Sex-positivity is a muddle

Several weeks ago, I was surprised to see the following quote, in an otherwise good post:

Many asexuals are ‘sex positive’ and therefore more than willing to have sex…

Whaaaaaaat?  Is that what “sex positive” means to the kids these days?  It used to be that being a sex positive asexual meant that you were “positive” about other people having sex.  So, when we have ~70% of asexuals self-identifying as sex positive, that’s what they’re trying to say about themselves.  The number of asexuals who are willing to have sex is lower than that.

I thought this might just be a one-time error, but some searching indicates that it’s somewhat common on tumblr, and has appeared at least once on AVEN. Most often, people contrast “sex-positive” with “sex-repulsed”.  This is a pretty egregious misunderstanding, because it’s collapsing so many different concepts.  It inadvertently equates people who are willing to have sex with people who are okay with other people having sex, and contrasts it with people who experience sex-repulsion.  A significant fraction (over half?) of the asexual community fails to fit these boxes, because lots of sex-repulsed aces are either willing to have sex, or are okay with others having sex.

The above definition of “sex positive” is a mess primarily because it completely fails to match the “mainstream” definition of sex positive in asexual communities.  But let me tell you, the mainstream asexual definition is a complete muddle as well.

Sex-positive, in asexual spaces, is variously defined as “okay with other people having sex”, or “celebrating all consensual sexual activity” or “feeling comfortable in the sex positive movement”.  So, for instance, take that 70% figure again.  The survey specifically defined “sex positive” as being okay with other people having sex.  But does that really mean, as the New York Times reported, that only 70% of asexuals are okay with other people having sex?  Or is it perhaps that a lot of people simply didn’t agree with that definition?  I mean, I’ve read a lot of aces saying that they don’t identify as sex-positive, and it’s usually either because they don’t want to be sex cheerleaders.

All these definitions of sex positivity are a muddle, not only because they contradict each other, but also because they mismatch the definition of sex positive in mainstream culture.  “Sex positive” is a term that’s been around since the 1930s.  It’s been associated with the free love movement, the 1960s sexual revolution, and later sex-positive feminism.  Do you really think all those non-asexual people were just trying to say they were okay with other people having sex?  The very idea is absurd!  And if you think those people only meant they were “celebrating” sex, that’s just as wrong.  Even the most conservative groups celebrate sex, despite the stereotypes.

The definition of “sex positive” as “willing to have sex” is a muddle because it fails to match the mainstream asexual definition of sex positive.  The asexual definition of sex positive is also a muddle because it fails to match the mainstream definition of sex positive.  But let me tell you, the mainstream definition of sex positive is also a muddle.  It’s a muddle all the way down!

Plenty of aces have observed that there appear to be two meanings of sex-positivity.  In some cases, people have argued one of these meanings is the correct one, and all the other people are not really sex positive.  But I don’t think this quite gets to the heart of the confusion.

To understand what sex positivity means today, it’s necessary to consider its current strong association with sex-positive feminism.  Sex-positive feminism arose out of the “feminist sex wars” in the 70s, which was a disagreement among feminists on the acceptability of porn and sex work.  Sex-positive feminism grew to encompass acceptance not just of porn and sex work, but also BDSM, polyamory, homosexuality, and bisexuality, not to mention standard feminist positions on abortion and contraception.  So sex-positive feminism is at its core about a bunch of concrete issues–and asexuality is not among those issues.

It’s easy to lose sight of all those concrete issues, and just think about the principle behind them.  For instance, the first line on Wikipedia was:

Sex-positive feminism centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom.

This is not unlike the many inspirational quotes we have about feminism in general:

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.
-Marie Shear

But we should be able to see through the inspirational meaning.  The reason for these vague, idealistic, overly-inclusive definitions is that people want it to all be so simple.  “I believe women are people, so I must be a feminist, no matter that it’s a bad word.  That person is not a feminist, they must not really believe women are people.”  I guess it’s just too hard for people to say that maybe their opponents sincerely believe in gender equality, but have the wrong idea of how to achieve it.

But of course, it makes sense that asexuals care not so much about the concrete issues of sex-positive feminism, and care a lot more about the principle behind them.  Asexuality is not a core sex-positive issue.  To extend the sex-positive ideology to asexuality, we have to consider what sex-positive really means, underneath all the issues.  And as we can see in practice, sex-positive people do not consistently come down on the right side of asexuality.  It’s only natural that we would divide sex-positive people into two groups–the ones we like, and the ones we don’t like.

But I fear that there is only one group, not two.  It’s just one group, a group which hasn’t thought about asexuality all that much, and hasn’t come to any consensus on it.  Conversely, asexual people think a whole lot about themselves, but don’t seem to talk a whole lot about porn or sex work.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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18 Responses to Sex-positivity is a muddle

  1. aceinlace says:

    Wow, that IS a muddle. Both the mainstream meaning and the way the term is being used on tumblr, the latter which is so ridiculous I can hardly fathom how they came upon it. All I can guess is complete ignorance as to the history of sex-positive feminism and it’s direct existence (i.e learning of it of itself, not just the associated ideas like anti-slut-shaming).

    I agree with you on the poor wording of the survey question: “are you okay with others having sex?” is really a non-issue. I’ve never seen an asexual that claimed to have a problem with other people having sex…I mean literally never.

    The asexual definition of sex positive is also a muddle because it fails to match the mainstream definition of sex positive.

    On this, though, I think our (asexual) definition of sex positive is actually one of the best ones. It sees sex as largely a positive thing with the appropriate caveats for consent and inclusion of asexuals for whom having sex personally is not a positive thing.

    Conversely, asexual people think a whole lot about themselves, but don’t seem to talk a whole lot about porn or sex work.

    Not directly–the closest I can think of in terms of fairly popular topics touching on this is in regards to asexuals writing erotica and sexually explicit fanfic; (which I’ve seen touched on in fandom spaces a few times) and the discussions of libidoism and porn-watching and masturbation habits among asexuals. To some extent I think the discussion of sexualnormativity and the way sex is commodified in capitalist societies skirts this as well. But it would perhaps be good to see some more direct discussions, that examines these things from a sex-positive *and* asexual lens. .

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, I’m not making a normative statement about the mainstream vs asexual mismatch. There are lots of terms we define differently, often for good reasons.

    • I think that I am going to have to disagree with your last point. Maybe it isn’t happening in the “asexuality community,” but I can name a number of asexual people who talk about, study, or engage in sex work and/or pornography. The conversations are happening, just not right here right now.

      • aceinlace says:

        I think that I am going to have to disagree with your last point. Maybe it isn’t happening in the “asexuality community,”

        Considering I just stated that I had seen the conversations on aces writing erotica happen in fandom spaces–which aren’t ace spaces by any means or explicitly spaces of the asexual community–I think you’re disagreeing with a statement I didn’t make.

        In this context, “We need to be having these conversations” means “we need to be bringing this out in the open” for exposure to a greater amount of people, in the hopes of starting a dialogue of diverse opinions and reactions. Leaving these conversations confined to certain spaces, like fandom spaces (not all aces are in fandom) or on blogs on sex work (which many aces likewise would never come across) is not the way to make asexuals aware of the information and issues.

        Your statement alone–that you had seen these conversations happen, and I have not–shows that there is a failure to disseminate the discussion to a wide audience of aces. It doesn’t have to be “right here right now” but I have been active in the asexual community for years, in *all* the main spaces, and never came across any discussions of what it was like to be asexual and a sex worker.

      • Siggy says:

        I think you meant you disagree with my last point rather than aceinlace’s?

        My point was that asexuals discuss an awful lot whether they are sex-positive or not, and it’s almost always about how sex-positivity impacts asexuals, and what “true” sex-positivity is or isn’t. I have seen very few aces say they were sex-positive or sex-negative just because they care that much about sex workers. I’m saying that in some ways this is selfish, because we twisted the entire controversy into being about us. In other ways, this makes sense because who would take seriously the asexual opinion on sex workers?

        If you know of any writing about asexuals talking about, studying, or engaging in sex work, please link it to us. We run a weekly linkspam and have power to disseminate exactly that sort of conversation.

  2. Isaac says:

    I like this reflection:

    I guess It’s just too hard for people to say that maybe their opponents sincerely believe in gender equality, but have the wrong idea of how to achieve it.

  3. Sara K. says:

    I think sex-negativity is a muddle too, even more than sex-positivity – probably because the term ‘sex-negative’ was created by ‘sex-positive’ people to describe perspectives they don’t like.

    Recently, I have come to think that there should be a different word to describe the views of, say, anti-porn/sex-work feminists, and the views of male chauvinists who think men should control women’s sexuality and that women who do not submit to that control (or who submit but men decide they are disposable anyways) should be shamed/punished. While I suppose some anti-porn/sex-work feminists might have internalized patriarchal predjudices against female promiscuituy, it seems that these two perspectives – anti-commodification of (passive) female sexuality VS pro enforcing rules to ensure female sexuality remains adequately passive – are so different that labelling both as ‘sex-negative’ is an obstacle to critical discussion. And if we are going to talk about internalized patriarchy within ‘sex-negaive’ feminism, I think we should also talk about patriarchy within sex-positive feminism too – such as the idea that women should put out and have lots of sex (with men), and that women who do not ‘have a problem’.

    And this is before we get to the fact that *as far as I know* the only people who actually identify as ‘sex-negative’ rather than just being labelled as such by critics do not neatly fit into the two categories described above.

    • This, exactly. I’d also like to point out that this conceptualization of porn and prostitution as value-neutral industries instead of sources of oppression is a perspective that I only ever see coming from Western feminists. I’m from a region where pornography and prostitution have been used as weapons of war (as in actual wartime propaganda used to condition soldiers and subsequent sexual/economic exploitation and abuse of occupied populations) against women and that has strongly shaped my perspective on certain things. Same goes for many other feminists I interact with who aren’t from the West. We’re routinely shouted down in sex-positive spaces in an attempt to get us to shut up, because people would much rather talk about the small minority of white Western women who choose to work in the sex industry than the women who are harmed by it. Attitudes like this, coupled with the reactions I’ve gotten from many sex-posi feminists as an asexual woman, are why I honestly want nothing to do with the sex-positive movement.

      When I criticize “sex-positivity,” I’m talking about the way sex-positivity seems to have mutated from “sex isn’t inherently negative and you shouldn’t sex-shame people” into a politicized ideology rooted in a particular type of Western feminism that is inherently exclusionary of many people, and in my experience those who actively identify as “sex-negative” are pushing back against that. It’s partly a reclamation thing–anyone who disagrees with certain aspects of sex-positivity gets called that anyway, regardless of their reasons for doing so, so a lot of people have adopted it as a point of pride–but there’s also work being put into imagining what “sex-negative feminism” would look like as an alternative to mainstream sex-positive feminism. Lisa Millbank’s excellent essay on the subject is something I think everyone should read: “”

      I mean, I’m told repeatedly that “real” sex-positivity is still supposed to be inclusive of varying perspectives and ultimately about not shaming people for being sexually active, etc. etc. but at this point I don’t care, because by and large that’s not what I see being practiced by most people who identify as such. The reason critiques of sex-positivity are using a definition that differs from that of the sex-positive movement itself is because we’re referring to the *actions* of sex-positive people rather then the ideal the movement is supposed to represent. In activism spaces we always talk about how intent doesn’t matter if your actions are effecting people in harmful ways, and that definitely applies here. So in all honesty I’m not surprised that many ace people appear to have gotten the idea that identifying as “sex-positive” means “willing to have sex” when that is quite literally what the movement looks like to outsiders right now.

      • Excellent comment.

        When sex-positive feminists and other activists talk about why their movement is important, they often cite things that are specific to European/American history or to Christianity and which are not necessarily true of other cultures and religions. The issue is further complicated by the history of colonialism, when European cultural mores were imposed on the colonized population and eventually internalized by them. A brief post on how this affected the attitudes towards sex of Muslims in India is . This is something that I would like to see more sex-positive advocates keep in mind.

        I’ll also say that even before I joined the asexual community and began exploring many of these issues, I found mainstream sex-positive feminism to be at best irrelevant to me and in general to make no place for me. I’ve soured on it even more as I’ve become more aware of the ways in which it, in practice, can be harmful to asexuals.

    • Siggy says:

      I agree. With all of that.

      If you look at the 2011 survey, the way the sex negative response was worded was, “I am anti-sexual/sex negative. (I am against/disturbed by the idea of others having sex.)” And then they were showing off how low the percentages were for this group (4%). Well, of course. The question is obviously slanted. We know whoever wrote that was sex-positive.

      • Aqua says:

        I hated that question, because of how it imposed definitions of antisexual, and sex-negative, that a lot of people who identify with either of those terms don’t agree with. The sex-positive bias of that question was blatant, and that’s one of the things that made me think I wouldn’t be welcome in the asexual community at first.

        Likewise, I’ve seen people who technically agree with what the sex-positive movement intended (consensual sex shouldn’t have stigmas behind it), but don’t want to identify as sex-positive, because they dislike what the movement so often is in practice; disillusioned with the part that glorifies sex, doesn’t do any critical analysis, and reinforces compulsory sexuality.

        That question also erased a lot of nuances; few people are okay with others having sex under all circumstances (that would imply saying sex under coercion is okay); wouldn’t it be better to specify that they’re only okay with consensual sex? Not to mention that if some people think sex has more negatives than positives, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with antiquated ideas of sexual morality or sexual purity. Perhaps those negatives aren’t inherent to sex itself, but how the social norms surrounding it, for example.

  4. queenieofaces says:

    I think another thing to note that makes sex-positivity a muddle is how sex-positive-identified people are constantly moving the goalposts. When sex-positivity is criticized, they leap in to say, “Oh, no, that’s not real sex-positivity; what you’re describing as the ideal is what real sex-positivity looks like.” So rather than addressing actual issues in their movement/groups/ideology, they simply say that whatever you have identified as problematic isn’t actually sex-positivity, so they don’t have to do anything about it.

    • But I don’t think that is actually a problem with sex-positivity, I think that is a problem with labels. If we replace ‘sex-positivity’ with any other community, the same thing applies.

  5. luvtheheaven says:

    So many good, thought-provoking points made here and in the comments. I’ve been thinking about some of these things for months but you have articulated everything so well and also brought new aspects to light about the issue that I hadn’t quite realized were happening.

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