What “Sex Positivity” Is—And What It Isn’t

Have you ever seen a movie made before the year 1968? Hollywood at this time was subject to the rigors of a government-directed policy, the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code. Among other things, the Hays Code prevented films from depicting sex scenes, or more specifically, “lustful kissing” and “scenes of passion.”

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
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Dmytro Kapitonenko/Shutterstock

Things conclude in fireworks or fade to black before the couple takes things further, and this is the way love scenes were handled on-screen for decades. Actors didn’t have to simulate intercourse to get a point across, and audiences everywhere weren’t subjected to awkward, intrusive scenes.

Cut to 60 years later. Sexually explicit shows like Game of Thrones and Euphoria (which is inarguably marketed to teenagers) dominate streaming services and depict graphic and even disturbingly violent sexual encounters. We no longer have the censorship of the Hays Code; anyone would look at that fact alone and call it progress. But are we actually better off? 

Shows and movies today often pride themselves on having on-set “intimacy coordinators” who choreograph and direct their sex scenes. This kind of endorsement of what’s essentially pornography on television is all thanks to a recent movement known as “sex positivity.” Sex positivity as a basic concept is not inherently harmful, but it’s often appropriated to accommodate harmful agendas and push destructive rhetoric. In an age with sex on TV and growing discussions on sex education where young children are concerned, it’s time we examine what sex positivity is and what it isn’t.

Is It Acceptance, or Something Else?

What is sex positivity? One New York Times writer summarizes it as “[privileging] sexual pleasure and [fighting] sexual repression.” At first blush, we all want to be sex positive. Who wants to be sex negative? But in a culture largely dominated by a quantity-over-quality approach to sex, we make ourselves vulnerable to disillusionment on sex and monogamy when taking meaningless hookups over committed relationships.

Advocates often point to the sexual mores and puritanical attitudes of yesteryear as the reason for the push for and the value of sex positivity. In an ideal sense, sex positivity values sexual pleasure, encourages open and honest discussions about sex, and urges emotionally vulnerable communication between partners. It motivates the adoption of advantageous sexual practices, like sexual selectivity, and dispels cultural myths around it through honest examinations of things like hookup culture. It encourages healthy formation of self-esteem in relation to your body and your acknowledgment of yourself as a sexual being, and celebrates sexuality as a healthy and joyous expression of the human existence. 

If sex positivity began and ended there, we might be better off. But as we’re pushed to accommodate all identities, all lifestyles, and all expressions – or else be punished for failing to do so – sex positivity has come to encompass things like idolatrous observances of sex work and pornography. Consent, even when it fails to protect people from exploitation and degradation, is held as the highest standard possible. Yet even the most “sex positive” individual can consent to a sexual act and still find themselves demoralized and humiliated after the fact.

Sex positivity should not indicate blanket acceptance of each and every preference and practice.

In accepting sex positivity as we know it through an egalitarian lens, we’ve had to reject certain notions now relegated as harmful or stereotypical. We’ve been forced to detach consequence and emotion from intercourse, as well as the basic truth that there can be negative side effects to sex as seen in a no-holds-barred manner. This kind of thinking impacts everyone, even our kids.

Sex Positivity in Action

It’s not enough to be sex positive in marriage or monogamy. It’s not enough to point out the very real outcomes of casual sex, which sex positivity often calls “slut shaming.” It’s not enough to educate our children on sex according to our diligence and discretion as parents, or to try to shield them from the deleterious effect of porn on a young psyche. 

Take so-called “female pleasure.” Sex positivity advocates – the majority of whom unsurprisingly identify as feminists – uphold female pleasure, which they feel was previously overlooked, as the highest achievable goal a woman can attain during sex. This concept is so dogmatized that even in our capability to see pornography as a corrosive ill which should be wiped from humanity, there are calls now more than ever for “female-centered” and female-directed pornography.

Then, there are the effects of sex positive activism. In a docuseries on Bill Cosby, one sex therapist argued that “in an idyllically sex positive world, someone [would be] able to pay conscious women to come and be drugged” so that a rapist “can get their kink out” in a “consensual” way. According to this activist, sex negativity, not a deviant want for power and control, is what causes rape. This particular instance shines a light on what sex positive activists really think of people as sexual beings, especially women – they view them as bodies without consciousness built for someone else’s depraved pursuit of pleasure, and nothing more.

Children are not immune to sex positivity in action, either. Though sex positivity advocates and proponents would argue that labeling this behavior as “grooming” is inaccurate, parents of the nearly 50 million children in public schools are now facing the possibility that their children will learn about sex in an environment unsanctioned by parents and influenced by more than questionable motivations. 

One father experienced this firsthand when his 11-year-old daughter was assigned a book on a young boy going through gender transition. The book, which the father looked through after his daughter questioned him about it, features descriptions of pornography and masturbation. Parents are quickly learning that sex positivity isn’t limited to age-inappropriate discussions on certain topics – they also include the problematic gender theory that runs rampant in academia, and now in elementary schools. 

Even outside school, kids are still preyed upon by contentious gender studies discourse masquerading as education and empowerment. Just last year, a self-described “sex education coalition” offered a summer camp for minors, which featured topics like “self-managed abortions,” “gender exploration,” and “being a sex worker.” The coalition also hosts a program where 13-year-olds discuss sexual preferences and practices with adult co-participants.

Sex positivity on paper looks like an admirable undertaking – if only its sole purpose was to dispel embarrassment and shame around the topic. But since its ratification of questionable gender theory and the emphasis placed on “educating” minors, it’s evident that, in practice, this concept could not be more malevolent.

How Do We Reclaim Sex Positivity?

Anyone rightfully concerned with the direction of our cultural attitude toward sex, as well as the well-being and safeguarding of their children, would argue that we need to eradicate sex positivity, and this is true to an extent. We need to eradicate sex positivity as we know it now in order to reclaim it.

We can be vocal in our friend groups about the benefits of monogamy and shut down virgin-shaming.

Sex positivity should not indicate blanket acceptance of each and every preference and practice, though it’s come to mean exactly that. Not every sexual proclivity – especially where children are even remotely concerned – needs to be celebrated. We first reclaim sex positivity by affirming what we know to be harmful, perverse, unhealthy, and ultimately destructive.

Second, it’s incumbent upon us to decidedly take charge of how our children are educated on sex and by whom. If children know that their parents are a trusted place of refuge where they can discuss sensitive topics and ask personal questions, they’ll be less likely to turn to a different source, whether another adult, someone their own age, or the media, to help walk them through understanding things. We’ve put off this responsibility for too long, whether due to our own shame around the topic or even laziness. If we don’t talk to them, someone else will, and they’ll do it with their own agenda in mind.

We can practice positive attitudes toward sex both individually and in our relationships as well. As individuals, we can refrain from falling prey to the deleterious effects of porn on our mental state and our sex life, and avoid using sexually graphic content as a barometer for how our own intimacy should be. We can communicate with our spouse about our preferences and our stressors and help them understand our perspective on sex while learning theirs as well. We can be vocal in our friend groups about the benefits of monogamy and shut down virgin-shaming. We can also quit perpetuating the long-held belief that you need to be sexually exploratory or transgressive, to an uncomfortable or unhealthy degree, to have a satisfying sex life.

Closing Thoughts

It is possible to be sex positive, but not in the ways we’ve been taught. Most of us have figured out by now that maintaining a positive outlook on our sexuality is something we have to learn for ourselves and not anything that can be pushed on us. Once we embrace this attitude, we learn to have a healthier relationship with intimacy and to tune out all the noise of a movement that isn’t supporting us – taking only the best and leaving the rest.

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