Sizing Up Sex Positivity

By Jacqueline Groshaufmanis

Sex positivity is an attitude towards sex that largely aims to remove guilt, shame and overthinking from the equation. Slut shaming and kink shaming are among the flagged behaviors that it works to combat, but it also promotes a larger possibility of experimentation and expression where pleasure is allowed to be paramount.

Urban Dictionary—an authority on many terms that climb into the mainstream liberal zeitgeist—describes Sex Positivity as “an approach to sex that embraces sexual interaction as uplifting, based on the premise that sex is good and healthy and that societal repression is bad and unhealthy.” More formally, the American Psychological Association notes that elements of sex positivity can now be integrated into research, training, and practice for psychologists. 

It almost goes without saying that the main target beneficiaries of sex positivity are people who have historically been shamed for their sexuality, with an obvious example being women. (Whereas for straight men, sex has effectively always been positive.) 

And while the burgeoning philosophy has given many people well-deserved permission to be sexual without shame, I’m wary of some of the ways in which it’s marketed towards young women, and of the simplicity in how it often conflates feminism and empowerment with sex, without specifically mapping out what that means.

The average American loses their virginity at age 16, meaning any conversation about sex positivity needs to consider how it’s received by young people.

In February, I sat down with seven high school girls at Cafe Jax, a punishingly quiet coffee shop in New York City where we discussed everything from when they lost their virginity to how they viewed feminism in relation to sex, if at all.  

Even at four years apart, our conversation felt “intergenerational.” There they were, the undisputed pioneers of Gen Z, and there I was, precariously perched between the tail end of an older millennial generation and the inaugural class of theirs. 

Art by Amanda Cronin

Positioned like a weird narc, I started by asking them all about the dating landscape at their high school. The differences between their experiences and mine were striking, although it was hard to tell which differences were the consequence of geography (I went to high school in the markedly less chic suburbs of Virginia) and which were the consequence of timing (Instagram didn’t even have a DM feature when I was in high school—for them, it practically functions as Tinder).

I leaned into these differences a bit, gauging how they were informed by notions of sex positivity. We talked about feminism and empowerment. Alexa, the quietest one in the group, said that sex should be as empowering for women as it is for men. The rest of the group nodded, and I nodded myself. Then the conversation shifted to age and maturity, and the consensus at our table started to dissipate a bit.

Fiona, who insisted that I use her real name, Juuled while explaining to me that she prefers hooking up with older men. (“They’re more mature.”)  Some members of the group disagreed, and said it’s sketchy when adult men hit on them and their friends—an alarmingly common occurrence, especially now that they’re all 18. But even those who felt unnerved by the trend ultimately surrendered their reservations to a sex-positive spin, chalking it up to a “to each their own” attitude.

This didn’t totally give me pause until we discussed contraception, during a conversation in which I learned that some of the more “sex positive” girls were the same ones who weren’t on birth control, citing conservative families or concerns about stigma as barriers to access. And while one conversation can’t act as a portrait of how sex positivity creates a pathway for (or doesn’t create a pathway for) safer sex, this illustrated how the philosophy can be a bit hollow.  Here, sex positivity offered little utility—facilitating very adult sexual experiences for very young girls, but without connecting them with tangible protections to help keep them safe and healthy.

It feels prudish to be critical of sex positivity in any way. And after growing up in Virginia, I’m no stranger to the need for more progressivism in attitudes towards sex.

“Having sex is like chewing gum,” is a real thing my religious education teacher said to a class I was in as a young teen, presumably as part of some pre-planned lesson in shame, purity, and abstinence. “Once it’s done, things are never the same.” I thought about chewed gum—wrinkled, dull, and flavorless. The impossibility of smoothing it out and wrapping it. The impossibility of someone really wanting it again.  

Needless to say, I see value in the goals of sex positivity. I’d love to go back to that time and unlearn suggestions that sex is unnatural or dirty. In theory, sex positivity could be a panacea for a lot of what ails attitudes about sex in our current culture. But in practice, even with the best intentions, many of the mantras are hollow, and many of the consequences are mixed.

I think part of the problem is the suggestion, even if unintended, that we eliminate negativity from our equations involving sex, as if it is something that shouldn’t exist as opposed to something we could lean into and investigate. I understand where the necessity was born from: an empty shame that is often associated with sex, directed largely towards and shouldered painfully by women.  

But the fact of the matter is that not all sex is positive, even when consensual. 

“Last year I hooked up with someone and felt really off afterwards, even though I had wanted to and he had wanted to and nothing about the hookup was bad,” said Amanda*, a Cornell senior I spoke with in April. “I obsessed about it for weeks and eventually realized that hooking up with someone I’m not exclusive with makes me anxious to the point where I can’t sleep.”  

Amanda, who told me she had felt that same anxiousness in the past after other hookups, said she used to shrug it off. “It’s not exactly sex positive to stop and say that something consensual, that everyone around you is also doing, is bad,” she said. “And it’s not bad for everyone,” she quickly clarified, “but I feel safer and more comfortable and less anxious when I know I’m exclusive with the person I’m with—and to figure that out I had to be less dismissive about what was making me uncomfortable.”

It’s hard to gauge the net impact of sex positivity, but if I had to guess, it’s been more beneficial than harmful. And still, elements of the philosophy are worthy of greater thought and criticism than they currently receive. Sex positivity has given people permission to enjoy sex the way they want to, absent of shame, repercussions, or implications in general. But sex positivity is also dangerously imperfect when applied blindly, because sex isn’t always good. Sometimes sex is neutral and sometimes it’s negative, and it’s important that we have the space to acknowledge the difference. 

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