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What Does Sex Positive Mean?

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Updated April 14, 2012

Question: What Does Sex Positive Mean?
Answer:

The term sex positive has been in use in academic and research writing since at least the mid-1950s (probably much earlier, I've read that Wilhelm Reich was credited with first using the term). In these early references, sex positive was most often used as a synonym for erotophilia. In contemporary usage, the definition of sex positive continues to develop, and no one has made much of an effort to argue for a unified vision of sex positivity.

The term sex positive began to be used with greater frequency during the feminist “sex wars” of the 80s and 90s. At that time it was often used to define oneself in opposition to the anti-pornography feminists. Sex positive was used interchangeably with the term “pro-sex” and it began to include the idea that that sexual expression could be transgressive, that people can attain sexual freedom through the performance of sexual acts and sexual ways of being.

Carol Queen, an author and activist who has long been associated with the term sex positive, and whose 1997 collection Real Live Nude Girl was the first mainstream book to use the term sex positive in its title, defines sex positivity this way:

Sex-positive, a term that's coming into cultural awareness, isn't a dippy love-child celebration of orgone – it's a simple yet radical affirmation that we each grow our own passions on a different medium, that instead of having two or three or even half a dozen sexual orientations, we should be thinking in terms of millions. "Sex-positive" respects each of our unique sexual profiles, even as we acknowledge that some of us have been damaged by a culture that tries to eradicate sexual difference and possibility. Even so, we grow like weeds.”

In an essay entitled "The Language of Sex Positivity" Charlie Glickman, who worked at a popular sex positive sex toy store, proposed that sex positivity involves “working towards a more positive relationship with sex.” He pointed out that most of us are raised in a way that makes us fearful and ignorant of sex, and as such, being sex positive means working through these prejudices, much as one would work toward an awareness of racism, ableism or other forms of systemic prejudice that influences our judgments and our actions.

In an article for Planned Parenthood on providing sex positive sex education, Lisa Tobin writes that being sex positive includes:

  • Having a comprehensive definition of sexuality
  • Viewing sexual health as a basic human right
  • Focusing on the life-enhancing aspects of sexuality as well as attention to the negative aspects
  • Being non-judgmental and challenging narrow social constructs
  • Using inclusive language rather than value-laden language which makes assumptions based on sexual orientation or gender stereotypes
  • Assisting individuals to be aware of the choices involved in sexual decisions

The sex educator’s definition of sex positive usually invokes less of the transgressive politics, and focuses more on the positive psychological and physical impact of sexual expression.

While the term sex positive is still used in activist and academic writing, as well as in sexual health and sexology, these days it can most often be found in marketing materials for a wide range of for profit businesses that make money off selling sex in one form or another to the public. In this usage, it has become a short hand for sexual normalization. Thus a "sex positive author" is someone who will make you feel okay about whatever it is they tell you how to do in their book, and a “sex positive sex toy store” will make you feel good about whatever they sell you).

Whether sex positivity will lose its meaning in the face of so much marketing remains to be seen. But as long as there are other organizations (or, say, governments) whose agenda includes restricting sexual rights and expression, the idea of sex positivity remains an important one for all of us to hold on to.

Sources:

Glick, E. “Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression.” Feminist Review Volume 64, Number 1 (April 1, 2000): 19-45.

Glickman, C. “The Language of Sex Positivity.” Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality Volume 3 (July 6, 2000).

Lundy, R.M. “Self Perceptions and Descriptions of Opposite Sex Sociometric Choices.” Sociometry Volume 19. (1956): 272-277.

Queen, C. “Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture.” Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1997.

Tobin, L. “From Being Sex Positive: Promoting Young People's Sexual Health.” Health Promotion Atlantic Volume 3, Number 3 (September 1997).

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