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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On Abortion Care Provider Stigma and Buying Sandwiches

I originally wrote this for one of the many blogs I have had and failed to maintain over the years. I have spent the past two years of my life as a Patient Advocate in an abortion clinic, work that has changed my life in so many ways I am not even quite sure how to express it. I wrote this nearly a year ago, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I will wind up having to say about this period of my life, but, it exists already and I think it’s important background information and that the point I attempted to make in this piece is as necessary as ever. 

Sometimes, I forget to take my lunch with me when I go to work. When this happens, I generally choose to wander to a sandwich shop down the street to get something to eat. Sometimes, in my hurry to eat and get back to work, I forget to take my name tag off before I go inside.

The first time this happened I about had a panic attack while ordering my sandwich. My name tag says my first name on it, and the lanyard it is attached to is covered in buttons that say things like “Condoms cause sex like umbrellas cause rain”, “Trust Women” and “Pro-faith, Pro- family, Pro-Choice”. A closer look makes it even more obvious that I work in an abortion clinic. The first time this happened, I awkwardly shuffled my lanyard, making it so most of my buttons and my actual name tag faced backwards. I didn’t know if the woman making my sandwich had noticed, and upon a tiny bit of reflection I realized that she probably didn’t care, but for that moment I felt incredibly vulnerable.

This same awkward dance has played out in other stores, where I will realize that we’re still wearing it and slip it in to my pocket. It’s awkward enough to accidentally wear anything that has your name on it in a public place, knowing that the message people can get from just looking at you being “Hi, my name is KC and I work at an abortion clinic” is that and then a few more steps.

This is what abortion care provider stigma looks like. This is what anti-choice terrorism has lead to.

I can think of a number of other instances in which I’ve gone absolutely out of my way to not tell people where I work. It’s kind of hard, people don’t ever expect you to not be okay saying what you do for a living so vague answers don’t always work. I am guilty of vague allusions to “women’s health” and just saying that I do “counseling work”. Another tactic is to say the name of where I work, but not what it is. Sometimes people are so self-conscious about appearing to not know something that if they don’t know from that, they just give up. On one really notable occasion I talked in circles to the point where a cousin of mine decided that I did potential end of life counseling for people about to have risky surgeries. I think I’m hardly alone in having made attempts to not tell people what I do.

This is what happens. This is the result of a society in which it is considered completely OK for Bill O’Rilley to call Dr. George Tiller “Tiller the baby killer”, and where no one bore any responsibility when Dr. Tiller was murdered. Where it’s acceptable to call doctors who perform abortions “abortionists” and people who bomb clinics, assault patients, and murder providers are not included in the FBI’s main terrorism database. These people do want to hurt us, we all know that. We all have little tips and tricks for “not attracting attention” and our understanding of how to respond to a threat. Sometimes, since it’s not really possible to tell who is dangerous and who isn’t, it just seems safer to just hide.

At the same time, I’m clear that some of my avoidance is about feeling like I don’t want to have that conversation. I don’t actually expect that the lady making my sandwich in front of me to follow me home, and I don’t think anything worse than an awkward and possibly very unpleasant conversation would happen with my cousin. Sometimes it’s easier to not make waves.

However, what happens when we hide is pretty bad. If we hide, we make it look like we’re ashamed of what we do, and we allow anti-chiocers to be the dominant voice heard in the abortion debate. If we’re ashamed of what we do how can we ever expect women who seek abortions to shake feeling ashamed of their choices? If we’re so afraid that we don’t speak up, how can we act confused when women take in the dominant narrative and are themselves afraid of us? How can it be at all surprising when a patient says that she expected the clinic to be dirty? Or when she wants to know if the doctor is a “real doctor”? If the political right in America is good at anything, it’s framing the debate. I wonder if the purpose of intimidating clinic staff isn’t to make us hide so that there is no opposition to their dangerous framing.

And here’s the thing: I am not at all ashamed of what I do, and I don’t know anyone who does abortion care work who is. What we are is cautious and very aware, but maybe it’s time to throw some of that caution to the wind.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all run around informing literally everyone of what our names are and where we work, but we’ve got to stop acting like if we just hide, no one will be violent towards us. We’ve got to stop acting like we could possibly be at fault if someone was violent towards us. Let’s not let that transform in to avoiding ever being identified as abortion care providers. Armed with a sense of our own goodness, let’s each take steps to end the stigmatization of abortion and abortion care providers. What we do is not only okay, it’s good. We care deeply about our work and about our patients, and people deserve to know that about us. We deserve to be able to tell people what we do without fear. Some of getting to that point is beyond our control and some of it will take a lot of time, but destigmatizing abortion care can start with something as simple as saying “oh, I work at an abortion clinic” or not worrying about leaving your name tag on in public.

By choosing to speak about what we do honestly and without shame, we give our patients the chance to speak about their abortions in the same way. By talking publicly about our work we add another voice to the conversation, countering the amplified voices of anti-choicers and allowing ourselves more ability to control what the conversation surrounding abortion is about.

When I go to the sandwich shop, I no longer try to remember to take my name tag off. It’s not much, but it’s a little step toward visibility. I wonder where a bunch of little steps could get us?