Sex and Feminism – in a complicated relationship

 

Can you be sexy and a feminist? This is a question that remains unanswered today even after three waves of feminism across different countries. Inspired by Beyoncé’s new album Jutland Station set out to ask how sex and feminism fit together in Denmark today and how feminism is changing.

By Ellie Sellwood

Beyoncé's new self-titled album

Beyoncé’s new self-titled album

Do you like sex? Sex, I mean the physical activity, coitus, do you like it? You’re not interested in sex? Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love.

This quote is translated from the French version used in Beyoncé’s song ‘Partition’ which features in her latest visual album. Yet it certainly seems as if this message that, ‘yes, feminists like sex’ has been repeated in a lot of places over the last year or so.

The release of Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album was a huge commercial success, but its popularity was not the only talking point. The album also attracted attention for its explicit descriptions of sex and female orgasm and it’s easy to see why when you hear Beyoncé sing ‘climb until you reach my peak, peak, baby, peak,’ and ‘I know you can feel it, pulse keeping the peak of my waterfall,’ in Rocket.

Ultimately, the new album has really made a lot of people stop and think: Can a woman be sexy and a feminist?

And so Beyoncé’s explicit lyrics along with some ultra sexy performances on stage have sparked a big international debate. Some critics argue that Beyoncé is sending a message that it is ok for women to be objectified whilst others applaud her candid approach to sex as a triumph for the sexual liberation of women.

One critic in the latter camp is Danish journalist Eini Carina Grønvold, who has been writing about feminism and specifically pro-sex feminism for seven years.

She lauded Beyoncé’s album as a  ‘Pro-Sex Feminist Manifesto’ that shows that Beyoncé ‘will not accept the idea that her sexual desire and the cult of the female body should be deprived of her because she is a feminist.’

Eini Carina Grønvold along with Nina Søndergaard are the co-founders of the new pro-sex feministic movement here in Denmark.

Nina is a historian and tour guide for her company Nørd Tours. She takes guided walks around Copenhagen, which are ‘unafraid to address political, sexual and bodily issues.’

Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love. – Beyoncé

Jutland Station spoke with these two outspoken pro-sex feminists via Skype.

Nina Søndergaard and Caroline Amalie by Anja M. Alton

A pro-sex feminist group in Denmark

Nina explains that the group came together in 2007 and started a blog community called ‘pro-sexfeminisme.dk.’

Around this time, Denmark was debating whether to ban prostitution as Sweden had. Eini explains that they saw the debate as ‘related to this whole patriarchal ideal of the woman as a virgin’ and not ‘in charge of their own sexuality.’ So the group of pro-sex feminists organized a few sex-workers rights demonstrations and formed a feminist study group

‘We were tired with the feministic discourse in the mainstream being so obsessed with sexuality as a demeaning thing to women,’ Eini says.

Pro-sex feminism first emerged out of the acrimonious Feminist Sex Wars of the 1970s and early 1980s in the United States and Canada. The debate played out in Denmark as the ‘Sex-krig.’

Radical feminists campaigned to ban pornography based on its association with male sexual dominance and female oppression.

Pro-sex feminists, on the other hand, brought sex into their homes and everyday lives, embracing it as an essential component of women’s freedom.

In the heat of the ‘Sex-krig’ debate, feminism’s relationship with sex became ‘complicated.’

Two groups both alike in dignity

In Denmark, the two feminist positions remain mutually exclusive. Nina says that their ‘pro-sex feminism’ group doesn’t fit very easily with mainstream, radical feminism ‘as we want opposite things.’

Like Denmark’s Nordic neighbors, mainstream feminism here is concerned with equality.

According to Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, associate professor in Gender studies at Aarhus University, this has both pros and cons. To illustrate this she tells a story about a recent visit to Norway. ‘I visited a friend and we went to the opera. The outside of the building, the external façade was made by two female artists and it was very beautiful. So we were discussing this because I said ‘that could never have happened in Denmark! Art made by women on a building like this, that was going to present ‘what is Norway’ I was amazed.’

Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

Bodil explains that she has engaged with and related to different feminist groups and debates even giving a seminar on ‘differential’ or ‘post-feminism’ in 1984. This kind of feminism argues that one gender is always shaped on the other, so you cannot have a one-to-one relationship that man = woman so there can’t be absolute equality.

She says that although she did not see herself as a ‘postfeminist’, this was not a very popular view at the time, as ‘many people voted for equality like in Norway and Sweden where you had to have 50/50.’ Now, Bodil is more convinced that she would ‘vote for that position because the process has been too slow in Denmark’.

Eini says that the pro-sex feminism group is pretty lucky here in Denmark because ‘in Sweden there are also pro-sex feminist groups but they are very much overheard and suppressed.’ She believes that this is because ‘the feministic discourse is so big but also has such a big consensus at the same time, it’s so homogeneous so there’s no space for disagreement.’

The main disagreement between pro-sex and radical feminists, according to Nina, surrounds the question of ‘whether sex is good or bad.’ She thinks ‘radical feminism rejected sex as one way to play down traditional feminine appearance and power, to turn down the sex and promote things like education etc.’ But this means that ‘many of the radical feminists actually have a very sex-negative view’ and ‘it really does seem that they think that sex is something dirty and abhorrent.’

Instead, Nina argues that sex and feminism should not be exclusive and all forms of sex should be embraced. ‘Sex-positive feminism wants to give women back the full power, on how to dress and use of her body, expressing it sexually, even making money of it, I mean why not?’ she says with a laugh.

Nina strongly believes that feminism should stop pitting women against men because she is adamant that men and women ‘do not go about murdering each other every day, we want each other, we love each other, we want to fuck the brains out of the other.’

Sex-positive feminism wants to give women back the full power, on how to dress and use of her body, expressing it sexually, even making money of it, I mean why not? – Nina Søndergaard

It’s up to the individual

According to Nina it all comes down to the sense that traditional feminists ‘really do not have any confidence that men and women can think for themselves and not just act on impulse.’

Eini agrees, ‘it’s up to the individual to define how and if they want to be sexually extrovert as not all women do and that’s perfectly fine.’ Eini is animated as she explains that ‘the sexuality is the woman’s own, so there shouldn’t be a normative idea of how a woman should be. It should be free of restrictions on a whole different level than it is to this day.’

Eini says Danish feminism has only dealt with ‘the right to not be sexualized and that is also important because it’s important that we are not sexualized when we don’t want to be,’ but she says ‘the solution to that is not to say that women cannot be sexual, the solution is that women can decide when to be sexual.’

However, Bodil, has a different view. ‘We should stick to the idea, at least for some time still, that the normal split between the man and the woman is the difference between being the subject and the object and objectification of women is still going on,’ she argues.

The solution to that is not to say that women cannot be sexual, the solution is that women can decide when to be sexual. – Eini Carina Grønvold

Sex and pop culture

On the topic of Beyoncé’s new album, Eini is convinced that whilst the music could move something here, Beyoncé does not have the same cultural impact here as she does elsewhere in the world.

‘It will have an even bigger impact [in the US] because Beyoncé has another position as a role model and the fact that she goes out and speaks about sex the way she does in a society where sex is so prohibited and shameful and she deals with female orgasm in a way that is so other than it’s ever been done, that’s amazing.’

Yet, Eini admits that there’s a big stumbling block in the sense that ‘culturally we are looking down on artists who express themselves sexually, especially if they are women because we have this idea that female sexuality is not something we can respect in a cultural sense, not just here in Denmark but in a general global sense.’

Associate professor, Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen has worked on research that centers on the ‘film divas’ of the silent and speaking films of 1940s Hollywood, fashion and modernity and more recently on Lars von Trier. She has a more cynical view on Beyoncé’s new album.

‘Especially in the fashion or music industry, there is so much to be won by trying to not relate to [the objectification of women],’ she says. ‘There’s so much power in bare breasts or the naked body, but this power is almost always undermining the power of the woman. I don’t think we could negotiate that, it’s non-negotiable, it’s a fact, this is the way things have been going on economically, it’s a market.’

There’s so much power in bare breasts or the naked body, but this power is almost always undermining the power of the woman.  – Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

Times are changing

Eini believes that times are changing because ‘my generation is a counter-generation to the one before’ and ‘young women are much more demanding of their bodies and their rights to be sexual.’

Nina points to the famous book, ‘Kvinde kend din krop’ (‘Women know your body’) which recently came out in its fifth edition, as proof that things are changing. ‘It gives power back to the women- it’s your life, do what you want with it, and the newest edition has a six-pages long guide to anal sex, which was unthinkable in the previous editions, unthinkable.’

Both Eini and Nina highlight that young women are unlikely to call themselves feminist however, Nina believes that ‘if they have a stance I’d say that they were closer to pro-sex feminism than radical feminism, but I might be biased!’

Bodil thinks that ‘something has changed on the political level here and also in academia’. For her, the biggest obstacle for modern feminism is the fact that a vast majority of public speech or public appearance is done by men and on male issues, ‘all of them, the journalists, experts on TV are male and that’s the Danish reality’.

She thinks that the route to progress is through the media, especially since here in Denmark there is a long-running debate about women’s issues and how they ‘tend to be in the part of the newspaper that has to do with ‘lifestyle’ and ‘health.’

Instead, Bodil says that women’s issues should be brought ‘into the main part of the newspaper’ because ‘this selection between what is politics, what is economics and what is woman, it’s awkward and it doesn’t make sense.’

Bodil is an advocate of equal rights in the more practical sense which involves the incorporation of women’s stories into the main body of newspapers and making it easier for women to become professors or artists. This more traditional form of feminism certainly has its place, especially since it has paved the way for a female Prime Minister and helped secure a ranking of 8th for Denmark in the most recent Global Gender Gap report.

But according to Nina and Eini this more traditional branch of feminism has yet to reconcile, kiss and make up with sex. In their eyes, radical feminism is still in a complicated relationship with sex.

Nina and Eini proudly call themselves pro-sex feminists and embrace the woman’s right to use her body as she wants, even if it means stripping for her man like Beyoncé has done in her latest performances for her Mrs. Carter tour. In fact Nina goes as far as encouraging Jutland Station’s female readers to embrace this type of feminism in a more drastic way and ‘be polyamorous, be a slut, yes, yes, yes!’

 

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Ellie Sellwood is an aspiring journalist who has an interest in social issues including gender equality. You can follow her on Twitter @EllieSellwood.