What Libertarianism Can Learn From Sex-positive Feminism

When I was a young, I remember reading about the difference between cooperative and coercive exchanges. It was a mind-blowing thought, that all interactions could be lumped into one of two categories. And that the implications of the nature of those interactions could be so incredibly powerful and meaningful. While libertarianism certainly encompasses many thoughts and ideas, cooperation versus coercion is perhaps one of the most fundamental. What’s interesting to me is how neatly this fits in with what is perhaps the central idea in sex-positive feminism. Enthusiastic consent in sex-positive feminism is essentially cooperation in libertarianism. What’s even more interesting is what libertarianism can learn from sex-positive feminism.

Cooperation Versus Coercion

Cooperative exchanges are those in which all parties have consented to the exchange. In coercive exchanges, at least one party has not consented. Most interactions are easy to distinguish. If I ask you to trade me $5 for a hot dog, you agree and we exchange, then the exchange is cooperative. If I tell you to give me a hot dog or I will shoot you, the exchange is coercive.

If libertarianism does nothing else, it demands cooperative interactions and condemns coercive ones. While that sounds simple, the results are powerful. Cooperative exchange ensures that all parties in the exchange at least believe they’re benefiting by it. If the goal is the most good for the most people, it would seem preferable that everyone would walk away from all exchanges at least somewhat happier than they arrived.

Beyond this though, the less coercion that’s tolerated, the most everyone must pursue their highest good while benefiting others in the process. Insisting on cooperation means I can’t just find a gun and hold people up for hot dogs. I have to make or invent things the hot dog holders want to get my hot dogs. Because people will act in their self-interest, insisting on cooperative exchanges works with, and not against, how humans operate to get them to benefit each other in the process.

And by making people exchange cooperatively with each other we create wealth, as it creates the conditions necessary to incentivize making new and better things to trade.

While sex-positivity certainly encompasses many thoughts and ideas, consent versus rape is perhaps one of the most fundamental. This can very easily be analogized to cooperation versus coercion. Basically, sex-positivity holds that all interactions of a sexual nature can be lumped into one of two categories, sex and rape. The difference between the two is enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent in sex-positivity is really just a more-specific application of the idea of cooperative exchanges. In libertarianism, all non-cooperative exchanges are coercive. In sex-positivity, all sex not enthusiastically consented to is rape. In both, all parties in the exchange at least believe they’re benefiting by it.

The Social Contract

You can see how a focus on cooperation undergirds libertarianism in several related ideas. First is the idea that the so-called “Social Contract” is insufficiently cooperative, as valid contracts require more than passive consent. In fact the concept of contracts in general is essentially cooperation. You can also see the focus on cooperation and consent in the non-aggression principle.

Shades Of Gray

Unfortunately, cooperative versus coercive isn’t always a black-and-white distinction. Some people draw a bright line between physical coercion and other kinds of threats. But even that is not sufficient, as most people see the threat of blackmail as coercive. Similarly, most people see slander as coercive as well. The world we live in contains interactions that cannot be neatly lumped into one or the other category.

The same is true of sex and rape. Enthusiastic, as opposed to passive, consent is aimed at helping to differentiate between a person unable to resist and a person who is consenting. Still, drugs, alcohol, fear and communication problems do make some people seem to be enthusiastically consenting who are not.

The Benefits

Even if the lines aren’t as clear as we’d like them to be, trying to achieve a world in which more exchanges are cooperative and fewer are coercive is worth the effort. When people do things because they want to, and not because they fear harm, they live in a freer, more innovative and prosperous world.

Similarly, it’s a worthy goal for all sexual interactions to be enthusiastically consented to.

What Libertarianism Can Learn

Libertarianism is generally steadfast in holding that individuals should not coerce each other physically. Physical violence and threats of violence are pretty universally condemned. But where non-physical threats come into play, we often shy away from steadfastly upholding a person’s ability to exchange without them. In short, we’re generally okay with trying to control each other’s behavior through non-physically violent threats. These generally including mocking and shaming. Some would even go as far as to defend a person’s right to slander or blackmail.

Sex-positivity, on the other hand, seeks to do away with all attempts to control another’s enthusiastically consensual sexual behavior. Sex-positivity admits that no one knows what’s best for another person, in bed or outside of it. So all attempts to control, whether physical or not, are inappropriate and are not worth the drawbacks. In essence, sex-positivity acknowledges and incorporates the appropriate solution to Hayek’s knowledge problem better and more thoroughly than libertarianism currently does.

Sex-positivity seeks to destroy the judgment and shame which keep people from being able to fully enjoy sex, or a lack of sex, or anything in between. It seeks to allow the greatest amount of peaceful, voluntary sexual exchange.

Libertarianism should seek to destroy the judgment and shame which keep people from being able to fully enjoy any kind of peaceful, voluntary exchange. In this way, it will fully engage in creating a world which allows the greatest amount of peaceful, voluntary exchange possible.

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