In my work and my writing, I often refer to the terms sex-negativity and sex-positivity. Both concepts have had tremendous influence on my life, both personally and professionally. Although I’ve tackled these topic before, I thought it would be helpful to revisit my take on these terms and define them clearly for anyone who isn’t familiar with their meaning
Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of sex-negativity. Once I learned what it was all about, I realized that it had influenced my ideas about sex my entire life.
Sex-negativity is the belief that sex and sexuality are inherently harmful, immoral, and dangerous. Historically, it’s been the basis for most of the sexual attitudes in our society. Of course, the big problem with sex-negativity is that human beings are a largely sexual species. In order to reconcile a sex-is-bad philosophy with the reality that people have sex, our culture had to find moral loopholes. The big one is procreation. It was like “Sex will ruin your life unless you’re doing it to advance the species, in which case, rock on!” Obviously, it’s a bit more complex than that, but basically sex-negativity gives an adult, married, monogamous heterosexual adult couples trying to make babies a thumbs up because reproduction and enforcing social institutions like marriage justify sex. Unfortunately, that also means that the farther someone’s sexual identity or behaviour gets from the marriage/baby-making standard, the more likely they are to encounter criticism, stigma, or oppression.
Sex negativity tells us that there are better and worse types of sexual activity; superior and inferior sexual orientations and genders; and right or wrong sexual relationships. Sex-negativity is about trying to establish universal rules for how sex in order to minimize it’s destructive potential.
Sex-positivity is the belief that sex and sexuality are a natural component of our physiology. The term “sex-positivity” sounds like it means “YAY, ALL SEX IS GOOD!” but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s more about seeing sexual pleasure as potentially positive; acknowledging that people have individual and diverse sexual needs; and acknowledging that we have the all right to experience our sexuality (or asexuality) however it works best for us.
Learning about sex-positivity was a light bulb moment in my life. I had been doing sex ed work for a few years up until that point. I had met people, people I would have once assumed to be misguided in their sexual practices, who frankly seemed happier and more together than I was at the time. I was slowly getting the idea that sex worked differently for different people. Then when I learned about sex-positivity and it was like, “Yes! THAT!”
Being sex-positive doesn’t mean not having boundaries. You still get to decide how, when and with whom you want to be sexual - or even if you want to be sexual at all. But instead of saying “these are the rules for everyone” sex-positivity is largely about letting individuals decide where to draw their own lines, based on what works for them personally. Charlie Glickman, one of my all-time favourite sex-educators, puts it this way:
“...there is no sex act that can’t be done in ways that honor the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the folks doing it. Any of those activities that get classified as weird or strange or abnormal? There are people who do them and end up with big smiles on their faces.”
Consent, pleasure and well-being. Feels like a much simpler, kinder framework for sexuality.
One of the most liberating aspects of sex-positivity for me is that it erases the concept of “normal.” I don’t have to worry about think about whether I’m having too much or not enough sex or if my desires are weird or my attractions make sense. And apart from those three guidelines of consent, pleasure and well-being, I also don’t have to worry about what you’re doing either.
Of course I’m not perfect. I do my have judgemental moments - not only about others, but about myself as well. But when that happens, I come back to my sex-positive principles and remind myself that no one made me Queen of How People Have Sex. Letting go of the judge-y stuff gives me more time and energy to invest in things that really matter to me like my family and watching MasterChef.
As a sexuality educator, my goal is to help people have the sexual experiences they want and avoid the sexual experiences they don’t want by providing the information than can help them make the best choices for their lives. Sex-positivity helps me draw the line between telling people what I know and telling people what to do.