Likely, you’ve seen the term “sex-positive” thrown around with trendy hashtags like #FreeTheNipple, #EffYourBeautyStandards, and #SexualHealthIsHealth.
But far more than unabashed nudity, rowdy threesomes, and regular STI testing, sex positivity is a way of being that replaces shame with pleasure and judgment with freedom.
What is it?
Most broadly, sex positivity says that sex can be a positive thing in a person’s life.
More than just that, though, says Texas-based sex educator Goody Howard, sex positivity is the idea that people should have space to embody, explore, and learn about their sexuality and gender without judgment or shame.
“It involves being nonjudgmental and respectful regarding the diversity of sexuality and gender expressions, as long as there is consent,” says trauma-focused therapist and sexuality educator Aida Manduley, LCSW, adding that sex positivity promotes a specific set of actions.
Above all else, sex positivity values consent, communication, education that allows people to make informed choices about their bodies, and pleasure.
Is it possible to be ‘sex-negative’?
In fact, it’s a safe bet that unless you’re actively working to become sex-positive, you’re sex-negative.
Don’t take it personally, though. It’s not you, exactly, it’s society.
Howard explains, “Sex negativity is ingrained in the way our entire society operates.”
“Sex negativity is telling girls to put on more clothes even on the hottest day before they leave the house,” Howard says. “It’s admonishing parents for breastfeeding in public even though that’s what breasts were made for.”
Other examples of sex negativity include:
- violence toward sex workers, trans women, and femmes
- abstinence-only sex education and sex education that only teaches about reproductive sex
- purity pacts
- Instagram shadow-banning sex educators
- slut-shaming and victim-blaming
- the “good girl” versus “bad girl” trope
“Sex negativity approaches sex and sexuality from a place of fear, oppression, and stigma,” Manduley says.
Sex negativity assumes that human sexuality is inherently:
Where did this idea come from?
Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich is often credited with coining the term in the 1920s when he stated, contrary to popular belief, that sex is actually a good and healthy thing.
As you might guess, the idea didn’t pick up much steam then. But during the sexual revolution in the 1960s, it got a second life.
Recently, circulation of the term has ramped up again as the current Trump administration has increasingly attacked the rights of sex workers and queer and trans people — and especially the rights of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
What’s the point?
Sex positivity’s Whole Thing™ is removing shame and judgment from sex, sexuality, and sensuality.
“Being controlled by shame and judgment is a miserable experience — it inhibits your pleasure, worsens your mental health, and interferes your life,” says Erica Smith, M.Ed, a sex educator based in Philadelphia and creator of Purity Culture Dropout Program, which works with people who were raised with evangelical beliefs about sexuality.
Because sex and sexuality are such vast concepts that intertwine with all areas of our lives, Manduley says, “Becoming sex-positive can be a tremendous source of health, celebration, nurturance, healing, and well-being.”
In other words, the point is that it can drastically improve your entire life.
Do you have to have sex to be sex-positive?
Nope. “You don’t have to have sex to be sex-positive,” Smith says.
“But you do have to genuinely believe that other people can have sex any way they want with whoever they want, so long as consent is involved,” she explains.
How do you become sex-positive?
Full transparency, becoming sex-positive requires:
It’s hard work! But it’s work worth doing.
“It requires an ongoing dedication to becoming increasingly inclusive and aware,” Manduley says. “It requires a commitment to practicing anti-oppressive philosophies and practices.”
According to Howard, the first step is to notice all the times you’re not being sex-positive — likely because you grew up in a sex-negative culture.
For example, “Let’s say you think ‘slut’ when seeing someone in a crop top,” Howard says. “Ask yourself: Why did I react this way? Why did I feel like that?”
Similarly, she says, if you find yourself judging someone for being polyamorous, ask yourself: Why does that make me uncomfortable? What steps do I need to take to stop feeling that way?
Then, take those steps.
Where can you learn more?
Hands down, @sexpositive_families is one of the best sex-positive resources out there. It was created in June 2017 by Melissa Pintor Carnagey, a Black and Latinx sexuality educator and licensed social worker based in Austin, Texas.
“What’s so powerful about @sexpositive_families is that it gives you the tools to check your sex-negative behavior so that you don’t pass those messages to your kids,” Howard says.
Following, engaging with, and learning/unlearning from sex-positive sex educators and sex workers are awesome ways to become more sex-positive.
Some accounts to add to your Instagram feed:
Prefer to receive your sex positivity the good ol’ fashioned way? Check out the following books:
- “Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture” by Carol Queen
- “Witches, Sluts, and Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive” by Kristen J. Sollee
- “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good” written and edited by adrienne maree brown
- “Pediatric Gender Identity: Gender-Affirming Care for Transgender & Gender Diverse Youth” edited by Michelle Forcier, Gerrit Van Schalkwyk, and Jack L. Turban
- “The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love” by Sonya Renee Taylor
- “All the F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life” by Gigi Engle
Howard G. (2020). Personal interview.
Manduley A. (2020). Personal interview.
Written by Gabrielle Kassel on September 3, 2020
Smith E. (2020). Personal interview.
Photo Credit: Toa Heftiba