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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Op-Ed: Is “sex positivity” really positive?

The third wave of feminism, particularly its ongoing transition into the “fourth wave,” has been an interesting time. It has brought an awareness of the intersectionality between gender, sex, race, sexual orientation and class. It has attempted to dismantle the exclusionary elements of trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) movements that occurred in the second wave; it has propelled the idea of body positivity and sexual expression into mainstream discourse. Perhaps most poignantly, it has made feminism marketable, which may — or may not — have its benefits. The third wave has also introduced the idea of “sex positivity” — absent in previous iterations of feminism — both critiquing and reclaiming the notion of a “slut,” drawing attention to the fact that women can, and do, enjoy sex. These are by and large good things. Yet, not withstanding all of that, I do not want to identify as a “sex-positive” feminist.

Digital Age “sex educators” like Laci Green, Eileen Kelly (blogger of “killerandasweetthang”) and “Oh Megan,” as well as movements like “SlutWalk,” have captivated millions and have rapidly transformed the way feminism talks about sex.  In short, these individuals and movements attempt to combat sexism by asserting the broad-based notion that women can — and do — like sex, that women should not be harassed based on their sexual choices and that sex is a good thing.

When I was in high school and early into college I devoured these buzzwords, thinking, “Wow, this is great! Women should be allowed to enjoy sex like men do! Consent is sexy!” Beyond that, these movements also resonated with me on a more ideological level — as a volunteer and student organizer for Planned Parenthood for three years now, I have learned firsthand that access to both sex education and safer sex supplies is grossly inadequate in the United States, in large part because of long-held stigmas surrounding sex — especially in regard to women.

I don’t want to fully unpack the monolith that is “hookup culture,” in part because it is a subject that has already been exhausted, and also because the hype is unsubstantiated.A recent publication by the International Academy of Sex Research reports that millennials born in the 1990s are more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive as young GenX’ers born in the late 1960s.Further, the study shows that 15 percent of young adults aged 20 to 24 reported having no sex since turning 18, compared with just six percent of the previous generation at that age. Previous research has also found that millennials – born between the 1980s and 2000 – have fewer sexual partners than Generation X’ers or baby boomers — hardly the explosive phenomenon depicted by mass media. That being said, sexuality is arguably more openly discussed than ever, which in many ways helps to destigmatize something people have always been doing; ideally, this openness has the potential to eliminate double standards held for men and women. Unfortunately, individuals who do not fall into those categories of sex or gender are usually left out of the conversation.

"Sex-positive” feminism tends to underestimate or misrepresent the experiences of non-heterosexual women, in the sense that it rarely questions who is allowed to be experimental and who is not. As a queer but straight-passing woman, I have often had to reconcile my own identity with the reality that “experimentation” is much more acceptable for women than it is for those who appear male or genderqueer, but not necessarily because women are more sexually free. Rather, female “experimentation” is largely permissible because of expectations about who or what is supposed to be sexually dominant, and because female “experimentation” is sometimes co-opted through the male gaze.

Further, if anything, sex-positive language can worsen the experiences of so many by invalidating or isolating those who identify as asexual, those with difficulties interacting sexually due to neurological or physical disability, those who have endured trauma or those who have suffered from eating disorders and body dysmorphia; the list goes on and on.

It is tempting to want to make your movement cool, especially in attempts to help broaden its reach. As an executive board member of the Consent Culture Network (CCN), I’ve often wanted to follow in the footsteps of other sex-positive activists, in order to gain the attention of those less likely to listen otherwise. I think about messages proclaiming that consent can be fun, can be cool, can be sexy. The problem is, consent doesn’t have to be sexy. It doesn’t need to be cool, to be fun, to be anything at all. Consent just needs to happen. To suggest that sex is always good is just as ignorant as the notion that sex is inherently bad, dehumanizing or shameful. Sexuality can encompass many positive attributes, but like all activities that rely upon human interaction, it is far more complex. Sexuality often grapples with the repercussions of previous lived experiences, as well as narratives reaching far beyond the two or more individuals engaging in any given action. Likewise, if we look at parties who are frequently sexualized (women of color, transgender women, etc.) we notice that these are often groups with little political power. This is not a coincidence. Today’s activities have been informed by thousands of years of deeply entrenched power dynamics, cultural norms and expectations, including those surrounding sexuality. As much as the call to make sex “free” and consent “sexy” is luring at face value, it unfortunately dismisses this intricate and often ugly history. Sex is not always a positive experience, nor is it necessarily instrumental to female or femme liberation, especially so long as greater oppressive forces are still at play.

Until feminism has eradicated the expectations on women and femme people to be sexually subservient, to appear a certain way or to fulfill the demands of others, it seems difficult to exclaim that sexuality is inherently liberating. Instead of dismantling the culture that objectifies women, or fetishizes women of color, trans women and non-binary people, “sex positivity” sometimes appears to suggest, “Hey, it’s ok — you can objectify yourself now!” We need to be able to recognize that while sex may be great, it may also be average, awkward or even unwanted — and that’s okay. A true acceptance of sexuality requires acknowledging the continuum of sexual experiences one can have, as well as accepting the ability to say yes, to say no, to say, “not right now, but maybe some other time” or “I changed my mind.”  The way we talk about sex is bound to evolve, alongside feminism as a whole.  It may not always be easy to digest. It shouldn’t have to be.


Editor’s note: If you would like to send your response or make an op-ed contribution to the Opinion section, please email us at The Opinion section looks forward to hearing from you.