With openness and a nonjudgmental approach, sex positivity embraces the diversity of sexual expression.
Sex is an integral part of the human experience. And for far too long, the topic has been clouded in stigma, shame, and judgment.
Sex negativity is taught in abstinence- and fear-based school sex education programs. It’s preached by religious leaders and instilled by many parents. It’s in the shows and movies we watch and policies our governments pass. And it’s harmful at every level.
The sex-positivity movement aims to change that.
“My personal working definition of ‘sex positivity’ is operating around the topics of human sexuality, health, and pleasure with respect and without shame or stigma. This includes gender identity, orientation, sex education, nudity, relationship styles, body positivity, safer sex, reproductive equity, and much more,” says Goody Howard, a resident sex educator for sexual hygiene and body care company Royal.
“Historically, it was common for sex to be viewed from a moralistic (based in sin) or medicalized (based in sickness or disease) framework. Through these lenses, otherwise natural and healthy sexual desires and behaviors are something to be repressed, controlled, or cured,” explains sociologist and certified sexologist Sarah Melancon, PhD with The Sex Toy Collective.
That’s where sex positivity comes in.
Howard believes the term “sex-positive” became popular in the late 1990s as the more “palatable term” for the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s. “It’s a more culturally responsive framework and respects human variance as it applies to gender and orientation in ways that ‘free love’ did not.”
Melancon adds that the sex-positive movement developed in response to concerns about patriarchal influences on cultural views regarding sexuality. Feminist in nature, the goal was (and is) to encourage the healthy sexual expression and relationships of women and people of all genders.
Examples of sex-positivity may include:
- exploring your fantasies
- enjoying the sensations in your body
- communicating your sexual wants and needs to partners
- prioritizing a healthy sex life in relationships
- developing a positive relationship with your body and body image
- setting healthy sexual boundaries with yourself and others
- advocating for your own sexual health, using safer sex practices when needed
- addressing unhealthy sexual patterns, such as compulsive or impulsive behaviors
- accepting the consensual sexual behavior of others rather than judging
- supporting laws, policies, and norms that ensure consensual sexual freedom rather than unhealthy restriction or repression
- supporting comprehensive sex education in schools
Sex negativity is everywhere, and it’s easy to internalize. But it’s important to notice when it pops up so you can stop it in its tracks.
How can you tell if you or someone you know is sex-negative? Obvious and subtle signs of sex negativity may include:
- using STIs or sexualities as punchlines (think: asking if someone’s rash is herpes or calling someone “gay” as a joke)
- assuming anything that’s not heteronormative is a sign of a mental health condition
- believing anal sex is only for people who identify as gay
- “slut shaming” women (or shaming anyone engaging in consensual sexual behavior)
- victim-blaming for sexual assault
- advocating for punishment or violence toward sex workers or LGBTQIA+ people
- considering sex and sexuality to be “dirty,” “sinful,” or other negative adjectives
- referring to heterosexuality and being cisgender as “normal,” “natural,” or “regular”
- making negative comments about another person’s body, partner, style, or identity
“Sex positivity has grown in today’s culture thanks to the internet and social media, but people are still very limited in the ways they apply it to their daily lives,” says Howard. For example, she notes that some people may support gay and lesbian equity but draw the line at gender equity.
LGBTQIA+ people currently cannot safely express themselves in certain countries around the world. A sex-positive culture can uplift marginalized communities and support everyone in exploring their identities and sexualities without shame.
Research from 2016 also suggests that the current criminalization of sex work in countries including Uganda, Brazil, and Nigeria has a negative impact on sex workers’ health and safety.
If decriminalization (not legalization) passes, this can lead to safer working conditions for sex workers and those whose work is sex-adjacent.
“Moving through the world in a way that makes space for others makes one a kinder member of society,” says Howard. “Sex positivity, when done correctly, permeates every aspect of society.”
Due to sex-negative messages in media, family, religion, or education systems, many people feel ashamed of sexual desires and behaviors that are perfectly healthy, Melancon says.
“Sex positivity can help a person disentangle the source of their sexual shame and uncover their true feelings. This can allow [them] to create a healthier relationship with their sexuality, enjoy greater pleasure, and reap the physical, emotional, and relationship benefits of a happy sex life,” she explains.
It can help a person in a sexually marginalized group feel affirmed as well, says Howard.
Good news: You can become more sex positive! Try any of these tips to help shift your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Value your sexuality
Sex positivity starts (and doesn’t end!) with valuing your own sexuality.
“Learn more about your body — its anatomy, wants, needs, what makes it feel good (and what doesn’t),” says Melancon. She says masturbation can help you get to know your body better and communicate your desires to partners.
Share and respect pronouns
Promoting your pronouns can serve as a form of allyship to gender-nonconforming folks. You can share them in meetings and feature them in your social media bios or email signatures.
Respect the pronouns of others and use them correctly as well. Try to avoid assuming someone’s pronouns based on their appearance. “Respect is free,” says Howard.
Question your reactions toward sex
“The journey to sex positivity forces us to unlearn trains of thought that we’ve been committed to our entire lives, and disrupting that connection causes us to confront other traditional behaviors and beliefs that are problematic and sex-negative,” says Howard.
This can be challenging.
But she adds that “questioning your initial reactions to things like teenagers using sex toys, sexually active senior citizens, and sex and [people with disabilities] is a great way to start the internal work of self-checking traditionally harmful behaviors and microaggressions.”
If you notice your own sex negativity popping up when faced with another person’s sexuality or identity, Melancon recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- What about their behavior is upsetting, and why?
- What “kind” of person engages in this behavior or has these fantasies?
- What would it mean about you if you enjoyed this sexual behavior?
“Often, we project our own insecurities and shame onto others, so judgment of others can actually be a window into our own deeper issues,” she adds.
Advocate for sex-positive policies and organizations
Activism is another key part of the sex-positive movement. “It’s important to be aware of and advocate for laws and policies that support ethical sexual freedom,” says Melancon.
“Sex positivity can also include understanding and advocating for the needs of sexual minorities, such as sex workers, the LGBTQIA+ community, those with disabilities, and considering the impact of racism and sexism on sexual expression,” she says.
This also includes supporting comprehensive, medically accurate school sex education for children.
For example, you can support the passing of sex-positive policies (e.g., decriminalizing sex work or passing healthcare equality legislation for trans people) by signing petitions or writing to government officials.
Learn more about sex positivity
Sex education and re-education are important. Many resources exist to help you along your sex-positivity journey. Consider reading these sex-positive books:
- “The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love” by Sonya Renee Taylor
- “Pleasure Activism” by Adrienne Mariee Brown
- “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life” by Emily Nagoski
- “Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma” by Staci Haines
- “The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities” by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton
“A more comical but still informational conversation starter is present in the much overlooked Big Mouth series on Netflix,” adds Howard.
Following sex-positive educators on Instagram can be a source of great information, too.
See a sex therapist
Melancon recommends looking for a sex therapist or mental health professional who’s open to sharing their views and is nonjudgmental. “If they use language that is shaming, pathologizing, or makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s a big red flag.”
“Sex positivity in and of itself is a vast, overarching way to exist and move through the world,” says Howard. Ultimately, it’s a shame-free, empowering, and nonjudgmental perspective that celebrates sexuality as a healthy, important part of our human experience.
A sex-positive view centers responsible, ethical, and consensual sexuality as mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy, says Melancon.
“It doesn’t matter if your own preferences are completely ‘vanilla’ — the point is to embrace your own sexual wants and needs without judging yourself or others,” she says.
Becoming more sex-positive requires actively striving to eliminate sex-negative tendencies, advocating for sexually marginalized groups, and working to improve the way the world views sex — starting with yourself.
It may be challenging at first, but it’s 100% possible with the help of resources, educators, and professionals.
Remember that sex positivity is a process. Be gentle with yourself as you unlearn sex-negative views and behaviors. As long as we collectively commit to creating a more sex-positive society together, we’re on our way to deeper love and acceptance for ourselves and others.