Of Course Fetishes Are Political
Exploring the limits of sex positivity and tradwifery as a "kink"
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I imagine that simply by saying “having sex is a good thing,” I get identified rather often as sex positive. And sure, I am sex positive in that I have an optimistic attitude toward sex as a good thing. But I have increasingly been taking issue with what I see as sex positivity as a sort of united ideology. The idea that we should never kink-shame is one tenet of this ideology, an example of the uncritical permissiveness that it encourages. The message there is that sex is entirely personal, entirely apolitical and therefore we should all be free to do exactly as we please. That’s true to the extent that two or more consenting adults should indeed be at liberty to indulge in their interests privately so long as it isn’t a harm to others. But this is itself an ultimately rather narrow understanding of how sex actually functions in the social realm.
One recent example of the limits of viewing sex and fetishes as apolitical is in the case of the tradwife TikToker. A few weeks ago, a video from a woman named Estee Williams bombarded timelines. In the video, Estee, a beautiful young woman with Marilyn Monroe-esque hair and an affinity for 50s-inspired sundresses, laments how the world condemns “traditional wives” who enjoy staying home to cook and clean while their husband provides financially. Despite the criticisms, she says she will continue to live “her truth.” I’m not sure who exactly is condemning her lifestyle — it seems like a blessing to be able to afford to focus on taking care of the home rather than work for an income, I’d like to do that — but much of the critiques I witnessed focused upon the performativity of it all, and that her bread looked like a rock. But as the initial wave of reactions passed, a second emerged to say that the video was actually fetish content.
“idk why people cant comprehend that this is quite literally serving a fetish,” wrote Hasan Piker. “more power to her, and there’s obv nothing wrong w choosing to live like this as well- but it’s always funny to see ppl post this aesthetic as a political mode of existence when it’s simply marketing.”
While Estee may indeed be serving a fetish, her own or others, there’s not much evidence of her profiting from it in the way of an OnlyFans or any other true adult content. Regardless, there are undoubtedly people who are fetishizing it. Hasan is right about that. What he’s wrong about, though, is the idea that this isn’t a political mode of existence — in fact, it is likely an even more political mode of existence as it relates to a fetish than it would be if people weren’t sexualizing it at all.
Estee is already positioning her lifestyle as political in her “me versus the world” attitude. But that there is anything erotic to glean from it highlights how intertwined sexual desires often are with cultural ones. There are multiple ways that this video might touch upon a fetish: maybe it’s the sort of mommy-oriented caretaker theme, maybe it’s a more specific desire to see women relegated to the home entirely. It’s probably not some basic fantasy of having a relationship based on love and respect and an appreciation of what each partner provides, though that would be nice. Regardless, fetish is a vehicle through which one’s political beliefs and hopes are manifested. Perhaps for Estee is is “simply marketing,” as Hasan put it, but for those consuming it there is indeed a political mode of existence to be read.
Earlier this week, I saw a clip circulating from the recent documentary series We Need To Talk About Bill Cosby in which a sex therapist states that we ought to have a “sex positive world” where men who have a fetish for unconscious women can purchase the services of a sex worker who will agree to be drugged so that said men can “get their kink out.” I haven’t seen the documentary, and I know nothing more about this sex therapist specifically. However, the clip struck me as a part of this “sex positive” narrative that kinks are entirely personal and apolitical. In this ideology, everyone has the right to explore their sexuality according to their unique desires even if these kinks are fundamentally about causing harm. And sure, there could be couples that engage in various forms of unconsciousness in their sex lives in a way that doesn’t cause each other harm. That’s fine! What I take issue with is the idea that people who have this desire to have sex with drugged bodies should look for hoops to jump through in order to do so, rather than interrogating where it is that desire comes from and how it can be remedied. What good is sex positivity if it further perpetuates violence under the guise of liberation?
We’re encouraged to think that what we do with our desires is only reflective of ourselves, when in fact there is a constant ebbing between our desires, ourselves and the culture surrounding us. This sex therapist seems to understand this somewhat in considering the ways a different social view of sex would contribute to different sex practices, but still only envisions a world in which the individual and their desires are freestanding. That people are sexually aroused by assault, or tradwives, or anything else is as much a reflection of the culture as it is the person. This isn’t always something insidious or demanding of correction — even a foot fetish, for example, hinges at least in some part upon our broader relationship with feet and shoes. Of course personal experience drives the fetish more than anything, but the personal experience itself is informed by social and cultural parameters.
But sex positivity has led to this dynamic where, when confronted with a fetish, we’re supposed to just say “oh, this is fetish content” and leave it at that. We ought to dissect this content further. The label of “fetish” does not instantly elevate something to a place beyond critique or exploration.
Anyway, let’s bring back some kink-shaming.