It’s not about the orgasms: on the importance of sex positivity

(Trigger warning: brief discussion of rape culture)

Occasionally, I run into people who ask me why I feel compelled to talk publicly about sex all the time. (Often, these people are my older relatives.) Partly, it’s that I’m a very open person. My close friends all know that there’s basically no such thing as “too much information” with me, and anyone I’ve talked to for more than ten minutes has probably heard some ridiculous story involving some kind of young person shenanigans. But my openness about sex goes way beyond my lack of personal boundaries. I talk about sex because I’m a huge fan of sex positivity as a force for social good.

Sex positivity, for me, is all about destigmatizing sex. It’s rooted in the belief that sex is something natural, and that however you’re choosing to be sexual (monogamous or not, regardless of your gender or your partner’s gender, with as many or as few people as you’d like) is perfectly fine. As long as what you’re doing is between consenting adults, you’re good. And if you’re asexual or choose to abstain from sex for personal, moral, religious or any other set of reasons, that’s perfectly fine too (as long as you don’t try to legislate compliance with your particular breed of morality).

A lot of people have talked a lot about the benefits of sex-positivity when you’re actually having sex with people. I’ve found in my own experience that feeling comfortable with your sexual desires leads to better communication and way more fun in bed. My friend has an awesome list of sex tips based on our experience together that reflect this idea pretty well if you’re not sold yet. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now, because the importance of sex positivity goes way beyond having good sex.

Being sex positive is a deeply political act with hugely important consequences. In a culture which stigmatizes sexual activity, female pleasure, non-heterosexual orientations, trans* people, bodies which don’t conform to beauty ideals or gender expectations and a whole host of other things, having mutually fulfilling sex with another person sometimes feels like a revolutionary act. In this context, sex positivity hasn’t just given me lots of good orgasms. It’s also the reason I’ve been able to have healthy, successful relationships, love and respect myself and my body, remain STI-free and help friends out in tricky situations. I don’t say this as a “Look at me, I’m doing everything so well!” I say it because I think it’s important to recognize what people are attacking when they try to make moral arguments about sex, and how much sex negativity spills over into mental and physical health.

By teaching that desire is normal and fine and that women can be sexual, sex positivity moves away from the conquest model of sex. Popular culture often promotes the idea that sex is a conquest—men are pursuing women, women are being coy and shy and demure. Women are expected to fend off male advances; men are expected to be aggressive and know that women often say no when they mean something else. Unsurprisingly, this cultural construct directly leads to sexual assault (and also ignores non-binary identities and non-heterosexual relationships). If men are taught that no doesn’t mean no, and if women are taught that they should give in to men, problems are going to ensue. This is something that the anti-sex crowd doesn’t like to acknowledge, but promoting the idea that sex=bad also contributes directly to rape culture. If all sex is bad or immoral, then non-consensual acts just become another form of immoral conduct. There are religious traditions where all sex outside of marriage is considered immoral—doesn’t matter if it was consensual or not.

Sex positivity, in contrast, promotes what I would call a communication model of sex. Because I was taught that my body and my desires were okay, I’ve always felt comfortable articulating what I want and need in sexual situations. When I had partners who wanted to go further than I did, I was able to bring it up with them. On the rare occasion that someone hasn’t respected my boundaries, I’ve been able to articulate that clearly and unambiguously, and it’s generally resulted in an immediate apology. When I wanted to be sexual with people, I felt confident enough in my own desires to talk about it with them (instead of adhering to Cosmo’s advice to just slap some handcuffs on your guy in bed without any conversation). When I’ve had partners propose things in bed that seemed weird to me, I knew enough to talk it outwith them instead of saying, “OMG WHAT YOU LIKE THAT GROSS!” Not surprisingly, my long-term relationships have benefitted from this communication. I’ve been able to enjoy good sex in an environment where I felt comfortable saying something if things weren’t working out.

This confidence also translates into physical health realm. Not being ashamed of sex means I haven’t been ashamed to seek out medical care when I need it. (I’ve also been privileged enough to have access to high-quality, affordable medical care for my whole life.) I’ve gotten comprehensive STI testing every year and felt comfortable seeking out medical care for things like yeast infections. I’ve asked questions about birth control and abortions, been able to choose methods of preventing pregnancy that were right for me, and checked in regularly with my gynecologist and sexual partners about those methods. The fact that I am able to do that is thanks to decades of fighting for reproductive healthcare. The fact that I feel comfortable doing it has a lot to do with the way I was raised to think about sex.

As a spillover benefit, the fact that I’m vocal about these issues means that friends seek me out for advice. I’ve given advice to friends dealing with everything from broken condoms to pain during intercourse. I’ve helped multiple people get emergency contraception when they needed it. And I know that I’ve been helped immensely by the presence of other sex positive people in my life. I’ve sought out advice from my friends for all kinds of things like this, and I’m better off and healthier for it.

I have a decent number of friends who are uncomfortable with sex—some of them think it’s something wrong, others just think it should be private and not openly discussed. And while I respect those opinions, I think a public conversation about sex is essential, especially as long as we live in a culture which stigmatizes the act itself and those who enjoy it. Talking openly about sex isn’t about bragging, and it isn’t about having amazing orgasms. It’s about health, both physical and mental. It’s about preventing unwanted pregnancies. It’s about promoting body positivity and fighting rape culture. It’s about declaring—unambiguously, clearly, proudly—that this is my body, and I’m going to enjoy all of the things it can do.

2 thoughts on “It’s not about the orgasms: on the importance of sex positivity”

  1. I think inclusive and affirming sex education (not necessarily just in school, but also online or provided by community groups) that is relevant to queer, disabled and trans* folks is essential. As a trans-identified person I can't even begin to count the things I had to unlearn because of the "education" I received in school on these issues.

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