I was facilitating a session on sex-positivity last weekend, when something occurred to me: I’ve never written a post about sex-positivity.
That’s a pretty big oversight on my part considering the I bandy the term around these parts with gleeful abandon.
Sex-positivity is a philosophy I saw being modelled at Venus Envy. It was an attitude towards sex that I admired and sought to emulate. It wasn’t until did my training at PPO that I learned that it was an entire social movement with its own name and everything!
Sex positivity has and continues to change my ideas about people, choice and the role sex plays in our lives. It influences everything I do as a sex educator. For me it’s a big, life-altering idea – one that’s too massive to cover in one post, so this will be the first in a series of two. I’ve named them Sex Posivity For Beginners since I’m still near the start of the learning curve myself.
Sex positivity came about in opposition to a philsophy known as sex negativity. In my opinion sex negativity is pretty unawesome but I kind of need to start there, so that’s mostly what this post will be about.
Sex negativity is based on an assumption that sex and sexual pleasure are inherently harmful, immoral and dangerous or a sacred experience that can and should be possessed. Sex negativity requires that sexual desire be largely ignored and supressed except under specific circumstance like a marriage or for the purposes of procreation.
Sex negativity assumes that there are morally superior/inferior sexual orientations, gender expressions and social constructs. For example, in our society, monogamous, heterosexual, cisgender people are typically given more privilege and experience greater approval than people who are poly, queer and/or trans
Sex-negativity also posits that there are right and wrong, or at least better or worse kinds of sex. In a sex-negative framework the where, when, why and with whom of what constitutes better vs. worse sex are meant to apply to pretty much everyone without regard for personal desires or circumstances.
Specific social sanctions around sex have relaxed over time but as a whole our society is still pretty sex-negative. Sometimes, so am I. I’ve been influenced by sex-negativity my whole life. And even though I’ve discovered this rad new sex-positive philosophy, I haven’t become some radically enlightened, different person with a different brain. I still accept and perpetuate sex negative thinking, often without realizing I’m doing it. I’ve tried to become more aware of my own sex-negative attitudes but it’s definitely an ongoing process.
Something I have noticed is the way situations involving sex are often evaluated very differently from similar situations where sex is not a factor. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
Lying vs. Cheating
This happens: Reese is married. Reese enjoys shopping but isn’t always completely honest about what was bought or how much money was spent.
Society says: It’s not ideal. Still, people fudge the truth about money all the time. Reese’s partner shouldn’t end the marriage over it. They should work it out.
This happens: Jordan is married. One day at an office party, Jordan flirts with a co-worker and they wind up making out.
Society says: What a douche! Trust has been irrevocably broken. Jordan’s partner is totally justified in leaving this terrible marriage.
Illness vs. STIs
This happens: Sam gets the flu after sharing a big bowl of popcorn with a friend who had the flu.
Society says: We hope Sam feels better soon. The flu sucks but what can you do? Sharing food is normal. These things happen.
This happens: Alex contracts chlamydia after having sex with a friend who had chlamydia.
Society says: Alex has an sexually transmitted infection. How embarrassing! And gross! Alex is probably SOOO ashamed but too bad. These are the risks you take when you have sex.
Straight vs. Queer
This happens: A man and a woman are sitting on a bench near a playground full of children, holding hands. They share a quick kiss on the lips.
Society says: That’s nice. If the children have questions, their parents will probably offer some simplified explanation like “those people are in love,” with age-appropriate answers to any follow-up questions. This will make everyone happy…especially the children.
This happens: Two people of the same gender on a bench near a playground full of children, holding hands. They share a quick kiss.
Society says: Inappropriateness! Now the children will ask questions! Queer people are only defined by the type of sex they have, so we can’t possibly explain what just happened without opening a big Pandora’s box of sexual orientation and activity. That couple have no right to be smooching here! It’s confusing for the children! WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?
Bankers vs. Hookers
This happens: Pat needs money to live. Pat works as a mortgage broker at the bank. Pat has no particular love of money or financial transactions but they are good at it. Pat does not feel any strong connection to clients when processing their mortgage applications.
Society says: Pat is a responsible, productive member of society. Being paid to do math is totally respectable. Working in a bank is fine, even when you don’t love it. Pat’s gotta do what Pat’s gotta do.
This happens: Sal needs money to live. Sal works as a prostitute in a brothel. Sal does not have great passion for every client but is sexually skilled. Sal does not form strong emotional connections with clients after having sex with them.
Society says: Sal is an amoral, destructive member of society. No self-respecting person would ever accept money for sex. Having sex with someone without any significant emotional investment is soul-destroying. Sal is all scarred and damaged, yo!
Friends vs. Lovers
This happens: Jesse is very socially active and has many friends. Jesse friends are a diverse lot. Jesse enjoys playing baseball with some friends, attends a monthly book club with an entirely different group of friends and next month Jesse’s going to Florida with some pals from university. Everyone involved is aware that Jesse has lots of friends. Everyone is okay with it.
Society says: Have fun, Jesse! (N.B. society does NOT cite the increased risk of contracting a communicable disease as reason for Jesse to have fewer friends or social interactions!)
This happens: Sidney is sexually active and has several partners. Sidney’s partners are a diverse lot. Sidney enjoys frequent sex with a cute co-worker and recently hooked up with someone at a party. Sidney also has a fuck buddy in another city and they connect a couple times a year. Everyone involved is aware that Sidney has multiple sex partners. Everyone is okay with it.
Society says: Too much sex, Sid! You’re being kind of slutty. And by slutty we mean dirty and bad. (N.B. Sid will likely get an earful about promiscuity and an increased risk of contracting an STI.)
Your personal reaction to any of these scenarios may be different from the society says. Not every person in our society is sex negative, nor is everyone sex negative all the time. But generally speaking there is an assumption situations involving sex will be problematic and we attribute those problems to the inherent “wrongness” of sex. And yes, sex can be risky and/or have negative consequences. But are those risks unique to sex? Are those negative outcomes because of our attitudes about sex or because of the sex itself?
Enter sex positivity!
Sex positivity defines sex as fundamentally healthy and a potentially positive human drive. It still places sanctions/boundaries on sexual activity – namely informed consent. And it also acknowledges that sex may not a positive experience for everyone or that some people choose not to participate or even have a desire for sex.
But sex positivity tends to emphasize pleasure, personal agency and individual expression as important elements of sex. Sex positivity doesn’t rank sexual activities in terms of their “rightness” or “wrongness”. It’s a lot about honouring people’s individual desires and respecting the sexual choices people make.
And there’s more…much, much more! As I said, I’m a beginner myself. I’m only starting to get a sense of how sex-positivity challenges many of my assumptions about sexuality and how that in turn will affect my work and my life. But I am a full-on, sex-positivity fan-girl!
In Thursday’s post, I will write more specifically about what sex-positivity is and ways I’ve learned of putting the theory into practice. Stay tuned!