What Sex-Positivity Is

One of the difficulties that I’ve faced in discussing sex-positivity with some folks is that there are two different lenses that a lot of people use when talking about these issues. Some use an entirely personal lens, as in “I like doing this thing, or I find it empowering, so that makes it OK.” And others look at things entirely from the perspective of the larger patterns of culture, politics, and social dynamics. In my experience, the former is more likely to come from folks who identify as sex-positive and the later is more likely to come from certain branches of feminism, especially radical feminism. It’s no wonder that these two groups never seem to agree- even when using the same words, the underlying meanings are so different that discussions often go nowhere or turn acrimonious.

I see a lot of value in both perspectives. For example, our sexual and relationship choices are deeply affected by our individual experiences and desires. Those are so diverse that any attempt to discuss sexuality without acknowledging those complexities can lose relevance, and unfortunately, a lot of people make sweeping statements that disregard them. That seems to be an especially common practice of people who want to focus on the larger socio-cultural issues. Examples of people whose lives don’t fit the larger patterns are often ignored or are described as being in the minority and so can be disregarded. I think that’s especially problematic when there isn’t any reliable data on how common those experiences are, since selection bias and confirmation bias skew our perception of prevalence.

On the other hand, we each participate in and contribute to the overarching culture that then influences each of us. It seems disingenuous to say that my sexuality is only a personal issue, just as it seems disingenuous to say that choosing to eat fast food isn’t participating in agricultural monoculture. Many of our sexual decisions affect how we move through the world and what impact we have on other people.

I find it more useful to switch back and forth between these different lenses since I find that sexuality is really a recursive process that can’t be understood fully by looking at the pieces in isolation. Our sexual experiences are both individual AND situated in a larger context. The choices we make are both personal AND often have an effect on other people.

So let me make this more applicable. When I talk about assessing the value of a sexual act or practice by looking at consent, pleasure, and well-being, I think that tool needs to be applied on both a personal scale and on the contextual level. For example, if someone enjoys exhibitionism and showing themselves off to strangers, do they get the consent of their viewers? Are they exposing themselves on the street to strangers, going to a swingers party, or filming themselves and uploading it to a tube site (where, presumably, people are choosing to see them)? The context of their actions is directly relevant to examining the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people affected by their behaviors.

But I think that this can also be applied on a larger scale. Some people will argue that when we porn is we participate in a system that harms the performers (although it’s almost always framed as a system that harms women, since male performers are generally left out of those debates). I fully recognize that there are some porn producers who treat their performers badly. There are some producers who don’t care about the well-being of the people they film, who treat them disrespectfully, and who think of them as disposable. I’ve spoken with performers who have had those experiences and I think it’s dishonest to pretend that it never happens. At the same time, there are porn producers who treat performers as people worthy of respect, whose needs and desires are important, and who cultivate positive relationships with them. I’ve spoken with performers who have had those experiences, and I also think it’s dishonest to pretend that they don’t exist.

Now, we could discuss how prevalent each of these situations is, as well as the other sorts of experiences along that spectrum. We could debate what conditions are needed to minimize the former and maximize the latter. We could ask the performers and the producers what their needs and goals are in order to inform that conversation. And we can analyze the social, economic, and political factors that create the contexts that surround those situations. That’s a whole different project. But for now, let’s start with the postulate that some commercially-produced, sexually explicit media is produced in ways that neglect the well-being (and pleasure and consent) of the performers and some is made in ways that foster them.

Given that, we can then ask some really interesting questions: When people watch porn, what are the effects of their actions on the performers? Do they make choices that are comparable to buying fair-trade food, or are they making choices that are analogous to buying food that was made by forced labor? When they make those decisions, what kinds of business practices are they supporting? In what ways are they encouraging producers to behave toward their performers? Are there ways in which their choices about porn influence their sexual desires, how they act toward the people in their lives, and what they think of and act towards people (especially women) in general? Or are they sticking their heads in the sand because it’s too uncomfortable to acknowledge the impact of their actions? Are they selfishly choosing to indulge their desires at the cost of someone else’s well-being? And what about their own well-being?

From an ethical perspective and from a sex-positive angle, I think these are really important things to ask. These kinds of explorations are hindered by the incessant arguments about which lens, the personal or the political, is more important. They are both essential because they’re both part of the puzzle.

So I think I need to expand my definition of sex-positivity to include that larger frame. I still believe that consent, pleasure, and well-being are the core elements (at least, until someone suggests adding another one), and I think it’s not just the participant’s experiences that need to be considered. The consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who are affected by each individual’s choices are also important. I don’t think that there are any easy answers there, but I do believe that this is a useful starting point because it opens up the conversation. We can discuss what the relationships are between our personal decisions, our actions, and our participation in larger socio-political patterns. And we can do all of that without ignoring either of the useful perspectives that can inform all of this.

In light of all of this, I’m experimenting with some different ways to phrase things. At the moment, I’m trying out “sex-positivity is the perspective that the only relevant measure of a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who do it and the people who are affected by it.” It’s not as much of a soundbite as my previous iteration, but it’s a lot more accurate. As a general principle, it seems to work. Of course, the process of putting that into practice is where things get complicated, especially when there are competing desires, interests, and needs. I don’t think that this is anything other than a starting point, and once the general principle has been described, it becomes a bit easier to develop tools and practices that support it.

Since I’m just trying this language out, I’d love to hear suggestions. If anyone reading this has a suggestion, feel free to comment below.