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
increases blood flow
money (also could be drugs, shelter, food)
fitting in
knowing your body
good stories
learn new things
evade violence

Harms of “sex”:
unwanted pregnancy
STIs, diseases
emotional roller coaster
social stigma
lack of power and control
isolation from your family, community, religion
internal conflict
self sacrifice
discomfort or physical pain
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
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.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to her work at Feministing, Lori is an Associate Director at Planned Parenthood Global. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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