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Some thoughts on sex positivity

A lot of folks use the terms "sex-positive" (usually in reference to themselves) or "sex-negative" (usually in reference to people they don't much like, or society as a whole), but rarely seem to define exactly what those terms mean. There's a lot of heat surrounding them, but very little light, and I've seen a lot of conversations in the BDSM and poly communities turn into "I'm more sex-positive than you" slagoffs. Go out on the Web and it doesn't get much better; a lot of the definitions I've seen offered up for sex positivity don't really seem to be well-formed (the rather dreadful Wikipedia article makes it seem like little more than no-rules hedonism, whose adherents get down with one another "with few limits;" sex-positive activist Carol Queen sees sex-positivity as recognition that there are "millions" of sexual orientations, and then goes on to talk about it primarily in terms of gender politics). These kinds of conversations seem to dance around the most important ideas behind sex-positivity without actually addressing them head-on, and I think they paint sex positivity in an erroneous light.

First off, sex positivity isn't (necessarily) about sexual behavior. It's not about how many people you shag, nor in which position you shag them, nor what you do with them after you're done shagging. It is possible to be asexual and still be sex-positive. And on the flip side of the same coin, it's possible to have a dozen lovers with whom you shag in the Monkey And Crane With Hand Grenades On A Trapeze position in three-day thirteen-way marathon orgies while still being sex-negative. The number of partners you have doesn't define sex-positivity.

It's also not about having an anything-goes attitude toward sex. I once had a person online claim that being sex-positive essentially means little more than embracing total hedonism as the only sexual ethic; his argument was that the term "sex positive" means seeing all sexual activity as a positive thing, and that since nobody actually does that for real (few people, for example, are willing to make the argument that nonconsensual sex is OK), sex positivity doesn't actually exist.

And sex positivity is not about dismantling cultural norms. Just as it is possible to be asexual and still be sex-positive, or to have wild kinky sex with twelve partners at the same time and still be sex negative, it is possible to be married in a monogamous relationship with one spouse and live in a suburban house with a white picket fence while still being sex positive. You can not tell whether someone is sex positive or sex negative simply by looking at their sexual arrangements.

Sex positivity at its core is simply the recognition that there is more than one "right" way to have sexual relationships. It is an acknowledgement that human sexuality is incredibly diverse, that different people have different tastes and relate to sexuality in different ways, and that as long as everyone is having sex with consenting adult partners, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sex, regardless of the way people relate to it. In short, it's a deliberate refusal to place one's own sexuality on a pedestal and proclaim it the "right" way to have sex.

Sex positivity is not about how many people you have sex with. I've talked, for example, to a person who is polyamorous and who has several sexual partners, who believes that having sex with anyone you don't love"degrades" and "cheapens" sex, and is therefore wrong. Sex positivity embraces sex for a wide variety of reasons. Some people like to have sex simply for pleasure, without attaching expectations of emotional commitment to it. That is OK, provided that the sex is freely consented to by the people involved.

Sex positivity is not about having sexual relationships in any specific form. Some sex-positive activists see traditional pair-bonded monogamy as inherently disempowering and therefore bad, and say that being sex-positive means seeking to overturn heterosexual monogamy. Monogamous relationships are absolutely right for some people; there is nothing wrong with choosing to have sex with only one other person, just as there is nothing wrong with choosing to have sex with two, or five, or more.

Sex positivity is not (necessarily) about sex for pleasure. Nearly every person I've talked to and every Web site I've read about sex positive relationships focuses on sex as a natural and healthy thing to do for pleasure, which it is. But people choose to have sex for a number of reasons. Sex for procreation is a valid reason for sex. So is sex for profit. While it may make many folks squeamish, exchanging sex for money is a perfectly valid reason to have sex. Believing that a person who engages in prostitution is inherently less worthy than a person who has sex only for pleasure is not sex positive. Believing that all people who exchange sex for money are always disempowered and are always victims is likewise not a sex-positive attitude. Fundamentally, people have the right to control their bodies, and this extends to the right to choose when, how, and for what reason to have sex. Absent any coercion, sex for money, in any form from traditional prostitution to cam sex to production of porn films, is just as valid as any other consensual form of sexual expression.

Sex positivity is not (necessarily) about gender identity or orientation. I've heard the claim that all people are bisexual, and that anyone who is sex positive must embrace the notion that sexuality should ignore gender identity. The fact is that you can no more say "all people are bisexual" than you can say "all people have two legs." Some people are attracted only to folks who have the same gender identity they do, some people are attracted only to folks who have a different gender identity than they do, some people are attracted (to varying extents at varying times and in varying circumstances) to members of many gender identities; while there is not necessarily a 1:1 correlation between gender identity and biological sex, there often is; and all this is a normal part of ordinary human variability. It is not necessary to identify as bisexual or pansexual in order to be sex positive. It is not necessary to have sex with partners of different sexes in order to be sex positive. Heterosexual cisgendered people can be sex positive.

Sex positivity is not about enshrining sex as a sacred act. I've spoken to folks in the tantric sex community who claim that in order to be sex positive, one must embrace the "spirituality" and "sacredness" of sex. For some people, sex does create feelings of spirituality, and that's fine. But it doesn't have to. Sometimes, it's just about the orgasm. Sometimes, it's just about friendship. Sometimes, it's just about finishing the movie. The fact that it can be spiritual doesn't mean it has to be.

Sex positivity isn't (necessarily) about hedonism. Some people seem to have little or no drive toward sex; other people seem to take no particular pleasure from sex. A person may choose not to have sex, and that choice is just as valid as the choice to have sex. A person may choose to have sex for reasons other than physical pleasure--for reproduction, say, or for the gratification of a partner, or to scratch a biological itch--and that, too, is just as valid. A person is free to limit his or her own sexual expression, and provided that person does not then impose that limitation on other people, that person can still be sex positive.

At the end of the day, people have sex for a lot of different reasons, none of them intrinsically more "right" than any other. If you look at two (or three or fifteen) consenting adults having sex and say "Hey, what they're doing might not be what I would do, or might not be happening for the reasons I'd do it, but that's still a valid form of sexual expression nonetheless," that's probably a sex-positive attitude. The instant you start attaching thoughts of "They are more debased than I am because their reasons for having sex aren't as good as mine," you've stepped away from sex positivity, seems to me.

We're all human beings, which means we all come factory-equipped with a tendency to see our own motivations as purer and more evolved than those of others--especially when we don't understand why anyone else wouldn't do something the way we do it. To be sex positive, it is necessary to take a conscious step away from that natural human impulse.



( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:25 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for this post! Every point is so wonderfully made. It's a bit disappointing that people who claim to be sex positive are getting it so wrong. I've been having similar struggles with some feminist literature I've been reading recently.
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Nov. 21st, 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)
Hallelujah. Well said.
Nov. 21st, 2011 04:17 am (UTC)
Yours is the first concrete definition of what sex positive is that i've heard...
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Nov. 21st, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)
I like this addendum. it's a good point.
Nov. 21st, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
That's a good point. Particularly in the US, there does seem to be a general subtext that only "hot" people should be having sex.
Nov. 22nd, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)
Or that only a subset of people... skinny, 100% able-bodied etc. etc. etc. get to be 'hot'. :-/
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
I have a feeling you've gone too far into the woods and are focusing too much on the trees.

To me (a nobody), "sex positive" is just a form of "YKIOK" writ large.
Nov. 21st, 2011 05:47 pm (UTC)
In theory, it is. A simple definition of sex positivity should be one sentence long.

The problem is that I've seen way too many folks in various alt communities (primarily the poly and BDSM communities) get all wrapped up in sex as a cultural battle or sex positivity as enjoying sex, and so they end up getting lost. The folks I mentioned who see sex positivity as a tool for talking about gender politics, or sex positivity as being an extension of Tantric sex, are great examples. They get so enmeshed in their own thing that they don't recognize that sex positivity can extend to, say, porn, or heterosexual monogamous sex, or even asexuality.

So that's why the one-sentence definition ends up getting expanded to all the trees in the forest. :) I've talked to a surprisingly large number of folks who sincerely believe themselves to be sex-positive but then say "...as long as it's X. Everyone knows that sex of type Y is distasteful and yucky."
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:36 pm (UTC)
'sex positivity' to me means an attempt to counter the social pressure to feel that sex (using the word in its broadest meanings, eg, not as in 'they had sex' )is 'bad' or is a shameful thing.

Of course, most people have their own 'hot buttons', which is why listing the '...is not...' could go on for a very long time.

Sex is a characteristic of many living things on earth; it is a part of life and living.
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:37 pm (UTC)
It occurs to me...
On reading your post, that actually what sex positivity comes down to is respect of personal sovereignty, as applied to sex.

There you go. Shortest definition yet.

Sex positivity = respecting and honouring the choices of any individual as regards their own body and sexuality, whatever those choices happen to be, as long as they don't impact negatively on your own person or that of anyone else.

(Also worth emphasising that sex positivity also doesn't mean viewing anything involving sexuality as automatically good. Some sex positive activists are trying to get rape, and statutory rape, redefined as Not Sex, because sex requires the active consent of two parties who are capable of consenting. but if you take the personal sovereignty definition of sex positive, then that's dealt with already. :))
Nov. 21st, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
Re: It occurs to me...
Yep. That definitely works as a definition, though I still think it's important to enumerate the various flavors of choice in sex simply because there are so many self-described sex-positive folks who are eager to say that sex is OK as long as, y'know, it's loving sex. Or as long as, y'know, it's not being paid for. Or as long as, y'know, it's not traditional monogamous cisgendered het sex, which is inherently oppressive. And so on.
Nov. 21st, 2011 06:37 pm (UTC)
Re: It occurs to me...
In context of what I'm babbling about below, this reads as a dialogue between value systems. Person A assigns ethical significance to the presence of whatever it is "love" means to them, person B assigns it to commercialization, person C assigns it to traditionality. Franklin assigns it to the support/suppression of personal agency, and is annoyed by these other assignments because they deny value to personal agency in favor of signifiers that privilege the speaker's preferences at the cost of oppressing others.

I happen to agree with you that it all should be about agency, yea even unto the ability to choose to relinquish it, and feel like this is somehow a more fundamental good than those other signifiers, but I wonder if this position can really be justified as less arbitrary, and whether it's a good idea to try.
Nov. 21st, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC)
It seems to me the basic idea is that sex is an activity people do that is neither inherently bad and wrong, so needing to be done in a specific way under specific circumstances to justify it (as sex negativity would have it), nor inherently great and wunnerful (as varieties of sex positivity you're decrying posit), but which gets its ethical value from how it's done. Like, y'know, everything else in an existentialist universe.

Which actually kinda sounds like sex neutrality to me.
Nov. 21st, 2011 05:53 pm (UTC)
Heh. When you grow up hating or fearing sex, even neutrality can be positive, I reckon.

That's an interesting observation, and I think there's some truth to it. Being neutral about people's specific choices about sex, provided it's between consenting partners, does seem to be a part of sex positivity. I would argue that the "positive" bit isn't necessarily about the sexual choices themselves, so much as it is a positive affirmation that sexual agency is positive and healthy.
Nov. 21st, 2011 06:25 pm (UTC)
Hmm. Writing in "provided it's between consenting partners" is a binding observance and all, but I think a lot of the point of being neutral on sex is to separate and highlight the issues we actually want to assign ethical value to. We're neutral on sex, positive on consent (i.e. people doing what the fuck they want) and negative on coercion. (Super special extra negative on coercion specifically when it involves sex and comparatively meh about it when it doesn't, but okay, you don't move a system out of a broken state by keeping the throttle at idle, and this system is not presently fixed.)

Getting away from assigning an ethical value to sex itself or conflating it with points of concern helps get away from the kind of arbitrary behavioral codes where what's important is whether you performed the right rituals, so it's completely all right to treat people like shit as long as you color inside the lines. I seem to recall you writing eloquently about that before. :)
Nov. 21st, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC)
consent, pleasure, and well-being
Thanks for writing this. Talking about what sex-positivity is not can be useful.

I've been developing my own thoughts on what sex-positivity is and my current working definition is:

Sex-positivity is the perspective that the relevant measure of a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who do it and the people who are affected by it.

There's room in that for people to be monogamous or in open relationships, asexual or wildly sexual, of any gender and/or sexual orientation, etc. And in my experience, many of people who apply this in their daily lives have some of the most well-defined, articulated, and maintained boundaries.

Here's a post I wrote about it: http://www.charlieglickman.com/2011/10/expanding-my-view-of-sex-positivity/ I'd be curious to know your thoughts.
Nov. 21st, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
This is a characteristically brilliant definition and deconstruction of some contemporary attitudes out there, I am glad to have read it. Do you mind if I share it on my G+ stream?
Nov. 21st, 2011 07:08 pm (UTC)
By all means, feel free!
Nov. 21st, 2011 06:58 pm (UTC)
So are you saying there is only one right way to be sex-positive? =P

To me, being sex-positive means that I view sex as an inherently positive force. Not just non-negative, as in "there is nothing inherently wrong or dirty or degrading about sex", but that it is inherently positive, like happiness or freedom or health or being alive are inherently positive.

We don't pile on disclaimers or say stuff like "freedom is not inherently *wrong*, as long as free people never commit any crimes" and I see no rational reason for treating sex like that either.

To the extent that cultural norms proclaim that sex is non-positive, for me sex-positivity is also about dismantling those cultural norms.
Nov. 21st, 2011 09:00 pm (UTC)
This is great stuff, a nice view and well-written (as your work often is).

However, I do want to mention that there are some people who get into sex work because of economic pressure. When you said, "Absent any coercion, sex for money...is just as valid...," the absence of any [economic] coercion is an ideal situation. There is both the pressure of not having another job option for which one is qualified, and the pressure of being able to make so much more money flinging tassels than slinging burgers.
Nov. 21st, 2011 10:42 pm (UTC)
So, you're saying that it's not morally wrong for someone to have sex for money if they don't need the money (free choice and all that), but it is wrong for someone to have sex for money if they need it to survive? That is really fucked up. Unless someone is being pimped out and if fear of his/her life or safety, any reason someone decides to do so is perfectly valid, as it is still their choice to do so. Even in the case of coercion, it is not the person having sex for money that is doing something wrong, but the person doing the coercion.

Personally, I think it's a hell of a lot more exploitative to work at Wal*Mart for $8/hour than it is to take off your clothes for $800.
Nov. 22nd, 2011 07:59 pm (UTC)
I read the comment above as saying that it's a shitty situation when a person is forced to do *any* specific kind of work because of economic pressure only, rather than a joy in the work itself. i.e. that economic coercion sucks (and therefore being forced to work at walmart sucks just as much as any other work, including sex work), not that a person is immoral if they are poor and responding to that kind of pressure.

Yeah. Capitalism is badly broken, but it's still sadly the best thing we have right now. Working on finding something better.
Nov. 22nd, 2011 12:36 am (UTC)
I would add . . .
I really like this post. Much food for thought here.

For me sex positivity includes a sense that sex is something it is okay to talk about, and communicate around, without the shame and fear that often surrounds it. In most social spheres, talking about sex is shrouded in a kind of shame - I consider myself a relatively sex-positive person in many of the ways you describe, but I still go into a state of nervousness when talking about sex. I feel that my sex-positivity increases as I confront these culturally placed and reenforced anxieties and I become more able to more comfortably talk about sex, for example, my likes and dislikes, std prevention, my own experiences (in away that doesn't betray confidences, of course), fears, expectations, etc.
Nov. 23rd, 2011 11:42 pm (UTC)
An interesting post, and some very interesting comments.

For me, I've always used the 'sex-positive' label to more describe how *I* view sex in my own life. Perhaps it's my introverted nature to see it that way.

With so much shame about sex built into our society about the role sex should play in your life, I've view being sex positive as seeing sex as a contributive thing your own life.

For me, being sex-positive has nothing to do with how I view the sex lives of others, or how receptive I am to sex with others. Sure, by conveyance of my having a positive view of sex in my own life, I tend to be less-judgmental about what others are doing as long as they too see it as a contributive thing in their lives.

I've seen far too often that sex-postive is used differently by others (many of the observations you've described as well). Too often I've seen sex-positive people diss others as being sex-negative if they aren't receptive to sex at any time with anyone (and in particular, with them). Or for not being willing to listen to others talk about their sex lives 'in the open'.

For me, I am no more sex-negative for not wanting to hear about any particular person's sex life .. or having sex with them.. than I am travel-negative for not wanting to see pictures from their last trip to Disney World.
Nov. 24th, 2011 04:42 am (UTC)
the price of poker
The price of sex is established by the cultural norms, remove the negative connotation in our society and the price goes down. Sex as a marketable commodity diminishes in value until at some point burger flipping has better returns. Place unreasonable restrictions on eating burgers and watch the price rise.
Jan. 24th, 2012 11:25 pm (UTC)
Hmmm, I think you've invested a lot into defining what sex positivity isn't, and a lot less into what sex positivity actually is.

If you're interested, I've done a blog post with a simple one sentence definition of sex positive (http://ladylubyanka.wordpress.com/2009/11/29/sex-positive/) (plus some usage notes).
Jan. 25th, 2012 12:55 am (UTC)
That's true, but to some extent it's unavoidable.

I've tried in the past talking about what sex positivity is, and inevitably that conversation goes off the rails into territory like "So you're saying all sex is positive, even pedophilia!" or "So what if I don't want to have sex, are you saying that's bad?" It's hard to find a definition of sex positivity that addresses only what it is that also doesn't open itself up to these kinds of misperceptions.

I like your definition of sex positivity, but I think it is subject to some of these kinds of questions. For example, if you assert that sex positivity is inclusive and impartial, then it's easy to see where someone might say "Well, you're saying that all forms of sexual expression are OK, like rape and child molestation!" If you try to fix it by adding qualifiers like "consensual" and "adult," then you're starting to talk about what it isn't (it isn't an attitude that validates non-consensual sex).
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )