The nature of sex and sexuality has been a point of contention for centuries, and topics such as abortion, rape and birth control continue to pervade modern political agenda. Solutions to these issues vary, but in contrast to the abstinence movement, some people believe the solution doesn’t lie in repressing sexuality, but embracing it in all of its many forms — these people call themselves “sex positive.”
“The term sex positive comes from a part of the feminist movement called sex-positive feminism, which basically emerged in the 1980s in response to what we traditionally call anti-porn feminists,” said Ashley Mack, a part-time faculty member in Wayne State’s Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program. “So we had
feminists in the ‘60s and ‘70s that were really arguing that pornography and sexuality were male-dominated forms — that women’s sexuality was determined by this male-dominated idea of what sexuality should be.”
Mack said two major figures, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, were crucial in the creation of the anti-pornography feminist movement. MacKinnon argued that women could not consent in heterosexual sex, Mack said, because female sexuality has traditionally been a male construct — in this way, it’s comparable to rape. Meanwhile, Dworkin believed that all pornography is harmful because it portrays women as sexual objects to be used only for a man’s benefit.
Feminist Carole Vance opposed these beliefs and coordinated a conference at Barnard College in 1982 to rally support for a different view of female sexuality. The Barnard Conference of Sexuality, as it is known today, was one of the first major events in the Feminist Sex Wars of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Anti-porn feminists were not invited to attend, and so many proponents picketed the proceedings, according to Elizabeth Wilson in her article, “The Context of ‘Between Pleasure and Danger’: The Barnard Conference on Sexuality.”
Mack said sex positivity evolved from a need for feminists to acknowledge the oppression present in sex culture while still recognizing that women can and should take pleasure from sex. The movement gives women power by proclaiming that “sex and desire could be positive things if used in an empowering way,” she said.
Today, some adult film stars label themselves as sex positive, and websites such as SuicideGirls attempt to create feminist, sex-positive adult content that empowers rather than objectifies. Mack cited Coco Austin, wife of rapper Ice-T, as one example of what could be considered sex positive feminism because she uses her sexuality as a brand, giving her influence as a business person.
The concept of sex positivity, however, encompasses more than just pornography and sexualization in the media.
“Sex-positive feminists also celebrate things like sexology or getting woman to understand how to orgasm or how to reach what’s called ‘sexual subjectivity’ — understanding our bodies, demanding that they get equal attention in the bedroom,” Mack said. “But there’s a difference between sex positive theory and ideas and what is sex culture. So not every sex act in public is condoned or supported by sex positive feminists or the other way around.”
Although supporters say sex positivity empowers women, Mack said some critics equate sexual openness with promiscuity, using it as evidence that women are “asking” to be raped or don’t deserve access to birth control. Critics within the feminist movement also question whether women pursuing sex positive values are really empowering themselves, as they are still performing for a predominately-male audience that values them for their bodies.
There is also concern that individuals could use sex positivity to justify participating in unhealthy sexual practices.
“Labeling oneself sex positive could be an excuse to avoid looking at, say, whether going home with someone new every night is truly healthy,” said Rachel Rabbit White, a sex columnist for TheFrisky.com. “While I would never suggest policing someone else’s actions, I do think it’s important to always dig into your own emotions, mind, psyche and assess: ‘What is this doing for me? How do I feel afterward? How is my sex life impacting other areas of my life?’”
“Just because you like something sexually doesn’t mean it is good for you,” White said. “Remember, sex positivity is not sexual hedonism.”
Overall, however, Anne Duggan, director of WSU’s Women’s Studies program, said, “I think that the sex- positive movement encourages safe sex — responsible sex — and I think that if we were a more sex-positive culture, those issues would not be as problematic — questions of birth control and abortion.”
But sex positivity raises another question, as well: Feminists created the movement to benefit women, but how do men factor into the equation?
“Men also suffer from stereotypes — men are supposed to be athletic and strong and play football, and men who don’t conform to those stereotypes, they suffer from that as well,” Duggan said. “I think that men who embrace the feminist movement, it can be freeing for them because they don’t have the same expectations ... it can actually make everyone’s life less stressful.
“To have good relationships with other people, you have to feel good about yourself,” she said. “If you don’t feel good about yourself, you can’t really have a good relationship to other people. I think that if the sex-positive movement is helping women and men feel empowered and feel good about their sexuality, it’s just healthy for relationships ... we enjoy each other more.”
Amanda Levitt, a WSU sociology major and a peer mentor in the GSW program, said men could benefit from less pressure to perform.
“I think that, especially if you’re in a relationship with a woman who is sex positive or has a good understanding of their own sexuality, I personally would think that would be incredibly refreshing because it’s not up to the guy to teach (women) everything,” she said. “I had sex education a little bit in middle school, and they really don’t talk about female sexuality; they tend to focus on guys.”
Mack and Duggan also offered advice for young adults struggling with their sexuality or societal pressures regarding sex.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, whether it’s having sex or not having sex. I think that we all assume in society that people can feel compelled to have sex, and I don’t think that’s right either,” Duggan said. “I think people need to think about, without feeling repressed about it, ‘what do I need as an individual?’ and embracing that and knowing yourself so that you can engage in an assertive way — in a controlled way — in relationships with other people and feel good about it.
“You have a right to not consent as well,” she said. “Men and women have a right not to consent. We always think that women are the ones who are resisting a sexual advance from a man, but there are situations where men feel — straight men, gay men — coerced somehow into having sex ... feeling in control of your sexuality and embracing it and not being ashamed of it, all of those things are important.”
Mack said students should be open to taking courses in gender or sexuality studies to help them understand how sex is framed by culture, and that they should research sexual practices that interest them. There are organizations that can answer questions about sexuality, including Planned Parenthood and Affirmations, a LGBT nonprofit based out of Ferndale, Mich.
Mack said it is beneficial for students to value equality in sexual relationships, which sex positivity promotes, but she also believes that the movement isn’t necessarily right for everyone. In contrast, the Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle believes sex positivity can only be, well, positive.
“As proponents of sex positive culture, the Center believes that the appropriate uses of sex extend beyond reproduction,” according to the history section of their website at www.thecspc.org. “They include creating personal pleasure, bonding intimate relationships, promoting spiritual growth, and enhancing emotional and physical health. In a sex positive world, everyone has the freedom and resources to pursue a fulfilling and empowering sex life.”