Sex positive has become a new catchphrase in the professional word of sex educators and writers and body-positive movement folks. I am hearing more and more people use the term. It has even made it into the Huffing Post, so it is pretty ubiquitous anymore. However, I am not sure there is an agreed upon usage. There is a pretty standard definition for the term.The Women and Gender Advocacy Center at Colorado State has a great page laying out the meaning of sex positive, its origins and what it is not. [see here: http://www.wgac.colostate.edu/sex-positivity%5D.
Most professionals in the mental health fields, sex education and sex work industries tend to use “sex positive” to mean a belief that all sex, as long as it is healthy and consensual, is a good thing. We don’t use it to mean everyone has to have a lot of sex, or has to have sex with a lot of people, or to indicate that people love and support porn, or that all sex regardless of context is good.
You can be very sex positive and never have sex yourself. You can be sex positive and monogamous. You can be sex positive and still talk about problems that arise with too many partners and behaviors that are not ethical. Sex positive is about belief and treatment of sex and sexuality, not an indication of personal sex habits.
This is the first place problems arise with this term. Like anything that has has technical meaning which is adopted into the larger culture, the meaning gets lost on some folks. For example, people will say someone is “anal” referring to the Freudian and Eriksonian idea that in the potty training stage some people discover if they control their bowel movements by refusing to poop, they can control their parents reactions. In the developmental literature, there are a number of behaviors and personality traits associated with the anal or “anal retentive” person. Widely though, people to use it to mean someone who is more controlling and uptight than themselves.
Sex positive is now being bandied about in the poly and kink communities to mean a wide variety of things. I have read posts and been in conversations with several folks who say things like, “You don’t like to get hit on. That isn’t very sex positive,” or “She never fucks anyone here but says she is “sex positive.” I don’t think she knows what the word means.” The reality is, not wanting to have sex with someone or a large group of people has nothing to do with being sex positive.
Sex positive rests on the basis that sex is good if it is healthy and consensual. People think about consent when it comes to actually doing the deed, but some forget there is consent for other aspects of sex as well. Hitting on someone, hugging them, and getting into someone’s physical space all involves consent. One thing I love about some kink groups is the fact that people ask, “Are you a hugger/Are you huggable?” There is not an assumption that you are open to anyone giving you a hug at a social event. It respects people’s space and protocols. It recognizes you are coming into someone’s space and should ask if it is okay.
People also accuse others of not being “sex positive” if they take offense to getting hit on whenever and where ever. The thing is, there is a time and place for picking up a person. I ran coming out groups in college. A standing rule is that people in the group were not allowed to date one another until the group was over. The reason? The group was supposed to be a safe space to develop your identity and develop skills for being out in the world. If the woman you recently had sex with is sitting across the room, well things can get uncomfortable and defeat the purpose of the group.
I see things like community education groups and events designed for discussion and support as inappropriate for picking up on someone. However, if I attend a coffee/munch in the kink community, that is a social event and one where people go to make romantic and play connections so hitting on someone is perfectly fine and expected. If I go to a bar or a dating social, pick up on me. I know what is going to happen. If you are at a book signing, I am working, there is a boundary. Not wanting to be hit on at work or in an educational situation does not make someone sex negative. It means they have appropriate boundaries.
Why Does This Matter?
Understanding that sex positive folks believe in boundaries and take pains to honor them needs to be core to the understanding of the use of the term. As it creeps into the poly and kinky lexicon, we run the danger of using “sex positive” to mean “highly sexually active” or “willing to have sex with a ton of people.” That is inappropriate. It would then mean if someone is monogamous, asexual or just doesn’t want to have sex with lots of people is “sex negative” and that is far from the truth.
I see this language becoming an issue like the word “clean.” Culturally we adopted the term “clean” to me STI free. People with STIs aren’t “dirty.” They need to be diagnosed, treated, and take precautions to keep themselves and others healthy. But they are not “dirty.” The implications of being “dirty” actually serves as a barrier to getting more people tested for STIs. No one wants to be “dirty.” If you don’t know your status you can say you are “clean.” We should be focused on health and help. Changing language is important for that.
So, watch how you use “sex positive.” It is important not only because words have meanings, actual codified meanings and misusing it makes you look less educated. It is also important so that “sex positive” doesn’t evolve into a term used to shame someone who won’t sleep with you.