount. So here's the dilemma. Your committed partner wants sex tonight/this week/ever. You don't. Are you obligated to put out for your partner tonight/this week/ever? Because women have conventionally been put in the position of "owing" sex for a number of reasons, feminists tend to come down hard on the "no" side. But what if, in an attempt to look at this issue normatively rather than practically,* we pretend this is a perfectly egalitarian relationship that isn't inflected by gender expectations. What the heck, let's make our thought-experimental partners lesbians, if that helps. In any event, Dan Savage came down with a resounding "yes" in his column a few weeks ago. He's a proponent of a standard he calls GGG:
'Good, giving, and game' is what we should all strive to be for our sex partners, as in, 'good in bed,' 'giving equal time and equal pleasure,' and 'game for anything—within reason.'
And, he says, this means we have sexual obligations to our lovers:
I happen to believe that we owe our sex partners a few things. Good personal hygiene, for starters, followed by a sense of humor, a willingness to meet our lovers' needs, and cleanish sheets. Someone who's unwilling or incapable of meeting a partner's needs owes 'em permission to get those needs met elsewhere—safely and responsibly, within reason, and on a budget.
Dan's standard puts the power in the hands of the horny one. Which sounds like it means a lot of unhappy lovers who are asked to grit their teeth and suck, fuck, and eat it. Except when you consider that there's a built-in failsafe: an unhappy partner can always leave the relationship. And in the world we're imagining, one in which the burden of sex falls equally on both** shoulders, they'll leave, rather than grit their teeth. The world we're imagining isn't as distant as I've made it out to be, either. Really, if partners ask for what they want, and are honest with each other and themselves, everything works out. Or doesn't work out, but that's for the very valid reason of sexual incompatibility.

So far, we've assumed that each partner is willing to engage in sexual activity at all. In the event that one partner is not ready for sex, for emotional and/or religious reasons, then I think the power shifts back into that partner's hands—agreeing to go down on your partner even though you don't feel like it that night is a lot different from agreeing to go down on your partner even though you are on shaky ground emotionally. It's important to ensure that sex-positive thinking means "sex is a good thing, but it's a good thing that everyone has to come (ha) to when they're ready."

That was easyish. Tune in next time for when it gets harder.

*I think a normative approach here can serve as a model for the practical. After all, we have to assume that some folks can kick The Man out of their bedroom somehow.
**Yes, I'm being monoamory-centric here, for convenience. It all applies equally well to a polyamorous relationship.

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