Recently we got asked to contribute to a sex positive book project. The person who contacted us said they’d love to have us involved because of the way we promote sex positivity in the world. We were a bit surprised by this because neither of us actually think of ourselves as sex positive!
That might seem strange to you. I mean we have written a book called ‘Enjoy Sex’ which sounds pretty positive right? And surely we’re not negative about sex, which is the alternative to being positive? In this podcast and blog post we thought we’d explain what we understand by sex positivity – and sex negativity – and why we prefer something beyond either of these options, called being sex critical.
Justin started off by talking about this excellent blog post that he hosted over on his BishUK website, where medieval historian extraordinaire Dr Eleanor Janega wrote about the history of penis in vagina sex. Back in medieval Europe society was very sex negative because sex had to have the aim of procreation, so only certain kinds of sex were allowed, and you were only supposed to have sex at certain times or on certain days.
Meg-John picked up on this history, explaining that things were still pretty sex negative by the late nineteenth century when the science of sexology began. Early sexological texts were all about listing every single ‘deviation’ from what was seen as normal and natural sex – stil penis in vagina sex leading to procreation.
In the early 20th century Freud shifted the prevailing view towards the idea that sex should be for pleasure rather than procreation, and middle class people started seeing sex as an important leisure pursuit they should engage in. That might sound less sex negative, but actually there was still a strong sense that only penis in vagina heterosexual sex counted, and that women shouldn’t really want sex and should ‘lie back and think of England’ while their husband got the pleasure.
It was really only after the sexual revolution in the 1960s that the dominant sex negative view started to decrease, and a more sex positive way of seeing things gained some prominence. Things that helped create that shift included the invention of the contraceptive pill, the decriminalisation and depathologisation of homosexuality, second wave feminism, women’s consciousness raising groups which emphasised female sexual pleasure, and the free love movement that questioned monogamy as the only way of doing relationships.
Mainstream sex positivity
As Justin said on the podcast, it’s not like sex negativity was replaced by sex positivity. Actually we still have a strong set of sex negative ideas in our culture alongside more sex positive ones.
Also, Meg-John pointed out that there are actually two different kinds of sex positivity: the mainstream kind of sex positivity that’s out there in wider culture – in sex advice books, Hollywood movies, and magazines – and also a more alternative form of sex positivity in sex positive communities or activism.
Let’s start with the mainstream kind of sex positivity. This current common view of sex has shifted from the previous idea that married couples should have missionary position sex once a week and probably not enjoy it that much, to the idea that couples should work at having a great sex life. Ros Gill and Laura Harvey talk about sexual entrepreneurship. This is the idea that we all have to be sexual entrepreneurs – learning techniques, buying products, and working at sex in order to spice up our love lives: show how much pleasure we’re having, and therefore how successful we are at sex and how great our relationships are.
So there’s definitely more of a focus on pleasure in mainstream sex positivity than in sex negativity, but it’s a very pressured kind of pleasure which is more about demonstrating how much we’re enjoying sex than about tuning in to what we really want and going for that. We can also see that in the narrow range of sexual practices that mainstream sex positivity includes. Sex advice still focuses overwhelmingly on heterosexual penis in vagina sex, but in lots of different positions, and perhaps with the occasional addition of fluffy handcuffs to keep things spicy.
So mainstream sex positivity is still pretty narrow in what counts as sex, and still gives us a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ about when, where, and how sex should happen.
The sex positive movement
The people who asked us to contribute to their book weren’t talking about mainstream sex positivity. What they meant by ‘sex positive’ was the sex positive movement, or sex positive community. Wikipedia defines the sex positive movement in this way:
‘a social movement which promotes and embraces sexuality with few limits beyond an emphasis on safe sex and the importance of consent. Sex positivity is “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, encouraging sexual pleasure and experimentation.”’
The sex positive movement emerged in the 1980s. It was partly in response to HIV/AIDS as an attempt to embrace a wider range of sexual activities that people – particularly LGBT people – might engage with safely. It was also partly about a split in feminism between sex negative feminists who were against pornography, sadomasochism, and sex work, and sex positive feminists who were affirmative about these things, and the women who were involved in them.
The sex positive movement today brings together kink communities, polyamorous communities, people who go to sex parties, and various other forms of recreational sex. There’s a focus on openness and experimentation.
Problems with sex positivity
So what’s wrong with that? It might seem that the sex positive movement is on the right lines, expanding our understanding of sex out to cover all the diverse things that people might enjoy, and emphasising sexual pleasure.
One problem is that there’s often an implicit sense in sex positive spaces that because people can be sexual in these ways, they should be sexual in these ways. The ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ easily sneak back in there. So instead of the pressure to have penis in vagina sex and show how much you’re enjoying it, now there’s a pressure to do a range of sexual things and show that you’re enjoying them. In other words there’s still a sex hierarchy.
Awesome sociologist Gayle Rubin talked about the sex hierarchy in her paper Thinking Sex. In sex negativity, and mainstream sex positivity, people try to fit in the ‘charmed circle’ of sex (monogamous, coupled, in private, penis in vagina, etc.). In the sex positive moment people embrace the ‘outer limits’ of sex (non-monogamous, in public, kinky, etc.) But this easily replaces one sex hierarchy with another, which is something that Rubin warns again. As soon as we have any kind of hierarchy – with one kind of sex as the ideal – some people are going to be excluded and stigmatised, and some people are going to feel pressured to have that kind of sex.
The brilliant zines Fucked, and 2 Fucked 2 Furious explain how various groups are excluded from sex positive spaces, such as people who struggle with sex, who’ve experienced sexual trauma, who’re on the asexual spectrum, who don’t fit the body ideals in sex positive spaces, or enjoy the kinds of environments they’re often in (e.g. social, noisy, often with drink and/or drugs). There’s often an expectation in sex positive spaces that people will find sex simple, will easily experience pleasure, will know what they’re into, and will be up for trying new things, for example.
Also as Elizabeth Sheff and Cory Hammers point out, sex positive spaces are often overwhelmingly white and middle-class because many sex positive organisers have questioned norms around sex, gender, and relationships – which apply to them – but often not issues around race, class and disability – which don’t. This means that people of colour, working class people, and disabled people may well not feel welcome in these spaces.
Finally, any space with a set of implicit ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ around sex makes consent difficult. Just like sex negativity and mainstream sex positivity, if people have a sense of the kind of sex they should be having in sex positive spaces, then it’ll be hard to tune in to what they actually want – if anything. Justin talked on the podcast about the pressure that investing in going to a sex positive event can put on people to be sexual in certain ways.
The consent culture movement in kink communities was all about pointing out these kinds of problems. In fact the ideal that everyone will be consensual often meant that people felt unable to speak about non-consensual things that did happen, and even that people who did speak about those things got shunned from communities because nobody wanted to hear that sex positive spaces or people could be non-consensual. In some cases people took advantage of this and engaged in abusive behaviour which nobody called them out on: the missing stair problem. Kitty Stryker’s new book ‘Ask’ is all about this.
So instead of being sex negative or sex positive, we aim to be sex critical. This is an idea from eminent sexologist Lisa Downing which she explains nicely on her blog. Basically it’s about moving away from the negative/positive binary, and instead taking a critical lens on all forms of sex and representations of sex. So we’d be just as critical of sex advice as we were of porn, for example, or just as critical of heteronormative sex as we were of kink.
Being sex critical means that we can ask who is being included and excluded in any form of sex, or event, or piece of writing. For us it also means being really aware of power dynamics which mean people might feel pressured, or struggle to give informed consent.
Perhaps this doesn’t make sex critical sex sound like much fun! Our book Enjoy Sex (How, When and IF you want to), is all about how a sex critical perspective actually leads to more enjoyment (we think). If we’re aware of all the cultural messages about sex and the problems with them then we’re more able to figure out where we’re at sexual. If we know that we don’t have to have sex when we don’t want to then we’re less likely to have unenjoyable sex which means we’ll probably enjoy both sexy and non-sexy times more. If we know that no kinds of consensual sex are intrinsically better or worse than any others then we’re more likely to be able tune into what we enjoy and do that, as well as potentially finding other people who enjoy that too.
Where does that leave us with the sex positive book? We’re definitely going to write for it, but we’re going to write about the value of moving beyond the negative/positive binary and finding a sex critical way of approaching sex.
© Meg-John Barker & Justin Hancock, 2017