SOPHIE WHITEHEAD SPEAKS TO THE TEAM ABOUT WHAT SEX POSITIVITY MEANS TO THEM
In our work with young people, we always advocate for a sex positive approach both in the classroom and in general. Sometimes the term can generate a bit of confusion with different interpretations and definitions contradicting one another. This post is about what we take sex positivity to be; how it helps us to frame school workshops and understand the place of sex and sexuality in people’s lives.
If you Google ‘sex positivity’, you’ll find several lists of what is isn’t. These lists rightfully state that sex positivity isn’t about promoting sex, always liking sex, encouraging others to have sex or always talking about sex. Rather, it’s about communicating, respecting, being curious and being open. I spoke to some members of the Sexplain team to hear their take on the term and their thoughts contributed to the ideas complied here…
Firstly, sex positivity is about communicating without shame or embarrassment. It could be talking to sexual partners about likes and dislikes, wants and needs. It could also be listening to partners about their preferences and, most importantly, being able to have this dialogue in a non-judgemental, honest and open way. This communication goes beyond the here and now too - sex positivity could mean being open to listening to a partner’s past sexual experiences or, conversely, respecting when a partner doesn’t want to have those conversations. The communication should ultimately be a source of empowerment between all people involved to ensure they feel safe, respected and can have fun!
While non-judgemental communication with partners is crucial, sex positivity goes beyond conversations in sexual relationships. It can also be a part of communication between children and families when growing up, or teachers and students at school, about destigmatising masturbation or giving young people the space to ask questions when they do want to explore their sexuality with a partner. The ability to engage in these discussions without shame or taboo is essential for sexual pleasure but it’s also essential for understanding safety and consent. Talking about sex removes its mystique and ensures young people know their rights.
Practising talking about sex as part of sex positivity is also important so that we avoid making assumptions about how someone wants to engage in sex or who with. It means stepping away from heteronormative and monogamy-based assumptions and, instead, working to understand our own and each other’s desires openly and without presumption. There are a variety of sexual preferences and practices – we’re all a little different. Being sex positive is about accepting and learning about that diversity in order to approach sex with a nuanced awareness of everybody’s multi-faceted, fluid sexual identity.
This includes being non-judgemental and accepting about sexual practices that are considered to deviate from the norm. It also means recognising that some people may not want to engage in sex or may want specific limits on this. It’s important to recognise and validate people who are asexual or demisexual, for example. Even though sex is healthy and ‘normal’, it’s not a necessary part of a healthy and normal life. According to Sexplain facilitator Almaz, ‘we live in a time and a culture where sexuality is conflated with sex acts most of the time and that needn’t be the case, so, for me, sex positivity is about accepting the full spectrum of sexuality.’
This acceptance of the full spectrum of sexuality applies to all ages too. For children, questions about sex and sexuality come from a place of curiosity. Sexplain facilitator Charlie advocates for the notion of ‘positive curiosity’. This means never judging but asking questions to understand other people’s perspectives and experiences and being open to learning from them. Too often, the curiosity we have around sex and our own sexual desires is framed as negative or taboo, cloaking the topic in feelings of shame. Interpreting this curiosity through sex positivity reimagines it and dismantles the oppressive framework of taboo and judgement, instead creating space for communication and open exploration.
Ultimately, sex positivity is about being non-judgemental, openly communicating and reducing embarrassment around sexuality in its many forms. Research has shown that sex-negativity and shame-oriented narratives have been linked to social problems such as homophobia, sexism, racism and gaps in sex education. Sex positivity can challenge this by avoiding stereotyping and dehumanising language which can prevent people from having important conversations around consent, pleasure and sexual health. Sex positivity isn’t about shouting sex stories or always thinking sex is great. It’s about recognising and affirming the sexual aspect of each person’s identity with all its nuances, wants, questions and needs – shame- and stigma-free.
Thanks to the wonderful Sexplain facilitators Emma, Gayathiri, Almaz, Charlie and Bex for sharing your thoughts for this post.