According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, sex-positive feminism is rooted in the concept “that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom.” To me, that means it’s the idea that everyone is entitled to seek out pleasure and express their sexuality without judgement, and that a person’s choices and sexual lifestyle should be respected (as long as all parties are consenting). The idea came about in a time when some feminists were trying to change the language around sex work by providing sex education and access to contraceptives for folks involved in the industry, and also sprouts from activism that attempts to stop the government from controlling the sexual behavior of anyone – or, even, feeling entitled to be privy to the knowledge of what that behavior is. This is a movement to ensure freedom of expression and the right to engage in whatever sex you find pleasurable, and, believe it or not, social and political control is still being exerted on what we do in our bedrooms. (Ken Cuccinelli, former gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, recently tried to reinstate a ban on oral and anal sex in the state, and he isn’t the only one to try to ban sexual activities between consenting folks.) There are plenty of people policing the sexualities of others in our world – be they folks who deny the validity of gay relationships, people who shame kinky or otherwise “deviant” sexual behaviors and the people who practice them, or people who attempt to make anyone who’s getting some feel guilty about it.
Sex wasn’t largely discussed in my home, so I went along with society’s strange, conservative, taboo, religiously-based if-you-are-unmarried-and-having-sex-you-are-a-sucky-human attitude, and thus I had a lot of guilt and anxiety surrounding the issue. When I started having sex, I was convinced that everyone would be able to see it, read it on my face. They’d notice and judge how excited I was, how I had been pleasured and how I wanted to do it again. The thought of this made me feel so guilty. For me to become sex positive, it took a lot of convincing myself I hadn’t done anything wrong. Convincing myself that liking it didn’t make me some gross, over-sexualized creature. Working through my views of myself as a sexual being and how I judged others was a monumental, and still in progress, step to becoming sex-positive.
It isn’t just those of us who grew up heavily influenced by religion or social norms who struggle to view their sexual desires and preferences as healthy and positive. Kelly Rose Pflug-back, for example, has written on how sexual liberation isn’t always a simple matter when you have experienced sexually-related traumas. Everyone brings their own personal experiences to the table in performing their sexualities, and many folks bring histories and childhoods of sexual assault, abuse or molestation. Previous experiences influence what sex means to each of us and could change our needs during sex or in relationships. All of these histories color our views and judgments of our own and others’ sexual exploits, define what we consider “healthy sex,” and impact our capacity to enjoy sexual intimacy. In my own interpretation of the movement, however, there is room at the table for everyone – be they folks who enjoy all kinds of sex with all kinds of people, folks who worry about hypersexualization and feel they have more reserved sexualities, and folks who are still healing from sexual trauma.
The term sex-positive is inherently divisive. After all – if someone sex is positive, doesn’t that mean that someone else must be sex negative? I personally feel that condemning folks – be they folks who enjoy or don’t enjoy sex – isn’t in line with this movement. Assessing your own views, and needs, is more sex-positive to me than judging others on how empowering their sexual choices are. Perhaps sexually-liberal feminism might even be a better term.
To me, sex-positivity is a multi-dimensional construct, similar to the reproductive justice umbrella. Abortion doesn’t occur in a vacuum: environmental safety, access to healthcare services, transportation, income, childcare, housing, and other factors all impact a woman’s eventual choice in her family planning process. Outside factors inevitably effect our ability to enjoy sex: do we feel safe, do we feel empowered, are we comfortable, are we freed of the patriarchal guilt associated with enjoying sex, and do we have the time and space to work through our histories, anxieties, traumas and needs?
To me, sex-positivity means no one can tell you what is best for you sexually. Whether you don’t enjoy sex or want to have it all the time – it’s up to you. Sex-positivity means being able to decide your own desires and take control, as much as possible, over your sexual health. Women should be able to talk about trauma without shame and so should women be allowed to speak of consensual sex without stigma.
That’s my part of the story. What does sex-positive mean to you?