The Problem with "Sex Positivity"

All sexual activities that are safe and consensual are thought to be fundamentally healthy and pleasurable. This attitude towards sex is broadly referred to as sex positivity, an ideology that encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation within harm-free and consensual spaces. This seems pretty straightforward, but the problem with this definition is that it overlooks the political component(s) of sex and sexuality. Lately, sex positivity has been met with much critique and I’m all for critiquing it insofar as its definition is limited to the celebration of sex within a consensual and harm-free space. However, if being sex positive means that I am a part of a mostly white and cisgender movement claiming that “all consensual expressions, or non-expressions, of sexuality are good and healthy”, then I am out.

Not all sexual expressions are healthy or pleasurable. The broader definition of sex positivity affirming all sexual expressions as good or even encouraged can have dire implications on the way we view sexuality. For instance, this definition ignores the systematic framework of oppression within which sexuality operates. It effaces the fact that societally approved sexualities are structured by male supremacy. Moreover, this brand of sex positivity disregards the sexist power relations under which sex occurs. These poignant issues are not addressed, merely reduced to questions like, “why don’t you try this?” or “why don’t you talk about it with your partner?”

This isn’t to suggest that trying new things and/or discussing sex with our partners isn’t a good thing, because it can actually be great. However, not all of us can afford this privilege and even when we can, no conversation is held equally or in a vacuum. There are a number of invisible oppressions within sex positive rhetoric that impede our understanding of different sexual experiences. Saying that clitoral stimulation is the only way to experience real pleasure oppresses those who do not have a clitoris or whose clitoris has been ironed, those who were not born with one, or who have never touched or noticed it.

Projects like the Cliteracy Project, which quantifies a healthy sex life by the number of orgasms a woman has at a time, allow men to see themselves as “good feminists” if they enjoy giving women oral sex and marginalize women who have a complicated relationship with sex. In addition, the whole “all sex is nice if consensual” argument alongside the assumed universality of sexual appetite marginalizes asexual identities, proclaiming that everyone is sexual and anyone who identifies as asexual just hasn’t met the right person yet or has not found the right context in which to be sexual.

Compulsory sexuality is another trap that sex positivity sets up. The idea is that the more you perceivably engage in sexual acts, the more value you are assigned as a sex positive individual. This is not only common within heterosexual relationships, as patriarchy extends itself to non-heterosexual relationships as well. When varying power dynamics define sex between partners, it “invokes the specter of male and female roles.” The question “who’s the man and who’s the woman in the relationship?” concerning lesbian and gay partnerships comes to mind. By asking this imposing question, the asker seeks to determine who in the relationship has the power (the “top”) and who loses power (the “bottom”), thus assigning higher social status to the powerful by weeding out “who must compulsorily be fucked by whom.” This example serves as a reminder that non-heterosexual sexualities are more often than not co-opted and refigured by heteronormativity.

Similarly, it is assumed that everyone is capable of having the consent discussion. Yes, I am saying that some (women) are in relationships in which consent is not an option. Even if I were to think it wrong to deny someone their right to consent, I cannot presume to strip them from their experience of pleasure and sexuality. Sex and sexuality do not exist outside the realm of politics; “it is always already political and social” and to automatically expect consent within a patriarchal society is problematic. Some individuals are not equipped to have this conversation because they do not know its language and I cannot deprive them their sexual experience on the basis of my own informed ideologies regarding the matter of consent.

Our bodies come with baggage and histories. Our understanding of sexuality should not be limited to the physical aspect of sex. Rather, it should consider that our bodies have been categorized and oppressed since birth. We should be more cognizant and critical of the various interconnections at play when it comes to sex by reclaiming the positives: celebrating survivor experiences; not shaming asexuals, people with STIs or HIV, women without clitorises, relationships with no explicit consent, persons who do not experience pleasure, etc. Further dividing feminists into sex-positive and sex-negative creates divisions between us that are effectively used against us in very real and intentional ways, and only serve to blind us from real divisions of race, class, and geography.

We should never “stop asking hard questions in favor of assuming that everything is revolutionarily enlightened and therefore devoid of the intricacies of oppressive structures.” Just as queering and cripping are processes – not identities – that challenge compulsory heterosexuality and ablebodiedness, as well as homonormativity and normalized disability movements, is it possible to challenge sex positivity without eliminating it? It is then important to stop viewing sex negativity as insulting and take into account that these feminists criticize sex on political and not moral grounds. There is a difference between positivity while addressing sex/sexuality and in claiming that all consensual, harm-free sex is positive. I am for the former.

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Written by Lama
Edited by Lore Satori