There’s a lot I’d like to cover here, but I understand that this is a newsletter and not a novel. I’m going to experiment with writing this in (a) parts, (b) bullet points, and (c) inviting guest columnists with more experience in this field to comment on some of these topics. Hopefully, this will enable me to best express the multitude of ideas I think are important without emailing several thousand people 8,000 words.
With all that said, here’s a starting point. There’s more to come. Think of this like a table of contents, or maybe a sketch of what I’m thinking so far.
What is (uncritical) sex positivity?
Sex positivity, as I understand it, is the idea that we shouldn’t denigrate, medicalize, or demonize any form of sexual expression (or lack thereof) that is consensual.
Sex positivity and its sister waves of feminism aren’t uniformly negative. They’ve accomplished a number of vital achievements:
Education about alternative sexualities, including demedicalizing homosexuality
Awareness about STIs, abortion, and sexual assault
Championing women’s freedom from relationships, which is vital in any fight against domestic violence
I am framing sex positivity as “uncritical” because it holds sex and sexuality in a vacuum. Behaviors you might see endorsed:
The idea that emotionless sex is easy for most women.
Consent alone is enough to make sex emotionally or psychologically safe.
You can just “try” sex work like you can just try doing freelance dev work.
There is no emotional or psychological toll from indiscriminate casual sex.
All kinks are equal so long as all parties are consenting.
One lens you might consider is that uncritical sex positivity has all the same problems libertarianism has. Among those failures, it doesn’t do a very good job at accommodating the emotional nuance of humanity.
Consent and choice are both VITAL but…
Consent alone cannot be the basis of a moral framework. Consent offers us freedom from oppressive ideas like compulsory heterosexuality. Consent alone ignores that we can say yes to something that is harmful to us or others. This, perhaps, provides an explanation for why people retroactively retract their consent.
Consent alone is reductive. We would be forced to admit that certain forms of sexual expression are harmful even if they are consented to and that is morally complicated. Where do we draw the line and when? These are not easy questions to answer.
Transactional sex and uncritical sex positivity.
Uncritical sex positivity becomes especially dangerous when it collides with crumbling communities (people are hungrier than ever for identities, even identities they need to ‘buy’ in some sense, they are also lonelier) and capitalists without strong moral codes.
I am not anti-capitalist. However, I am suggesting that when the editors at Teen Vogue need to generate clicks, the engineers at Tinder need to incentivize users to stay on their platform, or a sex toy company needs to sell a product, there is no reason for them not to exploit well-intentioned ideas.
When this collision happens, you also get transactional casual sex. It stands to reason people have started thinking and saying things like, “Well, why shouldn’t I just charge for sex?” even in jest, even as a meme.
Sex is meaningless right now, but autonomy remains important. Rape becomes closer to theft or vandalism. Uncritical sex positivity does not minimize rape, but it does re-conceptualize it. This is happening all over our culture, see my post on why I think cultural appropriation is actually better viewed as a form of intellectual property theft.
If sex is meaningless, it is also rarely, if ever, an expression of affection. I think it may even be problematic to hold it this way at the moment. Right now, the dominant narrative focuses on the ways that sex is not valuable, or emotional, or sentimental. But what about the ways it can be?
What was uncritical sex positivity a reaction to?
Uncritical sex positivity is a response to an overly repressive, puritanical view on sexuality that stressed stigma, shame, and repression. People do not function well when they’re being shamed. I fear we’re forgetting this.
What has the backlash been?
#MeToo started as a real attempt to root out sexual assault in various industries. I do not and will not discredit it. However, one consequence of #MeToo is that on a micro, person-to-person level, we have a more fluid understanding of what sexual assault is, perhaps as a way of re-imposing boundaries in a boundary-less sexual landscape. If you only consider consent, then of course saying “I didn’t consent to this” protects you. It’s not that people are lying about being sexually assaulted (and it’s disgusting to claim that they are!), right now we lack the language to adequate express how these violations occur. Again, consent is not enough.
The “masculine internet” (does anyone say Manosphere anymore?) is a response to how little sex positivity cares about men’s needs. Under this umbrella come several sub-reactions: incels, MGTOW, BAP-style masculinity, et al.
Emergent social conservatism, which is spreading like wildfire in every online community (including ones that have been traditionally viewed as overly progressive like YA fandoms).
Towards a healthier sexuality.
A healthier sexual ethics borrows a lot from sex positivity but places it in a more nuanced context.
Stigma and shame are discredited strategies. Honesty is a much better solution. Honesty acknowledges that consent is not enough and thinks about long term impacts of decisions (for a more detailed description of how that might work, check out my article on how to decide if OnlyFans is for you).
Here’s a list of questions I don’t think we have satisfying answers to right now:
What should we have the freedom to and the freedom from?
Can you have too many sexual partners?
Can something feel good but have bad longterm impacts?
How much of our sex lives should remain private?
Can sex ever truly be consequence free? If so, when? Under what circumstances?
What sacrifices do you need to make to be in a healthy relationship?
Are all sex acts equal? What impact do certain sex acts have on you?
Are certain sex acts appealing because they are taboo, and should they stay taboo?
What happens when nothing is taboo anymore?
How do you accommodate casual sex while also acknowledging that emotional attachment is real?
Sex work isn’t going away. Creating a safe environment for sex workers doesn’t necessarily mean promoting the idea that it is unassailably good to charge people for access to your body. I suspect at its heart, the trend is a class issue, and unchecked sex positivity incidentally removed (some of) the stigma. So, it’s not “encouraging” it so much as it’s like becoming addicted to the opiates you were prescribed after you broke your leg.
Right now, real identities can be bought and sold, tried on and taken off like it’s of no consequence. This gives ammo to people who want to undermine sexual freedom. A healthier vision of sexuality can get ahead of this—but how?