A-Sexy Positivity

This post was originally published at http://runningtowardfeminism.wordpress.com/ for the June Carnival of Aces on the topic of sex positivity.

My relationship to sex positivity has never been uncomplicated. Having identified as a feminist long before identifying as anything else, I find myself sending my younger sister unsolicited excerpts of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Empowerment and a World Without Rape and periodically delivering lectures on slut shaming to anyone unfortunate enough to be near.

At the same time, I hesitate to label myself “sex positive.” I often do so reluctantly in situations after coming out as asexual, as if needing to somehow reaffirm a claim to occupying feminist and queer spaces, only to wonder afterwards why this pressure – self-imposed or otherwise – to embrace sex carries so much weight.

The components of a sex positive ideology – empowerment, choice, pleasure – are just as essential for asexuals as for sexuals. In practice, however, the association that sex positivity encourages between sex and liberation makes asexuality invisible or portrays it as repressed, conservative, and/or pathological. The idea that good sex is a fundamental part of life, that it is essential to knowing oneself and connecting with others, can be alienating for those whose experiences tell them otherwise.

As so often seems to happen, some of the accessibility issues surrounding sex positivity are rooted in the language it uses. The very term – sex positivity – frames the discussion in a way that can make it unwelcoming to those for whom sex is not positive, including some asexuals, some survivors of sexual trauma, and others. Sex positivity promotes a certain sense of excitement around sex; it leaves no real place for indifference.

A similar issue arises with the notion of enthusiastic consent, which suggests that the anti-rape ideology of “no means no” is not enough; not only should all partners give verbal consent when having sex, but all should be enthusiastic participants. The concept highlights the importance of sexual pleasure for everyone involved, promotes open communication, and provides protection against having sex out of a sense of duty.

Again, these are valuable concepts for asexuals as well as sexuals. Many asexuals, however, have sex but are not always enthusiastic when consenting. While some do in fact find sex pleasurable, others may be more curious than enthusiastic, consider it compromise sex, or be happy about giving pleasure to their partner(s) without being enthusiastic about the act itself. The idea of enthusiastic consent remains an important tool, but like most tools, does not work the same way for everyone.

Done correctly, though, sex positivity has a lot to offer asexuals. For instance, theorist Gayle Rubin calls for an end to placing sexual behavior on a hierarchy that enforces reproductive, coupled, heterosexual sex and stigmatizes queer, kinky, and multi-partner sex. In doing so, she is careful to note that insisting on non-normative sex would be equally as objectionable as continuing to mandate existing sexual norms.

In a framework like this, what becomes important is not sex itself but rather how to work against compulsory systems of sexuality and ensure access to whatever it is that an individual derives pleasure from. Here, insisting on sex is as problematic as denying it is, and I can seek out the experiences, activities, and spaces that bring me happiness without having to first excuse or explain away my sexuality.

Sexual friends have encouraged my questioning around sex positivity, while admitting that they become nervous when anyone pokes too hard at concepts like sex positivity and enthusiastic consent, given a society in which racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism continue to rob so many of sexual agency. I understand this, and certainly believe sex positivity has an important role to play for the foreseeable future.

While I will continue to push back at the use of sex positivity as a liberal measuring stick and at the pressure to identify as sex positive, I also think we need to talk about how sex positivity can expand or adapt to make space for asexuals. I would like to see a sex positivity that is less about sex per se than it is about what Audre Lorde terms “the erotic”, “the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy.”

I want the same energy that feminists have put into destigmatizing sex to go into destigmatizing pleasure in all its various incarnations – sensual, intellectual, emotional, etc. For instance, when I’m feeling touch-deprived, I want to be able to reach out to someone close to me and know that we both feel positive about whatever interaction we have and empowered to communicate and to make decisions. When I’m geeking out by spending my Friday night reading queer theory, I want to feel good about doing something that is satisfying my needs. And when I’m building intimacy with others in any form, I want to be able to use all the tools of sex positivity without assuming that the end goal is becoming more complete through sex.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation