In the simplest of terms, sex positivity is a concept which advocates a healthy, open and safe attitude towards consensual sex, encompassing all genders and sexuality to promote a more tolerant and inclusive space for all. Sex positive people believe that we need to encourage more dialogue on practicing safe sex and remove the taboo surrounding female sexuality. While it may seem easy enough to grasp, it’s a term that many self-identifying women are now reluctant to label themselves with due to its lack of clear objectives and aims from the movement.
Up until recently, if somebody were to ask me whether I was sex-positive, the knee-jerk reaction would have been “Of course! Being able to be comfortable with my own sexuality and promote bodily autonomy for all is surely female empowerment, no?”. Not quite. Even though I still maintain this attitude, it’s clear that with no real agreement on what sex positivity aims to achieve apart from sexual liberation, we need to start focusing more on addressing issues surrounding freedom of choice for all backgrounds; the silencing of sexual violence and trauma; rape culture and how to dismantle patriarchal attitudes before we can confidently label ourselves as sex positive.
One of the key ideas of the sex positivity movement is for women to reclaim words which have been used as a means of sexual degradation, such as slut and whore, to remove its power much like how the LGBTQ community have reclaimed the word queer. However, this underestimates the power of the word beyond liberal feminism and fails to address the fact that this would only work in practice if men begin to actually understand its connotations and the damage it brings. By no means should women who call themselves sluts stop – it’s undeniably empowering to have the freedom to label yourself in any damn way you want to – but that doesn’t mean we cannot simultaneously recognise how we can do better and push forward the conversation.
We need to remember that the word slut has shock waves which affect women from different circles in a multitude of ways, especially when we consider the new forms of sexual harassment in the social media age, such as revenge porn and unsolicited nudes. When a word like whore brings more discomfort than empowerment for some women, we need to challenge deep-rooted misogynistic attitudes so that it is being reclaimed with a purpose. By starting a dialogue with men and encourage them to deeply reflect and question their privilege to devalue and belittle women within linguistics, we can begin to redistribute their privilege and change harmful mindsets that allow patriarchal ideals to thrive. Without making strong, direct action in reclaiming, we risk falling back into the status quo with no real change.
Another issue which sex positivity faces is whether it’s fully inclusive or only manages to truly serve cis-het, white, able-bodied women. Many sex-positive feminists aim to include men, women and non-binary people of all backgrounds in its movement, but its lack of vocal supporters from groups outside western feminists calls into question whether it’s doing enough to be intersectional. From rape and sexual assault survivors, to women from culturally conservative backgrounds, to religious believers, to trans women, the ability to say you’re sexually liberated may not be enough or what you even want – we need to shift the dynamic towards the freedom of choice. What empowers one woman may not for another, so we need to question how the movement can become more inclusive and fluid amongst different groups of women. Asking women to feel empowered places centuries of patriarchal oppression on our own behaviours and actions in a way that almost blames women for past harmful attitudes, rather than dismantling the structures which had allowed centuries of patriarchal oppression to happen in the first place.
To be able to become more inclusive, dismantling the patriarchy is a necessity. Emphasising freedom of choice is a necessity. Working alongside men is a necessity. Unlike intersectional feminism, it doesn’t feel like men who are allies to the sex positivity movement are self-aware enough on their privilege and role in oppression, so they still have a lot to gain from just performatively labelling themselves with no actual radical action. Whilst conservatives can be sex negative and frown upon sexual empowerment and bodily autonomy, liberal men face the problem of simply “enjoying” women become sexually liberated to the point of hypersexualising women themselves under the guise of being “woke” allies. Without encouraging radical change in the status quo, sex positivity remains a worthwhile cause for exclusively western feminists and predatory men.
Much like how feminism is a fluid, evolving movement which constantly remains critical in order to be intersectional and radical, sex positivity must be able to recognise its own critiques, adapt, and create a safe space for women who aren’t just cis-het, white and able-bodied in order to prove its relevance for all groups in society. Sex positivity has the potential to be so much more than just being positive about sex. This is a chance to evoke real change in a climate dictated by patriarchal ideals.
Written by Aliya Arman