The summer I turned 16, I sat in an exam room in my local Planned Parenthood, explaining to the nurse practitioner that I didn’t have STI symptoms. I also didn’t have an unwanted pregnancy. In fact, I hadn’t even had sex yet. But I figured that the day might come soon, and I wanted to be as comfortable as possible with the resources available. She explained the birth control options I could explore, how to get Plan B, and when to schedule an STI test and sent me home with a bag of 48 condoms. While now I worry I may have wasted the time of this underfunded institution, at the time, I felt that it was all part of being a sex-positive feminist, a label I wore proudly and vocally.
Yet, when I look back on my sexual interactions through my teen years and into my twenties, I feel so far from positive.
I’ve spent years processing my experiences with sexual assault, those things I can clearly classify as traumatic and non-consensual. But there’s a murkier discomfort when I look deeper at those experiences that I did consent to but I didn’t really want. Though I called myself sex-positive, the truth was that I felt very little about sex—in an attempt to chase away my fears and apprehensions, I had numbed myself to my own desires as well.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one. A search for ‘sex-positivity,’ on Twitter turns up dozens of posts calling it ‘a scam,’ and a ‘trick by abusive men’ by people looking back on their own past experiences with fresh eyes. This certainly doesn’t give credit to the original philosophy and the usual intent of sex positivity, the focus of which is personal agency, sexual diversity, and the centering of intimacy and pleasure rather than duty and obligation. But in reading these tweets, I wondered why it was that so many of my generation internalized a version of sex positivity that was so contradictory to these values. And as an adult who still considers myself sex positive but now enjoys a fulfilling, positive sex life, I wondered how so much has changed when my overall philosophy seemed to remain the same.
I thought about my process for finding the interpretation and understanding of sex positivity that enabled me to make sex a positive rather than destructive force in my life.
Long before I’d heard of Ellen Willis, the feminist writer who first coined the term ‘sex positivity’ in the 1970s, I heard the term on tumblr, where I saw it iterated and interpreted through the words of my peers. Somewhere in the haze of the internet and the thoughts of other teens going through sexual journeys of their own, many crucial tenets of sex positivity seemed to get lost in translation.
The original concept of sex positivity was a rebellion against the scripts that had been written for women about sex–the puritanical attitudes that viewed sex outside of marriage as inherently destructive and the reproduction-focus of sex within marriage as an uncomfortable obligation. Even in my Californian childhood in the early 2000’s, I was steeped in these attitudes, viewing sex as a nearly apocalyptic concept associated with pregnancy, STIs, assault, and beneath it all, shame. For me, sex positivity went as far as to teach me that these disastrous consequences could be mostly avoided through planning and resources, and with that, I felt like I’d won the game. Feeling safe and avoiding danger was the most that I had known that I could hope for. But sex still felt like an obligation–the idea that sex could be a medium for fun, expression, and exploration, barely occurred to me. Two months after my Planned Parenthood visit, as we got dressed after our first times having sex, my then-boyfriend said to me, “That really wasn’t a big deal.” “No,” I agreed, “it wasn’t.” And after a childhood of thinking that “loss of virginity” was painful, definitive, and ruinous, I was grateful for an experience that was deeply bland.
Sex positivity was an antidote to my fear and shame, but my understanding of it was not a mechanism to make sex actually joyful. My interpretation fell short because it hadn’t prompted me to explore what exactly sex was, what it could be, or question the dynamics that underpinned it.
While I had to unlearn countless messages about how sex would destroy me, the boys I was with anticipated sex with excitement and pride. Sex positivity didn’t force them to examine their own entitlement to non-reciprocated sexual pleasure, it merely positioned me in their eyes as a willing provider.
I wanted to stop feeling shame about my own sexuality, but both my understanding and my partners’ understanding of sex and the way to go about it was still deeply entrenched in norms in which I was a commodity. I stood as an object rather than a subject. Rather than seeking out sex that would feel positive, I internalized the idea that sex wasn’t negative—and if something isn’t bad, why not do it? I went into many sexual encounters with the attitude of “might as well, there’s no harm in it.” But sex should be about so much more than just coming out unscathed.
In retrospect, in defending the sex I was having, I was also defending myself. At 15, I emerged into a world where I couldn’t walk down the street without being sexualized, where boys in the hallways would make crude jokes, and platonic friends would request sexual favors. Rather than confront the anger and confusion I felt from these things, I chose to deem them harmless. In doing so, I equated sexual experiences that made me miserable with those that actually excited me, and soon I could barely tell the difference.
In college, I began to explore more communicative sex, queer sex, sex that rearranged or didn’t include the power dynamics that I had come to think of as intractable. I was self-actualizing, learning to see myself through my own eyes instead of just the eyes of those around me. I realized that though I was still a sexual being, I was not the one who had existed through the male gaze. I could decide what was sexy about myself, I could decide how I presented those things to other people and the things that I wanted to feel from them.
For me, reclaiming my sense of sexual agency—and with it, my enthusiasm about sex—actually meant becoming more selective and more specific about the sex I had. To my own surprise, sex positivity could mean saying no to sex! I learned what I didn’t like as much as what I did like.
Sex was no longer something I did as a way to pass the time or something I felt too apathetic to avoid doing. Instead, it was now something I chose to do when I was turned on, with a partner interested in what I was interested in, and when I fully expected to have a good time. If these conditions weren’t or didn’t seem likely to be met, I would go home, make some pasta in my apartment, and enjoy my evening some other way. Sex positivity became an ongoing process in which I continually decided how sex could make my life better, rather than a mandate that I was held to.
I don’t think sex positivity is a scam, I think it is a liberatory philosophy.
But it is worth wondering why the version that was often regurgitated to or amoung young people online was so exploitative, and how our fears and desires were used against us. At 16, I thought that I was as prepared as I could be—but resisting a toxic sexual culture takes more than a trip to Planned Parenthood and a box of 48 condoms.
The original concept of sex positivity means that sex is not an inherently negative thing, that sex can add value to someone’s experiences. It does not mean that sex is always good and always does add that value. Being sex positive also doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have positive feelings about a given sexual climate or even your own sexual life. There’s danger in telling teens that responsibility for their sexual pleasure falls on them alone when American culture’s mainstream understanding of sex is steeped in exploitation, relying on sexist logic and racist tropes and treating heterosexual intercourse that centers men’s pleasure as an unshakeable default.
You don’t have to ignore these realities to be sex positive. Instead, recognize that these sexual patterns are the product of a sex-negative culture that teaches people to expect bad experiences and be afraid to create experiences that they desire. Strive for sex that is oriented around shared pleasure and mutual respect—sex positivity doesn’t mean simply that sex is positive, but it does mean that we have the power to make it so.