Sex positivity

A while back I did an interview with Franki Cookney about sex positivity, which became this excellent article. It was great to read that, and this other great piece by Fancy Feast exploring sex positivity critically in recent weeks. Franki was kind enough to let me include the whole interview that I did here:

Let’s talk a little bit about definitions of sex positivity. How does the mainstream definition of sex positivity differ from the definition used in kinky or queer (or otherwise subcultural) spaces?

I think that part of the issue here is that ‘sex positive’ is used in two different ways. Sex positive lite (if you will!) is when sex positive is just used for any space or event where sexy stuff is going on, such as events selling sex toys or mainstream sex parties or kink events. They’re generally using ‘sex positive’ to mean the opposite of ‘sex negative’. We live in a culture which generally sees stigmatises sex and these spaces are different to this in that they are positive towards sex. However, just because sex is happening there doesn’t mean it’s being done any better than anywhere else. Often sex positive lite spaces haven’t thought enough about issues like consent and power, or about norms around what counts as sex and who counts as sexy. That’s why – in such spaces – you’ll often experience people pressuring you into certain activities, and many people will feel excluded by assumptions about who is attractive. In fact these kinds of spaces can be particularly bad because the sex positivity can give people implicit permission to be creepy and non-consensual, suggesting that everybody in those spaces should be ‘up for it’.

The other way ‘sex positive’ is used is more thoughtful. In these – often queer, BDSM, and/or feminist – spaces there is more attempt to do the whole thing differently to the way sex is done in mainstream culture. This means things like having groundrules and boundaries, teaching the basics of consent to everyone attending, ensuring that all bodies are welcome in the space, providing places within an event that aren’t sex focused, etc. Of course this doesn’t mean that everything is perfect in these spaces, and post #MeToo there has been increased awareness about how the assumption that everyone will be consensual in such spaces can be a veneer under which some people abuse their power.

Have these definitions changed over time, do you think?

Yes definitely. I think there’s increasing tendency to use sex positive in the second way – like with the new Sex+ zine that Kim Loliya and others are putting together which is explicitly BDSM-friendly, queer-friendly, disability-friendly, sex-worker-friendly, etc. However some are still using it in the first way, which can make it confusing when trying to find safe-enough events and spaces to go to.

In what ways can sex positivity end up having negative effect on people in the mainstream and subcultures?

The mainstream version of sex positivity – which is put forward in mainstream sex advice – insists that ‘great sex’ is a necessary part of being in a healthy relationship – or even being a healthy human being. The risk of this is that people feel pressured to have sex when they don’t want to have sex, and to do sex acts which they aren’t really into. Indeed many sex advice books implicitly or explicitly encourage them to do so. That’s a problem for consent, and it’s a problem for pleasure because forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do is an excellent way of turning you off sex completely.

In subcultures the risks of sex positivity are that it creates a pressure on people to be sexual in other kinds of ways. Instead of the limited version of sex present in mainstream culture (mostly penis-in-vagina in different positions) there can be pressure to do diverse kinds of sex with multiple people. Again this is great if it’s what you’re into and you only do it when you really want to, but power imbalances and subcultural scripts mean that people often feel pressure to do things when they’re not really interested – perhaps because it’s intoxicating to feel desirable, because they want approval, because they think that’s what everyone else is doing, or because they think it’s the only way to maintain a relationship, for example.

Is anyone excluded from sex positivity and in what ways? Also would you say sex positivity is more or less inclusive than it once was?

The excellent zines ‘fucked’ and ‘too fucked too furious‘ point out that it’s easy for anyone who struggles with sex – which is probably most of us at one point or other – to feel very excluded from sex positive spaces, especially if those spaces have implicit norms that everyone should be up for sex – or at least up for something. Also, even very good sex-positive authors can easily give the sense that it is better – or more healthy – to be sexual than it is to be asexual. It’s really important for the consent and comfort of everybody that we develop a culture where it is just acceptable not to feel sexual as it is to feel sexual – some or all of the time.

In the Meg-John & Justin podcast episode on sex positivity, you and Justin Hancock talk about how non-consensual things can easily happen even in sex positive spaces. Can you elaborate a bit on this?

Yes. The problem has been that sex positive spaces have the veneer of consent: people are encouraged to behave consensually. Paradoxically that can make it harder – not easier – to call out non-consensual behaviour. If everyone assumes people will be consensual, it is a really big deal to say somebody has been non-consensual, and you might even struggle to see the non-consent because you’re not expecting it.

Also people are painfully aware of how rare such spaces are, and how precarious given the risks around holding a sex positive event. People in positions of power – such as charismatic organisers – have got away with extremely non-consensual behaviours because people have been so reluctant to see non-consent, or to report it. That’s why we need to have #MeToo conversations within sex positive communities as much as outside of them.

How might we do a better job of defining and “practising” sex-positivity?

One of the best examples I’ve personally seen is the Koinonia event – and there are several other events and spaces following similar approaches now. What I like about this event is that there are four spaces, only one of which is explicitly sexual, so the culture there is that it’s just as appropriate to go with the aim of chilling out, dancing, chatting with people, or having less erotic touch. Also, as well as a talk about consent and a set of written guidelines (which other events also have), the event begins by taking people through three group activities where they practise consent, tuning into what they would like, and communicating it verbally and non-verbally. That’s a great way to show people what consent actually feels like, to normalise consent practices, and to ensure that people have already met a lot of other people in a kind and open way before the event proper begins.

Justin and I feel that the way to go with being sex-positive (or sex-critical which is the phrase we prefer) is to ensure that no form of sex is being presented as better than any other, that all bodies are welcome, that it is really okay to not be sexual in the space, and that consent is practised explicitly – including considerations of how power and social scripts can make consent more difficult. We’ve done a video about consent that might be helpful on this. We’ve also got several podcasts about consent and sex positivity on our website.

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).