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Sex and Rolling Stone: Orange is the New Prison Reform

It’s sad evidence of collective latent racism that no one cares about prison until a conventionally attractive, intelligent, well-educated, middle-class, urban white woman goes there. Hence, Orange is the New Black, a funny and moving hit original series based on a bestselling memoir. How is it that black and Latina women are relegated to supporting characters even in one of the few places they make up the vast majority of the population?

And now the supporting cast is ghettoized, again, in the leadup to the release of the third season, with the white leads featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and the black characters on the cover of Essence.

At Fusion, Marjon Carlos takes issue with the difference level to which both groups of women are sexualized,

By sexualizing the two white female lesbian protagonists and grouping the black cast members in albeit beautiful but stoic, staid postures on competing covers, stereotypes surrounding desire, respectability, and space are called into question. Schilling and Prepon’s “will-they-won’t-they” stance and braless state reveals them as objects of (male) desire, while Cox and Co. play down their sexuality entirely and play into the trope of the strong, impenetrable black female.

But my understanding is that women of color are not often assumed to be impenetrable, but rather insatiable sluts. I’m a sex-positive feminist who is white (as opposed to a “white feminist” which I may at times embody but only to my shame). So reading objections to sex-positivity, particularly to reclaiming the word “slut” from black women was eye-opening. Many women of color are tired of being hypersexualized and as such don’t see sex-positivity as a good place to spend their time and energy.

Anyway, rather than speak for women of color, I’ll quote some:

If, indeed, I do embrace sex positivity, I must still contend with discourses which hypersexualize my Black, femme body. I can be as ‘sex positive’ as I want, but my embrace of that ethos opens me up to further fueling stereotypes (controlling images) of the Jezebel and Sapphire.

I am Not Sex Positive: A Riff On the Collusion Between Sex Positivity and the Carceral State

Conversations about sex and sexuality become very different when you are talking about a black body. This is because of the historical context of the negative sexual stereotypes that were applied to those bodies in order to dehumanize, subjugate and ridicule them, and elevate white (female) sexuality in the process. Black men were uncontrollable, brute savages who would rape a white woman as soon as look at her, and black women were lascivious whores, always searching for a dick, unrapeable by their very existence.

The Beyoncé Conversation: Feminism, Black Women and The Presumption Of Sexual Agency

My issue with most the criticism of sex-positive feminism is that legitimate criticisms are posted alongside straw-men. I don’t blame the critics for this suboptimal analysis. I blame myself and fellow sex-positive feminists for not doing a better job of communicating just what sex-positivity is and what it offers feminism.

Way too much of sex-positive feminism comes from a white, heteronormative, middle-class perspective and does not address intersectional concerns such as the higher proportions of hypersexualization, sexual assault, and sexual shame women of color face. It comes across, quite frankly, like “Everybody just fuck more! Hee hee, orgasms are great!”

The biggest misconception is that sex-positivity posits that sex is good. In fact it does the opposite, it posits that sex is not good or bad. It’s morally neutral. This might not seem like a big deal, but when applied consistently it removes shame and stigma from sex. As women of color are victimized more by sexual shame and stigma, it would seem that a properly understood sex-positive feminism would benefit them disproportionately too.

What’s sad about our failings as sex-positive feminists to preach our gospel with any skill whatsoever is the fact that sex-positivity is not seen as a way to fight hypersexualization, sexual assault, and sexual shame. By recognizing sex as a bodily function, we can stop considering hypersexuality a moral failing. By teaching that the difference between sex and rape is consent, we help teach men not to rape. Teaching that “consent is impossible in patriarchy therefore all hetero sex is rape” does nothing at all to prevent sexual assault in the world people actually live in outside of all-lesbian women’s studies classes.

The Beyoncé Conversation again:

The loaded racist history of these still prevalent tropes leaves black women especially, in a misogynoirist double bind. Either we deny our sexuality entirely in order to be considered respectable and worthy (not so coincidentally placing ourselves firmly into Mammy territory), or embrace our sexuality, as all women should have the right to do, and be seen as a confirmation of negative black sexual stereotypes.

In effect, our choices as sexual beings are wrapped up in a lose-lose catch-22 that denies our agency from the outset, and punishes us for trying to exercise it.

Sex-positive feminism has the goal of transforming a negative stereotype into a neutral one. People making assumptions about your sex drive from your race is still shitty, but it’s less shitty when we defeat superstition to the point that people realize that your sex drive has no moral significance.

The argument against women of color getting involved in sex-positive feminism that compels me most is frankly that women of color have bigger fish to fry.

Women of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. They are more likely to be in poverty. They are more likely to be single mothers because the fathers of their children are unemployed or incarcerated. They are more likely to be victims of all kind of violence, not just sexual. They are more likely to suffer from depression and substance abuse problems.

In this light, slut-shaming seems like it should probably be a pretty low priority. For everyone.

You can see how disconnected white feminists are from the priorities and lived experience when you consider the prevalence of so-called “carceral feminism.”

I am Not Sex Positive again:

I mention carceral feminisms in light of the SlutWalk-affiliated HollaBack!’s recent announcement of an app that reports street harassment to NYPD ‘in real time.’ This is a tactic of carceral feminisms because it relies upon the State to redress sexual harassment and violence as though state actors, such as those to whom they report, are not culpable in the same violence. It ignores the ways in which brown, queer, poor bodies are targeted with ‘stop-and-frisk’ (a state-sanctioned form of street harassment- which NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn supported), and again centers white, middle-class, femme bodies. Sex positivity also affirms the right of white, middle-class, cisgender femme people to express themselves sexually without shame, but, often, it fails to account for the ways in which brown, poor, queer and disabled bodies are policed by State and non-state actors, and how those bodies and their expressions are disproportionately surveilled, criminalized and incarcerated.

I’m a market anarchist, and a prison abolitionist. My interest in ending the state arises primarily out of self-interest, but I also suffer greatly from that liberal malady of white guilt. But here’s where it gets tricky for me because in a very real way, this is not my fight. I can read and link to writers of color, read the reports, know the stats. But I do not know the lived experience of black feminists.

So I support that work from the side. I fight my fight, and I do not begrudge a woman who has bigger problems than low-quality orgasms. And sometimes that work intersects, like in this post. Or in the work I do for the anarchists and abolitionists at C4SS.

Orange is the New Black isn’t perfect, but it’s still revolutionary. It’s a cast led by women. It’s one of the most diverse casts on television. It brought us Laverne Cox (who, it should be noted, graced the cover of TIME). It was created by a woman.

And it’s brought the issue of overincarceration to millions of Americans’ living rooms. It’s mocked the ridiculousness of the drug war and mandatory minimum sentencing. It’s put a human face on a fundamentally dehumanizing institution. That’s awesome. As much as possible, and it pains me to say this as someone obsessed with sex, let’s not derail a really important conversation about prison reform with an argument about sexual politics.

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