Update: Annie Lennox told HuffPost Live that her comments were "lost in translation," and explained, "It came across as if I was slighting Beyoncé, which was not the case, not the intention whatsoever. I commend her. ... I adore Beyoncé. I think she is a sublime performer, artist. I think there's no one [who] can touch her."
One of the most powerful moments from Beyoncé’s 2014 MTV VMAs performance was when the word "FEMINIST" flashed behind the silhouette of her statuesque and, well, flawless body, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie voiced the words, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are." Watch it again below:
However, in recent weeks legendary Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox -- who just released a new album -- has been criticizing Beyoncé's activism as "feminist lite," and yesterday she told NPR that "twerking is not feminism." She added:
"The reason why I've commented is because I think that this overt sexuality thrust -- literally -- at particular audiences, when very often performers have a very, very young audience... I find it disturbing and I think it's exploitative. It's troubling. I'm coming from a perspective of a woman that's had children."
What Annie Lennox seems to be getting at, essentially, is castigating Beyonce for being a sex-positive feminist. In fact, this debate over whether mixing sexuality with feminism cheapens the latter -- and whether high-cut leotards are really helping girls run the world, or is it exploiting them -- has a long history.
What is sex-positive feminism?
It's the belief that freedom of sexual expression and empowerment is an important part of women achieving equality. For example, sex-positive feminists have hailed Beyoncé as proof that it is possible to be a sex symbol and a respected woman and leader.
But in the past, many feminists have felt less enthusiastic about women showing off their bodies. Sex-positive feminism grew out of the feminist sex wars as a response to anti-porn feminists, many of whom took a hard stance against what they saw as the objectification of women.
As this anti-porn movement began to gain strength, and called for legislation eventually struck down in court for violating the First Amendment on censorship grounds, sex-positive feminists argued that porn can be beneficial to women in a number of ways, such as allowing them (like men) to visually explore their sexual fantasies.
Sex-positive feminists also argue that stigmatizing porn and sex work is actually very anti-woman, as it makes the condescending inference that women in those industries could not possibly have power over their own lives. Influential sex-positive feminist Wendy McElroy writes, “Sex industry workers, like all women, are striving for economic survival and a decent life, and if feminism means anything it means sisterhood and solidarity with these women.”
Sex-positive feminism also involves the concept that, with consent, of course, sexual empowerment is crucial to feminism as a way of empowering women to value their sexuality, fight the shame that often surrounds women's sexuality, and to take take sexuality into their own hands. (Some feminists object to what they see as self-objectification of women who identify with the sex-positive movement, and that conflict can be seen in Annie Lennox's Beyonce backlash.)
Sex positivity now
Today, sex positivity remains a controversial issue even among feminists. Is it possible to flaunt your goods and fight for equal rights? What about women who prefer bustiers to blazers? Can they be feminists, too?
Many sex-positive feminists argue that it’s more than possible -- it’s essential.
Regardless of the fact that sex-positivity is rampant in pop culture, as in Nikki Minaj’s recent smash hit "Anaconda" -- which celebrates and reclaims her signature rear -- women are still constantly undercut for being sexual, and the notion that women can’t possibly be both sexual and respected is alive and well (and spread by both men and women).
This presents a problem that extends far beyond music videos and Twitter feeds and comment threads. When women are shamed and punished for being sexual (or even merely having bodies capable of sexuality), the sentence often comes in the form of shaming and diminished access to healthcare, as female birth control is seen by opponents as a luxury for the so-called promiscuous and not a basic right women are entitled to to control their own fertility and reproductive health. (Recall the 2012 Rush Limbaugh fiasco, when he publicly shamed Sandra Fluke for using birth control.)
Do we still need sex-positive feminism?
Condemning women for being sexual while society insists that they submit to sexualization is more than just hypocritical; it can lead to women being harassed and discriminated against in the workplace, or even to cruel blaming for being the victims of violent crimes.
In a world where women are, sadly, often judged by their appearance rather than their accomplishments, Beyoncé uses the spotlight that her (generally agreed upon) stunning looks -- and, of course, her talents -- afford her to encourage her female fans to cultivate their independence by being financially independent, by being a dominant force both in home and in the workplace, and that the concepts of feminism and sexuality are inextricably linked and -- as writer Tamara Winfrey Harris, surmised -- belong to women to define them for themselves.
For more on bias and how to take action, visit Look Different. For all your sex and relationship questions, check out It's Your Sex Life. See how you can help combat slut-shaming. And for more on feminism, watch "Girl Code" tonight at 11/10c on MTV!