I don’t know when it hit me that sex positivity was hurting me. I’d had tiny glimmers of a revelation: feeling disillusioned as my friends cheering me on while I drunkenly stumbled home with a man I didn’t know. I remember telling myself I was empowered when, at 2 AM, I was in the house of an unemployed 35 year old man I met off Tinder. I didn’t have any money for a taxi back. I’d not met him before. I felt too drunk. The next morning, I scurried back to student accommodation, where my friends high-rived me for being so rebellious and spontaneous. I remember questioning that sex may not be good for me right now, that I wasn’t having it for the right reasons. My friends reassured me that the patriarchy shamed women who were promiscuous, and I had to counter this by continuing not to care. And I tried hard not to care, so I could be the empowered young sex positive feminist I wanted to be: not when men wanted to hit me in bed, not when men pressured me into sending nude photographs, not when dependent on heavy drinking to silence my inner, questioning voice.
I stopped feeling “empowered” very quickly. I got into abusive situations. I entered a friendship with a much older mentor — a 64 year old man, a figure in the local BDSM community, another writer — who encouraged my brand of feminism. He loved that I seemed “carefree” and wasn’t dowdy, like the “anti-sex feminists” he often made fun of. He encouraged me to be promiscuous and drink to excess; he always found some kind of third wave feminist message when I told him about my one night stands, despite the fact I clearly wasn’t mentally well. A few months into our friendship, he raped me. It took me almost a year to realise what had happened because, on a physical level, the rape didn’t feel different than the other sex I was having at the time. I was having sex because I hated myself, and no one around me realised.
Using sex as self-harm is disturbingly different than other forms of self harm. For cutting, one may blame a cat and fool no one. For eating disorders, many friends will see through any “I ate earlier” excuse and try to help. For sex, when the vehicle for harm is promiscuity, liberal feminists are reluctant to point out the root of the issue, lest they criticise a woman’s choice or “slut shame”. Their antidotes were always having more rather than cutting back: to call myself sex positive and become comfortable with that label; to watch more porn until I liked it; to experiment with more men until the sex was more palatable and okay.
Liberal feminists cling so dearly to the concept of consent to the point that it becomes a fault. Any ‘consensual sex’ that is traumatic, or unwanted (despite the ‘yes’), or abusive is hard for them to understand. When I realised I was assaulted, many friends told me it wasn’t ‘real BDSM’. I was blamed by other liberal feminists for my own mixed signals. Whenever I recounted less-than-pleasant encounters, they worriedly would ask whether or not I was accusing a man of rape. When you draw a hard dichotomy between rape and happy, pleasurable sex, so many women are silenced.
This is why radical feminism, and delivering a radical message to young women, is so important. There are young women out there who are like how I used to be: vulnerable, insecure, self-loathing. The patriarchy tells women their worth is contingent on how fuckable men view them; liberal feminism, in its desperate attempts to create an identity for itself that contrasts against the “prudish, anti-sex” radical feminism, tells women to go for it. I felt like it was the only way I could be feminist. For so many women, sex positivity is the compulsory option. And within sex positive, liberal feminism, there is little room for dissent. Question whether promiscuity is healthy in a patriarchy? Slut shamer. Ask why men would get off on a woman’s abuse? Kink shamer. Is it any wonder that so many young women, socialised to put others before them, socialised to think they’re always wrong, don’t argue back?
It is often said that radical feminism is about destroying the patriarchy, while liberal feminism is about navigating the patriarchy. While I used to take this to be true, I now feel this is too charitable to liberal feminism. If it’s supposed to be a navigation, it isn’t working. I left liberal feminism utterly lost. It wasn’t until I found radical feminism that I realised both my way and my worth. Radical women must continue to have a voice despite the overwhelming opposition. After all, there are women out there right now being told the same message I was told: to fuck for their empowerment, rather than think their way to it.