CLPP 2011: Sex Positive Feminism 101

Feminist movers and shakers focused on contraception, HIV/AIDS/STI prevention and sexual violence can benefit from pro-active strategies for incorporating the wide range of human desire and the positive benefits of sexuality into their work. How do the lessons of the sex-positive movement apply today? This workshop will introduce participants to the vibrant history of sex-positive feminism as a response to the exclusion of women’s desire and sexual autonomy in feminist understandings of oppression, and help participants develop practical sex-positive skills as educators and activists addressing sexuality and health issues.

I was so excited to be present for this panel on sex positive feminism, led by Jenna Mellor and Meredith Zoltick of HIPS, DC. They opened with an ice breaker exercise that demonstrated the way that words around sex and identities are often stigmatized, and went on to make a list of the perceived benefits and harms of “sex”, in whatever way you define it.

The list looked like this:

Benefits of “sex”:
super fun
feels good
pleasure
intimacy
exploration
children
exercise
increases blood flow
money (also could be drugs, shelter, food)
fitting in
love
orgasm
experimentation
knowing your body
trust
good stories
learn new things
evade violence

Harms of “sex”:
unwanted pregnancy
assault
dependency
STIs, diseases
emotional roller coaster
HIV/AIDS
social stigma
lack of power and control
isolation from your family, community, religion
bruises
internal conflict
rejection
judgment
dissatisfaction
self sacrifice
discomfort or physical pain
guilt
shame
regret
expectations
drop out of school

After we made this list together, the facilitators noted that most of the things that are focused on in the media are on the “harms” list:
pregnancy, assault, HIV/AIDS, discomfort, etc.

So as a group, we discussed some reasons that there are might be more emotions listed on the harm side. And we came to the question of motives and consent. How do the harms and benefits influence how people consent to sex? How can you have a rich conversation around consent without also talking about your agency as a partner? How do you form your own personal choices from a place that’s personal and something that you want? How do you make the benefits side of the list more a part of your life than the harms?

It’s also important to remember that you often have no idea what benefits and harms are in play for someone else. So you should have humility about the fact that these aren’t the same for everyone, and they change over time.

We wrapped the session by trying to put together a loose definition of “sex positivity”, since it can be so difficult to define and is a relatively new term. We came up with the following:

self defined
respecting decisions of others
consensual
embracing your own needs and desires
being able to communicate and be affirmed
informed choice
self determination
rejecting essentialist idea about what sexuality is
OR understanding these ideas and modifying them for yourself
mutually beneficial
living in the complicated messy space

For an example of some rad sex positivity in the face of extreme shaming tactics, check Maya’s recent post on Ross Douthat.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted April 9, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    As a teenage girl, I consider myself a feminist in a sense of the word, but I’m concerned over the more militant side’s agenda of “positive sexuality”. Sure I think women are entitled to experience pleasure and satisfaction from sex, but wouldn’t it be better to advocate more responsible sex, like within the confines of marriage or at least a committed relationship, instead of the casual hook-ups some deem “empowering”?

    • Posted April 9, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Hi Molly Marie,

      Thanks for the comment! One thing that was brought up during this workshop was the idea of “sex complex”, meaning that we are all entitled to define for ourselves the kind of sexual experiences we’d like to have, and that sex positivity doesn’t mean that everyone is encouraged to have “casual hookups”, but that everyone’s place on the wide and complex spectrum of sexuality is accepted and respected. Hope that helps clarify this concept.

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