Beyond Sex Positivity
This past weekend, I took part in a discussion for ANTE UP’s The Edge of Sex speaker series. In it, a participant raised the question about creating a sex positive environment when practicing with groups in a substance use addiction context. The participant noticed that, within the context of practicing folks recovering from addiction, they noticed a tendency toward some sex negativity. They postulated that this was because folks in recovery might need to distance themselves from behaviors they associated with addiction — “promiscuity” being one of them. The participant wanted to know how to help facilitate a sex positive and sex worker affirming environment, while not invalidating group members who might need to practice and voice more rigid viewpoints with regard to sex. The question, to me, was an interesting one.
What do we mean when we say we are sex positive? I think in “mainstream” sex education spaces — however mainstream sex can be said to be, given ongoing and increasing online censorship of both sex workers and sex educators on social media — sex positivity often gets boiled down to, sex is good, and pleasurable, and healing, and you should be having it, if you want to be considered a healthy, well-adjusted, and sex positive person. However, as Loba and Cariño, the hosts of Wild Weeds Podcast, noted in their third episode about the asexual spectrum and intimacy, this definition can often leave asexual, demisexual, gray ace, or sex repulsed people out — or even just people who simply don’t prioritize sex all that much, regardless of orientation — by doubling down on the misconception that there is something “wrong” with them for not feeling sexual desire or wanting to have sex.
In my own definition of sex positivity, I often recall another more radical social justice initiative — that of fat acceptance. Aubrey Gordon, in her book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, offers the term “body neutrality” in response to the body positivity movement, which often prioritizes white, cis, thin or small fat bodies, and still seems to emphasize weight loss and smaller bodies, even as it purports celebrating one’s body as it is.
At the start of the pandemic, I found myself grappling with questions of sex positivity in my own intimate relationship, navigating discrepancies in libido between me and my then partner — something many of my clients, and many people co-habitating with partners through the pandemic, also seemed to be struggling to work through together. I found it necessary to remind both myself, my partner, and my clients that stress impacts us all differently, and often shows up in our sexual lives. Some people turn to sex to manage stress — and the past year has been one of the most stressful years in recent memory. Others, by contrast, experience stress as a “brake” on their desire for sex; this was certainly where I was at, and is not uncommon among survivors of trauma for whom the freeze response is the our bodies most readily turn to, manifesting in numbness, dissociation, and a sense of being disconnected from our bodies because our bodies don’t feel like a safe place to be. When these disparate responses are present between a couple, it can be painful — and, yes, stressful — to navigate, though under no circumstances should the “lower libido” partner be pressured or guilted into sex, or shamed for their body’s natural and protective response to it. Instead, it’s more useful — and certainly kinder — to discuss, with patience and gentleness, alternatives to sex when it comes to meeting needs for intimacy and care, as well as ways in which partners can create a supportive environment that helps the partner in freeze response to access embodiment and pleasure while also feeling safe.
Which brings us back to the question posed in this discussion. As I considered the question — how do we handle the explicit sex negativity expressed by clients in a group setting, without alienating them, or alienating more sex positive group members — it occurred to me that perhaps what we need to be asking in discussions like these is simply: Why do we have sex? Why have we chosen to have sex in the past? Why do we choose it now?
In a conversation with a friend recently, she described to me starting to have sex quite young. She was raised, like I was, in a religious household, and often felt controlled by her parents. As is natural — and in some ways, even developmentally appropriate for teenagers — she rebelled by having sex in her teens. The responses of her parents included shaming, increased exertion of control, and the implicit message that by choosing to have sex so young, she was disrespecting herself and hurting her parents. As a sex educator, I was appalled by these messages, as I had received similar ones through my own religious upbringing, had chosen not to have sex at all through high school, was labeled a “prude” in retaliation for that choice, all of which resulted in making some truly unhealthy choices, and landed me in numerous harmful situations and relationships throughout my twenties while trying to find my way back from sexual shame.
My friend, however, speaking as an adult, seemed to be more able to see where her parents were coming from. Her measured response made me ask the question: Were you enjoying the sex that you were having, as a teenager? She snorted, and said, “No. It wasn’t worth it at all.”
The conversation around sex positivity — particularly within this group setting, or therapeutic settings more generally — then, should be twofold: Why do we have sex? Are we seeking pleasure? Validation? Intimacy? Do we simply just want to feel less sad, less alone? If we are survivors of sexual trauma, are we, in some way, seeking control through sex, or the possibility of changing the outcome — as I now realize I was, in my more so called “promiscuous” days — of the harm we once endured?
Once we understand our why behind choosing to have sex, the question I would ask is the one I asked my friend above: Were you enjoying the sex you were having? It’s a question for which, in my opinion, positivity or negativity is neither here nor there. When I ask it, I ask it with curiosity, not judgment — with sex neutrality, perhaps. Were you enjoying the sex you were having then? Why or why not? What sort of feelings came up for you, then? What is it like to remember that, now?
We all have a right to relate to our own sex lives with whatever authentic emotions come up for us. In my opinion, sex positivity — the kind I most often see in the mainstream, often an anxious, perfunctory practice of trying to be or feel what we think we should be or feel in order to be as progressive as possible, and as least likely to be cancelled — doesn’t really have a place in our intimate lives, or in how we relate to ourselves. Much more important is to understand how we felt then, how we feel now, and whether or not we want that to change.