Should we do away with “Sex Positive”?

1stJun. × ’12

I recently wrote a post for The Frisky about sex positivity– it was a sort of check-list– “Are you sex positive? Here are 8 ways to be sure!” Essentially these were lessons I’ve learned from hanging around the sex blogospehre and having conversations with you guys.

That said, I thought I would ask you–   Should we even be using the term “sex positive”? Is sex positivity positively out-dated?

According to lots of sites (okay… well at least Wiki) the founding father of sex positivity is Wilhelm Reich: “His hypothesis was that some societies view sexual expression as essentially good and healthy, while other societies take an overall negative view of sexuality and seek to repress and control the sex drive.”

You can either be Sex-Positive and Good Society or Sex-Negative and Bad Society, apparently. No doubt that many cultures are oppressive when it comes to sexuality…but what about the idea that no one (esp us Westerners) should tell other cultures/societies what is okay and not okay for them? This is that whole thing  (#8 on my thing Frisky list) about listening to people whose stories are  too often suppressed.

I’ve also heard it argued that we should do away with “sex positive” because well, why is sex positive? Not everyone wants to have sex, some people are asexual or a variation of asexual (Demisexual! Grayasexual! A-romantic!)  And sex isn’t always positive and healthy. (And true that, no?)

In the comments on the Frisky article, it was clear that “sex positive” was a useful shortcut to flesh out more ideas. But there were also commenters who disagreed:

“I disagree with #7. Having just read The Brain That Changes itself – there is a persuasive argument that fetishes of that sort are caused by 1. porn addiction, and 2. childhood trauma.” says commenter, Amit Amin.

My point was that among consenting adults….whatever goes. You are only responsible for your own emotional/mental health…if you are interested in self-development. Other than that no one should police consenting adults for something deemed “unhealthy”. Just like, I think, you can’t police cultures you aren’t a part of.

But what do you guys think? Do we still need “sex positive”?

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16 Comments

  1. Chris C.
    Posted 2012-06-1 at 13:32 | Permalink

    Man, I’m of two minds about this – there’s a bunch of terms I’m used to using in feminist discourse (and with the term ‘sex-positive’, also in the mainstream), that I think signify great concepts, but are a little misleading.

    For me, “sex-positivity” is the idea that whatever your sexual expression is, it’s ok, and valid. So that could be casual sex, BDSM, non-monogamy, or any number of things. I also (like you) want to have a term that includes people who decide to stay virgins, wait until marriage, are/or a- or demi-sexual; my version of sex-positivity includes those people, but in popular discourse, it always seems like it’s advocating sex, not saying that ‘your choices and options are valid’.

    TL;DR: I love sex-positivity, but agree that the wording of the term is maybe not the best. (I have a similar feeling about ‘enthusiastic consent’) I’m not sure what to replace it with though! If someone had a better suggestion, I’d jump on it.

  2. Posted 2012-06-1 at 13:36 | Permalink

    I agree re: enthusiastic consent. It feels flat. Both in talking about it and in practicing it, it seems like it is just simplifying something that is complex. There is something sincere about enthusiastic consent, but as the feminist, memoirist Chris Kraus said: “isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?” ‘

    Also in my own life, sometimes I want to have sex even if I am not enthusiastic about it. Overshare: Sometimes I just want my partner to nail me, even if I am kind of bored as we go along. Sometimes you catch up later, and get into it. Y’know???? Anyone??????

  3. Posted 2012-06-1 at 13:38 | Permalink

    YES we should continue to use the term “sex-positive” – we can’t retire it until it has done its job! Here in St Louis we have an organization called Sex Positive St Louis. Many people (mostly ages 45+) think the org has something to do with HIV or other STIs. It’s important to convey to people that the word “positive” is a positive word!

    I think the sex-positive movement is expanding the LGBT movement in regards to accepting others for who they are. Asexuals and kinksters and other people who identify outside the norm have a better defined space in the sex-positive community than they do in the LGBT community.

    I believe we need to promote sex as a very positive aspect in life, as opposed to taking a neutral stance. It’s such an inexpensive and natural source of joy for so many!

    As for any negative aspects regarding sex, many of those can be eradicated through education and viewing sex without guilt or shame, and that is a key component of the sex-positive movement as well.

  4. Posted 2012-06-1 at 14:26 | Permalink

    (140 characters not enough!)

    I don’t like the term, because it assumes such a sharp divide among people–it’s like, I don’t give two shits what someone else does, I hope I’ve never shamed anyone for their preferences, I’m not particularly into kink myself, and I prefer to keep my sex life just between me and whoever I’m fucking. I don’t particularly like to talk about sex with people otherwise–not because I’m ashamed, but because I just feel like talking about fucking is, as they say, like dancing about architecture. So I don’t think I’d meet most people’s definition of “sex-positive,” but why is that? Because I’m private? Because I’m not into kink? It assumes a binary–like if you’re not sex-positive, well then, you must be sex-negative.

    And I know that’s not how the term is used–that it’s used as Chris C. points out, that you’re all thumbs-up about whatever fun consensual things people want to do together. It’s a handy term for separating that mind-set from the “only between a man and a woman after marriage” mind-set, sure, but the latter folks are presumably somewhat positive about sex too, right? Just under a different set of conditions. I’ve always bristled at the term, even as I support the goals of openness about sex, because I fear that it implies that people who lean toward privacy are going to be seen as *not* sex-positive. No idea what a good alternative would be, though–I like that “sex-positive” is, well, positive, instead of invoking what sex-positive people are trying to avoid (shame, heteronormativity, etc.). So I’ve never articulated these thoughts before because I am glad the idea behind it exists–but hey, you asked!

  5. Posted 2012-06-2 at 13:52 | Permalink

    I’ve always read (and used) “sex positive” as shorthand for

    Feeling positive about people being (and working positively towards a society in which people can be) free and able to:
    - understand and explore their bodies,
    - get in touch with their fantasies and desires, or lack thereof,
    - communicate about those things when they want/need to
    - know, and honor, whether or not they want to have sex (at a given moment/in life in general), with whom they do or do not want to have sex, and how they do or do not want to have sex
    - pursue consensual encounters with others, if they wish to engage in encounters with others, in a respectful and kind way
    - have autonomy over what happens to their bodies
    - listen to others
    - express themselves sexually
    - take responsibility for their own sexual well-being (emotionally and physically)

    Feeling positive about things that facilitate the above, such as, amongst other things:
    - holistic and comprehensive sex education
    - free health care

    And, implicitly, feeling negative about things that limit those freedoms and abilities, such as (but by no means limited to):

    - the association of sex and shame
    - abuse, rape and sexual assault
    - general judginess around sex and sexuality
    - homogeneous representations of sex and of bodies in the media
    - all forms of oppression that I can think of

    So, as you can see, for me there’s quite a lot packed into the term, and in that sense I think it’s practical to have it as shorthand – though of course I recognise the risk that different people may be using it to signify quite different things. Personally, I like “sex positive” and think it’s still got a lot of mileage in it. I’ve never felt that it means “sex is great, everyone should be having it all the time”: I do see where people are coming from in arguing that there’s a (misleading?) black-and-white ring to the term, but I guess that is indicative of its roots in, as you say, Western cultures that may be broadly described as “sex negative”.

    Autumn, nothing you say leads me to think you wouldn’t fit my definition of sex-positive. I’m sure there are people who think you need to talk about your own sexual adventures all the time to be sex-positive, but I’ve always understood it to mean, to use Chris C’s words, “your choices and options are valid” – including the choice not to talk about your choices! As an example, one of my closest friends is extremely private about sex, I believe totally vanilla (though I could be wrong – because she’s so private!), a definite 0 on the Kinsey scale, and has slept with about 10% of the no. of people that I have. At uni people would sometimes read her as “prudish” or worry what she thought of their sexcapades and I would always explain that she was the least sex-judgmental person I knew. In fact I would describe her as having sexual integrity: she knows what she wants and what’s healthy for her and totally honors that; she’s a caring, curious and non-judgmental listener; and would advocate passionately for people’s rights to do all kinds of sexual things that she would personally never do. I don’t know if she would describe herself as sex-positive, but I see her as someone who lives the kind of values that the term communicates to me.

  6. Tatiana
    Posted 2012-06-2 at 19:42 | Permalink

    I think this is interesting – and I like that you brought up the Western concept of sex-posivity. I often have a massive problem with “progressive” discourse in the West because it often implements cultural imperialism in order to get its message across. Additionally, most of the people who are using Western lifestyles as a measurement for how other people should be living – tend to be upper middle class white people:

    (As there’s certainly a decent amount of privilege when we talk about sex positivity – in the sense that for White Americans, there’s no real culture – except maybe religious issues – that inhibit their relationship to sex.

    However, there are cultural blankets that surround cultural and ethnic minorities – even within the US – that complicate the experience and conversation about sex positivity. For example, in my Twitter I follow a decent amount of feminists/womanists – but all of them are black or brown and no one has ever mentioned sex positivity. Ever. But, it’s normally the white feminists who spend a lot of time talking about sex positivity and consent.

    This isn’t to suggest that my small sample size is indicative of an entire race or culture of peoples – but to me, it’s significant enough to mention WHO is talking about sex positivity because that also determines the demographic of people who are listening to it. Additionally, this is just my experience).

    I don’t call myself sex positive because I have no real understanding of the word, and I kinda have no real use for it. Being non-critical of other people’s life choices doesn’t need a label; just don’t do it. Slapping a label on something creates a culture around it, which then creates a variety of opinions and viewpoints. It then means that the new tribe has to decide how to go about the word – do we need it? Can we still use it? And it’s all rather intellectually tiresome since in many words, the words have no real use outside of the community it’s being used in. If I’m talking with someone who doesn’t know what sex positivity is, and I use the term – I then have to explain it. The word lacks a definite, and intrinsic understanding – which renders the word rather moot in my book.

    And while it’s certainly possible, though time consuming, to educate people on how to use new terms and what those new terms mean in the grand scheme of social or sexual justice and progress – I wonder if “sex positivity” is a word that needs saving. Because ultimately, the problem around sex is an issue of fear and lack of comfort. It’s an issue dealing with insecurity, and lack of information. Essentially, it’s a problem with emotions, and the exercise of dealing with words is an intellectual endeavor. This alone says to me that there’s already a lack of connection. In social progress in general, we need to be dealing with people’s emotions and personal experiences – not getting caught up in crafting new labels – which are going to die out anyway.

  7. Tom Jones
    Posted 2012-06-3 at 09:39 | Permalink

    Sex positive people are accepting of people who don’t want sex, or arent’t interested in sex. Sex negative people may or may not like sex, but don’t want you to be doing it without their approval.

  8. Posted 2012-06-3 at 12:24 | Permalink

    Kendra, I mean you make a good point. It is easy living in a sex pos bubble (esp a sex pos iberal bubble in NYC) to forget that to most people, these concepts are radical and not de rigueur. St Louis is a city I actually very much love, but I am sure you see instances of sex-negativity on the daily– that whole midwestern bible belt is a little fucked.

    Autumn, super interesting because I think you are right– the term itself does seem to have this connotation of “open-ness about sex.” So, I am all about an open-ness about sexuality in a conversational way and think this is important but I don’t feel one needs to be open about their personal sex life.

    But most people seem to group the two together. I think this is actually a mistake people make– when I say I write about sex and sexuality people tend to imagine that means inwards not outwards. Y’know, when I am out at a party having the conversation that inevitably follows the “I write about sex” admission, people tend to cross right into the personal– which I admit I sometimes bristle at. (And I do like hearing about other peoples sex lives in a sociological/slightly voyeuristic way.) I actually don’t often talk about my personal likes/sex life in this away. It feels too show-offy, too glamorizing, which feels somehow fake and uncool. I suppose I am not about a sex positivity that (forces?) open-ness about ones own sex life in a conversational way. And really, who would be?

  9. Posted 2012-06-3 at 12:33 | Permalink

    Lipstick&Teeth– great list.

    You include “- take responsibility for their own sexual well-being (emotionally and physically)” But I think that one does not necessarily have to be having emotionally healthy sex in order to be ‘sex positive’.

    Like, who cares if the sex I am having is mentally/emotionally “bad” for me. If this is the case, I don’t think I should be policed for it.

    We often hear this sort of sex positive morality thrown around when talking about kink. Like, “kinky sex is okay as long as the people involved are not acting out traumas/being unhealthy,” etc. I say, who cares if people are acting out traumas, being unhealthy. Between two consenting adults– whatever goes. I don’t think it is sex pos to police other people. Now, if self development is something you are interested in, I think it is great to look at your own practices and well-being. But I don’t think sexual well-being and self reflection is needed for sex positivity. Thoughts??

    Tatiana, I fucking love you. This comment is brilliant. Gold. Will let it marinate and come back and say more….

  10. Posted 2012-06-3 at 13:55 | Permalink

    so many feelings about this topic. I never know how to feel about it, because it is a very divisive term that turns people into “us” and “them.” Either you are for any kind of sex ever, or you believe in guilt and shame. It makes such a complicated issue so black and white, and it really does have socio-econimiv and racial limits that no one really ever talks about. Why is it so predominated by the white upper classes? How come these other groups don’t affiliate themselves? Does anyone really ever ask them?
    I also think this goes into an important question: is there such a thing as wrong reasons or right reasons to have sex, and who decided this? I think the sex positive community likes to hold themselves to a standard of being positive about all sex, when I don’t think they even feel that way. What about people having an affair, or a family-arranged marriage, or lying to someone to get them into bed, or not using proper protection every time? All of these situations still involve two (or more) consenting adults, but we often inflict certain amounts of guilt or shame about these things. Is it wrong to inflict guilt or shame in these situations? Are we still sex positive if we do? Where are the dividing lines between what is shame-worthy and what isn’t? If my best friend’s husband is cheating on her, should I champion him for the great sex he is having? Should I support him in following his own sexual path and desire?
    I also think that sometimes if we put this “positive” slant on things, it stops us from talking about the negative issues surrounding sexuality, which have a lot more problems than just guilt or shame. If we talk about sex holistically, we also have to talk about some of the negative ramifications, implications, and consequences. People need to feel free to share their own issues about sex, besides just shame and guilt created by western society. What about the shame for being too vanilla? Or the guilt for not always having 100% positive and fun sex? Or whether or not its okay for me to fake an orgasm sometimes (I full-heartedly say yes to this one)? If everything is pleasure and positivity all the time, you are not really talking about sex anymore at all. You are talking about fantasy.

  11. marc2020
    Posted 2012-06-3 at 14:35 | Permalink

    I want to eco what Kendra Holiday said in her comment as someone who considers themselves gray sexual (or celibate by choice as I prefer to see it.) I have always felt way more understood in the sex positive community that by any other that includes the asexual community. I’ve learned so much about myself by reading sex positive feminists such as yourself but the most important thing I took away from sex positive writing was that I’m not broken!

    I’ve also learned to understand other peoples sexualities there turn on’s, kinks etc and have learned to be less judgmental because of this.

    There is still not allot of misunderstanding an and fear surrounding sex women still get slut shammed men get shamed for not living up to ridicules masculine ideals. To say that we should do away with it when it was a lifeline to people like myself and could still be of great benefit to others seems alittle short sighted

    Maybe the day will come when sex positivity is no longer needed but that day is far from dawning to borrow a line from one of my favourite video game series “We have to finish the fight”

    Still thanks for a great peace gave me allot to think about.

  12. Jeremy
    Posted 2012-06-3 at 16:12 | Permalink

    What about situations where the sex is abusive, even if someone is consenting to it? I’m not talking about S&M or whatever, I mean actual abuse. While I would like to say, “Hey, anything goes if they are consenting”, what if someone dies during an unsafe sex act?

  13. EE
    Posted 2012-06-5 at 10:19 | Permalink

    I have a weird relationship with the term. On the one hand, as stated by Marc and Kendra, there is a real need in our society to make sex something that is ok and not shame ridden, especially for those who deviate from what society dictates as ‘normal’ behavior. Therefore, for them, sex positivity has both meaning and real work to do.

    However, sex is not necessarily a good or a bad thing in an of itself. It can be wonderful, it can also be horrible and traumatic (see rape). It is a tool like any other and in the right hands it can go well, and in the wrong hands, it can go wrong.

    Which leads me to my final point that sex positivity should be seen as a stepping stone, it is a term that should be used where it is needed to convert sex from something repressive and negative to something perhaps more neutral? So that once we’ve reached that point, the term sex positivity can be no longer employed and we can discuss (and think critically) about sex and how it is used and how people are affected by it.

    As mentioned by Eliza i/r/t her comment about the best friend’s cheating husband: sex is frequently in the gray area, and by treating it as an essentially neutral construct perhaps we can rebuild a sense of ethics surrounding it? One that does not necessarily make all sex bad or good, but follows through with the nuances of a particular relationship?

    Just some personal thoughts on the matter

  14. Nick
    Posted 2012-06-5 at 14:18 | Permalink

    “What about the idea that no one (esp us Westerners) should tell other cultures/societies what is okay and not okay for them?”

    This is sex positivity, in a hard, cold nugget. Why, exactly, would one want to do away with it?

  15. Posted 2012-06-7 at 14:40 | Permalink

    I love the term sex positive, I use it all the time. I think what’s great about it is that it is so inclusive. I always tell people (who have never had sex) that they should be sex positive about sex even if they aren’t having it. You can be sex positive and not have sex. It’s about your view of sex and sexuality and how you handle the decisions that you make around sexuality. You can be sex positive and decide you don’t want to have sex right now because it’s not right for you and you’re not ready – that’s big! I think it’s great. You can have tons of sex and be sex positive. You can also go the other way and have no sex, or tons of sex, and not even know what it means to be “sex positive” – I think it’s about owning your sexuality. What are the choices you make, and why do you make them? I’ll definitely keep using it.

    And I love The Brain that Changes Itself, I can’t remember that part, I might be time for me to re-read it :)

  16. Comment Monster
    Posted 2012-06-16 at 04:38 | Permalink

    Great, thought-provoking post. I’m going to go with bullet points, like the Powerpoint-addicted corporate whore I have become (somebody should spank me):

    * Being sex-positive is not the most important thing about you as a person. Not being bigoted against large groups of people based on geography might be more important. Quoting: “that whole midwestern bible belt is a little fucked.” I don’t want to be mean but that was a little stupid. Until I had reason to parachute into the bible Belt, I had my stereotypes about it too. There are worse things than Baptist-bashing. Still, there’s a lot we coastal people can learn from the flyover people. Being bigoted against people it’s PC to be bigoted against is still bigotry.

    * Sex-positive isn’t new. It used to be called “I don’t care what you do, just don’t scare the horses.” But that’s been perverted into “If your horses can’t handle me scaring them, fuck your horses!” I’m thinking of gay pride parades where the whole point is shock and awe. Or the commenter who said, “I always tell people….” Grow up.

    * Sex is an appetite, for most people, and lots of people are very hungry and hungry trumps morality. Hell, it trumps manners. Talking about sex in public is not the same as talking about politics or sports, even if you’re making political points about sex or sports arenas. This is why porn is different from other free speech. I think porn should be legally protected like other free speech, but let’s get real that sometimes sex talk is like throwing fire into a crowded theater. Sometimes it’s like eating nachos in front of a starving person. Sometimes it’s like eating non-halal nachos in front of a starving Muslim. You’re going to get reactions you didn’t want if you don’t be careful about sex talk in public. Sex talk is sexy. Other political talk doesn’t get people’s tingly bits engaged, not directly and so uncomfortably.

    * Speaking of Muslims, straitjacketing sexuality is a bad idea. Humans are all over the place in their sexuality, even in the same family, much less the same culture, because of hormones or personal morals or whatever. I’ve been happily serially monogamous. Every time I’ve tried a one-night stand, I’ve regretted it. I haven’t tried all that many, but every decade or so… Other people, they find that licking someone you don’t know is just fine. I’m probably just overly-fastidious. I like to do filthy things only with people I know well. Other people like to do them with people they don’t know. A lot of people have varying degrees of filth comfort, and some like to do only one thing regardless of whether they know the people involved. Thus the success of Craigslist.

    * There is a difference between being sex-positive and being tolerant. There is a difference between “you have the right to do that” and “I won’t think less of you if I were to find out you do that.” The latter, I think, is the essence of sex-positivity. I’m no more freaked out about your weird interest in rock-climbing than about your weird interest in getting pegged by your girlfriend. Unless you can’t shut up about rock-climbing or pegging after I say I don’t want to do either. Sex-positivity isn’t really moral. It’s just treating what other people do sexually like you’d treat any other hobby you don’t care about.

    * In a perfect world, I would have sexual opinions about you only if I was trying to do you. But in this world, your sexual attractiveness is in play every time you walk into a room. People who have no intention of sleeping with you have detailed opinions about you as a person based on whether they would or would not sleep with you if they had the chance to. Sex is complicated. It overrides higher brain considerations. It tempts you to violate those considerations, to cheat on a spouse, to vote for Obama, to ignore a fat, ugly girl who has a really good idea in a meeting. It’s not nice, but it is true: We make a lot of decisions based on “would I fuck you?”

    * Even though sexual desire doesn’t neatly fit moral rules, there are moral rules that overrule sexual desire. It’s not ok to shoot people on the freeway who drive like shit, and it’s not ok to be Sandusky. There are way too many people in the so-called “sex-positive community” who think their peepees point the way. The rest of us should just follow. If your peepee is your pilot, not even Sting can help you.