Bad Sex: A Feminist Discussion

There’s a very interesting article over at feministe about bad sex. The author, EG, reflects on some extremely negative experiences of sex which were nevertheless consensual. She notes a tendency in sex-positive discourses to presume an exhaustive dichotomy between rape, on the one hand, and enjoyable sex, on the other. This implies that if sex was bad, it must have been rape – which is belied by the author’s experiences (and no doubt by the experiences of many others), as she says:

So why did I keep saying yes?  I didn’t want him to stop liking me (fat chance).  I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t cool.  Nobody else had ever found me attractive.  And while I knew I was smart–I had all kinds of support and validation for that–the idea that somebody thought I was pretty?  Attractive?  Beautiful?  It was powerful.  It was important.  I really, really needed it.  But understand: he never said anything like that.  He never put any pressure on me.  But I still ended up doing things I didn’t want to do and didn’t enjoy.  My decisions were no doubt the result of a misogynist culture that taught me to value myself and my sexuality poorly; they were no doubt the result of rape culture that taught me to prioritize his experiences over my own.  But they were mine.  I was of age.  I consented, repeatedly.  This wasn’t rape.

The author invites feminists to consider this kind of experience. Is it gendered? (Note that it could be gendered without being an experience that is exclusive to women; for example, the bad sex experiences of women and men might have different features or consequences, or be differentially common.) Is it systematic? How does it intersect with issues of race, disability, and trans identity, among other axes of oppression? What power dynamics are or might be at play here, what philosophical tools can we bring to analysing them, and, most importantly, how can they be resisted?

Some men getting worried about porn

Interesting article from the Guardian about a group of men who have set up a website “grounded in feminist principles” to press the case that there is something wrong with pornography, something about which men should be concerned. The article mentions or discusses a wide range of arguments against pornography — that it degrades women, that it leads to sexual violence, that it shapes how men think about women, that the industry is abusive, and so on. As a self-contained summary of the issues and arguments, it’s very neatly done. Some of the discussion below the line is also worth wading through (some of it, naturally, is bilge).

The website itself, The AntiPornMenProject, seems thus far to consist in a mixture of porn-related news, anecdotal articles about the adverse effects of porn on men and their behaviour, and useful summaries of links to further discussions on the subject. I should think that, as it grows, it will become quite a useful resource for people teaching the topic, particularly to classes with a high proportion of men. It’s also, of course, something that seems worthwhile in its own right, and I’m glad it’s getting press attention.

On the subject of teaching about pornography, and going back to the Guardian article, I found two things particularly interesting. First, there was this quotation from Michael Kimmel:

What also strikes me is that young men seem utterly unapologetic about their porn use. It’s like it’s so ubiquitous – what’s the problem? And they expect a similarly casual approach from their female friends.

Second, there was this passage concerning the pseudonymous subject of an interview by Gail Dines for her book “Pornland“:

Dan… is worried about his sexual performance with women, and tells [Dines]: “I can’t get the pictures of anal sex out of my head when having sex, and I am not really focusing on the girl but on the last anal scene I watched”.

I recently covered pornography in a second-year class on feminist philosophy. The class has a healthy proportion of men. The Kimmel quotation sums up the attitude of not just the men, but the entire class, to the issue, and hence to most of the arguments we discussed. Both men and women were unimpressed with Mckinnon-style arguments (“silly”), empirical arguments about links to sexual violence (“exaggerated”), and arguments about the industry (“circumstantial”).

The one suggestion that really seemed to engage them was the idea that pornography could be bad for their own sex lives. Now on this, there was a gender divide in the class. The women were very ready to agree with the idea that pornography normalises a range of sexual behaviour which should perhaps be the subject of explicit negotiation rather than of assumed consent. But the men were less willing to accept this, on the basis that they (if not other men) were too enlightened to assume consent to slapping and facial ejaculation and all that. The second quotation above provides a slightly different tack on this argument. OK boys, perhaps you’re too smart to actually do these things; but the more porn you watch, the more they’ll be on your mind; the more they’ll be on your mind, the worse your sex life will be; so the more porn you watch, the worse your sex life will become. QED.

I don’t mean to suggest that the other arguments against pornography aren’t good, or worth discussing; but this is certainly a tactical move I’ll bear in mind for when I next teach the issue to a class of sceptics about the other arguments.

Guess what?

Girls don’t suck at maths. See also here. (How many times does this need to be shown?) Prediction: if this comes to widely accepted, expect lots more stories about how girls are innately predisposed not to like doing stuff that involves maths– gotta explain the dearth of women in science and maths in such a way that nobody has to worry about it. (Thanks BTPS and Jender-Parents!)

On the necessity of ingesting semen

Marie Stopes was a leading British campaigner for family planning, and Marie Stopes clinics are a major provider of family planning services in the UK. Like many early advocates of family planning, Stopes held some appalling eugenicist views, even disowning her son for marrying a near-sighted woman and breeding inferior stock. That’s well-known. What’s less well-known is her view on the ingestion of semen. Crucial for a woman’s sexual health apparently. A woman who doesn’t get enough semen into her body from her male partner is at risk– her sex drive will run wild, and she may even turn to the vices of lesbianism or masturbation.

Can anything be done? Of course, self-stimulus, or masturbation, is extremely common… Masturbation is always unsatisfactory… Another practical solution which some deprived women find is in Lesbian love with their own sex…

But these will never satisfy:

…homosexual excitement does not really meet their need for the physiological fact (I have never yet seen it clearly stated anywhere, but it is of the greatest importance in a consideration of this problem) is that… a woman’s need and hunger for nourishment in sex union is a true physiological hunger to be satisfied by the supplying of the actual molecular substances lacked by her system… the chemical molecules produced by the glandular systems of the male.


It has been found possible to prepare some at least of the very molecular compounds really nourishing to the woman’s system, and which she lacks and requires.

That’s right ladies– artificial semen for you, in capsule form! And she even gives a recipe (though sadly it’s not made from ordinary household ingredients).

(Many thanks Stella, for passing on this wisdom! Quotes are from Enduring Passion, 29-32.)