Sexual Empowerment or Sexism Rebranded?

“Too often it can get to a point where we are performing our sexuality more than enjoying our sexuality.”


I grew up with third-wave feminism. I have been a third-wave feminist. And while there is much that I am thankful for that has come from previous and current waves of feminism, one of the things I find to be rather disheartening is the seeming conflation of sexual liberation with sexual exploitation. If you’re already tuned in to this problem, if you’re already aware, this piece is not directed at you. This is for the girls and women who are starting to come into their own sexuality, and might be exploring the idea of sexual empowerment and sexual liberation as put forth by third-wave feminism.

I came of age with Riot Grrrl feminism and the burgeoning of raunch culture. To my young mind, and the minds of many other women I have spoken to, the seemingly constant imperative pushed forth by mainstream and some components of fringe feminism at that time was to obtain sexual liberation by having sex with whomever you wanted, whenever you wanted. That it was prudish or ‘old-fashioned’ to abstain from sex or limit ones partners. You weren’t really ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ unless you could emotionally detach from sex. Many of us tried, many of us succeeded, and many of us failed. I see that message still continually pushed forth by many mainstream feminist or woman-focused media outlets, and what I have seen is the transition from the oppressive standard of women being valued for their purity and chastity to the equally oppressive and harmful opposite end of the spectrum wherein we are valued for our sexiness and sexual availability.

anna nicole

In the name of progress we’ve done a 180, commodifying and packaging our sexuality in a new way. The thing is, while we’ve pushed and pushed and pushed for women to stop being slut-shamed and to be able to have sex with whomever we please (and still too often you cannot without ridicule) it seems we have simultaneously drowned out the voices of and alienated the girls and women who don’t want to have sex with lots of men or women, who want to have sex with one partner, a couple or a few partners, or who don’t want to have sex at all. In addition to creating an environment of a near stifling level of pressure to go out and bang with wild abandon, the image put forth of the happy and liberated woman, comfortable in her sexuality and, therefore, in herself, is typically white, thin, and heterosexual. All other women seem to disappear within this message. The connotations of such an image and push for sexual liberation across cultural boundaries didn’t’ seem to be considered. Where were the gay girls, the Black girls, the trans girls? Where was anybody and everybody else, and for whom did this message really apply?

Too often it can get to a point where we are performing our sexuality more than enjoying our sexuality. If that really pleases you and gives you pleasure, do you! You’re doing great! But when sexual activities are done in the name of being liberated and free and ‘empowered’, but we are performing sex instead of enjoying sex, when we are engaging in sexual activities because we are feeling like we won’t be ‘normal’ or that we won’t be ‘liberated’ if we do, then our sexual endeavors become less about our own enjoyment and empowerment and lend a hand in our sexual exploitation. The idea that sexual liberation and empowerment comes with many partners and with no emotional attachment is only true for some people. For other people, it is a farce, a position put forth that, when we are doing things out of seeming obligation or to uphold a norm, stops being about us and our pleasure and reverts back to our sexuality being used for the pleasure of others without us being fully present and engaged. That’s not empowering. That is objectification and exploitation. This mode of thought has so permeated American culture that for many young girls, this self-objectification is based on fashion, and not feminism. It is sexism rebranded. Our worth and our value do not lie in our sexuality, whether that be based on purity and abstinence, or the appearance or actuality of constant sexual availability.

If you want to have sex with everybody you feel like and that works for you, you’re sexually empowered. If you want to have sex with one person, a couple people, or no people, if you need or desire an emotional connection before having sex and you are making that choice for you and your body, you are sexually empowered. It’s ok to push your boundaries and try new things and experiment. It’s also ok not to, and to feel comfort within your boundaries and do what feels best for you. But while we’re having this conversation and while we’re trying to reach a point where all women feel sexually liberated, it’s important to keep in mind that that’s different for everybody, and there’s more than one way to feel empowered in your choices. If the constant cultural narrative is limiting or coercing your choices through the creation of new norms that pigeonhole you into one acceptable way of being, there will not be empowerment.

By: Sara Luckey, Blog Editor

  1. Thank you for this! “[T]ypically white, thin and heterosexual.” Don’t forget young. I always thought that expressing sexuality involved having sex, not necessarily doing it in front of people or carrying a flgurative sign that you are sexually available. I don’t get it. There are all kinds of female empowerment. One is having sex outside of marriage and not feeling like one is being shamed for it. But that’s an outside shame. If the woman feels okay in her sexual choices, then she has no shame. That’s empowerment. But the current suggestion that when a woman comes of age she has to show her sexuality rather than merely experiencing it without shame –with or without emotional ties or a ring, I don’t get that. A woman can also be empowered by owning property (something that wasn’t always allowed). She can become educated. And the mother of all mothers of empowerment — NOT having children. (And to a lesser extent, not marrying.) So I haven’t been able to jump on the Miley Cyrus — don’t shame her for being overtly sexual thing, blah blah blah. She made money from her show for the writers of the song and the producers of the show. She also made a big deal about being engaged. (Though I guess that’s over.) How about we talk about Taylor Swift and Jennifer Nettles and Katy Perry whose songwriting skills will insure that they will get paid for the rest of their lives from song placements in movies, TV and commercials — well past the time when the public wants to see them performing in a nude colored bikini. How about Jennifer Aniston who has not had children (gasp!) but is a multi-millionaire. And I’m assuming that all of these women are having sex with someone(s) and I hope it’s good sex. It’s often the people who don’t talk about it or flaunt it that are having the best sex anyway. They are happy. They don’t need to prove why.

    “[F]or many young girls, this self-objectification is based on fashion, and not feminism.” THANK YOU FOR THAT! It is so prevalent now in discussions of feminism and racism and we are tricked into taking stands for fashion. Fashion. Fashion that all the cool kids are wearing. Do I have to don stilettos and a tight mini and engage in public simulated sex to be an empowered woman? Does my son or my father for that matter have to wear their shorts hanging off their butts to show they are proud black men? No. These are fashions popular among a subset of youth. And fashions fade over time, and that’s okay.

    I’m amazed at how for a while people said we’ve come such a long way from the pumps, dresses and pearls of the housewives from the past (who were, presumably, having sex). Yet now to be empowered we must wear short tight skirts and 6 inch heels, and if a celebrity, rarely appear with pants or a skirt on, all which showcases our (young, white, thin) bodies and then fight for the right to do so as a badge of feminism with no judgment.

    Personally, I’m not going to fight for the right to hurt my feet. Ouch.

  2. I think that 3rd Wave has taken “sex-positive” and allowed it to be corrupted to “patriarchal-sex-positive”, where sex is celebrated and glorified but more typically after the same model that women have been presented with for millennia – the idea that they are sexual objects for men’s enjoyment, though now somehow they’re supposed to enjoy playing out that role.

    I think that 3rd Wave also has done a terrible job of speaking out against rape and prostitution the way 2nd wave did, and it shows in the rape culture that is widely accepted by this generation. Idiots like Robin Thicke should not be millionaires, but he isn’t just financially successful – he’s also immensely popular and his celebration of raping women is almost never questioned(!). As you eloquently pointed out, liberation and exploitation have been conflated.

    Thank you for much for this piece! I just became a BlueStockings follower.

    You may be interested in my WordPress where I feature external content related to feminism as well as other important values:

    Have a lovely weekend.

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