A Brief History of Sex-Positivity


Do you, or does someone you know, identify as “sex-positive?”

A Brief History of Sex-PositivityThe term has become more and more mainstream lately, with many well-known activists and bloggers identifying as sex-positive feminists. However, as with most issues related to gender and sexuality studies, there’s a lot of diversity (as there should be!) in terms of how this term is used. Let’s explore sex-positivity in a historical context and think about what it means today.

What Does ‘Sex-Positive’ Mean?

There are a few different definitions of sex-positivity, but they all boil down to one central idea: sexuality is normal, healthy and a generally positive force in our lives. Regardless of our brand of sexuality (including asexuality), so long as our sexual acts are done between consenting adults, there’s nothing bad or abnormal about them!

Of course, well-known activists have given us some of their own definitions to work with as well. Here are a few that may resonate with you:

Sex-positivity is “the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity, which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous. Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationships structures, and individual choices based on consent.” – Carol Queen

Here’s another definition:

Sex-positivity is “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation. The sex-positive movement is a social and philosophical movement that advocates these attitudes.” – Allena Gabosch

The Context of Sex-Positivity

Keeping those definitions in mind, it’s also important to consider the historical need for a sex-positive movement. Religious and social constraints have imposed a very negative attitude toward sexuality on society—attitudes that are often also homophobic, patriarchal and trans-phobic.

For example, there’s a commonly held belief that men desire to have sex with multiple partners as frequently as possible and that women only enjoy sex in the context of a monogamous, emotionally charged relationship. This belief leads to unhealthy attitudes toward sex in both genders, as men may feel emasculated by a low sex drive and women may feel bad or dirty for desiring sex with multiple partners. Other taboos exist on homosexuality, asexuality, fetishes and other perfectly healthy sexual preferences.

“Sex positivity challenges these antiquated and oppressive notions by encouraging folks of all genders to seek to understand their own sexuality and to engage in relationships that honor and affirm their desires,” writes the Colorado State University Women and Gender Advocacy Center.

A History of Sex-Positivity

The term “sex-positive” has only become widely known within the past decade, but variations of the philosophy have been around since the 1920s. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who studied under Sigmund Freud, first began talking about sex-positivity in the context of health. He asserted that sexuality was normal and healthy, and maintained that a happy and healthy sex life led to improved well-being in other areas of health.

Most notably, though, was the sex-positive reaction to anti-pornography feminism. In the 1980s, a brand of feminism called the “lesbian separatist feminism” asserted that pornography was inherently a display of patriarchal sexuality, and advocated for “the use of censorship and other forms of state repression in order to contain sexual violence against women.” This led other feminist movements to advocate for a healthy attitude toward sexuality, one that was accepting of heterosexual sex and pornography as well as all other preferences between consenting adults.

Nowadays, sex-positivity is more common than ever. With feminist porn becoming more popular and numerous websites and TV shows portraying sexuality as a normal part of life, sex-positive people have a lot to be happy about.

There are obviously still hurdles to overcome, but the fact that a global conversation has been started about healthy, fulfilling sexual behavior is cause for celebration.


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