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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