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.

The importance of choice

Disclaimer: This post involves me talking about my reproductive system in a personal and political manner. If you’re easily offended, get over it or go elsewhere. This post has been cross-posted on the Feministing Community blog.
This month, my period was nine days late.
Days one and two, I didn’t worry. My cycle is pretty regular, but it fluctuates a bit, and a day or two past due isn’t anything unusual. Days three and four, I started worrying a bit. I crossed my fingers and told myself it wasn’t a huge deal.
 Day five, I told my mom, just in case. I’ve had one or two seriously late periods before, and for me, the point when you tell someone else makes a big difference. If only you know, your worries are all theoretical. What if I am pregnant? you ask yourself. Who would I tell? How would I tell them? As soon as you tell someone, as soon as you verbally acknowledge the possibility, you move on to planning. Ok, you say, my mom/boyfriend/best friend knows this is happening. They’re going to be with me no matter how this plays out. You start thinking about options and choices.
 Day six, I took a home pregnancy test. It came back negative, but still no period. I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled anyway, and since the last thing I wanted was to head off to Ecuador and discover that I really was pregnant once I got there, I asked my doctor to do a blood test. It came back negative on day nine, and my period finally started within two minutes of me getting off the phone.
I was lucky. But it could have gone the other way. I could have been pregnant now or this spring or last year or a dozen other times. I’ve had one or two other minor pregnancy scares, but none of them—not even this one—has been a truly scary experience for me. The reason for that is because I know that where I live, it’s still legal for me (and only me) to decide what I want to do if I do get pregnant.
I’ve never been pregnant, so I can’t say what I would do in that situation with 100% certainty. But I’m 99% sure I would have an abortion. I’m twenty years old and in school. I’m about to spend four months in Ecuador. I want to travel the world and be an investigative journalist and do a bunch of other things that would make me a terrible, negligent parent for the next five or ten years. I believe that there are too many people on earth, and I have no interest in carrying a pregnancy to term only to let someone else raise my child. I promised myself a long time ago that I would never let someone else raise one of my children.
During the week or so where I was worrying and thinking about my options, I had this conversation with my mom and my doctor. I asked my mom if my gynecologist’s office does abortions, and she said yes. Before I got the blood test, I asked my general practitioner if anyone in her office does abortions, and she said they did. We discussed medical versus surgical abortions for a few minutes. She answered all my questions thoroughly.
While talking to her, at no point did any of the politics surrounding abortion enter our discussion. She didn’t judge me. She didn’t ask me if I had considered other options. She behaved like a medical professional answering questions about a medical procedure.
I’ve been pro-choice my whole life. I vehemently support a woman’s right to choose whatever she thinks is best for her if she gets pregnant, and I believe access to abortion is a right and an issue of social justice. There are few things that make me as angry as politicians and zealots who argue against access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion. This issue has always felt more personal to me than almost anything else. I’m a sexually active young woman. Pretty much any policy aimed at limiting access to reproductive care is going to affect me or someone very close to me in a negative way.
When I was sitting in my bathroom, counting down the two minutes before I could look at the result of my pregnancy test, I was a little bit nervous. I was hoping and keeping my fingers crossed. But I also knew I had an out. I knew that if I didn’t want to carry a pregnancy to term, I wouldn’t have to.
For millions of women around the world and in the US, this isn’t the case. Most counties have no abortion clinics in them. Looking online, the cheapest abortion I could find in Seattle cost $420—a small fortune for many people. Women often have to drive hours and spend the night far away from home to get an abortion. Access is already a huge issue, especially if you’re poor. And thanks to the Republican Party’s crusading anti-women platform, it’s getting worse.
When you’re sitting in your bathroom, underwear around your ankles, praying to God that that second line doesn’t show up on the stick you just peed on, you want every option you can get. You want to know that whatever happens to you from that point on will be your choice, and that you will be supported no matter what. Most of all, you don’t want anyone who has never been in that position, anyone who isn’t capable of being in that position, making laws deciding if, when and how you get to make choices about your own body.