Reframing “sex positivity” by centering consent
Each and every one of us should be respected as autonomous (a)sexual beings.
This essay discusses sexual coercion and manipulation
I used to feel bad for getting “90% vanilla” whenever I took one of those online BDSM or kink tests (and answered the questions honestly), or whenever I tried to talk to a potential sex partner about my boundaries and they called me some variation of “boring.” I used to feel bad about being considered so “sexually inexperienced” compared to most of my peers, and it’s one of the major reasons I’ve been drawn into trying certain acts and having sex at a frequency outside of my comfort zone in the past.
I don’t think the kind of sex I feel most comfortable and safe with is boring, but a lot of other people do, and I’m okay with that now. I’m allowed to like what other folks call plain, regular, basic sex. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have some sense of adventure in the proverbial bedroom and it doesn’t mean that I am intolerable of those who prefer the kinkier things. It means that I know what my boundaries are and that I know that I deserve to have them respected if and when I choose to engage in sex. It means that I know it’s unethical for someone to try to shame or pressure or force me into something that I don’t want to do or don’t want to have done to my body.
There are kinks and fantasies that society mostly agrees are pretty “out there,”—like Nazi furries and erotic race play—and sometimes we agree that they are deserving of deeper interrogation. But before that point of collective side-eye is reached, there are some “kinky”(ish) sex acts that many people place value on, considering partners “boring” and “vanilla” if they don’t like to take part in them as well. This sometimes even leads to deriding and pressuring those who would rather not take part in them, in ways that cross the line of consent.
Sex positivity is generally defined as an attitude that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, but that is not necessarily how it is always applied. The concept of sex positivity has also, unfortunately, emboldened a lot of people to play out their unethical sex practices by misusing it to coerce others into the kind of sexual play that they want, regardless of what the other party wants or needs.
Many others have critiqued sex positivity for the way it has been executed and deployed in abusive, predatory, and otherwise unethical ways—like, for instance, in the context of the person who pressures you into sending them nudes because not doing so means you’re sexually repressed or even, gasp, anti-feminist. “If you’re really a sex-positive feminist/sexually liberated, you should be okay with [insert sex act],” they might say.
What sex positivity should mean has been lost on too many people. It should be a movement helping to create a culture focused on endorsing a deeper understanding of consent and removing shame from how people choose to engage ethically with sex, opening up new possibilities for pleasure and connection. It should mean respecting people’s right to not engage in certain sex acts, to be as “vanilla” as they want or need to be, if this is what allows them to have a comfortable, safe, healthy, and pleasurable sexual experience. Instead, it’s been twisted into something that uses already-established power dynamics to violate consent and boundaries in more cunning ways.
I want us to promote a sex positivity that respects people’s sexual histories, including and especially our past or current trauma(s). Some people have sensory or sex-related triggers. Unfortunately, far too many of us have traumas attached to being touched on certain parts of our body or in certain ways or even having sex in certain positions because of abuse or assault. Experiencing those things again can make someone feel overwhelmed, panicked, or unsafe. But, trauma or not, someone’s sexual boundaries are always valid and should be adhered to without them being shamed or laughed at or questioned. Nobody owes you an explanation for their “no.”
A movement that cultivates a deeper understanding of consent and removes shame from how people choose to engage ethically with sex also means respecting people’s choice not to engage with sex at all. Some people have a sustained and abiding libido, others do not. It’s never our place to make assumptions and armchair diagnoses about others based on what we think we know about how their body, sexual desire, and libido “should” work. Let’s acknowledge the natural ebb and flow of sexuality and sexual desire.
A while ago, I decided to stop having sex. There were a multitude of reasons behind this decision, but mostly it was because I don’t want to have sex. Not at this time in my life, and I mostly didn’t want to before either, in all honesty. Others have coerced, manipulated, and sweet-talked me into sex and things surrounding it in the past, and in those moments I was made to feel like it was an obligation I had to fulfill. To prove to them, or to myself, that I had worth.
Admittedly, I used sex in an unhealthy way. It was a balm, a salve—something I, and sometimes others, mistakenly prescribed to myself as a remedy for my own self-loathing and as a way to “fuck back” against the patriarchal/paternal, racist, and colonial falsehoods ascribed to my body, desirability, and sexuality. Even after I learned about my place on the asexuality spectrum, it continued until I found liberation, instead of shame, in the word “no.”
I endured this unhealthy cycle because I let others convince me that engaging “freely” in sex is what sex positivity and sexual liberation always look like, even as I and others neglected to take my own needs and desires into genuine consideration. I refuse to let that happen again. Asexuality is a broad spectrum, and sexuality is a fluid thing. There may come a day when I feel the desire to have sex again, if I can do so with someone(s) who actively and ethically creates space for us to experience it together in a healthy and fulfilling way.
Though the concept of sex positivity has been corrupted by some, we can still work towards adopting it as a concept that benefits and nourishes our communities. Having a positive attitude towards sex and the expression of it should never mean that someone’s consent is overrided in order to satiate another’s sexual appetite.
I believe consent should always be present in conversations about sexual health. It’s imperative for both sex positivity and consent culture for us to fully understand that someone consenting to a sexual relationship with us does not mean that they have consented to or are contracted to participate in all sexual acts or types of sex with us. It’s equally important to understand that some choose not to or never want to engage in sex at all. And, while their reasons are valid, they are not obligated to divulge them to you.
My hope is that we collectively begin to embrace a sex-positivite praxis that respects people’s right to determine for themselves when and how to engage in sexual activities, without shame or judgement. Sex should be a shared experience, not a performance and not an uninhibited indulgence of one partner’s sexual desires and whims at the expense of the other(s). Each and every one of us should be respected as autonomous (a)sexual beings.