What Sex Positive Really Means

I've run into a few blog posts and articles in the last week or so that use the term 'sex-positive' in a way I haven't heard before. This article in the New Statesman is an example. They use the term to refer to people who thinks that absolutely any expression or representation of sexuality, regardless of what is portrays or how it was produced, is a good thing. They use the term to describe a philosophy or a a type of person who attempts to negate or shut down any discussion of or concern about equality, feminism, or exploitation, saying that such concerns are actually anti-feminist and anti-woman because they negate women's choices around their sexuality. This hurts my heart.

I get it. There is a fundamental problem in the way that we talk about sexuality that these blogs and articles are trying to address. But the problem is not sex-positivity. The sex-positive movement is actually the answer and the problem they are identifying has little or nothing to do with it. This is a tough issue to unpack. So tough that it took me well over a week to decide to try to take it on. But I'm going to try because my heart is hurting and I think it's important. To make this attempt, I'm going to go back to what the term 'sex-positive' actually means and how it started.

That term has actually been around for quite some time. It started as a way to describe an attitude about sex and sexuality that was in complete opposition to prevailing cultural attitudes which viewed sex as sinful, harmful, dangerous, and uncontrollable. This attitude teaches that there are only certain acceptable ways and reasons to have sex and that it is only for certain people at certain times (ie. mainly be heterosexual people who are married to each other and having sex for the purpose of procreation). The sex positive philosophy, on the other hand, views sex as natural, normal, and healthy. Those who espouse a sex-positive view of sexuality believe that individuals have the ability, and even the right, to make responsible decisions about sexual expression and activity. They believe that the negative view of sexuality does harm because it contradicts people's natural inclinations. This leads to shame, self-harm, and broader social problems. A sex positive attitude holds that sexual activity is not and cannot be, by its very nature, harmful and dangerous, as long as everyone involved freely and knowingly consents. It is dangerous, harmful and wrong, only because our society has decided it is so.

Sex positive feminism has a lot of roots but really took shape during the feminist porn wars in the 1980's. Some people who identified as feminists during that time tended to equate the sexual exploitation of women with sex in general. Some even stated openly that they felt that all sex with men (and sometimes any kind of sex) was by definition abusive and exploitive - that there was no way it could not be. These were generally the ones who were very involved in anti-porn campaigns.

In response to this, many other women, who also considered themselves feminists, pointed out that sex and exploitation are no synonymous and that by demonizing all forms of sexual expression, we actually shame and hurt women rather than help them. They felt that the sex negative view vilified female sexuality just as patriarchy does. They wanted to help women love and accept their bodies and their sexuality. These women were often involved in the production of various types of porn in which women freely chose to participate, were given total control over how they participated and were treated fairly. Carol Queen, a sexual health educator, teacher, writer, activist, speaker, film-maker and all around amazing woman, was the first of this group to use the term 'sex-positive' in this way. She continues to advocate for women's sexual rights to this day and is joined by a lot of other amazing people who do the same.

This movement is actually the exact opposite of what these blogs and articles refer to as 'sex-positive'. They are talking about people who are trying to take the message of 'sex-positive' feminism and use it for their own gain. They tell women that their bodies are beautiful and sex is natural and here, let me use yours to get something for myself. This is a use of sexuality and of a supposed positive message mainly for financial gain. And this is where the difference lies for me. If there is money involved, a fair share of it must go to the person who's image is used to make it. In the case of actual sex-positive feminist porn, this is the case. Everyone involved in the production of that material, including and especially the actors and actresses, are paid fairly and equitably. This is why I do not consider the 'girls gone wild' industry to be sex-positive in any way. The women in those films are not paid anything. Not anything! They are given nothing but a thank you and t-shirt for baring their bodies on film. The producers of those films have made millions. They use the message to make women feel okay about participating but then they turn around and use them for their own profit. That is not sex-positive, it's exploitive.

The key here is agency. A sex-positive philosophy holds that every person must make their own decisions about what is right and not right for them when it comes to sex. In any sex-positive porn, actors and actresses are given complete control over what they do. Scenes are usually played out in a less scripted way, based on what the actors have said they would like to do and do pressure is placed to do things that were not originally agreed upon. That is not the case with some other types of porn. Sex-positive feminists have actually been major advocates for changes to the production of porn that does not represent or treat women fairly.

The people who are claiming that sex-positive feminism hurts us because it shuts down conversations about the ethics sex work. This could not be further from the truth. The sex positive feminists have been on the forefront of pushing for open discussion on all forms of sex work. They simply want us to include the voices of the women who actually do it. They want us to look at the issue from a broad and inclusive perspective. They want us to not to vilify something and call for its abolition simply because sex is involved. They want us to advocate for the rights, protection and fair treatment of the women who engage in sex work. They want women to have the choice to do sex work safely if they wish, and to express themselves sexually in any way they chose. Isn't that what feminism is all about?

We need sex positive feminism because we need to recognize that women are sexual beings. Women's sexuality is diverse. The sexual likes and interests of some women might even make us uncomfortable. But we have to allow for all expressions. Our criticism belongs with those who would use another person's sexuality for their own profit without regard to fair treatment of that person - not with women themselves. This is what sex positive feminism ask for. We desperately need it to help guide us in these discussions.

- dedicated to all those sex-positive women who have changed my attitude, and my life - but especially to Carol Queen