Sex-Positivity and Judgment

Let me start by coming out and saying something up front: I judge people. I judge events. I judge what I see happen around me.

There’s a myth among sex-positive folks that it’s a good thing to be non-judgmental. And while I appreciate the intention behind it, which is (usually) to create a safe space for sexual diversity and exploration, I think that it’s ultimately impossible.

There’s no shortage of sex-negative judgment out there. People regularly describe sexual practices that lots of people enjoy as sick, wrong, sinful, disgraceful, shameful, abnormal, dirty (in a bad way), and bad. I get that sex-positive want to be different from that and so they try to be non-judgmental.

But here’s where it gets interesting, in my opinion. As I said at the beginning, I make all sorts of judgments. And rather than judging myself for that (ha!), I prefer to acknowledge my biases and use language that recognizes that my judgments are the result of my own beliefs, experiences and perspectives. Or to put it another way, I own my judgment and try to avoid blaming people for how I feel or making grand pronouncements about How The World Works!tm.

One of the models that helped me think about this is Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. Sharon Ellison describes a series of events that takes place inside our minds and understanding this sequence can help us talk about our experiences from a strong and powerful place. Here’s my nutshell version of it:

  1. We see, hear or experience something.
  2. We interpret it based on what we think it means or on what we think happened.
  3. We have an emotional response to our interpretation.
  4. We place the responsibility for the emotions we feel on whatever we experienced.

Or to put it another way, we have an emotional reaction to our interpretation of what we think happened, based on our perceptions. And at any step along the way, we’re prone to misunderstandings, emotional reactions, and judgments. Until we learn to pay attention to these sorts of processes, we’re prone to become the victims of the stories we make up in our heads about other people’s actions, motivations, experiences, and decisions.

When we tell someone “you made me feel upset (or whatever)”, we give up our power in order to blame. And while that may seem like a strong statement, especially when it comes from a powerful emotion, we’ve actually handed all of the control to someone else and that’s ultimately a very weak place to be.

I learned another perspective on this from Thorn Coyle, who pointed out the difference between saying “I am sad” and “I feel sadness.” When we say “I am sad,” it becomes a statement of our identity and we’re much more prone to lose ourselves in it. When we say “I feel sadness,” it becomes one of the many things that we’re feeling at that moment, which may include any other emotions, physical sensations, and desires. We never feel just one thing- when we’re feeling sadness, we might also feel tired, or hunger, or fear, or joy. So using language that reflects that makes for more clear communication while also keeping us from getting lost in the feelings.

When I started putting these two simple and elegant concepts together, I came to see just how much I was letting my judgments come out. As I learned to pay attention to how my reactions arise, I began to be able to own them and take responsibility for them. When I learned to use language that reflected the fact that my emotions were internal feelings rather than statements of identity or descriptions of the world around me, they became much less likely to take over my experiences.

I think that this has major ramifications for sex-positivity. Speaking from a sex-positive place means that we can take responsibility for our judgments. Instead of saying that what someone does is bad or sick or wrong, we can say that we don’t understand it. Or that we have a squick around it. Or that we find it scary. Or that we are intrigued by it and are worried about what that means. Or that we believe that it causes harm to someone. Whatever the actual judgment is, when we own it, we are able to speak and act from a much more powerful place because we don’t give control of our feelings to external events. This creates an opportunity to discover whether the people doing it are, in fact, acting in ways that are contrary to their best interests or whether we just think that they are. Owning our judgments helps us keep an open mind.

Of course, all of this applies to positive judgments, as well. Practice saying “I like that” rather than “that’s good” and you may find that it helps you to also say “I don’t like that” instead of “that’s bad.” It’s the same process, and it’s just as powerful to own our positive judgments as our negative ones.

Using language like this makes room for diversity of opinion. It’s the difference between “the music is too loud” and “the music is too loud for me.” The first sentence is a judgment presented statement of fact. The second is a judgment presented as a personal experience, which can sit right next to someone else’s statement, “the music is too quiet for me” without anyone having to fight over being right.

So when people talk about being non-judgmental, I think they’re going in the wrong direction. We all judge things, whether we want to or not. Rather than trying to fight this all-too-human tendency, I think it’s better to make room for it and to work with it. I think we’re better off when we use language that helps us avoid giving up our power to our judgments.

At least, that’s my judgment.

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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