What’s Sex Positivity Anyway?

The continued adventures of work done for my “Sources of Sex Positive Spirituality” class. 

My first sense of “sex positivity” was, in retrospect, pretty problematic. Coming out of a culture both obsessed with and terrified of sex, my concept of liberation was focused on having a lot of sex or at least talking about it constantly. I had been taught pretty explicitly in high school that my desires were bad, and that talking about them was worse than just having them. A visit to the online journal I kept in high school would show you comments left by people ostensibly my friends saying that not only did they think my being sexually active was going to send me to hell, but that my lack of crippling shame about it made them concerned that people would think they were “like that”. It’s probably not a surprise that I spent much of my college career cultivating a persona of talking loudly and explicitly about sex. I won’t say that it didn’t feel powerful. I won’t say that there wasn’t something very freeing about not only talking about sex but often being applauded for doing so. I won’t say that there wasn’t something especially fun about talking about having sex while occupying a body that isn’t culturally read as sexual. I also won’t say that it wasn’t pretty fucked up.

At no point during that did I take seriously that my behavior made people legitimately uncomfortable. I didn’t even take in to account that it made me uncomfortable sometimes. Whenever I felt uncomfortable about my behavior I got mad at myself for not being “grown up” or “free” enough. I was sure that if my younger experience of repression had been so painful, then the way past the pain was to be as much the opposite as possible. This didn’t work. It still hurt. Beyond that, I not only made a few people in my social circles uncomfortable, I totally ignored the reality of multiple existences. I didn’t know that asexuality existed, I hadn’t considered how many women of color (black women in particular) are considered hypersexual regardless of their actual lives, I didn’t think about the stigma faced by sex workers, there was so much I didn’t know. I thought I was being sex positive. I was treating sex like it was good instead of bad, and a lot of the messaging I got from mainstream feminism was that that was all it would take. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

So, what’s sex positivity anyway? And is it a good thing? Obviously I don’t think we should proceed as I began, but when the reality is that mainstream sex positivity ignores much of the intersectionality that is so inherent in people’s lives I have to question the extent to which it is a useful label or frame for me. There is a way forward, a way where we respect our desire and treat sex like the positive experience it can be without ignoring nuance, where we’re free for real instead of shoved in to some other conception of acceptable sexuality. I’m just not sure that we’re doing that.

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What Diets Taught Me

[TW: Eating Disorders, Diets, Body Hate]

I think I was 9 when I went on a diet for the first time. If I’m honest, I don’t think I can remember a time before I knew I was fat and that fat was one of the worst things you could be. I can remember the DJs on the radio station my Mom listened to in the car hawking diet pills, and my Mom eventually buying some of them. I remember that in my mind, being allowed to eat full fat pudding and drink juice or regular soda meant that you were somehow better. I think I still know what all the artificial sweeteners popular before about 2008 taste like. I remember South Beach and Atkins and several instances of Weight Watchers. Slim Fast and Smart Ones and that Curves diet with the really gross protein shakes and something called ShapeUp. All of those before I even got out of High School. I remember presents offered if I could “just lose 10-20 lbs” and dance costumes “earned” by means of countless sit-ups. I remember the first time I tried to make myself throw up, and the last. And the time when I involuntarily vomited on a salad because I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days but had taken adderall.

This is not a means of placing blame. This is not to garner sympathy. I grew up in a culture that did this. Does this.

I want to tell you what I learned.

I learned that my body was not to be trusted. In fact, bodies in general were suspect. Dieting culture requires that you become as divorced from your body as possible. Over years of life you’re told from all angles all of the ways in which you and people with bodies like yours are wrong. A carefully crafted series of images is pumped through all the media you ever touch, it tells you that to be beautiful – to be loved, to be special, to matter as a woman – you must aim for a literally impossible version of beauty. Except, you don’t know that. Or at least I didn’t. And neither did anyone else in my life, as far as I was aware. Even once you know, it’s hard to see those images repeatedly and not internalize that construct of beauty. If it’s gotten to your family as well – and it probably has – there’s nowhere to find any real push back against those messages. Even if your family tells you you’re beautiful, you still hear their complaints about their own bodies, bodies that may well look an awful lot like yours. You learn to think of your body as the enemy.

Entire industries ride on this reality. Billions of dollars of of our economy live in the diet industry alone, not to mention all the myriad other bullshit we’re sold by means of self-hatred.

Even with years of concerted effort I can’t get that messaging all the way out of my head. That’s real for a vast majority of the people I’ve ever spoken to who ever went on a diet or “struggled with their weight”. Even if you’re trying really hard, the message that whoever you are is the wrong person to be stays stuck in your head. And I fear things are only getting worse for fat kids. At least when I was a child one of the FLOTUS’s main priorities wasn’t fighting against the existence of kids who looked like me. I only had to handle that from every kid and most adults I ever met.

Not only was my body not to be trusted, my mind wasn’t to be considered trustworthy either.  You’re told that since your body is in whatever way non-ideal that means that it is OUT OF CONTROL and you – the assumed controller, a thing somehow separate from your body – are insufficiently skilled in keeping that bullshit in check. Not only is your body wrong, but your body is wrong and *it is your fault*. So you listen to someone else. You eat what they say, when they say. Then you fail – honestly, when there’s so much money to be made by encouraging a state of perpetual self hatred is it a surprise that diets don’t work? – and that too is your fault. Everything about you is untrustworthy. This is how you wind up a 16 year old who asks her boyfriend to ration cheese cubes to her. This is how you wind up 18 and sure that it’s easier to not fuck up if you just avoid eating at all.

I suppose you could argue that not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder. I disagree, but I won’t push back on that here. What I know is that dieting in particular – and the entire culture that surrounds it – broke my relationship with my body from a very young age, and that I am not alone in that experience. Regardless of what else may be true about diets, they teach us to treat our bodies as objects to fight and to view our natural inclination towards food as a source of pleasure as well as a source of nourishment as sinful. Years of thinking of ourselves and our desires as bad, sinful, can only serve to divorce us from ourselves, to keep us away from the truth about our own value. Whatever other problems I have with dieting – and there are many – this will always be key: Attempting to hate your body into submission can only ever result in hating yourself.

Sometimes on good days I meditate when I eat. I consider my food as I eat it, paying attention to what I see and feel and taste, feeling myself swallow. I think about the food turning itself into energy with which I get to move, talk, think, dance, pet cats, and write, and I am thankful and in awe. Diets taught me a lot of things, but today I’m unlearning them.

The god of impossible things.

I wrote this as the first of a series of blog posts required for a class I’m in about “sex positive spirituality”. I am very happy with it, if terrified of sharing it with you. 

When I was a senior in High School, I almost got kicked out of a Catholic school dance for being too “provocative”. It wasn’t my school, and I managed to get away with only having been reprimanded, but the experience stayed with me. I think about it sometimes when I dance in public, when I wonder about the distance between how I feel and how I’m seen.

I dance with my hips. I sway, dip, shake. If I am lucky – and I am so often lucky – I get lost. I find myself inside the music, moving with it. In it. In these moments I am whole in a way the world has so tried to force me not to be. In these moments the ruptures between soul and body heal. I sweat out the pain caused by years of hate poured in to me. I am my body, and I am beyond my body. Here and also everywhere.

I guess that it is dirty. That’s what I’ve been told. I was told that my dancing – an expression of youthful sexuality only just beginning to figure itself out – was dirty, and that if I ever wanted for bodily pleasure that was probably bad too. I was taught, though less explicitly than some, not to trust this soft flesh I walk around in. Not to hear what my body said. Not to do what it moved me to do.

I guess that my dancing is dirty, but that’s ok, for mine is the god of dirt. Mine is the god of music and pleasure, of art and of dance. Dirty or not, my soul sings when I dance. Some dance just to get lost, I lose myself in dance to get found. I meet god on the dance floor. In tiny bars, and big clubs, and in my bedroom, and in my kitchen as I do the dishes. Maybe this isn’t how it is “supposed” to be. Maybe god isn’t supposed to show up in color field painting or Hip Hop or abstraction or dance or Funk or sex. But that is my god. The god of impossible things. Of people who weren’t supposed to be what they are. Of blades of grass, growing through the concrete.