Friday, May 5, 2017

What Does "Sex Positive" Mean in Your Community?

Several of my past posts have been inspired from things overheard at the latest New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America Conference, and today's post is, too. During a workshop on sex positivity in romance, author Alyssa Cole noted that what counts as sex positive is different in different times, and in different places. As a reader and writer of historical romance, the first part of Cole's claim seemed obvious to me: what counts as embracing your sexual self looks a lot different in Regency England as it does in 21st century America. The example that Cole used—that the forced sex in the "bodice ripper" romances of the 1970s and early 80s may appear sexist and regressive to today's readers, but the trope can be interpreted as sex positive when put into the historical context of women's liberation movements and pushback against the same—was one with which I was also familiar.

The idea that sex positivity can look different not just across time, but across communities and cultural groups living during the same historical period, though, wasn't one that I had given a lot of thought to before hearing Cole's words. But of course my idea of sex positivity growing up as the child of white American parents who had grown up in the working class but who had through education moved into the middle class, likely looked a lot different from that of a child who grew up in the Australian outback, or under the Communism of the USSR, or on a Native American reservation during the same time period. Norms of culture vary not just across time, but across social group.

So I'm wondering: what does it mean to you to be sex positive? Have your ideas about what is sex positive/sex negative changed over time? Have they changed as/if you've moved from one social group to another during your life?


  1. I think one of the biggest areas of growth for me was accepting that sex positivity had to mean being positive to all expressions of sexuality, including those that don't initially seem all that positive.

    Just as freedom of speech should include the freedom not to speak and freedom of religion should include the freedom to be an atheist, I've had to learn/make myself accept that sex positivity should include the freedom to not be at all sexual, if that is the true wish of the individual.

    It was easier for me to accept this with asexuality--I didn't, and still don't really get it on a deep level (like, it's hard for me to imagine being completely without sexual urges) but I could understand it well enough intellectually to be respectful.

    Easier for me to accept people without sexual urges than to accept people WITH the urges who choose not to act on them. But I think it's been an important area of growth for me to work on that.

    I shouldn't poke fun at the sheltered girls making their chastity pledges or whatever--yeah, maybe they're fooling themselves or maybe they're making the pledges under social/religious pressure, but maybe, just maybe, they have genuinely different attitudes toward the role of sex in their lives and I should respect that possibility.

    The "anything but" crowd is similar--it may feel like a weird and almost hypocritical approach to sexual activity, but that's really not my business or my call to make. If it works for them, it works for them.

    And the plus side of this work is that I'm able to be accepting of my own limits. If I'm able to accept that some women genuinely choose to wear burkas or other deliberately non-sexualized clothing, then I can damn well give myself permission to wear a rash guard shirt and swim-shorts to the lake this summer without feeling "frumpy". I can free myself from having to live up to someone else's ideas about sex positivity and find my own version of it.

    Short version: I've learned that sex positivity is more about freeing everyone from societal expectations so they can express their own sexuality, not about imposing a whole new structure of sexual expectations on people.

    1. Hi, Kate,

      I'm so glad to read what you wrote, because you are describing something which I noticed has been happening around the language of "sex positivity," that everyone should be free to have sex, and that is a positive, but that included an obligation to have sex. Women weren't to be "slut shamed," but there seemed to be a lot of "prude shaming," that women who had different values were to be criticized for that.

      That approach just never seemed to be feminist to me.

      I think this response ("prude shaming") was responding in turn to the to political and religious conservatism that opposed women's sexuality. So women who went along with the conservatism were part of the problem. I believe Jessica Valenti talked about this in one of her books.

  2. Oh my goodness, thanks so much for posting this, because this has been on my mind lately!

    I'm a middle aged woman in my 40s, and it seems to me that "sex positivity" has changed since I was a young woman.

    When I was younger and in college (late 1980s), sex positivity meant women thought about sex responsibly. They learned about birth control methods and thought carefully about the circumstances under which they had sex, and with whom they had sex. Also, AIDs was big back then, so women were urged to talk about condom use. Health Services used to talk about birth control at the same time they talked about "date rape," women being responsible about knowing who they were with and being cautious with men, because naivete is what got women into trouble. The politics of sex seemed very adult and grown up. Women talked to their partners and negotiating sex within a relationship.

    Today, the politics of sex seems to have turned into something else. Women have sex but don't seem capable of negotiating well for it, compared to women of earlier years. The hook up culture prevails, meaning that women are to be free to have sex "like a man" and it is supposed to be empowering. But are women feeling empowered? There are women who hook up, have sex, and hope to get relationships, but it doesn't happen. Why can't they negotiate for what they want? Why do some women seem afraid of relationships, that they would rather have sex than date? Why do some women feel the need to drink in order to go out and hook up (have sex)? That wasn't common when I was a young woman. Finally, it is as though talking about responsibility is seen as "slut shaming" and "blaming the victim."

    I can't figure out what is going on, but what is being sold as "positive and feminist" doesn't seem that way if numbers of young women are unhappy with it.

    In my writing, I am to recapture some of what I recall from when I was younger, when the young women I knew rejected the absolute "chastity before marriage" their mothers followed, but instead realized that sex was an adult part of dating, but that they wanted to do it responsibly, and with the intention of dating towards a long term commitment.

    The ideal for a number of my friends back then was to marry their high school, college, or graduate school boyfriend, and they did.

    Barbara James,

  3. Quick comment on college hook-up culture: some research shows that it can actually better for some women because romantic relationships are "greedy" in that they demand a lot of time and energy (esp from women), which can distract them from academic goals. In addition, when relationships "go bad" (violence, stalking, emotional abuse), the consequences tend to be so much more intense and impactful (again, esp for women) than the consequences of a failed hookup. Just some food for thought on the complexity of it all. Armstrong, Hamilton, and England's article in "Contexts" covers this. It should come up in a google search.

  4. I found this blog post after googling the term, "sex positive," when I became curious as to what a professional reviewer of a young adult romance novel intended by employing that term. Having read several other YA romance novels by the same author, it seems to me the reviewer's use of this term is as a euphemism for the fact that this author routinely includes unashamedly sexually active teen protagonists in her novels. However, in keeping presumably with the legalities of avoiding writing anything that might be labeled erotica for underage readers, there are zero explicit descriptions in the sex scenes in this author's YA novels. I have noticed the same approach for many other YA authors who have written novels that include unashamedly sexually active protagonists.

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