Sex Positivity and Sex out of Context

Creative Commons image, attributed to Alifa Watkins:

I’m a big believer in the sex-positive movement, but this blog post is about contexts wherein open talk of sexuality – which is one of the things the movement promotes – can be problematic.

There’s a misunderstanding about sex positivity, which conflates it with the idea that one should be having as much sex as one possibly could. As we like to say, there’s a difference between being sex-positive and being sex-mandatory: being sex-positive means having as much or as little sex as is healthy for you. And only you get to be the judge of that. There’s also a misconception that sex positivity means talking about sex All The Time, even when it’s clearly inappropriate (such as around young children). Of course there are healthy ways to discuss sexuality at every age, and we’re all about promoting those discussions, though in our thoroughly sex-phobic culture, they might look a little different than expected.

I’m well and truly bummed when people shy away from the sex-positive movement because, for instance, they identify as asexual or demisexual, or because their flavor of feminism has made them wary of rhetoric that promotes a lot of open discussion of sexuality. In my mind, sex positivity is an umbrella movement that should be open to anyone and everyone…but recently, I got an insight into why sexuality can be jarring in certain contexts.

I’m coming to believe that when you’re a member of a group against whom sexuality has been used as a weapon, encountering it when you’re not expecting it (especially when it’s uninvited) can be disturbing to the point of upsetting. We call these sorts of intrusions, intentional or not, microaggressions, meaning that they’re rarely overt acts of violence or harassment, but they nonetheless are exclusionary and can cut very deep.

I hesitate to be too specific with this example, but I was recently attending an event as a professional speaker, and while I was on a panel, an audience member made a comment directed at me that sexually objectified me. It was brief, and the moment was over before it’d really registered. But there I was, sitting on that panel in front of an audience, specifically in my role as an invited expert with a PhD, being reminded that someone perceived me first and foremost as an attractive sexual object.

I felt violated and sickened. Again, yes, as far as these things go, it was fairly minor. That’s why I’m calling it a microaggression and not harassment. It was probably well-intended. I mean, who turns down a compliment calling them sexy?!

Me, apparently. But then, I’m coming at this from the life context of a cisgender woman who has not always been taken seriously as a scholar and teacher because I fit into some arbitrary cultural norms regarding attractiveness. Some of that’s genetic (thanks, Scandinavian ancestors!) and some of it’s cultivated (I like being fit, dressing femme, and wearing makeup). None of it, however, has any bearing on my competence as an academic, teacher, or writer.

I’m coming at this from the perspective of a woman whose college students have occasionally hit on her. Who has been catcalled and groped in public. Who has been slut-shamed. Who has been told that my sexual orientation is not real or valid.

Thank you, all: I get the message, loud and clear, that I am a second-class citizen because I am a woman in a misogynist society. I’m going to be sensitive to things that remind me of this fact, especially when I’m not expecting it.

So when is it okay to tell someone that they’re sexy or that you’d like to get your hands on them or whatever? This is a really subjective topic, but as someone who’s been marginalized because of my gender and sexuality, I’m going to say what’s worked for me.

It’s okay to tell me I’m sexy (or whatever spin on a sexually-related compliment) if:

  • We’re in an intimate relationship
  • We already know each other in some capacity, and you’re complimenting me on an outfit or something
  • We’re flirting
  • We’re at a sexuality-themed event in which there’s some kind of safe space set up, wherein participants are all pretty much on the same page about sex positivity, intersectional feminism, LGBTQ activism, burning down the patriarchy, etc.

It’s NOT okay to tell me I’m sexy if:

  • I’m acting in a professional role or context
  • You don’t know me at all and this is the first thing you say to me
  • I have already declined an invitation to flirt with you or be intimate with you

I mean, sure, I’m not the boss of you, you can tell me whatever you want to, whether or not it’s related to if you think I’m sexy or if you think my writing is full of shit. Free speech and all that. But if you are concerned with making the world a safer place for sexual expression of all sorts, then maybe you should pay some attention to context.

And it bugs me to say this at all. I hate to be promoting sex positivity on the one hand, and then turn around and tell people “But please leave sexuality out of it in these areas.” But that’s where my damage lies, and part of the way I express my sex positivity is to take care of myself and respect my own boundaries, and hope that in doing so, I model this healthy type of behavior for others.

Because here’s the thing: sex positivity is about how awesome sex can be, and how much we should embrace consensual sexuality of all flavors…but it’s just as much about putting (reasonable) limits on sexuality, and getting to say how much or how little of it you want in your life. By “reasonable” I mean that since humans procreate sexually, it’s completely unreasonable to never ever talk about sex. We do ourselves, and especially our children, a great disservice by pretending that if we just don’t talk about sex, no one will have it until they’re “supposed” to. But once you know the anatomical facts about sex, and you have some understanding of the social concepts surrounding gender identity vs. expression, sexual orientation, relationships, and so on…you get to choose your own level of involvement. Sex positivity should be, essentially, a Choose Your Own Adventure story, with as many delicious, delightful variations as there are humans on this planet.

One of the reasons I write this blog, and do this work as a sex educator, is that I’m trying to build a more sex-positive world wherein acknowledging someone as a sexual being doesn’t automatically invalidate them in other ways. This project involves identifying, subverting, and destroying a number of binaries and other concepts that have been woven into Western culture for far too long. Hopefully someday we get there!

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