This is the text that I’ll read at SlutWalk Chicago, the sex-positive anti-rape march that starts today at 12 noon! (The march starts at the Thompson Center and ends at Daley Plaza, where there will be speakers.)
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When I started writing about sex, I took a lot for granted. I guess I’m always a little nervous about abortion rights, but abortion has been legal my entire life, so I’m not that nervous. The Pill has also been around for my entire life. I knew all about a huge array of sexually transmitted infections and ways to prevent them. It never occurred to me to question my access to rape crisis centers or domestic violence shelters. And the slogan “no means no”: I’ve taken that for granted, totally. The feminist revolution gave me these things, and it also gave me the ability to be blasé about them. I’m so lucky.
When I started writing about sex, I was writing mostly about S&M. It was important to me to show that I could be into S&M and still be a feminist. I took the slogan “no means no” for granted, and therefore it was important to me to investigate how sexual desire can be complicated and contradictory and confusing … and that some people need a way to say no without meaning no.
When I started writing about sex, I knew that the key is understanding consent: the basis of S&M is consent. The basis of feminism is also consent. The point is, we should all be only having sex that we really want to have. And when we’re having sex that we want to have, we also have the opportunity to aim for the best sex we can have.
How does a person say yes to a rape fantasy? I concluded that the best way to get consent is to talk to someone directly. The best way is to have a conversation beforehand, about what you like and what you don’t like. I began to write and teach about communication. I wrote about how discussing sex is awkward, but we have to do it anyway. I wrote about the different ways of talking about sex: do you talk about fantasies with your partner? Do you talk about things you’ve tried and liked? Do you learn what your boundaries are, and tell your partners what you don’t want to do? When you need a safeword, do you have one?
It’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: all these conversations and all this awesome sex are rooted in choice. All of us here are anti-rape. All of us are pro-sex. All of us think that people should be able to choose the kind of sex they have. That’s what consent means.
I’m a feminist, but there are feminists out there who tell me I can’t choose to do S&M because S&M is always abusive. Some of them tell me that I only want S&M because we live in a broken patriarchal society that has brainwashed me into believing I want something that I don’t. I think they’re wrong, and for a long time I discarded everything they said because I was so angry at them for telling me I can’t choose what to do with my body.
But the more I’ve examined choice, the more I’ve seen the limits on it. This really came home to me when I spent time working against HIV. I learned about several situations in which people have actively chosen to contract HIV. Why?
The people I heard about who chose HIV did not do it because they thought HIV would be fun. Some of them were from Detroit, a city that’s famously down-and-out: these Detroit citizens chose HIV because they couldn’t get the social services they needed, and they knew that there was more money available for HIV patients than for whatever other problem they had. They chose to get HIV so that they would have better access to health resources.
There was another set of cases from France. At one point, in France, there was a big problem with HIV among undocumented immigrants. The government was having trouble tracking the epidemic, so they offered citizenship to immigrants with HIV. As a result, some immigrants chose to get HIV. They concluded that having citizenship was so valuable that they were willing to pay the price in HIV.
These are choices. But they’re not real choices. Does anyone believe that these people consented to get HIV? There’s no amount of clear communication that will make that choice okay. These are choices created by a broken world. A world where people can’t get the healthcare they need. A world where people are forced to flee their homes and can’t find a new place to live.
I have the freedom to choose S&M because of my privilege. I can enjoy S&M because I have never been abused. I definitely don’t think S&M is for everyone. But I think it’s obvious that S&M is positive for me because when I choose S&M, my other choices are so good. I’m choosing S&M instead of other good sex I could be having. And that’s possible because I take “no means no” for granted. I’m telling you, every person who bought Fifty Shades of Grey should send a check to the local feminist anti-rape organization.
Choice and consent are not, in themselves, sacrosanct values. When I think about the terrible choices that some people are forced to make, I can see why some feminists are suspicious of S&M. I still think they’re wrong if they tell me that I’ve been abused. But when I think about people who choose to get HIV, I can see why a feminist who doesn’t like S&M would look at it and be afraid of abuse.
I think that feminists who believe in sexual freedom have a responsibility to explain ourselves clearly. We have a responsibility to put sexual freedom in an anti-rape context. From “no means no,” feminism has been moving towards “yes means yes.” Feminists have been talking and writing a lot about how to choose awesome sex. And that’s great. Seriously. That’s crucial. I see SlutWalk as an important part of that. SlutWalk: the anti-rape march that talks about pleasure, too.
But just as the “no means no” model wasn’t enough, the “yes means yes” model isn’t enough, either. If we want to talk about positive choices, then we need to create a world where those positive choices are possible for everyone.
Sometimes it’s great to caught up in sexuality and the freedom of our bodies. Personal pleasure is important. Personal fulfillment is important. Anti-rape activism is so, so important. And I hope that a lot of you here today will be inspired to think about your personal sexuality and desire. I hope that you will be inspired to talk openly and honestly about sexuality. I also hope that you will be inspired to help with groups like Rape Victim Advocates.
But I also hope that when you leave today, you leave with the knowledge that we need to create a world where people are equally valuable; we need to create a world where people cannot be forced into any terrible bargains. We need to aim for a world where no one makes choices that are hard and heartbreaking. This is a structural problem. It’s a societal problem. We need social services to be available to everyone. We cannot separate those problems from marches like SlutWalk. In fact, when you think clearly about consent, if you think about how much you care about consent, then marches like SlutWalk should inevitably lead us towards dealing with the social structure behind human choices.
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UPDATE: I received some feedback that there are some troubling messages in this speech for people who have survived abuse, and do consensual S&M. I just want to make it ultra-clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with people who have survived abuse choosing S&M. The research on S&M is positive about this, too, so it’s not just me! For other thoughts on S&M and abuse, please see my previous articles: “Thinking Clearly About S&M Versus Abuse” and “S&M Aftercare … or Brainwashing?” Also: there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with people who feel that they have a deep-seated need for S&M, which I discuss in my piece on sexual orientation.
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