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Sex & Love What is the sex-positivity movement really teaching us?

Jan. 14, 2020
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Being sex-positive is like being a feminist, or an ally. Any social justice-facing person in their right mind is sex-positive—it’s just that simple. But really, it isn’t. The sex-positivity movement has been praised and criticized from hundreds of different angles. It’s certainly helped in a lot of ways, pushing for better sexual education, improved access to contraception, and less stigma around casual sex. But it’s also been widely criticized for increasing shame around celibacy and abstinence—and suggesting that sex should be casual and meaningless. So really, what is sex positivity? And where did it come from?

The term was actually coined by doctor Wilheim Reich in the 1920s. Reich was a second-wave psychoanalyst obssessed with studying the pyschology behind sex. Originally, the term “sex positive” was used alongside “sex negative” to describe culture: in sex-negative cultures, sexuality was taboo and shameful; in sex-positive cultures, all aspects of consensual sex were regarded as healthy and necessary. At the time, most Western nations had a sex-negative attitude, and Reich was determined to change that. He was a strong proponent of having a very active and casual sex life, and also pushed for access to contracpetives and other reproductive healthcare. 

But Reich was, by many accounts, absolutely crazy. He took his ideas about human sexuality to the extreme, and his medical practices were regarded even then as unprofessional and coercive. Still, though, a lot of his work had a significant influence on the sex-positivity movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  

At that same time, the U.S. and the UK relished in a sexual revolution—one that advocated for nudity, contraception, masturbation, non-monogamous relationships, and unconventional sexual and gender expressions. The revolution spanned almost two decades, but as with most social movements, capitalism was quick to overtake it, and sex and porn were commercialized by the late ‘70s. Pornographic magazines, photos, and videos became a booming market and brought sexual “liberation” into the mainstream. “Sex sells” became a key marketing strategy—even for products that had little to nothing to do with sex. 

As sex positivity became more and more mainstream, lots of theories sprung up—especially in activist communities like the feminist groups of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Many feminists supported the movement’s ideas, but criticized the mainstream understanding of it for being exploitative and patriarchal. There were countless off-shoots of the movement, including increases in LGTBQ+ community-organizing, BDSM visibility, non-monogamous relationship visibility, and more. But, of course, some people still believed sex should be private and shameful. Because of that, there was a lot of backlash to the movement: slut-shaming, homophobia, and kink-shaming all rose in retaliation. 

So where does all of that leave us today? We’re definitely more accepting of different sexualities, gender expressions, body types, and relationship styles, which is great in that it’s allowing people to live more authentic lives. Improved sex-ed and open-source online health education is arming people with the knowledge to make informed decisions. The shift toward sex positivity has also centered consent as the very core of dicussions surrounding sex. The online sex educator Hannah Witton discussed this in her video “Why I’m Sex Positive,” saying that “consent is very much at the heart of the values of sex positivity.” As someone who’s also been a sex educator in the past, I completely agree. Sex positivity has meant better consent education, and that allows everyone to feel more comfortable making empowered decisions about sex. 

There are still downsides to the movement, though. In normalizing sexual activity, sex positivity inherently defines celibacy and abstinence as abnormal. In a contrasting video called “Why I’m Not Sex Positive,” Witton says, “This norm of being sexually active actually creates a new kind of pressure to always want or to be always having lots of sex.” And that’s not realistic or enjoyable for a lot of people. There are lots of different attitudes out there about sex, and othering those attitudes does way more harm than good. 

The history of sex positivity is marked with shameless sexual liberation and copious causal sex, so it makes sense that the movement today has a sex-crazed hangover. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, advocating for having lots of crazy sex was the kind of provocative message that was needed to radically change the culture. Today, though, we’re much more accepting of sex; the message doesn’t need to be quite as provocative. As we’ve moved into a more sex-positive era, we need to take a serious look at the way we’re framing discussions surrounding sex. Really, sex positivity should be about normalizing healthy attitudes about sex—whether that means you want to sleep with a different person every night, or never have sex at all.