What Sex-Positivity Really Means

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Sex-positivity is not advocating for any particular quantity or form of sexual expression. Rather, it is about ownership, agency, self-awareness, and respect, says Emily Heist Moss.

Last week, activist Kelly Rose Pflug-Back wrote a Huffington Post piece called “Why Sex-Positive Feminism is Negative for Me.” Given that I’m a vocal advocate and documented subscriber to the movement of sex-positive feminism, more than a few folks sent me the link with subject lines ranging from “Interesting Read!” to “Hmmmmmmm” to “Ha!” From the title, I was hooked; how can sex-positivity, something so awesome and amazing (she says unbiasedly) possibly be construed as negative?

Pflug-Back’s essay is structured as personal narrative, beginning with her sexual assault as a child and marching through years of self-harm and self-destructive behavior. As an adult, she has found that the term “sex-positive” leaves her feeling guilty instead of empowered.

For people who face more obstacles in the path toward reclaiming and realizing their sexuality, this sort of uncompromisingly positive and monolithic view of sex can come off as anywhere from frivolous to brutally alienating. During the long period of my life in which I felt that I was completely incapable of having any kind of healthy manifestation of a sex life, I often felt wracked by the guilt of not being a ‘good’ feminist.”

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Let’s get one thing straight: Pflug-Back’s personal story is not on the chopping block. Her experiences and sexual evolution are hers and hers alone and are not eligible for dissection or critique. If she feels that the rhetoric of sex-positivity has contributed to her sense of guilt, then that is the way she feels and I don’t dispute it.

I would argue, however, that the oversimplified, strawman of “sex-positive feminism” she puts forth is the culprit, not the highly flexible sex-positive feminism I’m familiar with. She describes it as an “uncompromisingly positive and monolithic view of sex,” and refers to “popular presentations that… propagate the idea that sexual empowerment means that women should enjoy getting off and that men should enjoy getting women off.” I can’t speak for all sex-positive feminists (ahem, because we are not a monolithic organization with a single tagline), but I can tell you that the sex-positive feminism I subscribe to has very few “shoulds.”

The idea that Pflug-Back is arguing against is a proscriptive head-fake toward sex-positivity, not what real world sex-positive activists would actually suggest. Blogger Marianne Cassidy explains it like this: “At its core, sex-positive feminism means that women [and men] own their sexuality, and thus can have as much or as little sex as they want and they don’t owe anyone apologies or explanations.” Sex-positivity is not advocating for any particular quantity or form of sexual expression. Rather, it is about ownership, agency, self-awareness, and respect, all of which Pflug-Back seems to be on board with in her own way.

In Pflug-Back’s case, like many women and men, her sexual history includes trauma that affects the way she enjoys (or doesn’t) sex today. She is right to point out that her circumstances are not unusual, but pointing to sex-positivity as part of the problem is ignoring what sex positivity is actually about. She writes, “I have had sexual encounters which, by conventional standards, would be deemed ‘good sex,’ yet still left me feeling violated, afraid, and alone.” No sex-positive feminist in his or her right mind would label that sex as “good sex.”

The “conventional standards” she references are not the standards that we would actually use. Sex-positivity is not about counting orgasms; it’s about channeling desire into safe, respectful, enjoyable sex. Or not.

Sex-positivity has room for people who have truckloads of sex, but it also has room for virgins and people who are abstinent. At its heart, sex-positivity is about removing shame and stigma from sex, especially for women, who have perpetually lived under a double standard that demonizes their sexuality, and especially for people whose sexuality manifests in unconventional ways (queer folk, BDSM folk, etc.) Sex that leaves one feeling violated, afraid, or alone would never be pegged as positive. Positive sex is sex that leaves one feeling satisfied, listened to, and respected. What you do or don’t do to get there with your partner is your own business.

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Pflug-Back is not all wrong; her observation, while not new, that sex-positive feminism still favors middle-class, white, liberal, cis-gendered women is spot-on. The sexualities of queer people and people of color have their own sets of cultural and historical barriers and stigmas. It is certainly true that sex-positive feminism has not done enough to make the movement accessible to these folks, but dumping the sex-positive angle isn’t the solution.

She’s also right to point out that trauma and sexual violence affect many people’s sex lives and that sex-positive feminism could do a better job of emphasizing that its message is not universally about orgasms. But Pflug-Back’s solution is too stark: “Given the alarming prevalence of rape and sexual violence in our society, perhaps all of us, regardless of gender, should begin with the assumption that all female-bodied partners we have (and, realistically, quite a few of our male-bodied partners as well) are survivors.”

The solution is not to assume your partner is a survivor and treat them as such; that deprives your partner of their agency to express how they would like to be treated. I do not view myself as a survivor and I do not want to be treated like one. The solution is to assume your partner is a human who has baggage (don’t we all), preferences, insecurities, and desires, and to listen to them, respect their experiences, and respond accordingly.

I view myself as an independent woman (queue Destiny’s Child), who would like the space and freedom to express my sexuality with my partners without a burden of survivorship looming over us. But that’s just me. What do you want?

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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