Sex Critical?

There’s a great new blog up by a colleague of mine called Sex Critical.

In the first post the author defines what they mean by the term which is an attempt to move beyond the dichtomy of ‘sex positive’ and ‘sex negative’. New sex-related phenomena (such as the recent 50 Shades trilogy, or any new ‘sexualised‘ trend amongst young people) tend to be met by two responses: either criticism of the ways in which the phenomenon reproduces and reinforces problematic gender roles, and often coercive or violent sexual practices (sex negative), or defence of all sexual practices and erotic materials as liberatory, with an emphasis on people having freedom to choose what they do sexually (sex positive).

[Note: as Radtransfem, commenting on Sex Critical, points out, it is also often the case that the ‘sex’ in ‘sex negative’ and ‘sex positive’ actually means different things. For example, in ‘sex negative’ what is meant is often ‘objectifying-women-negative’ and in ‘sex positive’ what is meant is often ‘diverse-sexual-practices-positive’]

The author of Sex Critical argues for an alternative position to sex negativity/positivity – being sex critical – whereby all sexual representations and practices are considered equally critically. This is an important point because it tends to be non-normative sexualities (such as sadomasochistic sexual practices or lesbian, gay and bisexual sexualities) that are subject to scrutiny in wider society, whereas people rarely question the sexualities that are considered to be ‘normal’. It is also important because there is a tendency for some ‘sex positive’ writers to assume that all sexual representations and practices are inherently good and liberatory, when actually there might be reason to question the ways in which they operate, and problematic norms that may be present.

So being sex critical we wouldn’t assume that any sexual representation or practice was beyond question, or inherently  positive. Rather we would ask questions about it such as how it fits within wider culture, what ideologies it upholds, and whether it really offers any kind of truth about who we are (something that is often assumed about sexuality).

Sex Critical is written by a humanities scholar, so is perhaps more focused on representations of sexuality than on our own sexual practices. From a psychology/therapy perspective I am interested in how the idea of being sex critical might be useful in people’s daily lives. My chapter on sex in Rewriting the Rules certainly has a sex critical flavour as I question how people might be constrained by the cultural rules about what kinds of ‘good’, ‘normal’ or ‘great’ sex we should be aspiring to, and then look at the possibilities that are opened up, and closed down, by various sexual communities who understand and practice sex in different ways to this (e.g. bisexual, sadomasochistic, erotic fan fiction, and asexual communities).

Here are some initial thoughts on how we might be sex critical about our own sexual practices, desires, and the representations we see around us. For all of these we might ask the following questions:

  • How does this relate to common cultural ideas about sex? Does it perpetuate them and/or resist them? In what ways?
  • Who is included/excluded? Is there room for sexual diversity or is one form of sexuality presented as good/right/normal/ideal?
  • What is opened up and closed down in terms of possibilities for us? In what ways might it free us up, or limit and constrain us? (e.g. in terms of the roles we might take and the experiences we might have)
  • Is there any sense that this sexual practice, desire or representation might mean different things to different people at different times, or is it assumed that it always means the same thing universally?


So, for example, a woman reading and enjoying the 50 Shades trilogy, and thinking about bringing some of the ideas from the book into her own sex life, might think that:

  • Cultural ideas: The books suggests the possibility for sexual practices beyond genital sex (the cultural norm), but they do also suggest that women shouldn’t need to communicate about the sex they want and that men should automatically know what they want and be able to provide it (problematic cultural norms).
  • Inclusion/exclusion: 50 Shades includes the possibility of  forms of kinky sex being  part of our potential sexual repertoires, but it also all take place in a heterosexual context, between just two people, who meet cultural ideals around attractiveness (youth and desirability to others): anyone outside of this seems to be excluded. Also it seems that orgasms are important (so what about people who struggle to orgasm, or for whom orgasm is not vital to sex?)
  • Opening up/closing down: It might free us up to expand our sexual menu in some directions, enabling us to talk about our desires because we know that so many millions of people share them (given how popular the book is). However, it might also limit how far we can go in challenging rigid gender roles in relationships and sex, such as the idea that men should be active, dominant and protective, and women passive, submissive and in need of protection.
  • Multiple meanings: We might easily get the impression that only troubled people who struggle with intimacy should be into BDSM, as well as thinking that only certain forms of BDSM are acceptable (the ones on Grey’s ‘yes’ list, or the ones that Ana goes along with). Instead we might recognise that lots of people enjoy BDSM for a variety of reasons, and that people have different activities that work for them (rather than there being a universal agreement on what is and isn’t okay).

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).