This explainer is part of Prism’s series on sex positivity and the arts. Read the rest of the series here.
Sex positivity has become a buzzword among many sex professionals and those working in sexuality fields. Often believed to be rooted in values of consent, body autonomy, and pleasure, prevailing understandings of sex positivity exclude many people by failing to take into account the human right to self-determination. As the new wave of sex positivity emerges, breaking away from outdated ideas of what it means requires a radical grounding, alignment, and also an understanding of what sex positivity is not.
Sex positivity is not elitist, heterosexist, racist, abelist, or ageist.
Elitism: Elitism is rooted in oppression and capitalism. Someone must be at the bottom of an economic hierarchy for someone to be at the top—especially when the feminization of poverty still continues to exist, meaning those who are socialized as women or who are femme are often at the bottom of a capitalist hierarchy as demonstrated by the wage gap. Sex positivity is not about economic hierarchy. A system which requires someone to be at the economic bottom, oppressed by poverty so that the top can thrive, is not sex positive.
Heterosexism: Heterosexism is not homophobia. They inform each other, yet heterosexism is about assuming, privileging, and giving power to relationships that are perceived as heterosexual. If you can only imagine positive intimate, sexual, and romantic relationships when they are among people partnered with the opposite gender, that’s pretty limiting and not positive at all. This is especially true since women are harmed and murdered at a higher rate by their partners who are men.
Racism: If you are not sure what the two terms “anti-Black racism” and “anti-Indigenous racism” mean, that is a place to begin in your unlearning process. If your response to reading the above sentence is “what about X community,” or “that’s reverse racism” there is much more work for you to do in your own personal journey toward understanding sex positivity, body autonomy, equity, and collective liberation. The reverse of racism is liberation.
Ableism: All bodies can experience pleasure. When we challenge ideas of ableism, we also expand the understanding that sex is not only about genitals or penetration. Sex is so much more than a few acts or experiences. Sex and sexuality are life long experiences that may shift and change based on our needs. When we take a more intentional look at our state consent laws, we begin to see how ableism is deeply rooted in those that hold a belief that some disabled people are unable to consent to sexual experiences.
Ageism: When we discuss body autonomy, this includes children and teenagers under 18 years old in the U.S. This is a hard one for many folks to recognize. Often people resist recognizing that children and youth can say “no” or “yes” to touch, closeness, intimacy, or friendships. People often know what they do and do not want in various contexts. To believe that only those of a certain age are able to consent to touch, love, care, sex, is to limit the body autonomy that is our human right. Intimacy is built; it expands and shifts as we age. To allow youth the opportunity to understand their changing bodies is to offer them space to build intimacy with themselves. For many, youth privacy is often not offered or available for a variety of reasons. Often conversations about consent are rooted in sexuality conversations, but what about consent as connected to body autonomy? To refuse a hug, to reject comments about a young person’s changing body, and to practice speaking out against heterosexism are all experiences youth deserve.
Unlearning ageism also requires an examination into how we are limiting the body autonomy and consent of elders. Nursing homes with rules and bans to limit sexual expression for their residents do not embody sex positivity. Assuming sex will lead to complications for elders and thus silencing and banning sexual expression isolates and harms many of our elders. Those who are being cared for at home by children or loved ones are also experiencing limited sexual pleasures if they are not supported in their desire to date, find lovers, or build the relationships they wish for themselves. If we value interdependence and know there is no way forward alone, what will it take for us to expand this knowledge and apply it to partnering for our aging community members and family? How do we want to be treated and have our body autonomy honored if we have the privilege to age? Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.
Sex positivity has no space for shame.
Sex positivity is about the process of unlearning shame and reframing the healing of shame. If you are aroused, excited by, or desire shame and/or humiliation rooted in a power exchange dynamic where consent is guiding the boundaries and possibilities, there is space for you to explore this healing experience on your own terms! This is body autonomy in action and in service to your pleasure, exploration, and consent.
If you read this article and feel shame for holding some of these harmful beliefs and practices, what will you do with that shame to shift it into learning in a more intentional way rooted in liberation? This article is not about shame; it is about liberation, freedom, and revolutionary love. We all have capacity for and must do the hard work to unlearn harm we have been socialized to believe is the best way forward. We are all worthy when sex positivity is in alignment with collective liberation.
Sex positivity is not a fad and is not about jargon.
Often, new words or frameworks seem like a fad. However, the language and understanding and principles that guide many to use the language of sex positivity are committed to the outcomes for us all. For this reason, sex positivity is not a trend or fad; instead it is a movement, a practice, and a life long commitment to honoring change.
If people do not understand what you are trying to say about sex positivity, then it’s not very positive or effective. When we choose jargon that is academic or excludes communities due to elitism, many are left out. Not to be confused with code-switching!
The importance of clear language to sex positivity also means it’s not about misusing terms like “decolonize” or “intersectionality.” Words mean things. Misusing terms is not positive, especially when they are terms that impact Black and Indigenous communities’ livelihoods. To decolonize something is about restitution and redistribution of land where rituals, burial ceremonies, ancestral work, and relationships with the planet are deeply rooted and informed by culture, language, and ritual. To misuse this term is to be in service to that which has originally stolen land and used rape as a weapon of war. Intersectionality is a theory, framework, and practice that helps us understand how and where oppression may occur. Intersectionality is about relationships: relationships we have with our own identities, with the systems in our lives, relationships with others. It has existed for decades in the U.S., even if not called “intersectionality” at the time. To understand a decolonial approach and how intersectionality may not always offer the support we need to recognize the impact of colonization is to understand the layers of dehumanization and oppression that are foundational and not easily resolved with one approach.
Sex positivity is not the All Lives Matter of sexuality.
When folks say “all lives matter” in any context in 2020 it is a microaggression, a form of violence, and a clear signal that the person using these terms does not understand intent versus impact, or they don’t care because they think they are “right.” An “all lives matter” approach does not help people understand; instead it divides and upholds dehumanization. To decenter whiteness is not to dehumanize white people. To offer an “All Lives Matter” in response to the dehumanization of the murder of Black people in the U.S. is to be in service to white supremacy. If you are reading this and unclear about whether your sex positivity upholds any of the ideas or practices listed above, it probably does. Unlearning it, individually and collectively, and then learning a better way is a life-long practice. Don’t allow your sex positivity to turn into a microaggression.
Sex positivity rejects cissupremacy, and also embraces intersex community members.
If you are unclear about what “cis” means, this is another area for you to do unlearning. Briefly, cis is language that trans community members have utilized to identify those whose forcible sex assigned at birth and their gender identity are in alignment. For example, a child who was forcibly assigned female at birth and grows up to live life as a woman is someone who is considered a cisgender woman. The language of cis is important as it is a direct result of trans communities using their power and the power of language to describe their experiences of oppression and liberation. To maintain cissupremacy is to reject and ignore trans communities, which is a form of erasure.
Rejecting cissupremacy requires relationships and connections with people who are not cis-identified, as well as understanding how the language of “cis” sometimes excludes intersex people. It’s very common for some intersex children to undergo what amount to nonconsensual sex assignment surgeries as a result of medical professionals using alarmist language in discussions with their parents. Sometimes those children grow up to know of their intersex history, and other times they never know about it at all. Some intersex people are cis and some are not. We need to make room for us all. The transgender, non-binary, and intersex communities are global! Cissupremacy also includes upholding a binary that insists only two sexes exist, and forcibly assigns one at birth. This erases the diversity found in nature and excludes the reality of intersex people fighting to end non-consensual intersex surgery in the U.S. and globally. Unlearning cissupremacy is a lifelong practice. Fighting to end surgery on intersex infants is one way to work against it, and you can join in this movement now.
Now that we are clear on what sex positivity is NOT, here’s what sex positivity is all about.
Sex positivity is liberation and equity.
When one begins to speak about equality in the U.S., there is often a misquoted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech lurking somewhere nearby. Many ideas of equality are premised on the lie that the U.S. offers equal opportunity, meritocracy, and neutrality. We know this is not true. We also know that many people do not want to be equal to those in power. Instead, what many desire is to have the same treatment, opportunity, and outcome those in power enjoy. This is equity. Freedom is not only for one type or group of people. It is expansive and includes a variety of experiences, movements, and outcomes for individual and collective liberation.
Sex positivity recognizes, honors, and strategically uses various forms of power.
Body autonomy is a form of power. Sex positivity recognizes the ways power has been used over people without their consent and to oppress them. To be sex positive is to examine power and honor the way we are all fumbling with understanding our own power and how it is a shapeshifter in various situations. To be sex positive is to be lead by those most impacted, have clear principles and boundaries, and to strategically use our power in service to collective liberation.