Unlearning Shame
October 10, 2019

What Does It Mean to Be Sex Positive?

A sex positive person acknowledges sex is about more than just reproduction. Sex positivity asserts that sex is about health, happiness and human relationships.
Written by
Dr. Sarah Toler
Published on
October 10, 2019
Updated on
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Sex positivity means different things to different people. Put simply, however, sex positivity is the idea that all consensual sex is beneficial to the person or people engaged in it. The concept of sex positivity also acknowledges sex and the expression of sexuality are a part of a happy and healthy human existence. 

Sex positivity isn’t just an idea passed around between friends and lovers. As a concept, it's been studied and written about by scholars and sex experts. The idea that sex positivity is an important part of well-being is endorsed by health professionals in medicine, psychology and public health, and by The World Health Organization (WHO). 

A sex positive person acknowledges sex is about more than just reproduction. Sex positivity asserts that sex is about health, happiness and human relationships. 

What is sex positive behavior?

Putting sex into a positive framework involves understanding the complexities of human sexuality. Most sex positive people feel comfortable with their sexual identity and aren’t alarmed by the sexual behavior of other people. Sex positivity embraces sexual behavior that might be outside of what’s culturally accepted as “the norm,” like polyamory, kink or fetish. 

The concept of sex positivity is free of shame. Many of us were raised to believe that sex was meant to be between a man and a woman who were married and creating a family. Sex positivity acknowledges that people have sex just for fun, in a variety of ways, and there’s no shame to that.  

Sex positivity goes beyond embracing sexual behaviors outside of cultural norms. The culture surrounding sex in the United States is often portrayed as straight and white. True sex positivity involves people of color, people with disabilities, asexual people and people of all gender and sexual identities. Sex positivity is culturally diverse.

Qualities of a sex positive person:

· Desires more information about sex

· Has an understanding of the human body

· Has curiosity about their own body and their partner’s bodies

· Is accepting of intimacy between partners

· Asks questions about sex

· Understands the practices of safe sex and why it’s important

· Understands the concept of emotional safety within sexual behavior

· Accepts sex as a part of a healthy life

· Doesn’t shame others for sexual behavior 

· Understands the importance of consent

· Understands and is sensitive to sexual trauma 

· Advocates for the right to sex education for all people

Sex positivity is an idea that has the potential to change negative associations about sex and sexual behavior. Sexual health, mental health, physical health and overall well-being are improved when people are empowered with sexual expression and education. Sex positivity is about enthusiastic consent and ownership of personal pleasure and health. 

Sex positive culture is (kind of) new: A history of sex positivity 

It wasn’t until the late 20th century (not too long ago) that sex positivity became accepted as an ideology. Previously, sexual behavior that wasn’t male-initiated, monogamous, heterosexual and reproductive was considered a pathology. Sexual behaviors like oral and anal sex, gender nonconformity and group sex were not only considered depraved, but were often illegal.

A timeline of sex positivity

Early 1900s – Female sexuality was focused on reproduction. Sex was considered a marital duty. Female orgasms were not a regular part of marital sex. Doctors often diagnosed anxious or emotional women with “hysteria,” a condition attributed to the uterus. 

1930-1951 Wilhelm Reich was the first to describe the sex positivity construct. He believed all expressions of sexuality were healthy and a critical part of human development. In his 1945 book Sexual Revolution, he identified the need for sexual reform and cultural change. 

1960s – The  Sexual Revolution in the 1960s was a  movement that was just as political as it was sexual. Freedom from sexual inhibition was partnered with a freedom from authority and social control.

1970s – Feminism and sex positivity became intertwined and each influenced one another. Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller and Kate Millett were vital to the movement. Women were encouraged to pursue freedom from the patriarchal forces of oppression. Sexual freedom was high on the list. 

Late 1990s – The term “sex positive” was first used when the Center for Sex and Culture was founded in San Francisco. Founded by sexologist Carol Queen, the center was a nonprofit organization. It provided a meeting place for the sex positive and kink community. 

2009Sex Positive World (SPW) was founded in Portland, Oregon. It is a volunteer organization promoting sex positivity. By 2019, SPW had accrued over four thousand members in five countries.

Timeline Of Sex Positivity

What are some sex positive examples?

Our culture reflects sex negativity more frequently than sex positivity. It can be hard to step outside of cultural norms to really evaluate why you feel a certain way about a sexual behavior. When practicing sex positivity, it’s helpful to remember that someone else’s sexual behavior has zero effect on you (unless they are your sexual partner). 

Let’s take a look at some common forms of sex negativity and how you can transform them to sex positivity:

Sex negative:

Asexual people are weird!

Sex positive:

Asexuality is just another form of sexual expression!

Sex negative:

I could never have sex with someone in a wheelchair. 

Sex positive:

People of all abilities can be sexy and have healthy, satisfying sexual experiences. 

Sex negative:

I can’t believe she had sex with a guy she just met.

Sex positive:

Sexual expression is individual. As long as all partners consent, it can be healthy and fun. 

Calling people names is never cool, but it’s especially uncool to call someone a name based on their sexual behavior. You can also transform common sexual slurs into sex positive names. If you find yourself tempted to use the words “slut,” “whore” or “ho,” simply insert “person” instead. The same goes for slurs like “fag” and “cocksucker.” A sex positive person doesn’t use sexual slurs and doesn’t shame people for sexual behavior. 

Why sex positivity is so important (and makes the world a happier place)

For generations, sex and sexuality have been entwined with shame, guilt and fear. Sex positivity is a concept that removes these negative emotions from the culture of sex.

Sex positivity is both feminist and humanitarian – it recognizes that equality is a critical component to healthy sex. 

Sex positivity asserts that sex positive education is important for all people. It opposes rape culture and inserts the idea of consent into all sexual behavior. 

Imagine a world where all your peers, friends and family adopted a sex positive mindset. Think about our culture, educational system and political system – what if sex positivity was reflected in all of these places? Freedom of sexual expression liberates both the mind and body of the people who experience it. 

You can create a sex positive world by projecting sex positivity in everything you do and the people around you will begin to notice. Does that mean you have to get kinky all of a sudden if you’re a vanilla sex kind of person? Absolutely not. You can stay vanilla as ice cream, while showing openness and expressing understanding that every person is unique. 

It’s easy to pass judgment and perpetuate the cycle of shame that surrounds sex. It’s harder to build others up and support their beliefs and desires, especially when they differ from your own. Sex positive people accept that everyone has a unique lived experience and supports another person’s sexual experiences as a part of their whole person.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Dr. Toler specializes in reproductive mental health and focuses on the intersections where reproductive rights, mental health, healthcare access and equality meet. Through creating evidence-based health content, she hopes to improve access to reproductive health information for all people. She is a perinatal mental health advocate and currently contributes to several perinatal mental health action groups including Maternal Mental Health NOW and Postpartum Support International.

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