Attack of the Brogressive: Sexual Liberation, Conservative Thought, and The Misreading of Feminist Sexual Ethics

[content note: rape apologism] 

I do online dating, mainly because I don’t really drink, and Sioux Falls shuts down at around 9PM. In my profile, I’m quite open and honest about being a feminist, because the last thing I want is to start dating a guy only to discover he thinks all feminists are lesbians or something. As a result, I’ve gotten an interesting pattern of messages from guys who are supposedly “enlightened” about feminism and think this means they can just shoot off sexual suggestions at the drop of a hat. With no opening salvo beyond “Hi,” I’ll get messages that launch into direct propositions for the down and dirty.

David Foster, it seems, would see no problem with such an approach to sexuality. In a commentary piece for The Guardian, Foster writes that a sexually liberated feminist world would allow for direct, no-nonsense sexual advances.

Now hold that thought.

One of the main criticisms I’ve encountered as I’ve embraced a more liberal and more feminist sexual ethic is that by refusing to condemn premarital sex, I’m endorsing free-for-all orgies on the street and, oddly, contributing to increases of sexual assault and rape. “Men and women need rules and a marriage-focused ethic,” the reasoning goes, “otherwise they will put themselves in risky situations where lines are blurred, and that’s how rape happens.” 

Matt Barber discusses this “link” in a screed for World Net Daily* in response to a piece by Kate McDonough in Salon

McDonough’s advice? Girls, give away that milk now, ya hear! (To which the frisky-frat-boy ‘bro-choice’ choir sings: ‘Amen!’ Hey, ‘pro-choice’ gals, you do know that most ‘pro-choice’ guys only support your so-called “abortion rights” so that you’ll put out, right?)

Secular-‘progressives’ like McDonough have been working to deconstruct traditional sexual morality for generations. And today – more than at any point in history – they’re having success in spades. Despite her wincey whines to the contrary, Ms. McDonough knows this to be true.

Pieces like Foster’s lend credence to this particular argument. Foster writes that a feminist sexual ethic in which sexual pleasure should be embraced regardless of society’s strictures should have liberals “envisaging a society where adults of both genders are comfortable both making and receiving straightforward sexual propositions. Indeed, surely the feminist movement should be encouraging women to practice such directness of approach, since leaving the initiation of any kind of romantic encounter to men means that a keystone of the patriarchy remains unmoved.

In Foster’s imagining, a feminist sexual ethic means that men should be able to approach and proposition complete strangers for sex, that such approaches are not, as feminist say, sexual harassment, and that “To promote the outright condemnation of any and all direct sexual propositions would be a disastrously regressive step for the feminist movement.”

Twitter has already responded to the piece with the sarcastic hashtag #notalldavidfosters, which I encourage you to check it out. But for my part, I’d like to make the parallels between this brogressive’s viewpoint of sexual liberation and that of the conservative evangelical – as they both commit the same errors in interpretation.

Essentially, both evangelicals and Dr. Foster make the mistake of assuming that “sexual liberation” means sex whenever, wherever and however you want it. A sexual liberation, for them, means prioritizing one’s personal desire for sex over and above the needs, desires, and wants of others. Sex becomes the goal, and the means to get it don’t matter in the race to hedonism.

The difference, naturally, between Dr. Foster and the conservative American evangelicals is that evangelicals condemn such hedonism while Dr. Foster urges us to embrace it. Both forget the all-important issue of consent, and that sex, sexual advances, and sexual conversations without the consent of both parties are not sexual liberation, but rather sexual violence. 

A direct sexual advance toward a complete stranger in a non-sexual environment, no matter how nicely worded, is only ever going to harassment. It doesn’t matter if you’re good looking or ugly, if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re in a bar or on the street – direct propositions for sex are forcing a sexual conversation on a person whom you do not know, whom you did not obtain the consent of, and whom, in all likelihood, doesn’t want to have sex with you, especially not now.

I’m a blunt, straightforward person. I appreciate people being direct, using their words, and expressing what they want. I also consider myself a feminist who wants to remove shame from the discussion of sexual behavior, who thinks people should be free to make their own decisions about their sexual health and their lives. This last includes the right to say no, and the right not to be forced into sexual conversations they do not want to have.

Both Foster and conservative evangelicals rely on an interpretation of sexual freedom that includes any sexual activity, regardless of consent. A truly feminist sexual ethic, however, prizes the consent of both parties as a non-negotiable part of any “sexually liberated” encounter.

Without consent, you don’t have sex; you have rape.

Without consent, you don’t have a “direct sexual advance;” you have harassment.

Sexual liberation means the rejection of societal norms that demand one must be ashamed of things that are natural and normal for sexual beings. Sexual liberation does not mean the rejection of all social rules that guide us through conversations and sexual encounters. The social contract still exists between human beings - we are still under an obligation to treat each other as humans, not as sex-dispensing machines.

Feminists reject the idea that sexual liberation means getting to unilaterally ask people for sex at any time and place. Instead, feminist sexual ethics demand a higher standard, a deeper understanding of other people as humans, and consent above all else. Without that, you just have the patriarchy reasserting itself in the form of a “Nice Guy” who just wants to be “sexually liberated.” 

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*I’m not linking because I don’t want to give them the traffic.