What Does “Sex-Positive” Mean?

sex positive

The sex-positive movement

Some fear that if we create a more sex-positive society — meaning that we stop repressing women’s sexuality — that NO ONE will put on the BRAKES! And society will go mad.

Complete chaos!

So what do I mean by “sex-positive”?

To be sex-positive is to see sex as beautiful and natural, and not shaming women’s sexuality – or any sexuality. But recognizing that it is a powerful gift that should be used responsibly.

Does sex-positive mean anything goes?

But I get follow-up questions, like this from HuggyBear:

That sounds great and harmless. But… it fails to address specific sexual behavior(s). So, does that mean porn is OK? Does, it mean prostitution is OK? What about young women becoming sugar babies? What about men who want to establish a harem? Will abortion rates rise?

Should we just use one another sexually and then discard each other like a soda can afterwards?

I realize and accept that sex is beautiful, natural, healthy, and fun! It should, in and of itself, not be seen as something that is either bad or shameful. But, where do we draw a line? I am not suggesting that sex should only take place in marriage… or that there should be no premarital sex. Since we live in a free and open society, can we place any curbs on sexual behavior? If so, who will do it? Is it even practicable..?

I appreciate questions like this, and below is my response, so far. I’m still thinking through the question, and wondering if anyone else has thoughts on the topic?

Sex-positive, responsible sex

Sex-positive means enjoy sex, recognize it as beautiful, natural, healthy and fun. But be responsible. Meaning: Do no harm.

And here is how I would apply that basic philosophy to the specific questions he asks:

Abortion rates

Abortion rates in the most sex-positive countries are actually lower than abortion rates in sex-negative cultures.

The abortion rate is 32 per 1,000 in Latin America, which is a strongly Catholic and sex-negative part of the world, where abortion is typically illegal under most circumstances. But the rate is only 12 per 1,000 in more sex-positive Western Europe, where abortion is broadly allowed.

Sounds counterintuitive, but the reason why sex-positive societies have lower abortion rates is because they are more likely to have sex education and access to birth control. And young women are less likely to feel shameful using contraception, and thus, more likely to use it. So people are more likely to be responsible, and do no harm.

Porn & prostitution

Pornography is okay so long as it doesn’t harm. If it is harming then that is a problem. Many men recognize when pornography is harming them — maybe harming their relationships. For instance, some guys can no longer “get it up” with real women. That is doing harm.

If violent pornography causes violence against women, then that is wrong. At the least, people should be educated on possible dangers.

I believe that prostitution should be decriminalized but that “Johns” and pimps should be prosecuted. Because that is the most effective way to stop sex trafficking, which is incredibly harming, with high rates of PTSD among victims. You can’t make a law against sugar babies. But women or men who feel harmed by it should not do it.

Using/abusing and establishing harems

Should men be allowed to establish harems? Not sure why a woman would want to be part of one. But if everyone is into it and no one is hurt by it, then I don’t see that it’s a big deal. Of course, women should be able to establish harems of men, too. Not sure they will have any more luck than guys seeking concubines.

And I don’t think that anyone should use and abuse anyone else. That is hurtful.

Thoughts, anyone?

It’s very important that we become a more sex-positive, and more sex-responsible society. As it is, our sexually repressed culture has led to dysfunction among nearly half of American women (e.g., painful sex, difficulty with orgasm, low or no interest in sex). It’s not good for women. It’s not good for relationships. It’s not good for men. It’s not good for anyone.

If anyone has thoughts on the topic I’m curious to hear from you.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 29, 2016, in feminism, sex and sexuality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. In a post sex positive society, I don’t see the concerns pointed out by huggybear taking place. I completely agree with you on your take on pornography and prostitution. In a sex positive society, I don’t see problematic pornagoraphy being developed because sex will no longer be connected with or a means for power and control. I suspect in such a society there will also be more of safe, pleasurable, and wanted sex for women and men rather than having sex to “score points” or not having sex in fear of being slut shamed. In such a world I don’t see prostitution. When sex with women(often certain type of women) is no longer viewed as a way to conquer, control, power, self worth, because women’s sexuality is no longer for the “taking” of men or for honor of the family, sex and women’s body are less likely to be seen as a commodity to be sold and bought. A sex positive society should nearly illuminate the reasons studies/surveys reveal for the demand for prostitution. My point being, huggybear’s concerns and the problematic things about porn, harems and even abortion, arise not from a sex positive society but from a more sex negative society. It’s in a more sex negative and patriarchal society that results in harems, sugarbaby/sugardaddy, sextraficking, less access to birth control/reproductive rights.. So if we lived in a truly sex positive world, I suspect we would not have to worry about the issues that arise from the exact opposite situation.

  2. I read this article and I have to say that I’m all for being sex positive. In a society where just about everything is sexualized, it would really loosen the barriers of genders if both were sex positive. This doesn’t consent to the fact that there’d be more sex going on, there’d be just as much – just in a safer and more controlled way. Growing up a girl, I never understood what’s all the fuss about sex. It was always talked about in hushed tones, yet I never understood why. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I want more or less sex than a guy. Things like the dress codes going on all throughout school really enforced the idea of girls being seen as sexual objects when guys have less enforced on them. If we loosened the barriers on sex, talking to kids openly as adults about sex and how it can be good and bad – then there would be gender inequality about it.

  3. Savannah Owens

    To me, sex positivity is an intrinsic part of human nature that has been taken away from us by society and it’s restrictions. It’s sad to see that sexual dysfunction is so highly prevalent in societies that are sex negative. I cannot believe that nearly half of American women experience sexual dysfunction. I think shame should be completely excluded from anything sexual as long as no harm is done. By using the standard of harm, we can see where the limits of sex positivity are. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on reducing prostitution. By making prostitution legal while prosecuting pimps and johns, far less harm is done to women. Women can go to the police to prosecute johns and protect their safety instead of being thrown in jail themselves. I really wish America would adopt Sweden’s policy on prostitution.

  4. Jennifer Malcolm

    Do no harm. Yes!

    Here’s the way I see it. Living in a sex-positive society doesn’t mean that the society suddenly doesn’t live by ethics.

    It truly starts with the woman. The previously established conditions and programming instilled unto us through our parents or religion. That sex is something to be ashamed of, if you have too many partners you are a slut, don’t use your body as a sexual tool.

    Being sex-positive can mean loving your body to honor it but also to enjoy sex for fun, to have children, to connect with your partner, create intimacy. Being able to make choices about your body and what you do with it, without judgment and ridicule by others. Connecting your body, mind, soul together to create a holistic approach to happiness.

    It also starts with the man. Not being in fear about sex, being able to communicate his needs and understanding his partners needs. His partner would not be afraid to talk about their needs because it’s not such a taboo to talk about things other than missionary sex.

    The more you are aware of and have the knowledge about certain issues the better a society can handle problems. By starting a open dialogue and not being afraid to talk about birth control rather than abstinence is how we have a better hold of unwanted pregnancy.

    You will notice that alcohol is a huge problem in the United States. But in Europe where certain countries have a lower drinking age; the kids and young adults don’t seem to take advantage of alcohol or abuse it as much.

    The more you reject something I think it has a greater chance of negative impact.

  5. Matthew Cleveland

    I think creating a Sex Positive culture will be a very important step forward towards equality. Woman shouldn’t be shamed for expressing a natural human emotion/behavior, and our suppression of women’s sexuality harms everyone. When we create a sex positive environment we also create an environment where mature discussions about sex can be had which will create a much safer and responsible nation. I think one of the most important part of Sex Positive cultures is the increased availability of preventative birth control methods (easier to get pill, condoms, IUD etc.) which will lower abortion rates. I think it would also be great if we come to a time where the financial discrimination in birth control is lowered (Condoms and medicines are expensive).

  6. Wow!!!

    I am shocked (and elated too!) to see you used one of MY follow up questions..LOL!

    Anyhow, I am honored. Thank you..

    “But be responsible. Meaning: Do no harm.”

    This is where I have to disagree: our only standard of conduct cannot simply be to do no harm. What if a brother and sister decide as consenting adults they want to have sex? Clearly this is not harmful behavior. But, is it morally acceptable behavior? I say not.

    On porn….Well I am thumbs down, period. But, if that is what people want to do and watch, they can have at it.

    On prostitution….This is a tough one for me…While I am morally opposed, I can certainly see how legalizing it would “clean up the business” and protect more women. If legalized, I like the Nordic/Swedish model where it is legal to sell sex but illegal to buy…This way the “Johns” are punished.

    It is also tough because there are so many men here who are involuntarily celibate. Some for very long periods of time. Some, who are also married and in sexless marriages. Women who are in similar situations can also be helped by legalization. But, women can and do get sex a lot easier than men. So, I think only a small percentage of women would use male prostitutes. Though like porn use, women are also turning to gigolos in increasing numbers.

    On harems:

    “Not sure why a woman would want to be part of one.”

    Funny…Today there are lots of women who are part of de facto harems. The men are their favorite booty call partners (which means these men are also the favorite of many other women too) and friends with benefit partners.

    Women would opt to become part of a harem for the very same reasons women did so thousands of years ago. Does not Hugh Heffner have a harem? Women seeking out wealthy and powerful men to have sex with. Look at the numbers of young American women in the Middle East living as concubines..They were not forced in to it.

    I do think men and women do use one another sexually in increasing numbers. It goes under the guise of things like “casual sex”, “hook ups”, “friends with benefits”…etc. Sure it is consensual. But, the person is valuable ONLY for their sexual talents and skills. How is that not using someone for sex?

    While I share the spirit of your views on a sex positive society, I think it can be achieved in a healthy way only if it is accompanied by a code of conduct that is higher than the “do no harm” standard.

    • Thanks for the inspiration, Huggy!

      On brother-sister incest that actually could create genetic problems for the child. And perhaps it could hurt family dynamics and some way (or so I’ve heard, jealousies or some such).

      On Hugh Hefner’s harem, I actually watched the first season of “The girl next-door” because I couldn’t fathom why any woman would want to be part of that. And I noticed that in interviews, When asked, two of the girls said that they wanted to preserve Hef’s relationship with #1 Holly. So they didn’t want to have sex and screw things up. They probably just didn’t want to have sex but didn’t want to have the publicity/ Stardom from being on the show, and he seemed to offer a lot of networking and job opportunities in the company. So it didn’t seem to actually be about the sex. But I figure that if no one was getting hurt, It’s not a big deal. And I’m curious about Women and other cultures who marry rich men. I know that in some of those cultures the relationships are not supposed to be about love. It’s purely material. The man owns a farm and the women work it. It’s more of a survival mechanism. I think the harm comes from the economics and dissuasion from emotional connection.

      It seems to me that the “no harm” standard still works but I will think more about your comments.

  7. I honestly wouldn’t be opposed to “porn” in which people were having the kind of sex that didn’t objectify women’s bodies or create disconnection in sex. I do think a more sex positive society would lead to less repression and a minimization of the kinds of behaviors that distort what healthy sex can be.

  8. I completely agree with you. I believe that by becoming a more sex positive society, we’ll view women, especially those who enjoy having sex, no longer a taboo or sluts. By repressing their sexual desires, we tell women its not okay to be feeling they way they do, which isn’t fair because their male counterparts are often applauded for their sexual escapades. When women are more open about their desires and their wants, it makes for a better and more open relationship with their significant other and/or partner.

  9. I don’t that society is repressing women’s sexuality. On the contrary women’s sexuality has been glamourized. All over the media there are sexy female models, the music videos are about women showing skin. In Facebook and the Internet young women show nude selfies. If anything women are portrayed as sexy and nothing else.

    • You are confusing sexy with sexual.

      Yes, women are portrayed as sexy. But then women look at that and think that this is what they are supposed to look like in bed. And a lot of women get so distracted worrying that they don’t look good enough that they can’t enjoy sex. Nearly 90% of my women’s students said that they spend at least part of the time worried about whether they look good enough or behave in a way that is hot enough.

      Meanwhile, a girl a few miles away from me killed herself from slut-shaming. Of my students wrote a paper talking about being on suicide watch due to slut-shaming. And I surveyed my students on the question, And all of them have heard slut-shaming in high school and middle school.

      Meanwhile, take a look at this for more evidence: Repression: Not What You Think It Is

    • Yeah but how many sex ed classes talk about the clitoris and the fact that the majority of women can’t have orgasms without direct clitoral stimulation AND that most of the time, the sort of stimulation needed really requires a vibrator because no human hand can move that fast. But guess how many states have made such products illegal or have said they can only be sold as “novelty” items? No wonder half of all women have experienced sexual dysfunction!

  10. I’m not sure if it’s because I have grown older, but I feel people are becoming more and more open with the idea of sex. People should teach their kids that sex is actually an okay think and it shouldn’t be some sort of “taboo” that we can’t talk about, because it’s completely natural. I agree with the fact that if sex was seen as more positive and less negative, there probably would be less abortion rates. Most women get abortions in an attempt to hide the fact that they’ve had sex, and if sex was seen in a more positive light, abortions rates would probably decrease.

    • We are definitely trending toward being a more sex-positive society. But we still have a long way to go. I surveyed my students and pretty much all of them had heard girls been slut-shamed in high school and middle school. One of my students wrote a paper where she talked about being on suicide watch for a few month after having gone through the trauma of being slut-shamed. And another young woman who lives a few miles away from me killed herself after slut-shaming. Meanwhile, it’s more difficult for younger than older women to have orgasms. Older women are more likely to be in stable relationships where they no longer fear shaming — they are further away from situations that would cause that fear. And overall, Nearly half of American women experience sexual dysfunction. That’s not natural. It is surely tied to repression.

  11. Of course there are always questions and complaints where sex is concerned. But i believe you pretty much nailed it on the head with the doing no harm thing. i don’t think that by making sex more of a positive thing, that women/men will go absolutely non-linear and screw eachother’s brains out. That’s highly fantastic. From what i find, after reading more about the subject, is that people seem to be more tolerant and rational than i had previously believed. Sex is already something that people of different genders enjoy and embrace. I believe that by making sex a more positive thing for women, it will just open up all the other women or men who might feel uncomfortable with sex. By promoting it as a positive and enjyable thing, you will reduce the negative stigmas behind sex. It’s just about promoting it more as a means of connection and comfortability.

  12. What Does “Sex-Positive” Mean? Coming from a christen family, I have always seen sex like a bad thing. Sex is something we do not talk about in my family. I see sex as something negative never positive. Because my mother or older sisters never really talked about sex, I was never educated. After reading this blog, I understand why sex can be a positive thing. I learned a lot. If young girls and boys see sex as a positive, then they can be educated and they will learn how to have safe sex instead of trying to just have sex out of their own knowledge. ” The abortion rate is 32 per 1,000 in Latin America, which is a strongly Catholic and sex-negative part of the world, where abortion is typically illegal under most circumstances. But the rate is only 12 per 1,000 in more sex-positive Western Europe, where abortion is broadly allowed.” If we accept sex as a positive thing then, maybe abortion rate might go down.

    • I can relate to your experience since I was raised the same way myself. And it can really screw you up, as I know. But it’s interesting how society can actually become more civilized if it is sex-positive — contrary what the naysayers think.

  13. Sex should be enjoyed by both men and women. I think that with a sex-positive society, we will reduce abortion and even STD’s. Being sexually educated is extremely important because almost everyone will at some point have sex. And safe sex is the only way anyone will actually enjoy it without having to worry about getting hurt, pregnant, and STD’S. Whether you are a male or female, we all must learn to respect and treat each other equality because everyone, including women have the right to orgasm.

    • You make some good points. The «Part of the reason that we could reduce pregnancy and STDs is because people would feel more comfortable doing safe sex — Young women would feel less ashamed using condoms, and would be more likely to use them. Plus, the double standard — where women are punished but men are rewarded for having sex — encourages a game whereby men try to have sex with women they don’t know or care about. That leads to “I could care less about you” sex, Which isn’t healthy for anyone. And sometimes it gets into rape territory, as guys get girls drunk to help them “Score” in this game. I believe we would have a more civilized, actually, in a more sex-positive world.

  14. Another very thoughtful post. I like your approach of “do no harm” and I agree.

    I think I’ve mentioned before that porn can be an avenue of safe release for folks whose spouses have lost interest. I think prostitution should be legal and safe. I don’t think ‘johns’ should be prosecuted, however, assuming your definition of a ‘john’ is the same as mine, i.e., the “consumer.” (Stop laughing! I couldn’t think of another term.)

    I do think that women and men who wish to sell sex should be required to have a licence issued by a doctor at least every three months, ensuring the absence of disease or parasites. I’m not sure how to ensure that men purchasing sex do not have violent intent unless the sale is in a licensed bordello and ample security personnel are in place.

    And thank you for the stats on different societies.

    • I’m for criminalizing the John’s because it seems to be the only way to get rid of sex trafficking. And I think that enslavement in sex trafficking is worse than men not seeing prostitutes. These days guys can use the Internet.

      • I completely agree about the trafficking. It just seems to me that a well regulated LEGAL sex trade could be policed well enough and the implementation of laws harsh enough to make trafficking quite risky.

        But then, I read articles like this one: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article5342709.html.

        In the most recent court filing, Jane Doe #3 alleges that Epstein forced her to have sex with “many other powerful men, including numerous prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known prime minister, and other world leaders.”

        I’ve read, as well, that some U.S. politicians frequent an island that is a U.S. possession in order to indulge in such activities (probably paid for by some corporation).

        But, what of women who want to sell sex? Should they not have the freedom to do so in a safe and legal manner? As long as “johns” are to be prosecuted, the trade will continue to be underground, unregulated, and very unsafe. I do not think we can stop it altogether. So, what’s the answer? I still tend to think the best answer is to establish legal, well regulated and policed houses of prostitution.

      • In Amsterdam they allow legalized prostitution, But it just ATTRACTS traffickers. I think they undercut the legal prostitute’s rate or something. So it actually ENCOURAGES trafficking. And since it’s legal, it’s easier for everyone involved in the trade to be out and about. They’re less likely to get caught.

        Sweden has the only law that seems to work to bring down the rates of trafficking, Which is to outlaw both pimps and purchasing sex (Johns), But to make it legal to sell sex. It’s contradictory, But basically they’re trying to punish pimps and remove the market for the traffickers while allowing prostitutes to feel safe going to the police.

        For some reason this is less likely to drive prostitution underground than making it legal.

        When I look at the harm caused by denying customers to those who want to sell sex with the harm caused to girls and women who are forced into prostitution — and something like 90% of girls and women in the sex trade want to escape it* — the lesser harm is caused by denying customers to those who want to sell.


    • Just wanted to highlight this point I made because it SO IMPORTANT:


      Sweden has the only law that works to bring down rates of trafficking:

      Make selling sex legal. But outlaw both pimps and purchasers (Johns).

      It’s contradictory, but basically they’re trying to punish pimps and remove the market for the traffickers while allowing prostitutes to feel safe going to the police.

      Legalizing prostitution as they have done in Amsterdam just draws traffickers and makes the situation worse.

  15. happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

    I fully agree. It’s interesting to read this as someone from Europe. We usually think Americans have a pretty weird attitude towards sex

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