Sex Positivity Round Robin: Sex-Positivity and the Certifiably Uptight
If you missed the first part of the Sex Positivity Round Robin, check it out here.
One of the most important moments I ever had as a public speaker happened in the Twin Cities. I had journeyed there to keynote the fabulous BECAUSE conference (Bisexual Empowerment Conference: A Uniting Supportive Experience), which brings bi people and their allies together from across the Midwest. I’d talked about sex-positivity in my speech. I was very influenced, when I got to the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, 23 years ago now, by the social philosophy that currently goes by that name. It’s profoundly influenced my life choices since then, and I’ve spent much time writing and speaking and riffing on it and the ideas surrounding it.
During the BECAUSE Q&A session, enjoying the opportunity to surf from one topic to the next, I stopped in my tracks when a woman, next in line for the mic, posed her question. She began, “Well, I guess I’m just sex-negative, but¦”
The query was something about porn, I think, or maybe sex work. It fades from memory, but that intro — that self-identification as “sex-negative” — certainly doesn’t. I hastened to assure her that I didn’t necessarily think of her as sex-negative, even if she couldn’t step up and think of herself as sex-positive either. She came to mind when I read Charlie’s post and the quote from the “certifiably uptight” person whose comment sets the stage for his essay on sex-positivity and arrogance.
Now, I should say that I do think that plenty of people are sex-negative. I’ve written about absexuals, anti-sex feminists, and hypocritical and/or hysterical politicians and culture warriors. There are more than enough erotophobes around. But it takes a certain degree of openness to the notions of sexual diversity and choice –the things that ground my understanding of sex-positivity– for a person to be able to look at the term “sex-positive,” conclude she doesn’t meet those standards, and assume the only place for her to land, then, is in the opposite or converse category.
For heavens’ sake, there have to be more choices than that — I, who edited PoMoSexuals specifically to take a crack at our addiction to binaries, couldn’t get anywhere with this philosophy unless it also had a place for the “sex-neutral,” the “sex-uncertain,” and the “sex-disinterested.” That is to say: Many people don’t throw down with ALL types of sexual exploration, many people don’t have (or sometimes even want) much sex and might not even think about it very much. For me the first thing to tackle as I riff off the comment that launched Charlie’s thought-provoking blog post is: Does feeling some discomfort about certain kinds of sex, or not wanting to explore them personally, prevent one from adopting the moniker “sex-positive”?
Hot on the heels of that question: Does having lots of sex, and lots of kinds of sex, qualify you as automatically sex-positive?
I think the answer to both of these questions is no. And Charlie’s discussion of arrogance, shame, etc. is important to this, but I want to get at something else first: the idea that sex-positivity has come to mean the state of being sexually active and experimental and non-uptight¦ of liking sex, really liking it. (Lots of it! All kinds of it!) That is not what it means to me, nor what it meant in the context in which I learned about it. And if any or all of the sexuality communities are driving it in that direction, I want to argue against it; it is the absolute antithesis of “sex-positive” to make anyone feel as though they aren’t appropriate in their own sexuality and with their own sexual boundaries and limits. Respect for these boundaries and limits is integral to sex-positivity. It is never OK to make fun of someone or call them anti-sex because they don’t want to do a particular thing sexually. It’s not even OK to call them uptight, actually.
You become, or are, sex-negative when it isn’t OK for anyone to express the form of (consensual) sexuality you find uncomfortable or beyond your boundary. Consider homophobia: it doesn’t mean you’re homophobic if you don’t want to have sex with someone of your own gender. If you’re heterosexual, your orientation may not include any desire for same-sex expression. It is homophobic to say that everyone who desires same-sex erotic experience (or marriage, or anything else coded as homosexual) is wrong, sinning, or whatever. (Of course, it’s especially problematic to say that, like our recently outed-with-a-rent-boy friend George Rekers, when you yourself do have those desires at least sometimes. That complicates your homophobia, with hypocrisy as your cherry on top.)
Comparably, throwing around judgement about things you haven’t done and don’t desire (and generally don’t understand very deeply) certainly puts you in the ballpark of the sex-negative among us. But trying to differentiate between the positive and the problematic isn’t sex-negative, unless you’re flatly unwilling to hear about the positive or neutral experience of people who’ve lived their sexual lives in ways you have not. Otherwise, you may simply be attempting to direct a thoughtful and critical eye on some element of human behavior: and we have the right (and sometimes, in fact, the obligation) to do that. I particularly urge that we do it when we are able to see that there are more than two sides to a question.
Here’s what I think sex-positivity is: It’s the understanding and acceptance that sexuality –desire, orientation, preference, choice, relationship configuration, and activity — is diverse, that each of us has our own, and that, unless we’re acting nonconsensually and harming others, we have the right to our individual sexual makeup. Sex-positivity allows that each of us can have positive and delightful experiences in our sexuality — but that’s not a prerequisite of being sex-positive. You may have had no good experiences at all but still believe sex can be good and that everyone has a right to it.
This specifies no chandelier-swinging; you don’t have to be an orgiast, a BDSM master/goddess/poobah, or a dirty-talkin’ exhibitionist to qualify. You don’t even have to have ever had sex. You don’t even have to want to have sex — I have been having intriguing conversations with asexual community activist David Jay re: whether asexual people can be sex-positive. (I say yes.)
And just as importantly, even if you ARE a big happy slut who enjoys dozens of orgasms a day and teaches butt-tantra classes on the weekends, you yourself might not be sex-positive. If you don’t give everyone else as much space to find their own sexual bliss as you want for yourself, you’re actually another judgemental soul. You have lots and lots of company, so please don’t feel too offended that I say this: but sex-positivity isn’t just about SELF-acceptance. It is, at its heart, a challenge toward radical acceptance of diversity, just as civil and human rights movements centered on other kinds of human diversity have challenged our cultures to broaden social definitions of the normal, acceptable, celebrated.
And listen, we haven’t all done so well with those challenges either. As Charlie eloquently develops, when we talk about sexuality, we also frequently get caught up in what a shame-based culture ours is. It’s really, to me, just proof of the disease: people who have had to struggle to find their own self-acceptance, and that of a community, sometimes lash out at or seek to exclude or further shame other people for being too unlike them. It’s what most of us were taught to do. But that doesn’t make it positive.
Look, why are people uptight about sexual issues anyhow? Let me count the ways — and there are so many, I’ll surely leave important ones undiscussed. US culture has a history of erotophobia entwined with religious, state, and many social institutions. (Plenty of other cultures do as well.) So we learn a sex-negative perspective from the get-go. Most of us had poor sex education and a great many of us got definitively negative messages at home — at least about some things. Most of us learned some sexual contexts were “normal” and some were not.
And sexuality of some kind is important, at least sometimes, to nearly everyone. Even if you don’t choose (or have the opportunity) to engage in it with other people, at some level it’s generally part of our own relationship with ourselves. If we don’t have good sexual self-esteem and good experiences right out of the gate, it can reinforce any negative notions we may have been exposed to elsewhere. Without the right kind of sex ed, too often we think problematic experiences are just the way things are.
And even though we are surrounded by sexual discourse, and never more than in this Internet age, so much of this discourse is laden with judgement. We’re rarely even challenged to notice just how judgemental it is. That’s why we need projects like the Sex-Positive Journalism Awards: to call out the fact that much of the information we get about sexual practices and lifestyles isn’t even neutral and is certainly not positive. It’s laden with sex-negativity, sometimes subtle and other times snarky.
I’ve written before about the late Steven Brown’s phrase “style conflict.” I love it because it helps me remember, when I have a judgemental instinct, that we don’t all need to be the same, and that much of what divides us is presentation: style conflict, as simple as “Are those really 3-D kittens on that sweater? I wouldn’t wear that” vs. “How large are those holes in her ears? How could a pretty girl do that to herself?” — all the way to the large-style, culturally profound belief-based conflicts that power phonomena like vicious homophobia and so-called “honor killings.” I am just as uncomfortable sometimes living in a diverse world as the next person, but I always try to remember that I live on this continuum and I try not to make knee-jerk judgements about the choices of others: I try to think this way because that’s what I want and expect of others vis-Ã -vis my own life-choices.
But there’s another phrase I almost never hear people say but see acted out all the time: “I would never do that!” I think we are tempted to imagine that if we wouldn’t desire something, others don’t (or shouldn’t) really desire it either. Feminists and sex work (I’m not talking about the feminist sex workers here), straight people and same-sex sex, egalitarians and BDSM — there are so many ways this plays out, including multiple partner advocate and monogamist, kinky and vanilla. If we can’t imagine comfortably doing something, or leading a happy life centered around it, it goes into the hopper to be ground up, and judgement (and often sex-negativity) comes out. But notice that this can be done by sex-positive folk, as well as to us.
And when we do it, we aren’t truly reacting in a sex-positive fashion. We are in shame mode, perhaps, as Charlie discusses; or reacting to a straighter-than-desired life we managed to escape; or reverting to binary, either-or, me-good/you-bad thinking; or we’re just not thinking at all. More than anything I want us to be conscious of this because we need to break this chain of “judgement in, judgement out” to truly move the society in a sex-positive direction; but also because when we’re nasty or unwelcoming to someone else who doesn’t share our experience or our perspective about it, we lose the opportunity to make a friend (or at least an honored enemy), test our philosophy (because sex-positivity is a philosophy), and maybe even help someone emerge from a “certifiably uptight” identity. Not that s/he/ze needs to do so to be a good person, but because maybe it’s time for her/him/hir to take the next step into the sexual identity that is their own unique birthright. And I, for one, would hate to see people bypass that opportunity because they got turned off by the vein of snark, arrogance, or self-righteousness in the collective voice of sex-positivity.