Our second wave mothers called for sexual liberty, sexual independence, and reproductive freedom. They didn’t get it. What they got was contraception and abortion, and the freedom to wear ever skimpier clothes. Don’t get me wrong, these were important gains, and they must not be lost in some chastity=self-respect backlash: but all the same they were gains dictated by the pornography industry and the consequences for women have not, so far, been especially good.

Indeed, ever since the pornography industry hijacked the sexual revolution of the 1960s for its own commercial ends, feminism doesn’t seem to have had much of a look in. Pornographers took the idealistic clamour for sexual freedom, hand-picked the issues and solutions that benefited pornographers (by making it easier for them to make and sell pornography), and rode the second wave all the way to the bank.

Now that we have access to contraception and abortion, and have the option to control our fertility without abstaining from sex, we are expected to do so. We are expected to be sexually available. It is still our responsibility to avoid and “deal with” unwanted pregnancy as much as it ever was, but the sexual revolution has added insult to that continuing injury, because the choice of abstinence is no longer realistically open to our daughters, who are under enormous pressure to have sex at ever earlier ages.

Now that we have greater freedom to display our bodies (some freedom, huh, the freedom to display ourselves to the general public, like so much meat in a butcher’s shop) and to be open about our sexuality and sexual identity, we are expected to do so. We are expected to be sexually available. It is still our responsibility to avoid and “deal with” rape as much as it ever was, but the sexual revolution has added insult to that continuing injury, because our daughters are under enormous pressure to look and act in ways that always have been and still are treated as “asking for it”.

Was the sexual revolution all wrong?

Hell, no. We still want the liberation that the second wave feminists wanted. We still want sexual liberty, sexual independence, and reproductive freedom. We want not just the state, not just the church, but now also the massive pornography industry (and its sidekick, the beauty industry) to get out of our bedrooms, to get out of the way of our individual paths to sexual happiness. We want women and men to have the liberty to do what makes us happy, subject only to the harm principle. We want women and men to have the independence we need to discover for ourselves what it is that makes us happy, free from the constraints and pressures under which we presently labour. We want our reproductive freedoms to continue and improve.

The sexual revolution did not achieve all these things for us in the 1960s. The work of our mothers is not yet finished.

I write this post after reading various articles or blog posts by (primarily) self-described third wave feminists calling for a new sexual revolution or suggesting that the 1960s revolution has failed. Although I want to mention this fact because it is what inspired me to write this post right here today, I’m actually not going to link to any specific article or post because I haven’t seen one that happens to suit me. Some seem to struggle between a desire to be “sex-positive” and confusion about what that means in terms of pornography and prostitution. I’m also not sure whether we should be discarding the work of our mothers in this way, starting afresh – instead I hope we can learn from their efforts (and mistakes), build on their gains and continue their interrupted revolution.


I wrote some time ago about the need for the Third Wave to call for bodily independence, and I suggested what that might mean. An exceprt:

  • Not being raped or abused or otherwise physically attacked.
  • Not having to wear makeup, shave our hairy bits, spend a fortune on our clothes and hair, have our bodies surgically altered – all in the name of an artificial social construct of “beauty”.
  • Having better access to good sex education and to safe and effective contraception.
  • Being trusted to know when an abortion is the right choice.
  • Being allowed to dress up or down, to sparkle or not, without it being a political statement.
  • Having the freedom to be the size and shape that nature intended.
  • Not being objectified as sex toys for men.
  • Being allowed to menstruate, gestate, parturate, lactate and climacterate as part of a celebration of life, rather than as something difficult requiring medical intervention.
  • Loving our bodies.
  • Knowing our bodies.
  • Living inside our bodies.
  • Being at one with our bodies.

I still believe in all those things, and I am still totally hyped by the word climacterate (which may not even be a real word) but more to the point I feel that a time has come for there to be some clearer focus for me in what I am going to do with my feminism.

For 2008, what I am going to do with my feminism is this: support and promote the right of all people, especially young people, to really great sex/body education. To me, this feels like the single biggest tool that we have for re-starting the sexual revolution and giving young women and men the skills and information and support they need to really find out what bodily independence means.


What do I mean by really great sex/body education?

I mean that people need to have the opportunity to learn about their own bodies and how they work. In detail. With awe.

I mean that people need to learn what a body is: that each person’s body belongs exclusively to that person, that our bodies are an essential part of our selves, and that every body is valuable and different.

To this end, really great sex/body education will include both a course in human biology and lessons in critical thinking, together with access to unbiased information and a range of perspectives on the following specific areas:

  • What sexual behaviour is appropriate. This needs to include an understanding of (1) the harm principle (2) the need for valid consent to any sexual behaviour (including what consent means and how to find out whether the behaviour is wanted) and (3) any legal or other necessary constraints on sexual behaviour.
  • Avoiding unwanted pregnancies – including information about contraception, non-penetrative sex, masturbation and abstinence.
  • Avoiding, recognising and getting treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
  • Abortion rights, including information on how to access abortion if it is wanted.
  • For both sexes: Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and menopause (also, some boy stuff – although this isn’t necessarily my priority since ewww boys are icky).
  • LGBTQ issues: sexuality, sexual identity, gender, and sexual confusion. Thinking about discrimination and prejudice relating to the above.
  • How media and cultural influences can affect our sexuality, our sexual preferences and our attitudes to our own and other people’s bodies. This will involve developing skills of critical analysis, including an understanding of marketing techniques, and how/why advertising works.
  • Self-love and self-hatred- actively developing self love; and understanding, avoiding, recognising and getting treatment for problems that can spring from self-hatred including eating disorders, depression and self-harm.

Let’s make a generation of people who can tell the difference between freedom and oppression, ideas and propaganda, liberty and constraint, choice and compulsion, sex and rape. Let’s at least try.