‘It is just as objectionable to insist that everyone should be non-monogamous or kinky, as to believe that everyone should be heterosexual, married, or vanilla.’
Last Saturday morning my friend and I were having a WhatsApp debrief on the sex we’d had the night before. As we shared our favorite flashbacks, I was surprised to see a picture pop up in our chat. Of me. And another friend.
“Oh! There are pictures?!” I said.
“Hope you don’t mind!” he replied. Flanked by a smiley face emoji.
Now. I like taking sexy pictures and I like having them taken. I enjoy sending and receiving them, both in anticipation and in retrospect. So no, in many ways, I didn’t mind. But what made him assume I’d be cool with this digital documentation? We had talked about our work and he knew I wrote about sex for a living.
Was it possible he’d taken that to mean I was down for anything?
“I didn’t know you’d taken photos,” I tapped back. “In the future I’d rather you didn’t do that without checking.”
“Of course, sorry,” came the response. “I can delete them if you want.”
“No, it’s OK,” I said. The pictures weren’t really the problem (plus, I liked having them). It was more important to me to set the boundary and have him acknowledge it.
“Overall, I had a really good time,” I added. “Yes,” agreed my friend. “Thanks for being so game!”
Game? I suddenly felt like my response was being read as acquiescence.
This wasn’t the first time my general open mindedness had been used against me. “I thought you were sex-positive?!” one partner had leveled at me when I expressed disinterest in a particular kink. I’d like to tell you I brushed it (and him) off, but I admit it—he made me doubt myself.
For me, sex positivity is about consent and communication. It means being open and informed; it has never meant an obligation to experiment or push boundaries. As far as I’m concerned, the decision not to have sex is just as sex positive as the decision to have sex, as long as it’s done consensually and without judgement or shame.
But not everyone interprets it that way.
The term “sex positive” is attributed to Austrian psychoanalyst Willhem Reich, who hypothesized an alternative society to the prohibitive, “sex negative” culture that dominated early 20th century Europe. In the 1980s, sex positivity came to prominence as a response to the anti-porn campaigns led in the U.S. by Andrea Dworkin and the radical feminist Women Against Pornography group.
The rad-fems argued that, amongst other things, “intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women,” which prompted writer Ellen Willis to question whether the message of feminism at the time was really any different to that of the right-wing abstinence movement.
In her 1981 essay “Lust Horizons: Is the women’s movement pro-sex?” she argued that instead of viewing porn as inherently misogynistic, women could use it to learn about their own sexual desires. After all, she wrote, “the purpose of women’s liberation is to liberate women, not defend our superior capacity for abstinence.”
What she termed “pro-sex” was the beginning of the sex positive movement, which cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin described as “an exciting, innovative, and articulate defense of sexual pleasure and erotic justice.”
These days the definition is broader, but also more heavily debated. The International Society for Sexual Medicine defines sex positivity as “having positive attitudes about sex, feeling comfortable with one’s own sexual identity and the sexual behaviors of others.”
Others see participation as a crucial part. Author and activist Allena Gabosch talks about sex positivity as “an attitude […] that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.”
Meanwhile in mainstream media, sex positivity is focused on “improving” and “spicing up” our sex lives.
For people who find sex difficult, dysfunctional, or who are opting out altogether, this message is at best alienating and at worst dehumanizing.
Ginger, an asexual, trans non-binary person who contacted me via Twitter, said: “Most people who use ‘sex positive’ use it to mean ‘sex is a Good Thing.’ This can leave ace people feeling isolated or excluded.”
Dr. Meg-John Barker—academic, activist, and writer specializing in sex and relationships—agrees there is too much emphasis placed on the relationship between plentiful sex and good health:
“People feel pressured to have sex they don’t want and to do sex acts they aren’t really into. That’s a problem for both consent and pleasure because forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do is an excellent way of turning you off sex completely.”
Laura, who blogs about low sex drive on her website Sexponential, found that much sex-positive advice is centered around increasing the frequency of sex, something she found counterproductive.
“I was advised to try scheduling sex. But the day would come and I just felt this dread. I felt so much pressure to perform. People see me as an ‘empowered woman’ so they just assumed I was having an amazing sex life. I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could talk to.”
This feeling was echoed by the founders of The Vaginismus Network, a community to support and connect women who have vaginismus, a condition that causes pain during vaginal penetration.
“You feel resentful when people are talking about their amazing sex lives. I used to go to the bar to get drinks or I’d go to the toilet to excuse myself,” co-founder Kat said. “It’s great to be able to talk about having sex and not be shocked. But if someone says actually I hate sex and it’s painful, that shouldn’t shock you either. That shouldn’t be shameful.”Sex positivity is an attitude that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable. Click To Tweet
Even in sex-positive subcultures, where mainstream ideas of heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla sex are rejected, other kinds of sex often take their place and the pressure to participate can be just as strong.
“Often in queer, poly, and kink communities their approaches seem to be that their sex is good because it is a radical act,” said Ginger.
This is what Rubin referred to as the “hierarchical valuation of sex acts.” But, wrote Rubin, “it is just as objectionable to insist that everyone should be lesbian, non-monogamous, or kinky, as to believe that everyone should be heterosexual, married, or vanilla.”
While researching this piece I was stunned by the stories I heard from my own sex-positive communities. One friend told me about a club where by entering you consented to whatever happened inside. Another told me about declining to have sex with someone at a kinky party only to be told, “you can’t reject me, we don’t do that here.” Yet another talked of being shamed for having a gender preference and told to be “open to different experiences.”
In queer feminist zine FUCKED, one anonymous author explains:
“Party spaces are never sexually appealing to me. I resent not having the option to opt out of these things and still feel safe, feel like a part of the community.”
Barker says this is not uncommon. “These kinds of spaces can be particularly bad because sex positivity can give people implicit permission to be creepy and non-consensual, suggesting that everybody in those spaces should be ‘up for it.’”
The pressure to be or be seen as sex positive is almost as damaging as the sex-negative messages it is supposed to challenge. So what can we do about it?
“It’s really important that we develop a culture where it is just as acceptable not to feel sexual as it is to feel sexual,” says Barker. This idea is explored in their latest book, co-authored with sex educator Justin Hancock: Enjoy Sex: How, when and IF you want to.
“We’re all supposed to love sex, to be really experimental, and to have incredible orgasms,” they write. “In this book we’re trying to get away from the sex-negative and sex-positive messages to find a kinder way in which we can all approach sex and enjoy it if we want to.”
Sarah Beilfuss is co-founder of London-based sex-positive women’s community Scarlet Ladies. She decided to temporarily abstain from sex after she was raped. She hasn’t had sex with a partner for over a year and sees this as in keeping with sex-positive values.
“People assume sex positive means you have lots of sex. I see it as being empowered to do what you want and need and for me that was going abstinent. In Scarlet Ladies there are several women who’ve taken a step back from sex. Being sex positive should mean that you have your boundaries firmly in place, know what you want, and are comfortable saying no as well as yes.”
Setting boundaries isn’t always easy, but if it fosters better consent and communication, what can I say? I’m game.