Sex-Positive Does Not Mean Anything Goes

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Content note: sexually invasive behavior, sexual harassment and assault, denial and gaslighting of same

There’s a talk I give on atheism and sexuality, and in the part where I start to talk about secular sexual ethics, I often make a joke. I talk about religious sexual ethics, and I jokingly ask, “Without God, are we looking at a sybaritic free-for-all, uninhibited by any constraints?” I joke about how some people might be hoping the answer is Yes — and then I say that the obvious answer is No. Of course we have sexual ethics, and of course we want to have them. A sybaritic free-for-all can be an entertaining fantasy, but we wouldn’t want a sexual world with no ethics, where nobody cared who got hurt.

It seems that to some people, this obvious answer is not so obvious. So I’m going to spell it out here:

Sex-positivity does not mean treating the entire world as a sexual buffet.

Sex-positivity is not an excuse to treat the entire human race as potential sex partners. Anyone seeking sex needs to remember that most people in the world do not want to have sex with you. Most people you meet are not looking to hook up, and of those who are, a whole lot are not interested in hooking up with you. In particular, men seeking sex with women need to remember that women get hit with a barrage of unsolicited sexual commentary and approaches every day. Men need to consider carefully whether they want to add one more piece to that barrage. (This happens more to conventionally attractive women, but it isn’t limited to them by any means.) Men who approach sex like kids in a candy store need to remember that women are not candy.

Sex-positivity is not an excuse to treat professional and political events as hookup bars. Yes, hookups happen at these events, and that’s fine, but anyone seeking sex at these events needs to tread very freaking carefully. In particular, men seeking sex with women need to remember that women are routinely treated as if our sexuality is the only important thing about us — and being sexualized in professional or political arenas is one of the chief ways we’re diminished.

Sex-positivity is not an excuse to talk explicitly about sex or introduce sexual imagery in places where it’s clearly unwanted — especially when “clearly unwanted” includes “being explicitly told that it’s unwanted.” And it is not an excuse to treat people as uptight prudes when they shut down your sexual conversation.

Sex-positivity does not mean using kink and a kink identity as an excuse to non-consensually exert power over people. It does not mean using polyamory and a poly identity as an excuse to treat the entire world as your sexual smorgasbord. Yes, kink and poly people are marginalized — but they still sometimes use their identities as an excuse to treat other people like crap.

Sex-positivity does not mean using other people’s sex-positivity as an excuse to non-consensually sexualize them. Speaking, writing, or making art about sex is not a sexual come-on. This is true for professional sex writers and artists, and it’s true for private individuals talking with you about polyamory, bisexuality, or other sexual identities and issues.

And sex-positivity sure as hell is not an excuse to use positions of power to get people into bed.

Being ethically sex-positive often means saying no to this. It often means saying no to sex you might like to have, with people you might like to have it with. Sometimes you have to say no temporarily, perhaps because the other person is too drunk or high or emotionally distraught to consent. Sometimes you have to say no permanently or indefinitely, perhaps because you’ve made relationship or contractual agreements that preclude sex with that person (like monogamous marriage, or a speaker agreeing not to initiate sex with students) — or perhaps because you’re in a position of power over that person, and that power means consent is problematic at best and impossible at worst. Being ethically sex-positive means accepting this. It means accepting that you aren’t going to have all the sex you might possibly have, and not treating this fact as injustice, sex-negativity, or prudery.

Being positive about sex does not mean being positive about every single possible piece of sexual interaction. It’s a little hard to define sex-positivity: people in the alt-sex world debate what exactly it means, and some other time I’ll write more about how I see it. But whatever it means, it sure as hell doesn’t mean that. It does sometimes mean trying to normalize conversations about sex — but that doesn’t mean bringing sex into every single goddamn conversation. It does sometimes mean being more open about your sexuality than is usually considered socially acceptable — but that doesn’t mean ignoring other people’s boundaries about how much sexual conversation they’re comfortable with. It does sometimes mean being open to sex with people other than an opposite-sex legal spouse — but that doesn’t mean treating everyone you find attractive as a potential sex partner.

There are, of course, debates about where these lines should be drawn. There are legitimate debates: when does kink visibility cross a line and become intrusive? There are ridiculous debates: some people think any discussion of the very existence of same-sex relationships or polyamory is invasively and inappropriately sexual. Yes, some people want to draw the lines in ridiculous places, and some lines aren’t easy to draw. That doesn’t negate the fact that lines need to be drawn — and that some lines are really freaking clear.

If you can’t or won’t remember any of this, you’re not sex-positive. You’re just a creepy, invasive asshole. And you might be worse.

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Sex-Positive Does Not Mean Anything Goes

8 thoughts on “Sex-Positive Does Not Mean Anything Goes

  1. 2

    I feel like part of the problem with a recent situation is the way men are expected to treat celebrity. Even if they have progressive stances in theory, subconsciously they see anyone who recognizes their celebrity as a “groupie,” which means all kinds of wrong shit, even for actual rock stars.

    Sex-positivity is not an excuse to treat the entire human race as potential sex partners. Anyone seeking sex needs to remember that most people in the world do not want to have sex with you.

    I remember at 17 I was so whacked out with lust that my theory of mind broke down – it became easy to project my feelings onto others, assume they wanted what I wanted. Glad in my case that eased up in my mid 20s. This quote here, this is something that should probably be drilled into some young people’s brains like a mantra.

  2. 4

    This is an excellent article. That part that you bolded should be put on billboards.

    I think some people in the poly community (like some I’ve met in the gay community) believe they have untied the Gordian Knot of sexuality. Whether this a defensive reaction, or excessive enthusiasm, or something else, I don’t know.

    Your sexuality isn’t special. Whether you are asexual, a monogamous hetero in a long-term relationship, or someone who basically lives at the local swingers club, there’s nothing about your lifestyle that puts it above those who make different choices. If you think otherwise, then you are just making the same mistake as intolerant straights have done.

  3. 5

    About 10 years ago, when I was on the board of the Foundation and Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle, I put together an explanation of sex positivity for our mission and vision statements. They still use an edited version of this language, and I have edited the original somewhat myself:

    Sex positivity is the concept that the appropriate uses of consensual sex extend beyond reproduction to enhancing pleasure, bonding interpersonal relationships, spiritual growth, and emotional and physical health. In a sex positive world, everyone would the freedom and resources to find a sex life that delights and empowers them.

    I hope you will forgive me for adding “spiritual growth”, but there are many people in the sex positive community who see their sexuality as entwined with what they consider spiritual. I also added it as a heads up to the hate religions that sex, of any kind, is considered spiritual by many. I might rather have said “ethical growth”, but one step at a time?

  4. 6

    Apparently, Lloyd, some people aren’t as on the ball as you. I’ll tell you we can’t make assumptions about what is universally known. There’s a reason education is important.

    We also can’t make assumptions about what is universally experienced. There’s a cultural assumption that all masculine teens are demented by lust, but it isn’t true at all. Even if it’s a majority, it isn’t all.

    Tell us what we’re all supposed to know, Lloyd. I may have missed the memo. As I said, education is important.

  5. 7

    I couldn’t agree more. And for those whose jobs are in any way related to sex (i.e. sex blogger, adult toy vendor, etc), many people feel it’s ok to treat you as a willing participant to whatever they dish out. Just because I am not ashamed of my sexuality and don’t hide it, does not mean I want to listen to your smarmy come-ons and unwanted advances. Bravo for your insights!

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