Sex positivity means different things to different people in different contexts. For this article’s purposes, we’re going to focus on one’s personal relationship with sex positivity as opposed to discussing the movement itself. Therefore, “sex positivity” is maintaining a positive and accepting attitude about your sexual choices and the choices of your peers.
This means celebrating the sex you’re having (or choosing not to have), and embracing the nuances of your desired sexual expression. Are you an asexual person who engages in sex work? Or a bisexual choosing abstinence in observance of your religious beliefs? Good for you! Those are your choices to make. Do you masturbate, prefer not to shave your body hair, enjoy threesomes, watch porn, have kinky sex, or use sex toys? Also all great personal choices! And if you choose not to do those things, that’s great too.
What Causes Sex Negativity?
While it seems obvious that we should be proud of our sexual choices, it can sometimes be hard to embrace the fullness of our sexual beings. Sex negativity – that is, feeling hostility or anxiety towards certain consensual sexual choices or methods of expression – can impact one’s self-esteem and sexual satisfaction. For example, it’s fine to not like (or even want to try) oral sex. As a personal choice, it’s completely valid to pass on oral sex. But believing that it’s inherently gross, shameful, or a less valuable form of sex? That’s an arbitrary and ignorant line to draw, and it harms not only you and any partner(s) you have, but whoever you espouse your views towards.
Sex negativity can be caused by a number of things, including social or religious fear-mongering, not having accurate and inclusive sex education, parental negativity or apathy towards sex, or the influence of sex negative media. Whorephobia, slut shaming, racism, fatphobia, and STI stigma are just a few kinds of bigotry that also influence how society often frames people’s individual choices and sexual self-expression.
Despite being an outspoken sex writer, I still have to confront my own sex negative viewpoints regularly. I was raised in a religious, sex negative household; the minimal sex education I had in school was fear-based and rife with inaccuracies. Every day, I interact with media steeped with sex negativity: body-shaming jokes (especially about penis size, vulva shape, and body weight) are a staple in stand-up comedy, close friends still spout inaccuracies and slut-shaming self-deprecating comments, and recently I wrote about how even Marvel movies are loaded with sex negativity.
Tackling Sex Negativity
So, how do I stomp out those sex negative seeds? Two ways: I interrogate my biases, and I pursue sex positive spaces and media.
Interrogation just means that whenever I have an uncharitable thought about someone’s sexual choices (including my own), I stop and ask myself where that opinion is coming from. Am I actually unsexy in lingerie because I’m a fat person… or did a crappy comment on twitter linger in my brain too long? Is not being able to orgasm without a vibrator actually a problem… or am I just letting an uninformed opinion shame me for my body’s needs? This kind of introspection is important for unlearning all kinds of biases and bigotries.
As for sex positive spaces and media, admittedly most of my influences are online. Sex bloggers changed my whole outlook on sex (which is why I became one myself.) Youtube channels like Sexplanations, What’s My Body Doing, Tawney Seren, Watts the Safeword, and Nadine Thornhill all offer unashamed, uplifting information that can reaffirm a curious, positive attitude about sex. (Sexplanations’ own catchphrase – stay curious! – is a constant reminder that sex is a delightful adventure.) But feminist, sex positive tv shows and books, and local classes (such as workshops at your local sex toy retailer) can provide plenty of positivity away from one’s keyboard.
Why You Need to Drop the Negativity
Now, if you’re not already fairly sex positive, this might sound like a whole lot of work for basically nothing. So maybe you unlearn the shame you have about using lube for vaginal sex (lube is awesome), and you don’t sneer at swingers anymore… so what! You’re not a lawmaker, implementing policies that harm people’s sexual health and well-being. You’re not a magazine columnist writing pithy, slut-shaming diatribes. Your secret, snooty sex opinions aren’t hurting anyone else. Why do you need to change your attitudes about sex?
Well, for one thing, reframing your sex negative biases can help you determine your values and boundaries. “Why is having sexual values important? Well, the options for expressing and experiencing sexuality are virtually endless and there’s no choice that’s going to be right for everyone,” sex educator Nadine Thornhill pointed out in her excellent video Values, Facts, Myths: 3 Steps To A Great Sex Talk. Investigating your opinions on sex can help you sort out what you feel is good for you.
Do you judgmentally cringe at any mention of unprotected sex? Then obviously, using barriers for safer sex is important to you. You can value your choices and establish boundaries without devaluing other people’s choices. Instead of knee-jerk judgments (or assumptions) about other folks’ choices, you can take ownership of your feelings and communicate your values clearly to potential partners.
Also, dumping the negativity will help you explore your sexual self guilt-free. For years, I was stuck with the same inadequate vibrator because I thought spending money on sex toys was superfluous. Wouldn’t spending a bunch of money make me a greedy perv who didn’t know their body well enough to get things done the old-fashioned way? (Spoiler: the answer is of course not.) I did know my body: I knew my body wasn’t satisfied with the vibe I had, and that “the old-fashioned way” (whatever that means!) wasn’t sexually fulfilling for me.
Everyone’s bodies are different, and having specific needs – and prioritizing them – doesn’t make you “greedy.” It makes you human and self-aware. When I stopped worrying about what should work for my body, and instead explored what did, my sex life got better and I became much, much happier.
Lastly, embracing a sex positive attitude can give you permission to be your full sexual self. In her personal essay How I Claimed Being Thirsty as a Personal Lifestyle and Learned to Live My Dreams, Autostraddle writer Vanessa observed, “Actively stating desire is a radical act, especially for girls, especially for queers, especially for people who have been taught since birth to take up very little space, to be very quiet, to not want too much… From a young age society instructs us on how to make ourselves into objects of desire; locating desire inside oneself is not taught. Desire is a skill we must teach ourselves.”
Being sex positive doesn’t mean you need to maintain the same level of “thirstiness” as Vanessa (though it’s great if you do!), but proudly taking ownership of your wants, needs, and desires instead of internalizing (and/or projecting) shame about them is an incredibly freeing headspace to be in.
In need of a regular dose of sex positivity? Here’s a shame-free plug: Don’t forget to follow Peepshow Toys on Instagram and YouTube, where Tawney Seren shares education, anecdotes, and uplifting messages to help inspire you to stay on the path of self-love and acceptance!