Sex politics have always existed on the underbelly of our culture — too controversial and too personal to be discussed in polite society. Though marriage and childrearing were considered fair game, the intimate nature of sex play was considered too taboo for water cooler conversation.
In recent years, however, this has changed drastically, with an influx of sexual discourse permeating the media and our lives. In 2016, one can walk down the road past an active SlutWalk and pick up a magazine that advocates for the female orgasm, all while condemning catcallers on the street for objectifying women’s bodies and simultaneously setting up multiple Tinder dates on your smartphone in support of sexual liberation. The reality of our present appears to be that society has visibly turned the taboo on its head.
When an issue is addressed superficially though, it may appear to have been rectified altogether. This is what has happened with sex positivity: while conversations about surface issues do take place, significant barriers to protecting sexual health and freedom remain. Nevertheless, people dance in the streets in crop tops and miniskirts, gleaming in delight at their newfound liberty. Because their joy is contagious, others may start to feel somewhat liberated as well.
Yet, this is not how liberation works. Many of the new trimmings and trappings of sex culture are in fact frivolous pretenses that carry no actual weight in the ongoing debate of sexual conduct. Although people like to shout from the rooftops about how feminism and egalitarianism ensure them the right to choose as many sex partners as they want as many times as they want, they rarely consider these principles when considering issues that do not affect them personally. As a result, sex positivity has too often been used as a thinly veiled excuse for propagating one’s own agenda to validate one’s own sexual preferences, with little regard for the beliefs and practices of others who remain on the outskirts of society.
Sex positivity has been articulated through the feminist call to decrease the stigma around casual sex. Still, certain topics, like Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism (BDSM), are continuously treated with contempt and ridicule. Last year, when a subset of high school students in Toronto received pamphlets instructing them on how to partake in safe, consensual BDSM sex — though not explicitly advocating BDSM — there was uproar as to whether or not it was appropriate and ‘moral’ to teach students about this type of sexual activity. Real sex positivity is about seeing sex as such a normal component of humanity that, even when one does not personally find an activity desirable, they are able to understand and accept it from an outside perspective.
A similar issue arises with the depiction of sex positivity as simply having sex all the time. This brings to mind issues with SlutWalk, a movement that helps victims of sexual assault fight against victim-blaming mentalities that focus on appearance as the main cause of assaults. The name of the organization is an attempt to reclaim the term ‘slut’ so that it is used in a positive way by those whom it was originally meant to insult.
That being said, many minorities cannot easily disengage the term from its connotations. Black women have been hypersexualized and depicted as promiscuous throughout society regardless of their clothing or lifestyle. The same is true for members of the gay and bisexual communities. Reclaiming the term, then, does not have the same appeal to these groups as it does to straight, white women who can don and discard the label as easily as they can a bralette.
Then there is the problematic idea that to be sex positive means to think all sex should be free of criticism because it is a form of self-expression. When we feel that we have successfully fine-tuned sex culture to the point where nothing is free of criticism, we lose the drive to continue to be vigilant about our practices and ideologies.
For instance, if someone is only sexually attracted to people of a certain group, that person must be able to understand and critically defend that response — despite sex being such a personal experience. This is because the decision to have sex only with someone who exhibits certain attributes is in fact a political statement about what the individual finds attractive. Despite everyone being entitled to their own preferences, a black man only attracted to white women or vice-versa is implicitly commenting on the parties’ perceptions of Blackness.
Regardless of the reasoning for any particular pairing, society plays a part in our perceptions of what is attractive and valuable. Adhering to the standards of the society you live in is just as political as rejecting them, but either way one must be comfortable with accountability and discourse where their views are concerned. Being sex-positive means integrating conceptions and commitments to social justice with our ingrained sexual preferences and opinions — that also means being willing to challenge ourselves.
Sex positivity is about constantly being critical of your own actions and perceptions, not simply being comfortable with your own sexual lifestyle. It is only through criticism and objectivity, not blind acceptance, that one can truly form a sex positive identity. No one expects anyone else to be completely free of mistakes, biases, or blind spots, but simply admitting your mistakes goes a long way in allowing others to correct your behaviour.
Of course, this is not a mentality that can be formed overnight. However, the rewards of a culture that understands and adjusts itself to the implications of sex far outweigh the imagined rewards of a culture that gives itself a gold star for everything that looks like liberation on the surface.
Jenisse Minott is a second-year student at UTM studying Communications, Culture, Information, and Technology. Her column appears every three weeks.