Commentary Politics

Sex By Southwest: Feminist Thought in Non-Feminist Spaces

Amanda Marcotte

Many panels about sex and dating at the annual South by Southwest conference feature online feminists promoting feminist ideas to a male-heavy, often hostile audience. Why doing this work is both important and rewarding.

Greetings from sunny Austin, TX, which is actually not so much sunny as it is rainy and wet (though the weather reports swear it’s supposed to warm up and dry up). Every year, the city gets swarmed for two weeks by South by Southwest, an epic conference for music, film, and technology that attracts literally tens of thousands of participants. The technology section lasts from March 9-13. Since the dividing line between online life and offline life is crumbling to the point of near nonexistence, the topics covered at this section, called SXSW Interactive, are increasingly becoming about life itself: politics, food, humor, work, and of course, sex.

Sex educator and writer Violet Blue has produced a list of panels about sex in the digital age, most of which take place on Monday. In addition to these panels, there’s a handful more where the recent political events regarding reproductive rights are an issue, including one from Sunday morning about Planned Parenthood’s recent trials and tribulations. My panel was titled Sex Nets: Pickup Artists vs. Feminists, and much to my delight, the room was packed to the gills, and a whole lot of the attendees weren’t the typical audience for feminist talks.

This was probably the first time I’ve done a public event while wearing my feminist hat where more than half the room was male, instead of the usual events where most of the room is female, with the few proud male stragglers. This made for an unusual (for me) situation, of speaking to a crowd where there were people who aren’t well-versed in the ideas and jargon of feminism, many of whom I discovered after the talk are openly hostile to feminism because it treads on cherished beliefs in gender essentialism. (Or, as I put it when talking to people not well-versed in feminist jargon, the belief that men and women are opposites and that those differences are biological instead of socialized.) It was a great and educational experience, and I genuinely think I was able to get some men who might be fearful or suspicious of feminism to give some of the ideas a chance.

It’s often hard to get feminists into spaces where we have rapt audiences who haven’t been exposed to our ideas much, but it’s a critical thing to do. Not in lieu of the valuable speaking-to-ourselves outreach, but in addition to it. Many of Monday’s panels also have a bunch of feminists on them and will also be reaching this same broad audience that might not be completely on board, and I expect that we’ll see similar opportunities to reach out.  So what have I learned from this experience when it comes to crafting a message that can expand beyond just the usual suspects?

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Framing matters. A lot of the time, feminists prefer to talk around the issue of sexual freedom, instead talking about health and women’s equality. These frameworks are valuable and shouldn’t be abandoned, but they also can take the sexy out of sex, which is something you really want to avoid doing if you’re trying to reach a broad audience. If you talk about issues of women’s rights, consent, and equality when it comes to sex, some times it helps to frame it as a matter of helping people have more sex, better sex, and better relationships. Many of the people in our panel’s audience couldn’t have been dragged to a panel about rape prevention, but because they were interested in our topic—dating and how to go about it—I was able to work in powerful messages about rape prevention that actually got through to people, pointing out that being sexy and respecting consent aren’t mutually exclusive behaviors. Again, this isn’t all the work we should be doing, but it should be some of it.

Be funny and be blunt. Most people know the rule “avoid jargon” when talking to a general audience, but in order to really get across to people, you have to do more than that. While trying to convey my ideas about sex without objectification and respecting consent, I wasn’t afraid to make jokes and talk in often-uncomfortable terms about what sex and dating look like in the real world. For instance, instead of tip-toeing around the subject of alcohol and dating, I said directly that drinking and dating go together a lot, and most people are just fine with that. And that we can expect people to act like adults and know the difference between having a couple of drinks on a date before they have sex, and someone who’s had so many that their consent isn’t compromised. This kind of messaging works better than simply saying alcohol and sex shouldn’t mix, which can cause people to discount your more important messages about consent because you sound like you have no idea what sex is like in the real world.

Know your audience’s concerns, but don’t pander. With many adherents to “pick-up artistry” in the audience, it was difficult to walk the line between validating their desire to get laid and not validating their willingness to cross boundaries to do so. Many feminists, when addressing sexist dating advice, such as telling men to insult women or push their boundaries, look for an easy out and tell men interested in this stuff that it doesn’t “work,” hoping to scare them off it by speaking their language. But discouraging that behavior by focusing on whether it works or not only reinforces their troubling belief that it’s okay to do unethical things if those things result in more notches in the bedpost. Instead, I framed my objections by saying that I believe these negative behaviors can get some women to have sex they didn’t want to have, but that exploiting people’s personality flaws to get them to do sexual things they don’t want to do is wrong. Most people don’t want to be bad people, and so we shouldn’t be afraid to address their higher moral concerns, especially if we’re doing so with an eye towards using humor and not talking above people’s heads.

My experiences this weekend have suggested to me that feminism really is for everyone, as bell hooks has said. While it’s often exhausting work to go into indifferent or hostile spaces and talk about our issues, it can also produce massive rewards. 

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