Emotion in Motion: Defining Sex-Positivity

I am a sex-positive feminist. That is how I choose to identify myself. This label highlights how I see the world and how I choose to interact with it. I’ve come to this association after years of struggling with my own sexual identity and history–a long and torrid journey.

Nowadays though, I just like to talk about sex. A lot. I love to hear people’s stories around sex and their relation to it. I read as many public health, sociological, and scientific articles about sex as I can get my hands on, and I hope to one day become active in the sexual education field.

But for now, I just identify with the simple term “sex-positive.” It’s a compact term that contains a lot of information. Though while to me the term means a lot, I get a lot of blank looks when I use it.

When I say it in conversation, I hear a lot of “Sex-positive–who doesn’t love sex?”

I inevitably have to clarify that in this context, positivity and enthusiasm are not the same thing. The term is really about addressing the individual and social place of sex and sexual identity. Sex-positivity really boils down to a view that sex is a healthy and necessary part of human existence. It’s about acceptance and inclusion of the ways individuals choose to express themselves sexually.

But to really understand the term sex-positive, it needs to be contextualized in the history of sexual characterization. Historically, sex has been pathologized in our culture, treated as something dirty and harmful. Moral authorities throughout Western history have shaped how we as a society view sex, labeling it as sinful and indecent. In the 19th century, science was invoked to shift the connotations of sex to something more pathological. This process imparted false, negative associations between sex, disease, and other physiological and psychological afflictions. These ingrained connotations still resonate in how our society approaches the social and personal place of sex today.

This is impounded by structures in place that reinforce what constitutes “normal” and “acceptable” sex, and what is degenerative and wrong. For example, the distinction that sex for procreative purposes is valid and acceptable, but sex for pleasure is “unnatural” and “sinful,” or that sex between certain combinations of individuals  is natural, while others are unnatural. (If you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis of this history, Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. I offers a great breakdown)

All these things contribute to an overarching sex-negativity that is prevalent in our culture. It can be found in the language used around sex, the framing of news stories around issues involving sex, the way we teach about sex, and how we approach the political dimension of sex.

Sex-positivity is a counter-perspective that attempts to disentangle sex from associations of morality and pathology. It’s a disowning of this belief that sex is inherently dirty, shameful, and/or wrong. Instead sex is an inherent and natural part of human identity, and no expression of sex and sexuality is more valid than any other. Sex-positivity is about celebrating sexual diversity.

As a sex-positivist…

I believe in being inclusive of all expressions of and approaches to sexuality. As long as it involves consensual participation of adults and causes no psychological or physical harm to the participants, all sexual expressions are equally legitimate. This includes kinks and nonmonogamous identifications. Also, no one sexual identification is better or more “normal” than any other. This includes accepting sexual expression of all races, genders, classes, orientation, ability, age without preconceptions or discrimination.

I believe in acknowledging each individual’s ability to decide whether or not to engage in sexual activity, and not judging how and for what reasons they choose to do so (as long as it is consensual).  People have the right to make their own choices around sex. There are many reasons why people choose to engage or not engage in sexual activity.

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I believe sex for pleasure is a worthwhile pursuit and sexual expression is a necessary part of being human. Sex and sexuality are inherent to being human, and the experience of sex should not be shamed or maligned. And therefore…

I believe sex should be talked about. One of the worst ways shame is perpetuated is by silence. By not moralizing sex as an act within itself, the desire to curb public conversations loses strength. Talking is also a key component to undermining victim blaming directed toward victims of sexual violence and the dehumanizing of sex-workers.

I believe in comprehensive, age-appropriate, pleasure-inclusive sex education. This means making sex education more than about anatomy and STIs. Discussions of consent, pleasure, and the emotional component are as equally important. So much misinformation and judgment is disseminated around sex. People are more likely to make poor and uninformed decisions without sex education. We should teach people about all-dimensions of sex without judgment or shame, and start the conversations that will allow everything to lead healthy and happy sex lives.

Those are the basics of my interpretation of sex-positive. There are lots of great resources across the internet that explore sex-positivity more in-depth for those that are interested, but I also plan on getting into more sex talk on this blog.

Do you have another definition for sex-positive? Any experiences with sex-positivity?

Wings
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View Comments (11)
  • I really appreciate and agree with this post. This is a conversation that needs to happen more often. Discussions perpetuate learning, and the current climate of sex-negativity and misinformation is doing nothing but harm to our society.
    The one thing that I raise an eyebrow at, however, is talking about how these discussions and Sex-ed classes should include learning about pleasure. I assume that your sexual education reform would begin at the ground level, with high school sex-ed classes, and I agree wholeheartedly that we need to improve it. Teaching about birth control (other than condoms), consent (because Lord knows our high schoolers need to be reminded about that), and other such topics are crucial. But I do not consider “pleasure” to be one of these topics. As you said, we need to change the way that sex is thought about between two consenting adults. High school students are not adults. No matter how mature they are, they simply are not adults. Are high schoolers going to have sex? Yes. Do we need to make sure they have a better understanding of what they’re getting into? Yes. But given how emotional an experience it is for a high schooler to become sexually active, I do not see it as an adult’s place to teach children how to pleasure each other. Furthermore, I do not think it is an adult’s place to encourage children to express their sexually identities. Age of consent may be 16, but given the risks involved in being sexually active, many 16 year olds are not emotionally prepared. I know that this particular article was not aimed directly at (or even mentioned directly) high school reform; however I have heard several people in the past discuss high school sex ed, and in it they have included pleasure and encouraging children to explore. In addition, sex ed classes are almost predominantly aimed at the younger group: who are not adults. I believe that a furthering of sexual education should be much more prevalent in universities, and pleasure would be a topic that would be discussed in these classes. However, I just need to state that there is a difference between not condoning sex and being sex negative.

    • Hi, Liz. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I respect your position on teenagers and sex education. It’s definitely a position I’ve heard before and I understand. However, I happen to disagree. Teenagers are having sex. A high percentage of them (http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-Teen-Sex-Ed.html). In my opinion, to try and deny that fact and let them explore without any information is dangerous. And that includes pleasure, and here’s why:

      There was a study that came out last year in the UK (unfortunately, I can’t find the link to it right now) that surveyed young women between the ages of 15 and 25. Some outrageous number, over 50 percent, did not know that sex was supposed to be pleasurable. And this is going to be a view they will carry forward. What’s the problem with this? When individuals don’t align sex with pleasure, women in particular, they are more likely to engage in sex that is painful for them (engaged without proper foreplay, lacking lubrication, etc.). They then tend to identify sex with pain and consider that normal. It’s then easier to coerce and manipulate those individuals into uncomfortable situations and acts because sex is already associated with something uncomfortable or even painful. And to me, that’s just not ok. It’s also something I’ve experienced personally. Pleasure is part of the safety and health component of sex education. The more informed an individual is around sex, the more control they have over their choices and their bodies.

      Regardless of whatever age you feel it is appropriate for individuals to start exploring sexually, one must also be aware that our views about sex are largely shaped during and soon after puberty. The more information we can give teenagers, the more in control they will be of their choices.

      Thanks again for engaging.

  • The term “sex positive feminist” resonates with me. I approve of sex, in general, and would love for us to be able to discuss it, engage in it, and respect it as a topic that is inherently beautiful and entirely natural for both (and all) sexes. I want to limit government interference in the realm of sex- censoring images, telling homosexuals they can’t get married, toying with the idea of banning sex toys, etc- and I would love it if it was easier to have a rational discussion about things pertaining to sex. I would especially love it if I didn’t run into the contradiction of “men are supposed to love sex and want to have sex with every woman they see” while apparently women aren’t supposed to enjoy it except for a brief time in a relationship where they are trying to get their boyfriend to propose (think about it- we’re not supposed to want to have random hook ups, we’re not supposed to want to have sex casually, we’re supposed to stop functioning sexually about a year after we get married unless we go baby crazy, then it’s not about sex, it’s about babies, then maybe we’ll turn into cougars… maybe.) So basically, men are subconsciously carrying around this message of the only logical conclusion you can take from that: lie to women and make them think that we might want to marry them, because that’s the only way you’re going to get laid, which is of course, all important. I have lived with lots of conflicting ideas about sex since I was a little kid and first heard about it because a few friends of mine (pre-kindergarten, believe it or not) got a hold of some dad’s Playboy collection. The phenomenon of children mis-educating each other by piecing together bits of information and impressions gathered from here and there because parents want to avoid the topic or have no idea that their children have picked up so much from our culture that constantly HINTS at the subject but never comes out and says anything honest has got to stop before we can have a generation of people who have a healthy view of sex and sexuality. I thank you for writing this article, and for bringing attention to the label as well as the topic.

  • Fellow sex-positive feminist here! I was wondering if you’d seen this article from XOJane, and what your thoughts might be on it: http://www.xojane.com/issues/im-a-sex-negative-feminist. Personally, I wasn’t a fan – I thought it was an ahistoric approach to the issue that took more pleasure in inverting terminology than actually advancing a feminist critique of sex-positivity, which could in fact be done in a productive manner.

    • Hi, Kate. Thanks for reading and for sharing. I had not previously seen that article so thanks for sending it along. I also find it a bit problematic. The author seems to be a very narrow understanding of sex-positivity. There was a lot based on a good/bad binary that I have not encountered in sex-positive rhetoric–a rhetoric that considers all expressions of sexuality, even asexuality, equally valid. I also don’t understand why she believes there’s no space for critique of sexual politics in sex-positivity–I thought that was the whole point. We believe that sex is an area worthy of intellectual critique. Like the discussion of coercive consent was legit, but not at odds with sex-positivity. In line with that, there was the focus on forced sex and complete neglect of historic characterization of female sexuality as absent or aberrant. I feel the whole thing was a bit confused, and as you said, ahistoric and unproductive.

      I will say though, that she is correct that “sex-positive” connote a negative other. That’s something I have thought about in the past and feel some concern over. I use the label because I want to highlight that sex is a feminist topic I am very much concerned with, but perhaps there is a better way.

    • Hi, Kate. Thanks for reading and for sharing. I had not previously seen that article so thanks for sending it along. I also find it a bit problematic. The author seems to be a very narrow understanding of sex-positivity. There was a lot based on a good/bad binary that I have not encountered in sex-positive rhetoric–a rhetoric that considers all expressions of sexuality, even asexuality, equally valid. I also don’t understand why she believes there’s no space for critique of sexual politics in sex-positivity–I thought that was the whole point. We believe that sex is an area worthy of intellectual critique. Like the discussion of coercive consent was legit, but not at odds with sex-positivity. In line with that, there was the focus on forced sex and complete neglect of historic characterization of female sexuality as absent or aberrant. I feel the whole thing was a bit confused, and as you said, ahistoric and unproductive.

      I will say though, that she is correct that “sex-positive” connote a negative other. That’s something I have thought about in the past and feel some concern over. I use the label because I want to highlight that sex is a feminist topic I am very much concerned with, but perhaps there is a better way.

      Thanks for engaging!

  • I’m making my way through the archives of literally darling and found this post quite compelling. I’m sex-positive although I only just discovered that and am still learning, and so I loved this post. Do you have any resources that you would recommend for reading? I’m a reader at heart :)
    Thanks!

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