What is Sex-Positivity?
When hearing about sex-positivity, many think it is only a matter of being able to sleep with whomever one wants. In reality, this is but a fraction of what this growingly popular movement stands for. Indeed, if one of the sex-positivity movement’s aim is to get rid of the stigma people read as women often encounter around casual sex, it also and equally just as importantly seeks to empower women and non-binary folks to embrace and take full control over their sexual life (or the lack thereof). This translates through sex education, access to sexual healthcare, sex work decriminalisation, and acceptance of all gender identities, sexual orientations as well as consensual sexual practices. Feminism & Sex-Positivity, where do they intersect?
Why does Feminism need Sex-Positivity?
Sex as a tool for empowerment was not always a given. From the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, the first feminists, later known as first wave* feminists, organised themselves. Their concerns may have varied from country to country, but they were generally invested in questions surrounding women’s suffrage, equal access to education and employment opportunities, and the legal status of women. Only in the late 1960s, when the second wave took place, were the female body and gender relations brought to the forefront of the feminist struggle. It is also at that point that women started questioning more strongly the way they were perceived within society and took a stance against the objectification of their bodies. In this effort, second-wavers campaigned against pornography, sex work, and BDSM practices, convinced that they both encouraged sexual violence against women, and represented an obstacle to gender equality. Women were then discouraged from having or even wanting to engage in any kind of sexual behaviour — outside of marriage, that is.
It is in the late 1970s to the 1980s that some feminists, in response, took the opposite stance and claimed that female sexual liberation was actually crucial to women and non-binary people’s overall liberation. However, it is not before the 1990s that third wave feminism emerged, with sex-positivity as a key principle in the fight for women and non-binary people’s empowerment, and not only the will to break out of gender roles but also that of challenging heteronormativity.
Ultimately, it will never be said enough: Feminists needs to be intersectional (considerate of intersecting types of oppression) to be deemed feminist at all. Feminism needs sex-positivity because it needs to be accepting and respectful towards sex-workers, those who enjoy frequent sex just as much as those who enjoy little to no sex at all, those with kinks, and those who are queer. Sex-positivity is about freeing oneself from the taboo and shame surrounding sexuality, having safe practices, and being aware that it can look differently and take on a different meaning from individual to individual. It is the celebration of sexual desire in all of its forms (as well as its absence), granted it is consensual.
So what does sex-positive feminism mean for us, today?
Unfortunately, the term “Sex-positivity” has often been stripped of its real meaning by mainstream media. Too often, products (like porn) or personalities are called sex-positive because they deal openly with sexual themes or are seen as “sexually liberated.” A liberated sexuality however is not confined to a frequent, rough, and up-to-everything-at-all-times kind of sexuality — which is, in passing, a very patriarchal idea of sexuality. While it can be, a liberated sexuality is first and foremost a consensual sexuality that remains true to one’s desires. Our society can still be very much stuck in a virgin/whore binary — but neither of those are wrong to start with.
To be sex-positive and feminist means to not be judgmental towards our own preferences and (consensual) practices as much as other people’s — regardless of their status, gender, race, sexual orientations, and disabilities. To adopt a sex-positive approach to sexuality, start by taking time for yourself and discover what you truly like in terms of: frequency, number of partners, gender, practices, kinks, and where your boundaries lie. Try to do so while disregarding what you might have been brought up believing in a white patriarchal society. Not only is it ok to be different, the idea of a norm is in and of itself deceptive. Everyone and their body is different, no matter what we are told and made to believe. Whether you do not enjoy sex, are into vanilla sex, are attracted to feet, humiliation is your kink, or you are not made for monogamous relationships — all of it is valid, and no-one should be shamed for any of it!
Caring for one’s own sexual health as well as others’ is also a pillar of the sex-positivity movement; so do not forget to get regularly checked, practice safe consensual sex, and continuously communicate with your partners.
* The feminist movement as happening in waves has now greatly been contested, yet it remains helpful in its understanding, so I will stick to it for this simplified and very brief summary of the history of feminism in Europe.