Sex Positivity: Who does it leave out?
Published on Camp Thirlby
Content Warning: This piece describes sex and sexual experiences in at some points in explicit detail. It also references eating disorder (Anorexia nervosa) symptoms.
A concrete definition of sex positivity is hard to find. According to Wikipedia, the only online source with a somewhat standard and concise definition of the ideaology, the sex positive movement is a “social and philosophical movement that promotes and embraces sexuality and sexual expression, with an emphasis on indepedent, safe, and consenual sex.” It is “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, encouraging sexual pleasure and experimentation.”
But what does sex positivity mean for people who, for a litany of reasons, and whether by choice or circumstance, can’t or don’t want to have sex?
I lost my virginity at age 16 to my first boyfriend. I understand that virginity is a construct that is grounded in heteropatriarchal oppression, but as a teenager, the concept of “virginity” seemed important, and losing it seemed scary. It would be inaccurate to look back on my first time as just “my first time” because at that point, it held much more significance than that. This boy was my first everything; the first boy who kissed me, the first boy to see my Target polka-dot underwear, the first boy that went down on me, etc. I had my first orgasm with him, and he has been the only boy that has ever made me cum. For almost a year, he was my only sexual partner and thus my early knowledge of my body and sex itself was marked by our relationship.
From the beginning, there was a level of discomfort in our sex. Prior to our relationship, sex wasn’t something I thought about or really wanted. I had never tried to masturbate; not that I didn’t know it was an option, I just never felt the desire to. My sex drive as a 16-year-old was virtually non-existent. Unlike me, however, this boy had slept with about eight or nine women before me, and this created a dynamic in our relationship that I was never quite able to navigate in a healthy way. During the early stages of our relationship, I was constantly worried that during our sexual encounters he was comparing my body to his past partners’. Maybe she did this better? Are my hips supposed to be moving like that? Did he notice I forgot to shave? I would ask him repeatedly if I was “doing this right,” “if that felt okay.” The difference in our sexual histories, his being full of (very, to me) attractive women, and mine being nonexistent, made me nervous even before we became physical.
He was sexually motivated in a way that I wasn’t. What I came to appreciate and crave in our sex were the shared moments of intimacy. I loved having sex with the lights off and the static of the TV on. I liked when he kept his t-shirt on, sweaty from volleyball practice, so I could bury my nose into the scent of his detergent. I was turned on when he told how much he cared about me and when the sex, at least some of the time, reflected that. The line between mental versus physical pleasure blurred for me in this relationship, and I realized that I could not have bodily pleasure without the emotional attraction of my partner.
After we broke up, I didn’t have sex with anyone for over two years. And this was my choice. My first and only sexual experience was with someone who I, or my 16-year-old-self thought, I really loved, and the thought of suscepting my body to judgment from someone who I hadn’t emotionally connected with terrified me.
Coming to college, I was introduced to sex positivity in conversations that seemed to equate sexual liberation with sexual activity. If I wasn’t having sex, I wasn’t claiming the power I had over my body. I sat in my dorm room that I shared with 5 other women and listened to stories of Tinder hook-ups, wondering why that wasn’t something I wanted to do. I felt like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t really want to have sex. Any time a boy showed interest in me, I became anxious at the prospect of a possible sexual encounter.
When I developed my eating disorder during my freshman year, sex was out of the question. Not only was my malnourished brain not capable of entertaining an interest in sex, but physiologically my body was no longer up for it. I lost my period, also known as amenorrhea, and my bouts of heavy restriction caused hormone imbalances that decreased the release of estrogen and progesterone. In less medical terms, and in the terms my doctors explained it to me: when your body thinks its in a famine, it dedicates all of the little energy you give it to keeping your most vital organs functioning. Your body prioritizes keeping your heart beating over having a baby. When I did have sexual experiences during my intense periods of starvation, any penetration was painful due to my inability to get wet.
The phsycial affects of my eating disorder on my sex life only amplified the insecurities I had in my body, and inhibitied my ability to view myself as a sexual being. Even prior to developing my eating disorder, I never viewed myself as a “sexy” woman. I didn’t see my body, even before I starved it, whittled it down, and tried to sculpt it through restriction and intense exercise, as something that could be sexualized. I stopped growing in 6th grade, my height barely making the 5-foot mark, and my breasts still fitting into the same A-cup training bras my mom bought me when I was 12. I didn’t have hips, or curves, or long legs, that I thought somehow enabled women who did have them to embrace their sexuality. I was used to being the “cute girl,” the “little one!” Constantly being mistaken to be years younger than I actually was taught me to view myself as a child and not a woman who was allowed to have sexual ambitions.
For me, my negative body image and the phsyiological affects of my eating disorder made and still make sex hard for me. But even if I hadn’t developed my eating disorder, I still don’t know if sex would be something I genuinely enjoy. I’m not fully recovered from the hormone imbalance caused by my restriction, and I know it will take years to fully heal my emotional relationship with my body, so I can’t speak to what my sex drive will look like in the future. But I know that for me, sex is not pleasurable unless I truly care about the person and I know they care about me. And I don’t think adventurous sex, experimenting with sex toys, or trying new positions, will change this part of me. It may be who I am. My emotional attraction to people is always stronger than my sexual attraction to people, and I think it always will be. This fact often made me feel alienated, and quite honestly, “prude” in conversations of sex positivity.
I am on the executive board of the reproductive justice organization on my college campus, and we host a range of events around sex positivity. I remember attending one event where we brought in educators from a local sex shop to educate our membership on kinks and healthy communication around them. The educator brought in several different toys which I couldn’t even identify for you now. I scanned the table where she placed fuzzy handcuffs and harnesses, wondering what it would be like to use any of them. As she went through demonstrations, describing the ways each one could be used, I realized I had absolutely no interest in ever having one of those toys be a part of my sexual experiences. This is not to say I don’t encourage trying new things, or that people be shamed for having specific pleasures or desires. Sex positivity means that everyone is entitled to have their desires respected.
But for me, I can acknowledge that I’m not a kinky person. I like “vanilla” sex. I like missionary. I like being able to see my partners eyes. I like being kissed on the cheek, having my back scratched gently, and the top of my thumb rubbed.
But does this mean I am any less sex positive than someone who enjoys being choked or tied up?
In many of the feminist spaces I’ve encountered throughout college, sex positive discussions encourage experimention, getting “freaky,” and embracing dirty talk. And of course, I agree, and I encourage all of this. But sex positivity can become alienating when there’s a sense that this type of sex, or liking this type of sex, makes you somehow more in-touch with your body than someone who really likes missionary, or someone who really likes being alone in their bed watching a movie.
I’ve spoken from my experience as someone struggling with an eating disorder and body image issues, and I acknowledge my privilege in this topic as a white, cisgender woman. But there are a myriad of other identities and experiences that could make limiting sex positivie discussions feel uncomfortable and exclusionary. For sexual-trauma survivors, hyper-sexualized language or imagery can be incredibly triggering. For trans and nonbinary folk, these conversations can be equally as difficult to be a part of. And for asexual people, the increased emphasis on sexual activity in feminist spaces can be a source of invalidation.
This all being said, the benefits of sex positive conversation can’t be ignored, and I actively work to be a sex positive feminist. I support the work of sex positive feminism that combats slut-shaming and advocating for the rights and legal protection of sex workers. I support the message of divorcing sexual activity from morality. I support openly discussing sex in order to ensure more pleasurable and consenual experiences for all people.
Sex positivity empowers all identities to take agency over their bodies and sexuality. For some, this may mean engaging in casual and consenual sex. For some, it may mean buying a new vibrator or exploring their bodies on their own. And for others, it may mean making the active and conscious choice to not engage in sex at all.
For me, working on my relationship with sex requires healing my relationship with my body. Finding self-love and body acceptance are crucial steps in learning what feels good for this body. Right now, my personal practice of sex positivity means learning to feel sexy without having been touched in eight months. It means acknowledging my own anxieties around sex and examining this critically and without judgment. It means not forcing myself into uncomfortable situations if I know they won’t be pleasurable for me. It means embracing my womanhood and claiming my agency over my body separately from how I choose to express this body sexually.
In the sex positive conversations I’ve been a part of, I’ve been encouraged to experiment, to adventure, to communicate, and to educate myself about my body and pleasure. And I am thankful for this. But what these conversations should also encourage is my ability to remove my body from its sexuality, if that’s not what is right for my body at this point in time.
Your own sexual preferences, and what feels good for you, doesn’t make you any less sex positive, and certainly not any less of a feminist, than others.