What does “Sex Positive” really mean?
I find myself asking that all the time. It’s constantly running in the background of my brain as I take in the barrage of commentary about sex that we face on a daily basis. At the gym, yesterday, I saw a segment on E! TV in which Kelly Osbourne and Joan Rivers and a few others were looking at photos of women from the neck down and, based on what they were wearing, guessing whether they were “stareltts” or “street walkers.” Sex NEGATIVE! Prominent sex bloggers posting lists of “Strange Fetishes,” totally Sex NEGATIVE!
But, Sex Positive is still harder to identify. And that’s as true watching TV as it is when I am working in the Sex Positive movement. I see as much Sex Negative behavior in the Sex Positive community as I do anywhere else. And all of it has to do with judging other people – often masked as individual pride or humor. Or a justification to not take their perspective as seriously.
Confession. I hate the term Sex Positive. I don’t like to use it, and almost never do unless I’m in a setting with other people who already define themselves as Sex-Positive. Some part of me feels that the very act of defining a group of people inherently leaves out other groups of people. I mean, it’s just sex, everyone does it. No matter what you call it or how you do it, we all have a right to it, right? So why does “our” way need a special name? And besides, there is not consensus about what Sex Positive even means, so how can we use it to define and…..
We ALL need a Sex Positive world. Which means we need to figure out at least 3 things:
1. What Does Sex Positive Mean?
2. What Is The Sex Positive Community?
3. Why Must Sex Positivity Be An Inclusive Movement?
Yup, I’m gonna need a lot of help on this one.. I have more questions than answers, and more opinions than proposals. So….
1. What Does Sex Positive Mean?
I asked that on Twitter, and got some good answers, though none of them really made my sweet spot hum….
@BedHeadTweeting defined it as: Allowing the space for the sexual experience of Individuals w/out judgment as long as everyone is happy, healthy & consenting
@Charlie Glickman summed it up as the idea that: the only relevant measure of a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, well-being of the participants & those affected
@BedHeadTweeting honed in with: acknowledgement of exclusion, education to address the why… I think exclusion often comes from fear/ignorance
@SabrinaMorgan got close to my sweet-spot with: Hearing when people feel excluded, making room for all to talk about their experiences & be represented.
They are, of course, all right. I think we would all agree that at the core of the concept of “Sex Positive” lies a “live and let live” approach to sexuality. That not only is the consensual sex happening between other people none of our business, all people have the fundamental human right to agency over their own sexuality. That means that they should suffer no mental, physical, medical, social, legal or professional barriers as a result of their sexuality or sexual expression. An acceptance that human sexuality is as richly diverse as the human race, there is no such thing as normal and no one person’s sexuality is any better than anyone else’s. Right?
That may not have been graceful, but I’m hoping we can all agree at least on the intent of it and move forward as a community. Hey, yay, look, now we have a Sex Positive Community.
2. What Is The Sex Positive Community?
This is where it starts to get messy. The Sex Positive community has been pioneered with blood, sweat, cum, and fantasies of social equality, largely by people who come from marginalized communities. Their passion and drive for acceptance has pushed through legislation, given us Pride Parades and started the process of creating a common language with which we can discuss sexuality as a human right. Amazing stuff.
But, what now? Can the sex positive community be defined as a place where people who were once marginalized are now safe and free? Yes, I hope so. Is it a place where kinksters can let their kink-flag fly with pride? Dear gawd, I hope so.
But, what about everyone else? I am one of many people I know who came to the Sex Positive world not because I am kinky, but because I am socially and politically progressive and see this as the civil rights issue of my generation. I came here because I am not willing to sit idly by while human sexuality of any sort is relegated to closets in which people suffer in silence, depression, disease, unhappiness and feeling like freaks. I came here because I believe that it is not possible to be healthy as individuals or a society as long as sexuality is approached with fear and shame. I didn’t come here because I, personally, felt marginalized.
Well, I didn’t feel marginalized until I came here, that is. And I think that’s a problem. It’s OUR problem. As a group, while we fight for the sexual freedom of all, it seems possible that we each get entrenched in our personal fight for acceptance, which creates an alienating phenomenon. When inclusiveness should be about “me too,” all too often it becomes “me instead,” when we’re talking about fighting for our rights. “MY rights are more important.” “My suffering is deeper.” “My sexuality is more progressive.”
How do I see that manifesting? Well, from years of conferences, events, parties, writing, thinking, and working in the Sex Positive world, one of the biggest things I see is the term “Vanilla” used as a pejorative term and excluded from discussion as not needing either validation or inclusion. Yes, I notice this one a lot because I am pretty damned vanilla – heterosexual, monogamous, not particularly into any real kinks. I am far from squeamish, but just because I embrace everyone’s rights to their own kink doesn’t mean that I want it in my own life. I am not alone. Not only have I had many conversations about it with other people who feel marginalized, but it’s worked its way into mainstream media. In a recent article on Salon.com, Tracy Clark-Flory summed it up thusly:
This is something I’ve come to realize about “sexually progressive” communities: They’re not always that progressive. For all our bluster about sexual liberty and choice, there is a sense in some corners that certain freedoms are freer. I’ve come across a surprising number of supposed radicals who subscribe to a sex-positive hierarchy, with private monogamy at the very bottom and public poly-whatever-y at the tippy top.
Yup. There is often a tenor to discussion that implies if people were more, open, evolved, progressive or whatever, they would be kinkier or poly or, whatever. Not just that we’re pushing for social change, but that individuals need to change in order to truly be Sex Positive.
Which brings me to the next thing that I keep running into, what I’ve jokingly come to call the “All Kink All The Time” phenomena. It feels as Sex Positive dialogs and events are built on the tacit assumption that all we really need to discuss is bondage, sex-work, poly-politics and toys. All of those are great, but they are not givens, nor are they enough. What happens is that we forget to check boundaries, and warn people about potential triggers. And we forget to include the very people who need to understand what we’re fighting for and why – those who are not already comfortable with the depth and breadth of human sexual expression.
With some hesitation, I want to use a recent event as an example. (I loved the event, and the presenter in question.) A simple ice-breaker in which people are expected to tell strangers what their favorite sex toy is not necessarily Sex Positive because it assumes everyone has the same boundaries. We don’t. It creates an expectation that everyone must express their sexuality from this starting point in order to participate – it’s a kind of backwards (and I believe totally accidental) exclusionary instance. I, personally, would never feel comfortable doing that. I don’t want to let a perfect stranger know these intimate details about me. They’re not my lover and I don’t want them in my “lover space.” And I don’t want to be burdened with the visual of some guy I don’t know sticking a giant nubbed dildo up his ass. I didn’t consent to see that, not even in my mind’s eye. But we don’t think about it, because “we” are all so open. It’s “just talk.” But if sharing intimate information or kink with someone else is necessary for inclusion in dialog, that’s a strange social coercion that we don’t want to be guilty of. Either I do this thing that I’m not comfortable with, or I am left out, and marked as an outsider. It’s a subtle social coercion that we see all the time, when kinky / queer people are left out because of their kinks.
More than coercion, it’s an enabling factor in the very segregation that we need to fix.
There are a lot of vanilla people in the world. Some of whom want to stay that way, some of whom may need to feel safe in the Sex Positive world so they can find out that they aren’t so vanilla after all. We need to be a safe place for all of them too, not just for ourselves.
Accepting the spectrum of human sexuality as valid and important means accepting all of it, not just the fancy fringed bits. Consent and clarity about people’s boundaries and expectations is not only the hallmark of healthy sex, but of a healthy community. And it matters, a lot.
We must ask for clarity, define expectations and accept differences. All of them – from Vanilla to Rocky Road to a 6-scooped sundae with every topping you can name.
3. Why Must Sex Positivity Be an Inclusive Movement?
Why do we need to make room for the kinky and the vanilla at the same table? Because change happens when we come together. We are fighting for the human rights of all people. My assumption is that when people eschew – or worse – the kinky, the sex-workers, the poly, the queer and anything else, it’s because they are afraid. As I said in a TEDx talk that I gave last year, I think that “mainstream” society is afraid that if we grant “those” people the right to do “those things,” we’re saying it’s okay for them to do them to us. So people put up defenses rather than getting brought into a world of sexuality that they don’t want for themselves personally.
“We” know that’s not the case. I know that the leather-daddy sitting next to me is no more interested in my ass than I am in his. But not everyone knows that. So yes, the responsibility is on us, whether we want it to be or not, to remind the world that being Sex Positive is the right to say YES to what you do want and NO to what you don’t want. FOR EVERYONE.
We come in peace. Let me be me, and you can be you.
We have to reflect that acceptance in how we interact with the world, and with each other. It’s easy to dismiss that Salon.com article as “oh, they just don’t understand us.” But that would be a big mistake. We are being told how we make other people feel. And it will get in the way of progress. In the war of sexual rights, fear and “otherness” are the biggest problems we face. We can only fight that with togetherness.
If we truly want to be catalysts for change, we can’t start by leaving out many of the very people who most need to hear our message. At the very least, let’s acknowledge that preaching to the choir isn’t enough, and we need to develop working strategies for reaching people who don’t know our song, and maybe haven’t even seen the Church Of Great Sex, much less come in it.
We can’t make great social change on our own. We can’t sit in our ivory towers – or would they be pyrex? – and wait for the mainstream to come to us. We must actively build inroads, through dialog, that allow them to not only feel just as proud of their own sexuality, but to feel safe. To know that they don’t have to change for us, and we don’t have to change for them. That we don’t think we are any better, and we know that we are not worse. That while yes, we may push their boundaries a bit, it’s not because we want them to be like us, it’s just because we want them to know how big the spectrum really is. And when it comes to human rights, size does matter. Our rights have to cover all of it. Gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, kinky, poly, BDSM, celibate, vanilla, old, disabled,….. ALL OF IT.
We come together.
This matters so much to me, and I know I’m not saying it as well as I want to. But I have seen far too many people run from the idea of the Sex Positive movement because they felt like they weren’t kinky enough, edgy enough, “out there” enough to be part of it. I am afraid we are building ourselves into a corner in a way that will serve to further isolate us into fiefdoms of kink rather than kingdoms of freedom.
Granted, having a big queer-as-hell-family gives me a certain street-cred, but we should all get that credit, simply for being here and showing up. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter that much to me, I’m driven, stubborn as hell, and I’m in this for the long haul. But there are millions like me who need to be recruited to this cause, and they may need an invitation. On their terms.
Being Sex Positive means accepting that everyone is free to express their sexuality in the way that feels right to them, without fear of judgment from anyone. Including us.
So, I ask all of you, what do we do about it? How can we all come together?
Photo by Flickr User Sociotard