Here in the land of lady blogs, most of us believe that sex and exploring your sexuality is a great thing. “Sex positive” is the go-to term for this, which is the philosophy that all consensual expressions of sexuality are good and healthy. Sex positivity also includes advocating for sex education and safer sex. Sounds good, right?
But simply labeling yourself “sex-positive” doesn’t necessarily mean you are. After hanging around the sex blogosphere for the last couple of years, I’ve been schooled in the way I think about sex. After the jump, some things to keep in mind if you want to be truly positive you’re sex positive.
1. Having sex is healthy, but so is not having sex. Some people are legitimately asexual, meaning they don’t experience sexual attraction. About 1 percent of the population, at the very least, identifies as asexual. And some people are gray-sexual, which is a more fluid orientation between asexual and sexual. So is everyone a sexual being? Is sex essential and beautiful? No, not for everyone. And yet, there is an idea that wanting sex all the time should be the goal. But some people just don’t want to have sex all the time, or at all. Sex positivity has long been about “owning our desires” but it should also be about owning our lack of desire, which is totally OK.
2. Stop glamorizing sex. There can be pressure when you decide you are sex positive to talk about the healthy sex you are having,as though it’s somehow better than other peoples’ “regular” sex, or lack thereof. I used to do this in high school. I was fond of bragging about all the crazy sex stuff I was into. Looking back, I’m not even sure what I meant. That I owned a plaid skirt from Hot Topic? That I watched anime porn with my boyfriend? Talking about your sex life as if it’s better than someone else’s is glamorizing sex, and that doesn’t move the dialog forward. Just look at all those sexy advertising campaigns. It’s not much different than that. And in fact, glamorizing helps cement the idea that sex all the time should be the goal instead of knowing your desire levels and honoring those.
3. Slut-shaming also means shaming people who are more “out of the box” with their sexuality than you. Many of us felt it wasn’t cool when Rush Limbaugh called women who take birth control “sluts.” And since 80 percent of American women take those slut-pills, the majority of women reading this article are, in Rush’s opinion, “sluts.” If you felt that was slut-shaming, maybe you were also down with SlutWalk and the idea that wearing something skimpy doesn’t mean you are “asking for it.” These things make sense, right? And yet, slut-shaming continues to be a common practice.
When my cool, urbanite friend said she “felt bad” for women in pornography, that was slut-shaming. When the (now defunct) revenge porn site “Up all Night” published nude photos of people without their consent, along with a Facebook screen grab and their full-name, that was slut-shaming. When I talked with people at parties about that site and they said stuff like, “It was their fault for taking the photos,” that was slut-shaming.
This is the world we live in, sadly. But I have high hopes that our generation will change this. Maybe in the future a topless photo on Tumblr or a home video uploaded to YouPorn will become as much of a non-issue as having tattoo. I hope that someday we will be saying, “Remember when people acted like sexy photos were a huge deal?” But in order to get there, I think we need to check ourselves more about shaming people for putting their sexual selves out there. Even if that person is Courtney Stodden. There, I said it.
4. Know thyself. I am sex positive, therefore everything I do sexually is healthy. No, wait that isn’t true. This one is about your personal journey, not policing other people, but policing yourself. Labeling oneself sex positive could be an excuse to avoid looking at, say, whether going home with someone new every night is truly healthy. Okay, so we might be using my 21-year-old self as an example here. While I would never suggest policing someone else’s actions, I do think it’s important to always dig into your own emotions/mind/psyche and assess: What is this doing for me? How do I feel afterward? How is my sex life impacting other areas of my life? Just because you like something sexually doesn’t mean it is good for you. Remember, sex positivity is not sexual hedonism. It’s about ethics and self-development rather than simple pleasure-seeking.
5. Listen. Listen. Listen. Remember how last year many women of color penned an open letter to SlutWalk opposing their use of the word “slut?” The letter explained that many women of color did not feel a kinship with the SlutWalk march/movement. As they felt they had been hyper sexualized in the media, they did not wish to reclaim the word “slut.” The people of SlutWalk kind of listened, and then totally didn’t.
In my experience, the sex positive movement is largely made up of white, middle class activists who are also often cis-gendered/able-bodied. These are the people with the most agency. And that means we have to make an extra effort to listen to the experiences and ideas of minorities whose stories are not showcased in the media.
6. Consent is sexy in lots of forms. Among consenting adults, whatever goes. But it always comes back to consent. Sex positive blogs have popularized the idea of enthusiastic consent — only having sex in which both parties are enthusiastically consenting. I use this in my own relationship. If my partner senses that I am just going along with the motions, he stops. And vice versa. This means a lot more starting and stopping and a lot less sex than we used to have. But the sex we do have, we both enthusiastically want.
But yet, even in the consent obsessed, sex pozzie community, sexual assault still occurs. This was recently highlighted by the Consent Culture campaign, which collected sexual assault stories from the kink and BDSM community. The founders have also started doing workshops across the U.S. in an attempt to eliminate the harsh divide between “victims” and “abusers.” The workshops create a space of empathy for those who have violated boundaries, a safe space for those who have been assaulted and lots of tips about how to raise awareness around the idea of consent.
One idea I love is that if someone turns you down sexually, the proper way to respond is, “Thanks for taking care of yourself.” Genius, right? BDSM activist, Clarisse Thorn, says that we can learn things from pick-up artists. Thorn points out that PUA’s use body language or “indicators of interest” to see if a woman is into them. But everyone can use body language to sense consent or lack there of. For instance, if someone says “yes” but their arms are crossed and their body is pointed away from you, maybe they really want to say “no.”
7. Just because it doesn’t turn you on doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Clown sex, diaper fetishes, puppy play, littles (meaning role-playing like you are a little kid). Littles: They’re here! They get off on baby-gear! Get used to it. Just because these sexual practices might give you a strong skeeved out reaction doesn’t mean they are wrong. Other sex writers have pointed out that using this kind of knee-jerk, personal reaction as a basis for saying something is “wrong” is what has helped keep LGBTQ people marginalized and discriminated against.
8. Intimacy is complex. For some people, sex is easy, but it’s also good to acknowledge that sex can be heavy. It isn’t all casual orgies and running through fields of daisies naked. Sex can be emotionally, psychologically and physically intense. Sharing your body with another person(s) can be a big deal … even if you didn’t mean for it to be. And if having sex opens up all kinds of emotional doors for you, that is totally OK. There is no need to pretend that you take it lightly if you don’t. Sex can be a form of intimacy, it can be linked to relationships and all kinds of complex experiences. At the same time, there are worlds of intimacy one can experience without the act of sex. And seriously, you don’t have to do everything … or anything at all! Screw any pressure to be poly or try anal or find your magical G-spot or whatever you feel like you have to do in order to be a sex positive person. It’s all about finding out what works for you.
Rachel Rabbit White is a journalist and blogger who lives in New York City and writes about sex and gender. She hates the brag-y part of bios, but feels equally unsure about the quirky part where she tells you she loves lip-syncing alone in her apartment and avocado and sea salt on toast. Also, Twitter.