What is Sex Positivity?
Sex positivity is the belief that consensual sexual expression is both healthy and important in contributing to a safe and inclusive campus climate. Sex positivity is grounded in comprehensive sex education, exploring and deconstructing gender norms, and promoting body positivity and self love. It fosters safe spaces in which different identities and sexual expressions are valued and bodily autonomy is paramount. Sex positivity transforms our relationship with ourselves, each other, and our communities and can impact policy.
Consent is the expression of a mutual desire between parties to participate in a sexual activity. Sexual activity without consent is sexual violence. Period. Consent is fundamental in creating a sex-positive space. It is vitally important to respect other people’s consensual choices when it comes to their identity and body.
Consent can be withdrawn at any time and it is given without coercion. Someone saying “yes” because they are too afraid to say “no” is not what consent looks like. Someone changing their mind about a sexual desire and then being forced to engage in it anyway is not what consent looks like. Consent isn’t always spoken, but it should never be assumed. The absence of a “no” is not a “yes!”
Minors, people who are mentally incapacitated or unconscious, and people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are unable to give consent.
Sex positivity celebrates healthy sexual relationships, diversity within those relationships, bodily autonomy, and empowering individuals to control their own sex life (or lack thereof). You define what is right for you–there is no “right” way to engage in sex and express your sexuality as long as everything involves consent, empowerment, and respect.
Breaking Down Gender Myths
Gender roles are the behavioral expectations placed on people in relation to the gender binary. It’s important to remember that gender is a social construct, and if someone doesn’t fit into the societal expectations for what their gender (or lack of gender) looks and acts like, that is perfectly okay! Critically examining gender roles and participating in behaviors and expressions that make you happy is extremely sex-positive! It is important not to put other people in boxes when it comes to sexual expression, and everyone should be able to express their gender in a way that empowers them.
Comprehensive Sex Education
Empowering folks to take control of their sexuality starts by making sure they know how their bodies work and how to keep them safe.
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), comprehensive sex education is characterized by teaching age-appropriate, medically accurate information on topics such as sexuality, human development, decision-making, abstinence, contraception, and disease prevention. Comprehensive sex education provides students with factual information on abortion, masturbation, and sexual orientation, and they are encouraged to explore their own values, goals, and options. These curriculums also cover consent, healthy relationships, communication skills, and bodily autonomy. Sex-positive, comprehensive sex education does not intertwine sexual identities and choices with character and is supportive of students’ safe and informed exploration of gender and sexual expression. SIECUS defines the following curricula as not sex-positive:
- Abstinence-Based: Programs that emphasize the benefits of abstinence but also include information about sexual behavior other than intercourse and contraception and disease prevention.
- Abstinence-Only: Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors and don’t include information about contraception or disease prevention.
- Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors outside of marriage and often present marriage as the only morally correct context for sexual activity. If contraception or disease-prevention methods are discussed, failure rates are typically emphasized.
- Fear-Based: Abstinence-centered programs that are designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt in them via negative messages about sexuality, distorted information about condoms and STDs, and biases about gender, sexual orientation, marriage, family structure, and pregnancy.
Comprehensive sex education has been proven time and time again to lower rates of unprotected sex, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). According to research conducted by the Journal of Adolescent Health, teens who receive comprehensive sex education are 50% less likely to experience pregnancy than those who receive other types of sex education. Despite tremendous evidence that comprehensive sex ed leads to a healthier youth population and abstinence-only programs are ineffective, the federal government has invested billions of dollars on abstinence-only programs over the past 20 years.
Only 22 states require sex education in public schools, and only 19 of those require sex education to be medically accurate. President Obama has slashed the budget that supports abstinence-only sex education, but there is still a lot of work to be done at the state and local levels to ensure young people have access to comprehensive sex education.
Condoms and Contraception
Making condoms and contraception accessible is a critical aspect of empowering people to control their own sexuality. When used correctly, condoms–including condoms, dental dams, and insertive condoms–are very effective at preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, to prevent pregnancy it is critical that condom use be paired with other forms of contraception such as the pill, implant, ring, and IUD. It is common, especially among younger populations, for condoms to be used inconsistently and incorrectly, which contributes to failure rate between 12% and 18% for preventing pregnancy.
It is important for all people to have access and knowledge of these resources. To learn more about condoms and contraception, check out plannedparenthood.org and bedsider.org. To push for better birth control access on campus, check out our Birth Control Access Campaign!
Fighting Rape Culture
“Rape culture” refers to a complex set of beliefs that create an environment in which sexual violence is prevalent and in which sexual assault and coercion are normalized. These beliefs are perpetuated through misogynistic language, objectification, and the glamorization of sexual violence and create a society that disregards rights and safety, blames victims of sexual assault, and normalizes sexual violence.
Sex positivity fights rape culture by emphasizing consent, valuing bodily autonomy, and empowering young people to make informed decisions. These elements work together to deconstruct slut-shaming and victim-blaming–harmful elements of rape culture that permeate many elements of our society.
Sex positivity also combats rape culture by ending the social cycle of guilt people might experience about sexual activity, examining harmful elements of hyper-masculinity, fostering safe spaces for survivors, encouraging people to view others as full humans with bodily autonomy, and deconstructing harmful power dynamics in relationships.
An important element of sex positivity is the practice of loving yourself holistically–physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Body positivity is about developing a healthy, loving relationship with your body, in all of its uniqueness and perfect imperfections.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (anad.org) found that 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting and 58% felt pressure to be a certain weight. All people in our society are affected by the unrealistic and often unhealthy standards of western beauty, but young women are disproportionately affected.
It is estimated that 95% of people suffering from an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25, and 85% are young women. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED) are caused by a combination of sociocultural, psychological, and biological factors; they do not discriminate by socioeconomic status. Marginalized groups are more vulnerable to eating disorders, but are less likely to be diagnosed and treated.
No one should feel ashamed of their body, and our culture shouldn’t be pushing unrealistic beauty standards on women and girls. We should encourage women to define their value by finding what makes them feel strong, healthy, and empowered–not by what society says they should look like.
- Gender: The socially constructed idea of what “masculine” and “feminine” look, act, and feel like.
- Gender Binary: The social dichotomy that polarizes the masculine and feminine and allows for little in-between.
- Heteronormativity: The belief that people should fall in line with the assigned binary identies they’re assigned.
- LGBTQIA Spectrum: A range of sexual and gender identities including folks who identify as:
- Asexual: A person who does not feel sexual attraction toward any group of people.
- Bisexual: A person attracted to people who identify with varying genders.
- Lesbian: A woman who is primarily attracted to other women.
- Gay: A person who is attracted primarily to a person of the same gender.
- Genderqueer: A person who identifies outside of the gender binary.
- Intersex: A person whose anatomy or chromosomes at birth defy definitions of “female” and “male.”
- Pansexual: A person who is attracted to people regardless of their sex, gender, or gender identity.
- Queer: A reclaimed term sometimes used by members of the LGBT community to identify their sexuality or refer to that community.
- Transgender: A person who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth or the gender binary. (Cisgender people do.)
- Monogamy: A relationship practice in which people partner with only one person at a time.
- Polyamory: A relationship practice in which people may partner with multiple people in varying ways.
- Privilege: A position of social or cultural power someone is born with (i.e. white privilege, heterosexual privilege) or otherwise obtains (i.e. education or wealth).
- Self-care: The act of taking steps to honor your physical, emotional, situational, or spiritual well-being.
- Sex: The socially constructed biological categories of “male” and “female” and the stuff in-between.
- Slut-Shaming: When people are made to feel bad, guilty or inferior for their actual or alleged sexual behavior.
- Victim-Blaming: When victims of crimes are made to feel responsible for what they’ve experienced. This occurs frequently in conversations about sexual assault, in which survivors are often asked “what they were wearing” or “why they chose to walk home alone” as if their behavior could have ever warranted sexual violence.