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Beyond Vibrator Feminism

Orgasms will not set us free.

BY Jessa Crispin

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Orgasms were never going to be enough, however autonomously we might control them.

In the 1990s, feminism mostly took the form of a vibrator. It was peak sexual positivity time: We had women like Susie Bright, Tristin Taormino and Betty Dodson writing sex advice columns with a feminist edge; Annie Sprinkle dressing up like a giant vulva; Inga Muscio telling us to reclaim the word “cunt”; Nancy Friday and Eve Ensler advocating for women to explore their sexual fantasies; and magazines like On Our Backs and Bust reviewing vibrators as if they were radical texts and teaching us how to demand pleasure from our sexual partners. It was the beginning of independent, women-produced pornography; sex toy parties replaced Tupperware parties. Liberation was within our grasp, and it felt like rolling, multiple orgasms.

It was perhaps an overcorrection from the sex scolds of the second wave who dominated the discourse in the 1980s. Feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon partnered with Christian conservatives in their campaign against pornography and sex work, and while no one had read Dworkin’s Intercourse, the sex-positive feminists were all pretty sure it said in there that all sex was rape. (It didn’t.)

The 1990s sex positivity movement never really went away, it just got wrapped up in identity politics. In the effort to give recognition and a public space to all people marginalized for their sexuality, that sexuality became more culturally and politically important. How you fuck and who you want to fuck tells you nearly everything about yourself, apparently. And every couple of months or so, a book like Jaclyn Friedman’s Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All (Seal Press, 2017) arrives to tell us we women are disempowered, we need to be self-empowered and empowerment starts with what we do in the bedroom (or in the kitchen, the public restroom, wherever).

But in the rush to reclaim a free sexuality, Friedman and others at best scratch the surface of the earlier generations’ lessons, so adamantly argued by both Dworkin and MacKinnon (even if they went to weird places with it), on how sex positivity can be co-opted by men and capitalism, effectively buying our liberation and selling it back to us in a highly degraded quality.

Patriarchal society is structured to control women’s sexuality as a way of protecting paternity and property, so of course liberating women’s sexuality has to be part of any women’s lib movement. It started earlier than the first wave, with early women’s rights activists like the first woman presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull, who declared in 1871: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.” She was joined by many anarchist, communist and bohemian thinkers of her time, even as she was condemned by the public at large. She also had a lot of really disappointing men in her life.

Some women free love activists of this era noticed that some men took free love to mean love without consequences and disappeared after accidental pregnancies, or neglected to disclose their little syphilis problem. And then there is the general emotional mistreatment that comes when your sexual partner thinks he doesn’t owe you anything. There were scoundrels like John Humphrey Noyes, who used his free love utopia/harem to preach that women should get over their Christian ideas of sin and shame—and hey, let me help you with that, let’s start by taking off your skirt.

As Lynne Segal documented in her 1994 book, Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure (University of California Press), second-wave feminists faced a similar issue. There were many within the movement who believed that sexual liberation would somehow lead to political liberation: If they knew how to give themselves pleasure, they would no longer chain themselves to a disappointing home life. But, as Segal writes, “Orgasms were never going to be enough, however autonomously we might control them.” Indeed, writers like Ellen Willis have documented the serial sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by leftist men in the so-called “Summer of Love,” as many mistook free love for blanket sexual consent.

Many men who fought for reproductive freedom and financial autonomy would later exploit those advances. Hugh Hefner, for example, championed abortion rights and family planning services—which conveniently helped remove male responsibility for the consequences of sex.

While Friedman gestures at some of the failures of the sex-positivity movement, she doesn’t seriously delve into the deeper history or engage with the alternate visions offered by thinkers like Dworkin, whom Friedman dismisses as a “so-called radical feminist.”

Dworkin has long been the anti-sex positivity bogeyman. Rather than engage with men emotionally or sexually, she rejected them entirely. Her ideas would never be embraced by a group that believes that if men learn to care about women’s orgasms, they will ultimately learn to care about women’s emotional and political reality. But in rejecting Dworkin outright, contemporary feminists fail to acknowledge that sexuality is a bigger puzzle than can be solved through feminism or rational decisions or even a vibrator.

What would liberated sexuality even look like? There are no new visions in Unscrewed, just more of the same empty talk of empowerment and orgasms and affirmative consent. There’s nothing wrong with the book; it simply stays on the political surface of sex rather than its more complicated and hidden depths. “There’s feminism and then there’s fucking,” Segal wrote in Straight Sex, quoting the 1987 film A Winter Tan. There is no neat overlap between politics and desire.

Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor of the magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. She is the author of The Dead Ladies Project, published by The University of Chicago Press, and The Creative Tarot, published by Touchstone. She has lived in Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Ireland, Berlin, among other places. She currently lives nowhere in particular.

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