Owning Your Words: Sex-Positivity, Mindful Speech, and Why Some People Don’t Get It

Over on SexIs, there’s a deliberately provocative post by Militant Ginger on what sex-positivity is and how bloggers and writers often attack each other with accusations of not being sex-positive. Now, I agree with him that the lack of conceptual clarity around sex-positivity is a source of a lot of online disagreement and conflict. And I also think that he has a point that these sorts of critiques and attacks are inconsistent- some people are accused of being sex-negative for saying things that other people also say without being attacked. But then, the internet is a big place and it’s easy to miss something. After all, it’s not as if anyone could read every single blog post out there.

But leaving that aside, I think that Militant Ginger is confused about what “expressing opinions” means. Here’s what I mean:

 

But I’ve seen similar accusations of sex-negativity aimed at people who weren’t making statements, but expressing opinions:

¢ “I think sex during menstruation is gross.

¢ “Women who don’t shave their pubes turn me off.

¢ “I don’t think fat women are attractive.

Is it right to argue that these statements are “sex-negative?

Apparently so: The menstruation comment was equated to reinforcing “tribal traditions, while the comments about pubic hair and fat women led to cries of: “Why should women match your expectations?

Valid critique, perhaps\’but less so in light of comments made by others that didn’t raise the “sex-negative flag¦

¢ “I don’t want to have anal sex.

¢ “I prefer men with circumcised penises.

¢ “I don’t find redheaded men attractive.

 

Because they were simply “expressing their opinion, these writers weren’t accused of being “sex-negative.

If I someone says something like “I don’t like X”, they’re not expressing an opinion. They’re stating a fact about their experience. If they say that “X is gross” or that “People who are Y are unattractive”, while they’re expressing an opinion, they’re also making a sweeping statement. Let’s look at this a bit more closely:

  • I think anal sex is gross.
  • I don’t enjoy anal sex.

See how the first one is a sweeping statement? If you say that, you’re saying that anal sex is always gross, no matter how it’s done and no matter who enjoys it. And notice how that’s different from the second one? It’s the difference between making a claim that implies that we think that everyone should agree with us and owning the individuality of our experience. This works in the other direction, too:

  • I think anal sex is amazing.
  • I love having anal sex.

Although fewer people would say that “I think anal sex is amazing” is a sex-negative statement, I consider it to be just as problematic as “I think anal sex is gross.” What makes something like this sex-negative isn’t whether one uses a positive or negative adjective. It’s that saying these sorts of things neglects the diversity of sexual experiences and pleasures.

Simply put, these sorts of things aren’t true. Anal sex is gross for some people and amazing for some people and boring for some people and exciting for some people. No matter what word you use to finish the sentence, you’re leaving out many people’s experiences and that is what makes it sex-negative.

On the other hand, when you say something like “I enjoy/dislike/fill-in-the-blank anal sex,” you’re practicing mindful speech. You’re explicitly recognizing that your experience is your own. You’re not making a sweeping statement and you’re not claiming that anyone else should have the same response that you have. It doesn’t matter whether the word you use is positive or negative in this example, either.

Sex-positivity isn’t about enjoying every possible way to have sex. Sex-positivity isn’t about only using positive words when talking about sex.

Sex-positivity is about making room for different people to have wildly different experiences. And in order to do so, we can practice using language that makes room for that. One of the best (and most difficult) ways to do that is to own our experiences and try to not make sweeping statements. It’s simultaneously quite simple and incredibly difficult, which is why so many people seem to not understand it. Well, that and the fact that there aren’t a lot of examples of mindful speech in the media- it doesn’t make for good soundbites.

Another good tool to practice using is “some/many/most“. As in “some people like this” or “a lot of folks find that…” Some/many/most makes it clear to your audience that you’re not making a sweeping statement and that you’re making room for diversity. It takes a lot of practice to integrate this into everyday speech. And I’m willing to bet that once you start, you’ll see how often people make generalizations. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t know better. Sometimes, it’s because they want to bolster a weak argument (or one that is simply wrong). Sometimes, it’s just a habit. And I’m also willing to bet that the more you practice some/many/most, the less you’ll find yourself in pointless arguments about who’s “right” because you can make room for different perspectives.

Given how challenging this is, I’m not surprised that Militant Ginger is confused. Fortunately, we’ve got lots of posts that explore sex-positivity, which might help him clear this up.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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