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Carol Queen’s Commentary Spot: What Makes a Sex-Positive Space?

At CatalystCon I participated in a panel called “Slut-Shaming in Sex-Positive Communities” — and I’m going to tell you what I told them: that I don’t think a community, or a space, where people are subjected to slut-shaming (or homophobia, biphobia, “heterophobia,” kinkphobia, transphobia, etc., etc.) can be called “sex-positive” at all.

“Sex-positive” has, in some contexts, come to mean “positive about sex,” AKA “Hell yeah, I like sex!” And that is awesome for the person in question, of course — it’s nice to like sex! It sure beats hating it, huh? But that’s not what sex-positive means.

A person can be sex-positive if they’ve never had sex. If they’re asexual. If they never intend to have sex. Even if they’ve had nothing but bad sex. Sex-positivity refers to a radical stance: accepting everyone’s sexual desires and choices, providing they’re consensually engaged in. That means accepting other people’s sex lives even when you don’t find the things they do remotely alluring. It means allowing that others may have tons more sex than you — or way less; they may have sex that seems hot to you, or not at all appealing. You really, really don’t have to like the kinds of sex other people engage in to fully support their right to so engage. Sex-positivity is thus an overarching philosophy that is the opposite of slut-shaming, homophobia, biphobia, “heterophobia,” kinkphobia, transphobia, etc., etc.

By the way, I know that trans-identified people do not necessarily feel that their identity is a sexual one, in the sense that most of those other phobia words I just cited more clearly point to the kind of sex a person is presumed to have. But transphobia operates culturally in some ways very much like homophobia and other erotophobias, which is why I use it in that listing here. I would suggest that transfolk need sex-positive community too, because transphobia plays less of a role there. And also by the way, I want to call out the notion that we know anything about a person’s sex life when we know their sexual orientation. All that tells us is the gender of the partner they are likely to desire. It won’t tell us which specific acts they engage in, how kinky they are, or anything of the sort. Just sayin’.

So what’s a sex-positive space? It’s anyplace where people gather together and accept each other on the basis of sexuality (and gender identity). This can have zillions of permutations, but basically, it means that we can be ourselves (sex-and-gender-wise) while in such a space, and need not fear opprobrium or erotophobic acting-out from others. And since consent is inherent in sex-positivity, it also means that sex-positive space is one in which our boundaries will be respected. In short: People’s consensual sexuality is accepted, not denigrated; and their presence in sex-positive space does not mean they’re fair game for other people who want to have sex. Yes and no are both sex-positive responses to an invitation to have sex, as long as the “no” isn’t said in a way that disrespects the other person’s sexuality.

In real life, we are not allowed to model ourselves from our young years on sex-positive role models or mentors. Many of us do not come from sex-positive families or communities. Most of us have experienced a lot of bad modeling, in fact. Some of us are attracted to sex-positive community for our own sense of support and self-esteem, some to find partners, some to learn more about sexuality. (We know we don’t live in a fundamentally sex-positive culture because sex education is rarely pleasure-inclusive and is so often itself erotophobic.) But as communities form to support our many sexualities, we have more opportunities to get it right. In fact, one of the only really obvious, guaranteed ways to get it wrong is to slut-(etc.)-shame.

While we’re at it, what’s a sex-positive sex shop?

When Good Vibrations was created by Joani Blank, we weren’t really using the phrase “sex-positive.” As near as I am able to ascertain, the term escaped from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality sometime in the 1980s. (I didn’t smuggle it out personally, but I certainly have used it often enough since then that I’ve helped it get around.) However, the store created by Joani and her early staff and developed during Good Vibrations’s co-op years has, I think, epitomized the kind of space we’d ideally want a sex-positive sex shop to be: It’s open and accepting to customers who want to have all sorts of (adult, consensual) experiences and types of partnership (including a partnership we very much honor: that of a person with their sex toy); its staff is selected and trained to communicate about sexuality and sexual differences in a comfortable, shame-free way; it very much gives a place of honor to sex education and information.

When I discuss sex-positivity, I like to say that, rather than describing the culture in which we live now, it’s an idea that lets us ask: In an ideal world that removes current barriers to sex-positivity, everyone would be able to build the consent-based, healthy sex life that’s right for them. What, then, are the barriers that prevent so many of us today from attaining that sex life? Well, certainly cultural shame and opprobrium about sex, the notion of a narrow “normal,” and a paucity of sex ed opportunities are among those things. And those are some of the first things a sex store — or a community based on interest in sex — will  have to address to make a truly sex-positive space.

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