What is sex positivity?
November 25th, 2022
Some people think being sex positive means being constantly available and always saying yes to sex. This couldn’t be further from the truth, writes Abby Moss.
Feeld is all about connecting like-minded sex positive humans and helping them explore their desires in an honest and open way. Discussions of sex and sex positivity are ever more prevalent but misconceptions about their meaning can lead to harmful misinformation.
A sex positive attitude is one that views sex as normal and healthy and nothing to be ashamed of. It encourages open and honest communication about sex and better sex education that is inclusive of all gender identities and sexualities. Living in a sex positive way means being open minded to other people’s sexual preferences and practices, as well as your own. Any sex that is safe and consensual is valid and not subject to societal judgement or shame.
It is also very important to understand what sex positive does not mean. Certified sexologist and feminist author Gigi Engle is used to receiving messages from people who think ‘sex positive’ means ‘up for anything’. Gigi explained that some people think being sex positive means being constantly available and always saying yes to sex. ‘It’s like people think that ‘sex positive’ means you’ve signed a blanket consent form with the world.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth. Gigi explains: ‘Sex positivity is a mindset. It’s an attitude to sex, not a behaviour. Being sex positive means recognising sexuality as a fundamental human behaviour, as fundamental as eating or sleeping. That’s all.’
Being sex positive does not mean that you have to be sexually adventurous, or even that you have to have sex at all. ‘Your attitude does not have to match your behaviour,’ says Gigi.
So where has this misconception come from in the first place? To answer that question, we need to look at the history of sex positivity.
From ‘Sexual Revolution’ to ‘Sex Positivity’
The ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s saw so-called ‘free love’ gaining popularity. Young people were turning their backs on the more conservative values of their parents and embracing sex outside of marriage. According to Sexual Behaviour of Young People, a study conducted by pioneering sociologist Michael Schofield, by the end of the 1960s only 40% of young people had no sexual experience on their wedding day, or had only had sex with their spouse-to be. Popular culture reinforced this freer attitude to sex, from The Beatles to Andy Warhol whose film Blue Movie was the first explicitly pornographic movie to receive wide theatrical release in the United States. At the same time, high profile court cases concerning ‘obscenity’ in literature opened up conversations around sex and sexuality and encouraged people to start thinking more carefully about their own attitudes to sex.
However, many cultural historians today are reframing the sexual revolution by pointing out its darker side. Although The Pill was available to married women from 1961, it was not widely available to unmarried women until much later. Abortion was illegal in the UK until the Abortion Act of 1967. Before then, thousands of women sought out backstreet abortions or turned to dangerous DIY methods to try to terminate unwanted pregnancies. For women, ‘free love’ came with physical and psychological risks, but at the same time refusing sex could lead to a woman being labelled a prude. As feminist writer Caroline Coon put it, the 1960s were, ‘an era of male liberation. Men wanted to be liberated from their marriages and to have as much sex as possible. But they weren’t going to liberate women as well.’
The swinging sixties also weren’t so swinging for LGBTQ+ people. Although sexual acts between two men had been partially decriminalised by 1967, gay people still encountered huge amounts of prejudice and discrimination. Later, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s caused huge knockbacks for LGBTQ+ rights. In particular, the passing of Section 28, a law which prevented teachers from talking about same-sex relationships and gave educational institutions the legal right to fire teachers based on their sexuality.
Section 28 wasn’t officially repealed until 2003. With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that sex education in schools remained very limited throughout the 80s and 90s. Most people in their 20s and 30s today will have received a sex education focused on the biological aspects of sex, and the risks, with little or no mention of same sex relationships, gender, consent or pleasure. Consent is now taught as part of sex education, but most sex educators argue that pleasure (particularly for female, gay, and non-binary people) remains too far in the background. Even more astoundingly, sex and relationships education only became statutory in all secondary schools in England in September this year.
How has the conversation about sex positivity changed?
Social media has opened up new platforms for sex-positive activists to reach new audiences. Despite platforms including Instagram and TikTok being criticised for censorship, even leading to protests outside their offices, sex educators continue to use social media to lead the conversation around sex positivity.
Ro Brown is a psychosexual intimacy coach and sex positive illustrator. Her Instagram account Sex Positive Sketchbook started as a personal illustration project, but Ro soon realised the need for honest sex education. ‘I'd been exploring kink, non-monogamy, and sex-positive spaces for a couple of years and I quickly discovered that it wasn't only me that was missing some crucial sex ed!’
Ro explained. ‘To me, sex positivity means working on both a personal and a collective level to challenge the shame that so many of us carry about touch, intimacy, and sexuality. The fear of shame keeps us from speaking up, asking for what we want, exploring things we're curious about, and holding our boundaries. All of those things are vital for enjoying sex that feels satisfying and pleasurable!’
Sex positivity in a nutshell
1 – Sex positivity is a mindset, not a behaviour
2 – Being sex positive does not necessarily mean you want to have a lot of sex (or even any sex)
3 – Sex is not shameful
4 – Any sex that is safe and consensual is valid
5 – Open and honest communication is vital to sex and intimacy
- Sex Positivity