What a Romantic Poet Can Teach Us about Sex-Positivity
One could, like Shelley, despise both puritanism and prostitution precisely because one is sex-positive.
Any feminist who has ever tried to argue with the woke left about the legalization of prostitution has almost certainly been met with the glib reply, “but you’re just sex-negative!” The rhetorical strategy is obvious. By boxing all human opinion into the categories of “sex-positive” and “sex-negative,” nuance can be eliminated from sexual ethics. For the slinger of the “sex work is work” slogan, everyone must be okay with women’s bodies being sold or (s)he is a puritan.
Funnily enough, the poet and thinker I wrote a great portion of my dissertation on, Percy Bysshe Shelley, despised prostitution precisely because he held sex in such high esteem, and he held sex in high esteem because he divinized love. Far from being of merely historical interest, many of Shelley’s arguments against prostitution are highly relevant to today’s debate and deserve review. Shelley serves as an excellent example of someone whose positive attitude about sex drives his opposition to prostitution, which undermines the woke left’s assumption that those who condemn prostitution are anti-sex.
“In its attempt to commercially exploit women’s bodies, prostitution renders sex depersonalized and transactional when it ought to be loving.”
Shelley was a prominent writer in the literary and philosophical movement called Romanticism (c. 1780-1830), a movement characterized by a celebration of emotion, individuality, imagination, liberal politics, and pantheistic spirituality. In addition to exemplifying these aspects of Romanticism, Shelley was also an outspoken advocate of women’s equality and sexual liberation. Many of his works feature strong female characters who are unashamed of their desires and willing to confront authority. This isn’t too surprising when one considers that his wife was Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and his step-mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Shelley strongly criticized superstition, patriarchy, and puritanism in religion. In place of puritanical religion, Shelley offered his own spirituality that drew on ancient Greek Neo-Platonism to divinize Eros (erotic love).
Shelley believed sex ought to be a transcendent experience shared by lovers and his poetry is abundant with lyricizing about sex. It is, as his character the Moon says in Prometheus Unbound, “When soul meets soul on lovers’ lips.” Shelley conveys his high notion of human sexuality through a mixture of intensely spiritual and intensely sensual language, which suggests that sexual union is ideally a psychological and spiritual intimacy analogous to unity with the transcendent. His masterpiece on this theme, Epipsychidion, describes sexual climax as a kind of mystical experience:
“Our breath shall intermix, our bosoms bound,
And our veins beat together; and our lips
With other eloquence than words, eclipse
The soul that burns between them, and the wells
Which boil under our being’s inmost cells,
The fountains of our deepest life, shall be
Confused in passion’s golden purity,
As mountain-springs under the morning Sun.
We shall become the same, we shall be one
Spirit within two frames, oh!”
Shelley reviled Christian morality’s insistence that sex occur only within the bounds of marriage. He also reviled the ascetic notions that sex is impure and that it is virtuous to abstain from pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. What Shelley disliked about these attitudes is that they treated sex as purely material and mechanical rather than attributing to it the higher order psychological and spiritual value he saw in it. For Shelley, sex was not an obstacle to the divine and beautiful, it was itself divine and beautiful.
For the same reason, Shelley’s free love philosophy did not legitimize meaningless promiscuity. Not only did he despise prostitution, but he was likewise disgusted by non-commercial loveless sexual encounters (i.e. “libertinism”)—what we in the twenty-first century might call "hookup culture." His high notion of the personal and spiritual value of sexual love meant that he did not want sex taken casually, even if he had no trouble with a person, including a woman, having multiple lovers in her life.
Shelley’s free love philosophy was, of course, condemned as monstrous in early nineteenth-century England. Here a veneer of Christian morality in marriage existed in tandem with a sexual double-standard that demanded chastity on the part of the woman while turning a blind eye when the man purchased prostitutes. In fact, part of Shelley’s argument against prostitution was that puritanical Christianity enabled it. The patriarchal dimension of puritanical morality banished unmarried sexually active women to the irreversible category of “fallen women” where they were no longer considered respectable enough for marriage and were as good as “whores.”
Shelley writes in a footnote to his polemical poem Queen Mab, “religion and morality, as they now stand, compose a practical code of misery and servitude” and “Women, for no other crime than having followed the dictates of a natural appetite, are driven with fury from the comforts and sympathies of society…” As a woman, you were either a faithful wife or fair game for men.
In Queen Mab Shelley denounces prostitution and puritanism, fantasizing a utopian alternative in which sexual relations will be driven by love between equals:
“Unchecked by dull and selfish chastity,
That virtue of the cheaply virtuous,
Who pride themselves in senselessness and frost.
No longer prostitution’s venomed bane
Poisoned the springs of happiness and life;
Woman and man in confidence and love,
Equal and free and pure together trod.”
For Shelley, prostitution is a corruption of sexuality. In its attempt to commercially exploit women’s bodies, prostitution renders sex depersonalized and transactional when it ought to be loving. Thus, his narrator-character in Queen Mab, the Fairy, laments “Even love is sold.” The Fairy’s point, of course, is that love cannot be sold, so what is sold cannot be love. A just commercialization of sexuality is impossible for Shelley because he believes sexuality should be inextricable from love.
Ironically, however, the woke left attitude about what they term “sex work” perpetuates the “sex-negative” attitudes that Shelley condemned. Sex, for both the puritan and the woke alike, is nothing other than physical transaction, not a transcendent or unitive experience. In Shelley’s Romantic view of things, anyone who thinks sex is in the same category as filing papers has a pretty low opinion of sex.
The “sex work is work” mantra also replicates the patriarchal dimension of puritanical morality in that it conceives of sex as a matter of a woman submitting to a man. We might take the following quotations from Marriage and Virginity by the early Church father St. Augustine as examples. Augustine, like many others, used Biblical citation to assert that God ordained women to be subordinate to men:
“[the relation between] husband and wife…[is one in which] the second is subordinate to the first. When they maintain among themselves the beauty and orderliness of one being superior and in charge and the other honorably subordinate, they are all good. Husband and wife have a commandment and a model of how they should treat each other. The commandment is this: Wives should be subject to their husbands, as they are to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife.”
This intensely misogynist and puritanical man also defined the sexual impulse as intrinsically an urge to dominate (libido dominandi). This mentality coupled with his belief that God ordained women to serve men leads him to admire an adulteress for putting up with rape:
“If a man makes use of a woman for some time, until he finds someone else more suited to his wealth and social standing to take as his partner, that state of mind makes him an adulterer…if for her part all she wants from that union is to have children and whatever she puts up with over and above what serves the purpose of having children she puts up with unwillingly, she is certainly to be preferred to many married women,” especially married women who are “lascivious with their husbands.”
For the puritan, the woman’s pleasureless submission in the name of childbearing is holy. For the woke, a woman’s pleasureless submission in the name of debased male desire is renamed “sex work.” Now instead of being told that this is God’s will, we are told that this is feminism.
For Shelley, both these scenarios are slavery. Being the Romantic that he is, Shelley believed sex should be intimate, bonding, and beautiful. In his feminist poem Rosalind and Helen, Helen describes her extramarital love for Lionel as an outward movement toward unification and de-alienation, not an act of domination or consumption: “And so we loved, and did unite / All that in us was yet divided.”
Prostitution is not a means for women to be sexually affirmed and gratified; it’s a means for selfish men to gratify themselves at the expense of women. A man does not pay a prostitute so that he can give her an orgasm. He pays her so that he doesn’t have to. He pays her so that he can live out his fantasies upon her and discard her when he’s done. His money gives him the power. A man pays a woman for sex so that he won’t have to treat her as a partner, but as a commodity. We should not believe that prostitution and lovemaking are both “just sex” any more than we should believe that being made to swallow feces and fine dining are both “just eating.”
A woman who wants a partner to gratify her sexual needs does not “choose” to allow any man, regardless of how physically repulsive he may be, to pay for her body because such a scenario is one in which her body exists to meet the John’s sexual demands, not her own. The kind of man who pays for a woman is the kind of man who views women as property—and wasn’t it the complaint of so many woke leftists, many of whom supported #MeToo, that men like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump viewed women as sexual property? A woman who wants to be pleased by a man will find a partner who makes love to her because he values her, including her sexual needs. This was obvious to Shelley.
“A man does not pay a prostitute so that he can give her an orgasm.”
While Shelley foregrounds prostitution’s harm to women, it’s also important that he mentions its harm to men. Since sexual gratification does not result automatically from the contact of body parts but is deeply psychological (we can even have orgasms in our sleep), it depends on environmental, emotional, and social factors. Not even all orgasms are the same—they differ in intensity and quality for both men and women depending on the experience.
Thus, Shelley argues that “young men” who associate with prostitutes are “destroying thereby all those exquisite and delicate sensibilities whose existence cold-hearted worldings have denied; annihilating all genuine passion, and debasing that to a selfish feeling…” Shelley’s belief is that men as well as women will experience greater sexual gratification and happiness through “genuine passion,” which is why his narrator-character the Fairy refers to prostitution as “unenjoying sensualism” in Queen Mab.
“One could, like Shelley, despise both puritanism and prostitution precisely because one is sex-positive.”
By reading writers from the past, we can sometimes notice that intuitive connections drawn in our time were not always intuitive to others. The average woke leftist of today would almost certainly assume that someone who opposes the institution of marriage, as Shelley did, would celebrate hookup culture or even the legalization of prostitution. Yet, he despised libertinism and the commodification of women. Likewise, the average woke leftist would likely assume that someone who despises prostitution is socially conservative or puritanical in some way. Yet, Shelley was a radical liberal who hated puritanism. The example of Shelley disrupts the sex-positive / sex-negative dichotomy used by liberal feminists to force those who oppose prostitution into the same category as those with genuinely puritanical notions about sex by pigeon-holing them both as “sex-negative.” One could, like Shelley, despise both puritanism and prostitution precisely because one is sex-positive.
Far from being progressive, woke feminism is putting regressive ideas in service of a new kind of patriarchal ideology. It is working with puritanical morality’s concepts while claiming to rebel against puritanical morality. To liberate women, we must stage our own Romantic rebellion against “sex-work” ideology just as surely as we must resist the patriarchal, puritanical morality that is its progenitor. As Shelley helps us realize, both are sex negative.
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