Sex-Positive Doesn’t Have to be a Dirty Word: Feminists Analyze the Notion Sex-Positivity
Illustration by Erin McPhee
Please note, this post has been updated since first published as the original version uploaded did not properly display the entire post.
So I have a partner, going on 9 years, and I still feel awkward and scared to masturbate in front of her. I know, TMI. But that is exactly my point.
In this dominant western culture, we have a problem with openly talking about sexuality, being openly sexual, and women’s racialized and queer sexualities themselves.
We are becoming more acclimatized to the idea of ‘open’ sexuality, diverse sexual and gender identities and being positive about sex itself but I think the majority of us still have some stuff to bust open when about talking about this natural part of ourselves. At the same time, sex positivity, the mainstream concept, would have us believe is about being open and accepting of sexual acts as long as they are consensual. However, feminists are asking that we take a closer look at what this mainstream concept is actually all about.
We need to bust this ‘sex positive’ thing wide open because the dominant western culture does not permit certain people to have a self determined sexuality and that is part of the problem. This culture thrives on keeping women, girls and Trans people of colour in their place by negating our (sexual) autonomy and self-determination. This is particular to Indigenous and Black communities.
When I started this article I wanted to talk about sex-positivity as it related to talking to Adli and other kids about sex: from the very start of their lives, to avoid the shame and the misinformation we ultimately learn about sex in western culture. I wanted to talk about sex positively and share that with our kids.
But in doing my research about ‘sex-positivity’, many radical communities critique this idea for various valid reasons: sex positive culture does not contain a critical analysis about gender based violence and survivorship; sex positive culture can shame sex workers about not liking their jobs (Chanelle Gallant 2015), sex positivity does not target the people who hold the power around what is taboo or permissible - rather it targets people for not being okay with any and all consensual sex acts; the concept of sex-positivity does not shift a culture to be more sex positive but focuses on individual consent to sex acts and not lifting the oppression over an entire group or identity through being sex-positive.
So how do we create a more sex positive culture within our individual selves while still being feminist, which includes a critical analysis leaning toward lifting the collective oppression? How do we assert openness around our complex and diverse sexualities? How do we shift from individuals being sex positive and to supporting disenfranchised communities to liberate ourselves around sexual self-determination? How do I talk to Adli about all this? This seems so complicated!
Below are two segments from articles I read and conversations I have had about sex positive culture and what that can mean for us as individuals but also trying to co-create a sex-positive culture that actually empowers people from a feminist lens.
Heina Dadabhoy: “I find the notion that all sex is awesome as long as there was consent to be more than a little troubling. On the surface, it does seem awesome. We live in a society that pathologizes mere sexual attraction when it falls outside a very narrow set of norms (let alone acting on those attractions) as well as de-prioritizes consent. Not being judgmental about anything and emphasizing consent appears to be a great counter to all that — and it can be. The problem is that we should be able to express criticism of consensual acts, especially when considering their greater context. At the very least, we should feel okay with expressing our discomfort about them. Sex-positivity can be used as a bludgeon by which to silence criticism of anything sex-related.”
Melissa A. Fabello: “(But) there has been a lot of conversation in the feminist community over the past few years about sex acts that are quote-unquote “degrading” in that they position women as submissive to men by playing out male-pleasure-centric tropes in pornography.
On the one hand, one argument is the sex-positive side: If I want a dude to ejaculate on my face – if I really, honestly want and like that – then isn’t it empowering to let him do it?
But the other side of the argument is: Maybe you think it’s awesome, but because we live in a society where women’s submissiveness to men is the status quo and in which penises are often weaponized (as in common phrases like “Suck my [bleep]”), then does this perpetuate rape culture? And if so, how can it ever, ever be feminist?
The same arguments can be (and is, tirelessly) applied to sex work: If a woman decides of her own accord that she wants to perform in pornography, feminism says that that should be sanctioned. But is pornography – particularly of the mainstream variety – empowering to women on a larger scale?
The argument is that just because it’s empowering for you personally doesn’t mean that it does women on the whole any good. So then the question becomes what is feminist, then? Your personal empowerment? Or the lifting up of a community? And how can one ever control the latter?
The truth is: There isn’t actually an answer here. There are a million other details to take into account, and there’s always the argument that any woman who is personally empowered is empowering women on the whole.
My issue here is that all of these arguments attempt to be black-and-white.
You’re either a sex-positive feminist – believing that your personal empowerment is paramount – or a sex-negative feminist – believing that if an act doesn’t directly oppose oppression, it isn’t empowering.
But these issues aren’t black-and-white. They’re not easy. They’re not one-size-fits-all. They deserve a conversation. That’s what “sex-positivity with critical analysis” means for me.”
(Kelly Rose Pflug-Back): “We are taught through the ethos of mainstream feminism to love and accept our bodies regardless of whether they fit conventional standards of beauty or sexiness, to know what gives us pleasure, and to feel no shame in asking for it. These things may be incredibly beneficial for some people, but we also must acknowledge that each body comes with baggage – and if this baggage prevents us, for the time being, from fully loving and accepting ourselves, from pleasuring ourselves, or from giving and accepting pleasure from others, this does not mean that we are wrong or bad or broken. We are simply doing what we have to in order to survive in a world where the odds are stacked against us, regardless of whether our ways of coping look “healthy” to others, regardless of whether we are called bad feminists or bad women because of them.
Carlyle Jensen, Owner of Good for Her Sex Shop in Toronto and author of Sex Yourself: A Woman’s Guide to Mastering Masturbation and Achieving Powerful Orgasms: “I think a really important thing to do is to be clear that it is ok to bring things up. So my kids do talk to me about sex because they know that I will give them a straight answer. Although a couple of times I made too many suggestions about what not to do (was about soccer, but still the message applies) when my son said “mom if you talk to me like that I won’t come and tell you any more things that happen at school”. So I apologized and made a mental note to not make lessons too heavy.
We also have to be sure to be realistic and not too PC (politically correct). Once one son asked if you can “have sex without a boner” . I said yes there are many ways to enjoy pleasure without a penis being hard… he stopped me and said “mom- the REGULAR way”. So I answered that yes it was not really that easy to have intercourse without an erection.”
Dainty is an artist, speaker and the founder of Canada’s only burlesque troupe primarily for black women and women of colour, Les Femmes Fatales: “Sex positivity is a buzz term that gets folks excited. I don’t mean to sound cynical, I like that people are excited and are having conversations about sex and the body in a positive way. But I think of the old question ” are we there yet?” And the answer is no we’re not but I feel like folks like to think we are. Unfortunately we haven’t arrived at a societal and cultural point to state that we’ve made it or that we’re even close. We still have more work to do around what we consider beautiful and desirable, how we look at and harshly judge feminine, masculine and gender non-conforming bodies. I think pop culture plays a large part in this, we need to look at the level of perfection that we expect of people’s bodies. I founded my burlesque troupe Les Femmes Fatales for black women and women of colour because as a black woman I felt starved for femme identified persons who reflected me. I wanted to create a safe space where queer, bi and straight women and gender fluid persons could celebrate, affirm and own our bodies and our sexuality. Our bodies and our sexuality never feel as though they belong to us. We don’t have a say over what we will or won’t do and it’s so important for people of colour that claiming ownership of ourselves is talked about more. I also think that in the movement, there aren’t enough conversations being had about taking pleasure in ourselves, in our individual beauty, in our bodies and what bring us joy. There is constantly so much never ending work to do on trauma and survival. I would like more room to talk about the need for adornment, the daily act of touching our bodies, taking time to lotion our bodies, combing and styling our hair, applying make up if that fits your presentation. These may seem like small acts, but they are about self care, touching and connecting with ourselves and it’s something that we need very much. The small daily act of allowing ourselves to give care and love to ourselves.”
Chanelle Gallant, Writer, Activist, Educator and Tramp: “Where I’m at in my life right now, I love sex and feel pretty excited about the sex I’m having (and when I’m not having it). But this hasn’t always been the case. So often in my life, it felt like no one was listening to what I wanted to do with my body and my sexiness.
First I was told to like straight, sweet sex that happens in a monogamous relationship. Turns out: nope! That’s not what I want at all! I wanted to be kinky, queer and polyamorous. Then I was pressured to have all the sex, all the time to prove that I was so “sex-positive”! Ugh, that sucked just as much. Then I saw how the sex workers in my life were so stigmatized as being victims and pathetic because they wanted to sell sex. That seemed like garbage to me too.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from sex workers it’s that what matters most is body autonomy and sexual self-determination. It goes way beyond just “consent”. It means that we get the power and the resources to determine our totally unique sexualities for ourselves–including having sex with no one without explanation or having sex for money. It means that you are never shamed for having or not having sex, you’re never told that the way you have sex is broken or that your sweetie “deserves” sex from you. It means that you never, ever have to be “normal”. (thank god)
There is a whole glorious disco ball of sexual possibilities in this world. Some of us want the space to figure things out on our own—including people who’ve survived violence and need space to heal and figure out what they really want for themselves. So yeah I’m sex positive—sort of? But I’d say that I’m a “sexual autonomist” first.”
So it seems the mainstream idea of ‘sex-positivity’ can definitely make room to open up its definition and include a lot more than just individualized consent and being up for anything. It sounds like feminists here problematize the concept in all the right ways – ways that promote us to be able to open ourselves to understanding sex positivity from a place that empowers, heals and self-determines.
And, isn’t that what we are talking about when we are talking about having positively good sex?!