Why I Identify as Sex-Postitive, Despite Seeing Sex as Neutral

Author’s note, August 2015: This is an old blog post that no longer reflects my current views. I no longer find it useful to identify as sex-positive, especially in asexual spaces, although many of my political views still align with the goals of sex-positive feminism.


I regularly see asexuals saying that they don’t identify as sex-positive because they don’t see sex as an inherently positive thing. They often feel alienated and attacked by people who identify as sex-positive, because sex is good and people who aren’t interested in having sex therefore must have something wrong with them. But while I know that people who say this do exist, I think they’re wrong about what being sex positive actually means.

Sex is not inherently positive. It CAN be positive. It CAN be a fantastic, mutually enjoyable experience. It can even be something that inspires feelings of transcendence in people. But it isn’t always. A lot of sex is painful, coerced, deeply terrifying and traumatic. And sometimes sex that feels good at the time can bring all kinds of awful consequences.

The point of sex positivity is acknowledging that sex isn’t inherently negative. It’s not saying that ALL sex is positive. It’s saying that it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how Carol Queen, one of the leaders of the movement*, defines it:

It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity, which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous. Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationships structures, and individual choices based on consent.

Emphasis in original. This quote is from wikipedia, as access to the original interview is restricted.

There are cultural forces out there that are strongly anti-sex. To people who buy into them, sex is seen as inherently bad, dirty, and shameful. It is only acceptable within a very narrow set of circumstances. That set of circumstances is seen as being narrower or wider according to different people, but it’s all relatively narrow. Primarily, the people who see it this way are religious. It makes sense, right? They want to make you feel guilty for sex you will still be having anyway**, so that then you’ll feel the need to keep coming back to confess your sins to them.

Sex positivity is a response to that. It’s a philosophy that says that, hey, there’s nothing wrong with having sex before marriage, or sex with someone of the same sex, or a million other kinds of sex, as long as that’s what you both want. Consent is key. And so is the idea that everyone is different, and it’s totally okay for different people to want different things.

If you don’t want to have sex, then don’t have sex, because having sex that you don’t want is bad for you. That is what a sex-positive person should be saying.

“Yeah, I’m totally ace-positive … You’re aromantic, ew that’s unnatural.” From here.

So those nominally sex-positive people who say that everyone should want sex, because sex is good? They’re doing sex positivity wrong, because they’re forgetting about both consent, and the tenet of individual preference.

I see these people as a breed of Disingenuous Liberal, essentially. These are people who have thought about sex positivity just enough to start labeling themselves as such, but not enough to have actually thought through their positions and arrived at a reasonable, logically consistent conclusion. These are people who are still having knee-jerk reactions against religious conservatives saying that sex is inherently negative, and as such, their reactions lack nuance. They are basically saying, “NUH UH, SEX IS GREAT!” without considering how it isn’t always the best thing for everyone. They have challenged whatever sex-negative attitudes they previously held enough to start identifying as sex-positive, but not enough to actually stop telling other people how they should feel about sex.

These are the people who tend to assume that asexuality is the same as being anti-sex. These are the people who are likely to equate asexuality with a “purer than thou” religious attitude towards sex, and attack it on that basis. They are still fighting their own battle with sex-negative conditioning, so they assume we are saying that we’re somehow “better than” them, for not feeling sexual attraction.

These are the people who are most likely to say we’re “just repressed” and push concern-trolling ideas like how we should go get our hormones checked.

But, as Natalie Reed said yesterday, people who see themselves as liberated and enlightened can easily fall into the trap of thinking that they are much more so than they actually are, and stop actually examining their words and actions, because of course they are so enlightened that nothing they say can actually still be enforcing sex-negativity. They have fallen for the Dunning-Kruger effect, and they genuinely think they know our feelings about sex better than we do.

But sex positivity is about cultivating positive sexual experiences, and reducing harmful ones. Pushing asexual people to have sex that they don’t want is pushing them to have harmful, deeply negative sexual experiences. Telling us that we’re “just repressed” is an aggressive attempt to frame any conversation about asexuality through a lens in which we don’t actually exist. It’s an attempt to marginalize us based on our different sexual preferences. It is not an act that is in any way sex positive.

Then there are other disingenuous liberals, like this recent commenter, who insist that they think that asexuality exists, but that our definition of asexuality is wrong, because it’s “too broad.” This is still an attempt to marginalize. It’s still a direct attack on someone’s identity, despite her attempt to cloak it in the abstractions of semantics. When you’re the signified, discussing how the signifier is wrong to include you is still pretty personal. And, unsurprisingly, she replied once and then after that didn’t bother to come back to see what else I said. This isn’t someone who is actually interested in interrogating her own biases. This is someone who is only interested in telling me how I’m wrong.

Like I said to her, it doesn’t matter whether you see a need for someone to identify as asexual or not. What matters is that THEY see that need. And asexuality is not only entirely compatible with sex positivity, but sometimes understanding yourself as asexual is what it takes to be able to have positive sexual experiences.

Before I realized I was asexual, I was celibate, and completely closed off to the idea of having sex until such time as I started spontaneously wanting to have sex (which has still never come even though I’m in my mid-twenties, because I’m not a “late bloomer”). Realizing that I’m just not attracted to people in that way has allowed me to think about whether or not I wanted to have sex anyway, and under what circumstances. When I had a partner who didn’t accept me as asexual, the sex was bad. Like, the stuff of nightmares bad. But when I met C, she actually listened to me and tried to understand what my experience was like. She didn’t pressure me. At times I still felt like our relationship was moving too fast, but we always negotiated what was and wasn’t okay sexually, and we’ve been able to have some very positive, mutually enjoyable sex.

Sex isn’t for everyone, though. Some people just don’t want it. And that’s okay.

Sex positivity is all about recognizing that different people have different preferences, and that’s okay. It’s about recognizing that sex isn’t always bad, but not all sex is good sex, either. Sex has to be entirely consensual, or it won’t be any good, and people also need to understand and have access to ways to prevent negative consequences of sex like STIs and pregnancy. Sex positivity is about recognizing that when those criteria are met, sex has the potential to be very positive. Living a sex-positive life means finding ways to have a positive relationship with sexuality in your personal life, even if that means saying, “Hey, it can be great for other people, but it’s not for me.”

——–

* Several years ago, DJ interviewed Carol Queen about asexuality and the sex positive movement. There are two installments, and it’s well worth a listen.

** Researchers have found that religious people have sex at the same rates as non-religious people. Abstinence-only sex education is ineffective. There are plenty of studies about this, but one particularly interesting one compares the sex lives of secular people with those of religious people.

15 thoughts on “Why I Identify as Sex-Postitive, Despite Seeing Sex as Neutral

  1. Hmm. I probably will never ID as sex-positive myself, but I do appreciate your writing this. As an atheist, I’m personally getting really tired of seeing “sex-positive” atheists and feminists say things like “Everybody love sex, unless you’re a repressed religious person”. Until the prominent voices of sex positivism (an atheism/skepticism) stop staying stuff like that, and until it’s safe for asexual people to speak in atheist/skeptical spaces (where sex-positive identities are the norm), I doubt I will ever be okay with sex positivism as a philosophy. I’m not ready to reach out to them until they’re willing to take steps to make their spaces safe for me, in other words.

    (Plus, I’m aversive. Graphic discussions of sex are triggering to me. If there’s a way to participate in sex positivism without being exposed to that, I’ve yet to find it.)

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    • That’s totally understandable! I think there are a LOT of nominally sex-positive people out there who have never bothered to actually sit down and think about their position on asexuality, or ever once considered that their ideas about asexuals and sex might actually be sex-negative. I’m sick of seeing it in atheist circles especially, and in feminist circles as well (though I see feminists actually trying to understand asexuality more often than atheists, there’s still a lot of failure out there). But on the other hand, I’ve had sex-positive people reach out to me and other asexuals before, and specifically try to include and legitimize asexuality. Hopefully as asexuality gains traction, more people will do so.

      I think people should use trigger warnings when there’s graphic description of sex, since some people are averse and some people have PTSD that is triggered by it. As those become more common, I hope it will become safer and easier for people to participate in sex-positive communities. But I think you can have a sex-positive attitude while not actually participating in discussions about sex.

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  2. AMEN to this! You’ve put together an excellent explanation of how you can be asexual and sex-positive, and how sex-positivity includes asexuality. So often people forget that having as much sex as you want without feeling bad about it also means having as little sex as you want, or none at all!

    I’ve also struggled with this is the past, but come to the point where I can say yes, I am sex positive, even though I personally have no desire to have sex. I’d like to try it out some day. I just can’t see myself in a situation with another person where I would try it. If that makes sense. Concept good and interesting, practice not so straightforward, because there’s nothing to go on. (Like you I also used to think that one day I would just start being interested in sex all of a sudden. And I did – on a theoretical level. But not on a practical level.)

    I especially like the way you’re thinking about sex as neutral, something that can be both good and bad, but never good or bad without context. To me that’s very accurate!

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  3. This has a lot of overlap with an article I wrote recently on sex-negativity.

    In case you don’t have the time to click through and read a giant brick of words, I’ll sum up quickly: I’m especially glad to see you naming what I’ve called “compulsory sexuality”. But where I think you might be missing something is where you lump together right-wing moral criticism of sex with radical feminist political criticism of sex as it exists under patriarchy. I tease the two apart in the article.

    If you don’t agree with me, though, you might be interested in talking more to Kitty Stryker, who’s also taking a more “sex is neutral” line nowadays. Towards the end of the article I link to where Stryker’s done that most recently (afaik).

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    • Thanks for the link! I have trouble reading it on-site because of the color scheme (white-on-black text really messes with my eyes, can give me a headache if I look at it for too long), but I’ll pull it up in google reader when I have time to read the rest of it. You’re right that I didn’t address sex-negative feminism, but I didn’t mean to lump it in with right-wing criticism of sex. I thought about including it, but decided against it because it’s a different issue and one that’s a lot more complicated, so I think it deserves its own post. Whether I’ll ever get around to writing that post, I don’t know—I have a huge backlog of drafts/ideas, and I think it would require a lot more thought and research on my part than most posts. (I’ll admit, I’m not all that familiar with sex-negative feminism, because a lot of what I’ve read of it makes too many broad generalizations and operates under completely different definitions of words like “porn” and such, that I tend to just stop reading.)

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  4. As someone who’s demi, thanks much. My ace card is showing much tatter and wear these days, but it still means a great deal to me. I’m fortunate to have a bunch of sex-pos buddies who’re totally fine with ace stuff, but sometimes I do feel uncomfortable with seeing the (often unstated) narrative that the amount of non-normative sex you have shows how “enlightened” you are.

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  6. “But sex positivity is about cultivating positive sexual experiences, and reducing harmful ones. Pushing asexual people to have sex that they don’t want is pushing them to have harmful, deeply negative sexual experiences.” Amen to this. I’m a firm believer that sex should not be had unless there is *enthusiastic* consent. Not coerced, and not agreed to by one party just to please the other. I will not have sex with someone unless they give me a clear, unambiguous message of “Yes, this is what I want.”

    Going off on a bit of a tangent… I am not asexual and don’t know much about this orientation, though I’d like to educate myself more. Yet, much of what you describe really resonates with me as a near Kinsey-6 lesbian. I used to think that there was something wrong with me because of my lack of sexual attraction to men and my utter lack of desire to do anything sexual with them. I used to look at pictures of big, muscle-ly men and will myself to get turned on, thinking that if I tried hard enough I could maybe make myself at least bisexual. All to no avail. Even as I’ve come to terms with my orientation, I still occasionally wish I could “fix” the part of me that’s not attracted to men, somehow “turn on the switch,” just so I can feel a bit more normal, like I have something in common with other women. So, it’s comforting to know that other people also feel a lack of sexual attraction and desire for the sex that they’re “supposed” to be attracted to, and that it’s ok.

    Thanks for allowing me to discover your blog! I look forward to reading and mucho mas.

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