Reinforcing Sexual Hierarchies in Fat Positive Spaces

For a long time I have watched as the fat rights community has continued to reinforce problematic sexual and relationship hierarchies in fat positive spaces. As a community we whole-heartedly reject the notion that fat bodies are inherently unhealthy or any other stereotype attached to our fat bodies, but what we don’t address is what I feel is almost a compulsive need to prove to others that we are not those stereotypes. While doing this we ignore the reality that people do fall into the spaces we are trying to not fill by distancing ourselves from them.

This kind of distancing continues this notion of a ‘good fatty / bad fatty’ dichotomy that makes it so those of us without “successful” relationships, who may or may not want to be in a relationship, feel as though we are somehow lesser than. If we were to be truly revolutionary we would be challenging the stereotype all together. Who gets to choose where self worth or social acceptability comes from? Who gets to decide that any person, regardless of body size, must conform to what we deem to be acceptable forms of relationships or sexual acts? Who gets to decide where someone’s sexuality comes from or what kind of sex is better? If we want to be revolutionary we should be challenging all standards of living, not just showing exceptions to stereotypes.

When is comes to sex and relationships the discussion is almost always led by someone who is partnered, is about having sex with other people while being slanted toward the idea that being a good fatty means being in a relationship. Very rarely does sex talk involve personal experiences from those of us who are not intimate with other people. It very rarely involves breaking away from the normative standards of sexual experience, which deems relationships between two people to be the best kind of relationship to be in.

Because of the widely held prejudicial belief that fat people are unlovable conversations have often centered on challenging that. It isn’t abnormal to come across blogs that tell people that they will be loved, that they will have fulfilling sexual experiences that focus on multiple partners being involved. This sends the message that intimate relationships with others, sexual experiences and self worth are related. While I highly doubt anyone has meant for this to happen, the reality is that by not making space for people who are not intimate with other people we are continuing to exclude people from this movement based on pretty archaic sexual hierarchies.

Within sex positive discourse it isn’t abnormal to see discussion about how female sexuality in particular, though I would say any gender that does not conform to the traditional role of male sexuality, is seen to have their sexuality given to them. The idea behind this is that sexuality is taught to women by men, that their sexuality is not manifested from within but from other people. Even when we remove ourselves from this traditional thought about sexuality and move into being more sex positive we still recreate this same narrative when we only talk about sex between partners or make a distinction between solo sexual experiences (aka masturbation) and sex with others.

It isn’t abnormal for me to be discussing sex with other people and a distinction to be made by saying sex with a partner is better than being alone. The truth is that I have found just as many people who don’t see the difference and the reality is that it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s sexual experience is different, I enjoy my sexual experience with my box of toys, and others might enjoy their sexual experiences to be with one partner or two or three. Some people do nothing, some do a lot. Every form of variation is valid, every form is good.

Discussions that center around only one kind of relationship or sexual experience, leaves room for interpretation that those are the only kind that matter. They continue to reinforce sexual hierarchies that are damaging not only to people within the fat rights movement but also to anyone who believes they are truly sex positive. Being revolutionary means speaking for all people, not essentializing aspects of people’s sexuality, relationships or worth.

For further reading,

“Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” Gayle S. Rubin

10 thoughts on “Reinforcing Sexual Hierarchies in Fat Positive Spaces

  1. Thank you for shedding light on this. I have nothing to add but my gratitude that you are teaching and sharing so much here. Loving your posts lately. :)

  2. This is an excellent, excellent post! As a very-fat person who is celibate (for personal/religious reasons), I can very much identify with the concerns described here.

  3. As a person with body acceptance issues, I would like to add some comments here.
    You have made very valid points here; however, I think it needs to be said that sex is more than a good orgasm or the pleasure that is derived from it. Intimate relationships with others involve a figurative and literal nakedness that makes you vulnerable. I don’t believe that multiple sex partners is the road to happiness nor do I believe in the extreme of celibacy. (of course, these are personal choices, I’m speaking solely about myself now) I have found happiness by allowing myself to be vulnerable and by knowing that another person who I love is doing the same. That’s not to say that I am comfortable with my body or even like it, but it does mean that the experience of my lover touching my body in a positive way helps me accept it more. I know when I look in the mirror and see a belly that is stretched out from having children and thighs that jiggle that someone else derives much pleasure from those parts of me. It is good for my soul to know that the touch of his hand on my belly makes him happy. That’s not to say that masturbation isn’t fun or pleasurable, because it is. No one knows your body like you do and that’s always an advantage when it comes to sexual pleasure. I just wanted to add that by allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a wonderful experience.

    • This is a really good example of the kind of reinforcement I am talking about. Your experiences are your own, and while valid, they do not speak for the experiences of everyone. You might find that being in an intimate relationship is beneficial for your own life but that doesn’t mean everyone does. Nowhere did I say that sex is only about orgasms and pleasure, though the assumption that I implied this says a lot. What is taken from sexual experiences, relationships (intimate or not) is up to each individual. Your experiences with your partner, with intimacy, or having children are your own experiences not others.

      As far as your ranking of sexual experiences or relationships, I would advise against making judgments about the lives of others. Even if you are speaking for what you believe to be right for you it doesn’t mean that you are not also stating opinions about the lives of others. The idea that you would say that celibacy is an extreme way to live ones life is harmful, to assume that someone cannot be happy in a multi partner relationship is harmful. Even if you only mean for your life.

      To solve this problem we need to stop believing that our own experiences are the experience of everyone, that our beliefs are the right beliefs and make space for all people regardless how different their beliefs are from our own.

  4. I’ve reposted this article for people to read on Tumblr, thank you for writing it. :)

    Also, it’s not my place to say anything about what fat positivity politics should look like, but in case fat positivity folks reading this think that the ideas about “compulsory sexuality” in an article I recently wrote are useful, here it is:

    The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism – #Compulsory Sexuality

    (I’ve linked directly to the bit on “compulsory sexuality” but there’s more before and after)

    In the article, I try to represent some of the concerns I’ve heard from fat positivity activists a little, but I didn’t think it was my place to talk about it a lot, as I didn’t have much to draw on. If you’d be ok with this, I’d quite like to link to this article from within the piece?

  5. Pingback: The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism | A Radical TransFeminist

  6. I’m just catching up on my reading and I wanted to drop by and say this is a really powerful post that touches on a lot of the same thoughts I have myself. As a very fat woman who decided to remain celibate until she found the partner who valued her in the way she feels she should be valued, I quite often feel left out about the discourse had in fat positive spaces. I am very sex positive, in that I believe people should have as much or as little as they want, and any way they want as consenting adults with other consenting adults. But my choices don’t fit into the usual discourse on the subjects, and I feel like I’m either marked as prudish or “vanilla”, and dismissed as someone with experiences and perspectives on the subject. I don’t talk about it publicly for several reasons, the major two being that I believe it’s nobody’s business but mine and my partner’s, but more so because I feel dismissed as someone who is outside the hierarchy.

    Well done to you for speaking up!

  7. Thank you for this, even if you’re not quite going in the direction of what bothers me. It really bothers me that fat people who have trouble finding relationships and are single and discouraged are ignored and left out of the conversation. The fat acceptance movement simply does not want to hear about us, as part of the push to present overweight individuals as physically active, healthy, functional in society, and happily coupled.

    Any mention that you have trouble finding partners is countered with scolding, not sympathy.

    – “You need to be more self-confident.”
    – “I’ve never had any trouble finding dates.”
    – “Wear more provocative clothes.”
    – “Put yourself out there!”
    – “You don’t accept your body enough. Do that, and you’ll find love.”

    When the reality show “More To Love” came out, there was a lot of defensive blogging about the show and the contestants – these lovely women complained about their dating difficulties and fatosphere bloggers dismissed it because that’s not the face we want for the movement. Crying about being unloved?

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