Earlier last month, I attended Megan Andelloux’s second annual conference at the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, focusing on Talking About the Taboo. I found myself up in Rhode Island, a tiny state I know very little about, with a wide-ranging group of sexuality educators, sex toy companies, sexy folks, and people just plain ol’ interested in sex.
I’m not sure where I fit into that directory, exactly. I do teach classes and workshops, and I do consider myself a teacher of sorts, but I’m not a traditional “sex educator” the way some of my colleagues are. I didn’t go through traditional channels to get my certifications (yet, anyway) and I’m much less interested in the technicalities of sex—the how to do what, which parts go where kind of guidance.
I’m more interested in the psychology, the communication skills, the discovery of places which need healing, the extra permissions to explore the ways that our bodies are wired, and the ways our liberation can be linked to our kinks, oppressions, psychologies and traumas.
The sexual educators of today tend to throw around the words “sex positive” a whole lot. I do it, too. We say you should shop at sex positive sex toy stores. We encourage sex positive language, theory, or practice in classes or workshops.
But what is sex positivity? What do we mean when we talk about being sex positive?
For many, the image that comes to mind when we think about being sex positive is doing various kinds of sex explorations: BDSM, kink, role play, costumes, multiple partners, bisexuality. In fact, I’ve seen people shame others using this principle, looking down on vanilla or straight, heterosexual folks for being not as sex positive as their kinky, poly, pansexual friends.
Some of that, I think, is built in to a minority group finding their own positioning, and needing to bolster ourselves up as “better than” the dominant group, in order to justify our minoritized position. It makes it easier to be in a subculture, even as established a subculture as the kinky communities, if we can say that we’re “better” than the mainstream, because there are some social problems that come with distancing from the mainstream, the least of which is a lot of social pressure and discrimination.
But some of it is just unnecessary. I don’t believe that anyone’s sexual practice is better than anyone else’s, just on the basis of the contents. It’s better if it’s more fulfilled, more satisfactory, not necessarily because someone has kinkier sex or multiple partners.
Of course, if kinky, poly sex is the kind of thing you are craving, well, maybe that would be “better” for you. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
Being sex positive does not necessarily mean doing all the sexy stuff—trying out all the toys, having frequent sex, trying out all the positions. Being sex positive means being accepting about the sex practices of others, regardless of your own.
“The most sex positive person I’ve known was a straight, heterosexual, married Bishop,” Charlie Glickman said in his workshop at the CSPH’s conference. “Because he had no judgment on others’ sex practices. If you’d had sex, he wouldn’t care if you’d been flogged or beaten or fucked. He would care if it was good for you, if it was good for your well-being, and if it gave you pleasure.”
Glickman laid out three main tenets of sex positivity:
Clearly, there is a lot of discussion about consent in the sex world—what is consent, how does it work, who can consent and when, is there false consent. Glickman defines consent as having multiple components: an active yes, meaning not just the absence of no but somewhere along, actually saying yes, let’s do this, let’s do that specific thing; an ability to say no, meaning that the yes is not coerced, and the option to say no is available; and to understand the consequences of both yes and no, since if one does not understand the consequences, the act may be regrettable later, and it might not be possible to fully consent.
In this instant gratification society, everything is about pleasure, and yet we are so far disconnected from our own sexual needs and desires. What does the soft animal of your body love (to paraphrase Mary Oliver)? What needs and cravings and desires for exploration do you have, deep down? What gives you great pleasure? And if a sexual act is consensual, and gives you great pleasure, certainly you are well on the road to sex positivity.
3. Health and Well-Being
Is what you’re doing supporting your health and well-being? Ideally, being sex positive is also being body positive, and your body needs care, attention, and affection. There are many principles in the sex communities about playing safely, like Safe Sane Consensual (SSC) or Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). Assuring that your play and exploration will be, ultimately, good for your health and well being is an important component.
It doesn’t mean eliminating play that can be potentially hurtful, necessarily, because sometimes our boundaries are only found by going too far, and there are great lessons to be learned in pushing too hard and discovering something new about ourselves.
Beyond that, no relationship is “hurtless,” especially not if one is committed to growth and change. But being aware of small, brief hurts as opposed to dangerous and long-term harm is important, and we should all do what we can to minimize risk, as it feels good to us.
Everything and anything can be sex positive. Sex positivity is about a state of mind, not what you do in bed—a fundamental acceptance of what other people do, even if it isn’t for you, without an extra scoop of judgment on top. What works for you might not work for someone else. We have accepted that in many arenas—like pizza toppings, or types of drinks—but it seems for sex, we have a harder time understanding that others might have differing preferences than our own.
It takes bravery to accept what others do. It takes self-awareness to know our own preferences and hold our own boundaries. It takes compassion and empathy to understand that what others do may be different than what we do, but that there is nothing wrong with either choice: they are just different, not weird or wrong.
“Sex positivity is a path of courage,” Glickman said. And I have to agree.