Columns: I’m Sex Positive by Cliff Pervocracy

I’m sex-positive!
And I’m realizing that’s a painfully ambiguous term.  I’ve seen people use it to mean everything from “not viewing sex as inherently evil” to “insisting that everyone should have tons of orgasms and it’ll solve all their problems.”  You can see how people using the first definition could have some seriously unproductive arguments with people thinking they’re using the second.
About the “orgasms for everyone!” thing.  It’s not entirely a strawman.  I once saw a presentation by Annie Sprinkle (who clearly wrote her own Wikipedia page) where she basically argued that we would have world peace and feminist utopia if everyone in all the armies just fucked and had orgasms instead.   It’s superficially sweet-sounding–yay, pleasure!–but there’s some really obvious problems.  Not everyone can have orgasms, not everyone wants orgasms, and there are lots of people who have fabulous orgasms but they’re still assholes.
Sex-positivity has had problems with misconstruing personal choice as sexual repression and sexual exploitation as personal choice, and I don’t want to deny that.  (“Sex work is always great because sex is super fun happy time” is every bit as vacuous as “sex work is always terrible because no one could ever possibly choose that.”)  I also don’t want to deny that I’ve done it myself at times.  But I do want to move away from it.
So here’s my definition/manifesto.  Defifesto.  (I wrote a much shorter version on Tumblr, and I thought it was worth expanding upon.)  When I say that I’m sex-positive, this is what I mean:

•I think freedom of sexuality is something that we all need and very few of us have.

•I think sexual pleasure is a legitimate thing to want and ethically pursue.
My sex-positivity does not exist in opposition to non-sex-positive feminism.  It exists in opposition to fucked-up social sexual norms.  It exists in opposition to the people who attack any sexuality outside strict norms, the people who demand women and girls be sexy but humiliate them for being sexual, the people who treat discussions of sexual safety and consent like obscenity, the society that constructs sexual desire as something dark and dirty and secret and awful.  That is sex-negativity.  That is the real reason sex-positivity matters.
•I reject preconceptions of what kind of sexuality a person “should” have, whether these preconceptions are based on gender, age, race, culture, disability, trans status, survivor status, or basically anything else.
•I do not judge people for the ethical sex that they have or want.
“Ethical” means “not harming others.” Ethics doesn’t have a damn thing to say about whether your sex should be kinky, heterosexual, fully clothed, anal, unmarried, boring, gay, still going at age 80, in a kiddy pool full of Karo syrup, twice a year, with twelve people, or not exist at all–and therefore, neither do I.
•I will not tolerate hatred of sex workers.
This means from all sides: employers and customers as well as moralists and police.  Sex workers are people; sex work is work.  There’s often a shit-ton of misogyny and exploitation in the sex industry, but the “misogyny” and “exploitation” parts are the problem and what we should be working to fight.  Not the “sex” part.
•I believe comprehensive, honest, non-judgmental sex education is necessary for public health and happiness.
•I think understanding of sexual consent—what it is, why it matters—is sorely lacking in society and crucially important.
These two really, really need to go together.  If abstinence-only sex ed is like driver’s ed without talking about cars, then sex ed without talking about consent is like driver’s ed where they show you the gas and the brake, but assume you’ll pick up all the “how to follow traffic laws so you don’t kill people” bits on your own.
•I think the diversity and power of human sexuality is goddamn awe-inspiring.
Sex has the potential to bring great joy or great suffering.  Sex-positivity, to me, means celebrating and cultivating the joy.  Not imposing it upon people, not ignoring the suffering.  But believing that sex brings enough good things to enough people’s lives that it is worth talking about, worth working on.
On the other hand, when I say I’m sex-positive, here are a few things that I absolutely do not mean:
•Everyone should have sex.
•Everyone should have kinky, non-monogamous, exhibitionistic, orgasmic, pansexual sex.
Some people are asexual. Some people are sexual but not all that into it.  Some people are monogamous, heterosexual, and not into kink.  Some people have physical or psychological issues that interfere with them having sex.  Trying to “free” any of these people from their “repression” is ignorant, presumptuous, and the very opposite of promoting sexual freedom.

•Accepting someone’s way of having sex means you have to participate in it, watch them engage in it, or hear about it in detail.
Yeah.  Ew.  I hate that I even have to say this.  But it comes up.  And ew.
(Caveat: “you don’t have to watch it or hear about it” does assume some initiative on your part to avoid things you don’t want to see.  If you say “don’t tell me about your sex life,” when I’m talking to you, I will respect that; if you say “don’t tell me about your sex life” in response to writing not directed at you and clearly labeled as sex writing, I will tear my hair out.)
•Nothing related to sex is ever hurtful for anyone.
•Nothing related to sex should be criticized.
“If it’s consensual and ethical, it’s all okay” is worlds away from “if it’s related to sex, it’s all okay.”  Worlds.
And I do believe things can be unethical even if all the sex involved is consensual.  Cheating is unethical.  Fetishizing people based on racial stereotypes is unethical.  Treating people as sex objects is unethical.  Imposing strict norms of gender expression and sexual behavior on others is unethical even if you come up with some convoluted argument for why it’s your sexuality.
Responsible sex-positivity requires a thorough examination of sexual ethics.  It’s just that whether something seems “freaky” or hedonistic or something you wouldn’t enjoy yourself should play no part in those ethics.
•Feminism should be all about sex.
•Sex fixes everything.

I’m wary of anything that smacks of “making feminism sexy.”  Sex-positivity should be a part of feminism because sexuality is important–not because feminism needs spicing up.  I really don’t want to imply any “be a feminist ally and you’ll get lots of kinky sex” deals here, or any “don’t worry, we’re not man-haters, we’re into stripteases and blowjobs!” cajoling.  The challenge of integrating sex-positivity into feminism is communicating “women’s sexual desire matters” without giving any ammunition to “women are for sex.”
Plus, there’s a lot of worthy feminist goals that just can’t be shoehorned into being about sex.  I think promoting women’s sexual autonomy and respecting the diversity of female sexuality should be a part of feminism, but I’m under no illusions that this is going to fix hiring discrimination or domestic violence.  There’s a lot of unsexy work to be done in feminism, and sex-positivity shouldn’t eclipse that.
No, we won’t get feminist utopia through sexual freedom, but that’s okay, because sexual freedom is an end in itself.  And that’s what I mean when I call myself sex-positive.
This article was originally published on Pervocracy and is republished with kind permission
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