The term sex positivity is thrown around a lot both online and among peer circles whether feminist or not because is seems rather self explanatory. Especially considering our neo-liberal system where the individual needs rule, of course we are sex positive, sex is good—if not necessary.
In fact, our culture is saturated with the idea that pleasure is not only good but necessary to one’s general well-being—we should expect it in relationships and the rise masturbation as a fulfilling pastime (within reason) only grows. Yet where does sex positivity come from as an idea?
Not surprisingly for many, sex positivity as an idea comes from the feminist second wave movement during the 1960 and 1970s in the United States. Largely it came to be understood through one of the main debates among feminists during this time, cutely nicknamed by academic feminists: the sex wars. This debate focused on pornography and BDSM and is mainly where our negative stereotypes of feminists is breed from. The debate melted down to sex-positive feminists vs. anti-pornography (and anti-BDSM) feminists, where one side argued that pornography and BDSM does not have to be oppressive for women and other minorities and the other arguing that pornography and BDSM is inherently by its nature—oppressive.
Popular stereotypes of feminists such as man-hating, lesbian, and bra-burning is born from the wide backlash to the anti-pornography feminists of this time. While this huge debate is so much more complicated then many women studies classes and casual feminists would have you believe, this debate made visible the discussion of pleasure in sex and where that pleasure does and should come from.
During this time, lesbian middle-class white women began to open sex stores which embodied their sex positive politics through being female centered and often clitoral focused as well. One of the original store of this kind was called Good Vibrations and set the precedent for many more to open thereafter.
Many of these stores originally refused to carry any kind of pornography but slowly opened up to feminist made pornography. Likewise, some refused to carry dildos because of their phallic nature and the vaginal penetration obsession they viewed as ultimately hurting women’s exploration of their pleasure. These stores which are widely popular today function on a need to distinguish themselves strictly from the “regular” sex stores of yesterday—that being male-dominated stores, often specializing in pornography.
These stores were understood as uncomfortable and objectifying for many women, whereas the “Good Vibrations” model of sex store sought to be the exact opposite with bright, welcoming spaces, usually female identified staff and an education based model. Through an education model of sex stores, the sex positive revolution can be fully realized because these stores are about opening up dialogue and space for women wanting to explore their sexuality and pleasure.
The “Good Vibrations” model therefore, commercialized the sex positive politics of the second wave partly because its originators were very much those feminist fighting within the sex wars. Rather then buying a product in a “regular” sex store, you buy an idea of feminist sexual liberation and sex positivity when you purchase from a “Good Vibrations” model store. Yet these stores are not exempted from being problematic because their mission statement seems so great.
At the core of the sex industry including sex stores whether the “regular” or feminist is consumer capitalism. It is easy to forget this when who or what you are buying from makes you feel good. For instance, fair-trade coffee and chocolates or buying a ribbon to support breast cancer research. This is not to say you should not support these causes but rather to be aware that you are buying into an idea with your money as an “ethical consumer” or “feel good” consumerism, which means that often as consumers we do not look deeper into the causes or companies we are buying into. This can be said for the “Good Vibrations” model stores as well because we often do not think of the classed aspects that go into taste politics.
When these stores set themselves as completely opposite to “regular” stores they do so by using words like seedy, dirty, cheap and objectifying to describe these stores. These words very much set up a kind of taste politics where not only is the potential for feminist and ethical buying undermined within the “regular” store spaces but the idea that you should buy from the” right” place, for the “right” reason. “Good Vibrations” model sex stores have set themselves apart based on quality and education which sounds fantastic but also alienates people because quality within consumer capitalism is synonymous with expensive.
Sometimes these stores are too expensive for the average consumer and at other times the language used is often academic and inaccessible because of it. Feeling like you will say the wrong thing within these spaces is a real fear for some consumers. While education is arguably never a bad thing, when it is used to create hierarchies of who is supposed to be in a certain space or how you are supposed to exist within that space can be incredibly problematic and counter-productive.
This is not to say all “Good Vibrations” model stores are problematic but rather to talk about how when sex positivity becomes commercialized we must investigate how within a capitalist system—not all sex is positive and how sex positivity does not apply equally to everyone.
We must be critical of how we create hierarchies even by using feminist concepts meant to break down other kinds of hierarchies. Even originators of the “Good Vibrations” model stores where conscious and justly critical of their capitalist needs to stay open and eventually came to an understanding that to continue spreading their message, money was necessary.
In fact, in our heavily saturated sexual marketplace, stores cannot ignore their financial needs and put the “message” first anymore. As consumers we must also find a way to support the businesses which both suit our financial and ethical needs because consumers have an incredibly amount of power.
What you want to see from a business, either through their selection of products, the space itself or the customer service, changes how a store functions because within consumer capitalism if the consumer isn’t buying—the business won’t stay open. Furthermore, while this brief piece has portrayed the “regular” sex store and the “Good Vibrations” model store as distinctly different, there are so many variations in between and increasingly it is becoming difficult to clearly distinguish the two.
These difficulties are especially true when considering the growing online shopping for sex toys. In the case of online sex stores, there is very little power given to the consumer as power is sacrificed for inexpensive products.
The important part is to be critical, ask questions and to support those businesses you believe in. Furthermore, understand that ideas like sex positivity are great but we must go deeper—interrogate how they actually play out in our lives and in the case of sex stores, in our capitalist system.