What Does Sexual Liberation Look Like?

 photo amberrosenaked.png
by Kimberly Foster (@KimberlyNFoster)

There’s no doubt in my mind that social media has changed mainstream feminism for the better. These platforms produce new converts by introducing them to feminist discourse via the real-time theorizing that takes place everyday.

As a result, an easily accessible, Black woman-led feminism has become both highly visible and highly profitable.

Neither of these things is as perilous for the future of the movement as those who long for the radicalism of the Second Wave might argue.

We can certainly survive as a big tent. But if this is where we’re going, contemporary feminists should be asking the right questions.

Something I’ve been thinking through for months cropped up for me again when Amber Rose tweeted a semi-nude image of herself. Besides the pubic hair, it’s no different from the countless images of women one encounters on Instagram (Read: Gorgeous.) In fact, I’d have little to say about the picture if not for the political goals Rose assigned to it.

This isn’t just an eye-catching picture shared by a stunningly beautiful woman The model-turned-activist put up this “fire ass feminist post” (her words) to promote her upcoming SlutWalk which “aims to impact and uplift, while shifting the paradigm of rape culture.”

The question I keep coming back to is what does it mean that the images we create to fight patriarchy look exactly like the images patriarchy produces?

This, for me, prompts a far more compelling discussion than the more obvious and widespread should feminists take off our clothes in public?

The first question compels us to think not only of the pleasure a feminist action brings but its efficacy in a political project which aims to eradicate imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

When a woman who is conventionally attractive elevates a highly stylized, perfectly posed, meticulously airbrushed image as a “feminist” one, I worry we’ve settled into a feminism that seeks to get more comfortable inside of the limiting paradigm for acceptable displays of women’s sexuality rather than upend it.

Amber Rose chooses to revel in the male gaze and its construction of women’s idealized bodies. Though that place might be a freeing one for her, personally, servicing a standard set by institutionalized sexism—one real life Amber, herself, doesn’t meet—fails to critically intervene in a visual culture that robs women of the opportunity to be honest about our bodies and sexual desires. Consequently, I’m deeply uncomfortable with labeling every image a feminist produces “feminist.”

To be clear, I don’t advocate pushing women who are not revolutionary in orientation out of feminism because, frankly, I wouldn’t pass any tests of political purity.

Popular feminists like Beyoncé and Amber Rose (whose race I’m utterly uninterested in debating) are important to many Black women because we have so few prisms through which to interpret our experiences with sexism and racism without sacrificing joy or pleasure.

But it is possible to welcome women with complicated lives and messy politics while holding close to the belief that feminism is necessarily transformative, both personally and structurally.

I interrogate what a feminist image looks like not because Amber doesn’t look great or because she doesn’t deserve the opportunity to delight in the beauty of her unclothed body, but because these kinds of images are the product of the very limited visual vocabulary we have for what a “sexy,” “desirable” woman looks like: she is oiled up, made up, perfectly proportioned and cellulite-free.

Images matter. They’re used to guide behavior and set social expectations. And here it’s instructive to consider their use and origin.

Would this be the ideal women would come up with had we not been socialized into a world dominated by straight men’s preferences? Even images that are not created for men draw from the Western aesthetic norms men devised.

Neither nudity or public expressions of sexuality are inherently problematic. Women can be naked and free, but in an effort to normalize women’s ownership of our nude bodies, feminists are inclined to overstate the case. The act of public display, in and of itself, is not transgressive.

Women’s bodies are everywhere in our hypersexualized culture; thus, shiny, perfect, polished nudity is not revolutionary. It’s practically compulsory (Tricia Rose’s work on this is an invaluable resource). That's what we've come to expect from our mass media images, and now that's what we create.

Because of that reality, I don’t fault Amber Rose. If you’re branding yourself, even in the name of feminism, I understand why you’d create the kind of image that appeals to the culture, the type of image that’s been proven time and again to be profitable, both monetarily and in the attention economy.

A lack of imagination in visioning what liberated sexuality for non-male bodies looks like is incentivized by a market that's ripe for what Rose, and any other conventionally beautiful woman, is selling.

In refusing to interrogate the kinds of sexualized images that are ubiquitous in our culture, feminist efforts to broaden our conversations about women’s sexualities end up celebrating a woman’s ability to be appealing within a set of scripts we’ve little control over. Yes, these images allow some of us, particularly, those whose bodies are deemed “acceptable,” to have more freedom. But are they transformative?

Aspirational Feminism replaces an unattainable ideal given to us by men with one given to us by women.

The women who partake in it argue the power is in the reclamation of the violating image, but how can this reclamation of the body in constrained space be working if the women who most benefit from it are the same ones who reap the most rewards in white supremacist patriarchy?

Contemporary declarations of “choice” routinely ignore how women with darker skin, fat bodies or bodies that are not hour-glass shaped are ridiculed in sex and body positivity. Progressive acceptance of bodies not marked most attractive is still conditional.

For feminists, a fundamental shift away from this must be a priority.


The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. - Audre Lorde

A sex positivity rooted in individualism takes up so much space in our current feminist conversations because it allows us to believe our choices are unburdened by the social norms or expectations laid out before us.

That’s simply not true. And we’re now trying to build a liberatory landscape for women’s bodily autonomy on top of sexism’s toxic ground. It will succeed only in reproducing the hierarchies we’ve tried to evade.

We are not searching simply for the right to choose but the ability to choose outside of circumscribed ideals.

New norms will be established only by engaging meaningfully with the images we produce and consume. We can do that while refusing to condemn or shame women like Amber Rose who find the current paradigm empowering.

Their efforts are not wholly fruitless. Carving out space for Black women to discuss and be seen in our desires is a crucial first step in untethering the erotic pleasure of Black women. But that cannot be our endpoint. What else is there?

Fundamentally, feminist work is world-building. We’re not going to be able to carefully rearrange our way to revolution. We should not be so wary of casting value judgements that we attempt to shoehorn the problematic into our politics to as not to deal with our own contradictions. Our fun doesn’t have to be feminist.

I question contemporary feminism’s glossy image not to shame or stigmatize. If we embrace the hard work of self-reflection and deconstruction, instead of hammering away at patriarchy’s tiny cracks in the hope of seeing slivers of light, we can begin to break open holes big enough for us all to climb through.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor-in-chief of For Harriet. 

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