I’ve always felt like I need to be the best at whatever it is I’m doing. Not really good, not an expert, but the very top of the top– number one! Well, I’m not one for new year's resolutions, but I think I found one for 2017. Spoiler alert: it’s not about coming out on top.
When I identified as a super girly-girl, I never felt like I was feminine enough or “pretty” enough. When I started identifying as more genderqueer, I never felt I was androgynous enough. When I came out as queer I never felt like I was gay enough or had slept with enough women. When I graduated from high school I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to University. When I did finally start university in the Sexuality, Marriage, and Family studies program I regarded myself as the most liberal, most outspoken, and most controversial person in the most controversial program. Needless to say, when I started identifying with being a “sex-positive person,” I wanted to be the most sex-positive person that ever lived.
Oh, what a disappointment I turned out to be.
First, we should get our grounding here. If you look across different people’s and organizations' definition of sex-positivity you’ll find this basic idea: as long as sex is explicitly consensual it is a positive and healthy aspect of a person’s life.
At first glance, that seems pretty straightforward. Look a little longer: what is “healthy”? Who determines what “healthy” means? Explicitly consensual is easy, though, right? Wait… what makes consent explicit? Is it when you’ve directly asked all players involved if they’re interested in the sex that is about to happen? Or is a panty, “Oh, yeah!” enough? If someone sees you having sex through your bedroom window, is that consensual for all players involved? What about the blowjob in the street at night after the Pride parade? Is a person sex-negative if they say, “that’s really triggering for me and I would find that upsetting, so I don’t go to Pride at night because I don’t feel safe”? Once again, I am reminded that life is not so black and white. I’ve consented to lots of sex that was both pleasurable and negatively affected my well-being.
I also think it’s important to note: the sex-positive movement is needed. Our culture has a long history of sexual shaming. It wasn’t until 1973 that homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. We still have many laws that make consensual BDSM behaviour illegal. We label people who have a variety of sexual interests and strong sexual desires as sex addicts. We consider sex workers to be the lowest form of employment and cannot fathom that anyone would willingly (or enthusiastically) want a career as a call girl or porn star. The idea that any sex that is explicitly consensual is a positive and healthy aspect of a person’s life is a radical idea that, for the most part, I think the world would benefit from embracing. While I support a more liberal and inclusive definition of “healthy” sexuality, I cannot ignore that the same culture that dishes out endless judgements of people’s sexual conduct also puts a lot of pressure on people to be having amazing sex all the time as soon as possible. Now women can be like men and drive sexual conquests, too! Not only can they, but often there is a strong message that they should, and if you don’t, you’re not the liberated feminist you thought you were, huh?
Feeling pressured to have sex by an individual or by a politic is a total boner-kill.
It’s not that I am not sex-positive— I sure as shit am— but when I’m feeling the pressure to push back against sex-shaming and be hyper-embracing of all things sex all the time, I definitely don’t feel like I am the most sex-positive person. I can get pretty grumpy.
I’m not sure that anyone is deserving of that title, anyway. Given my set of experiences as well as my understanding of the world and my relative position in it, I sit at the top of my perch and think, “Yeah baby, I got this.” But I recently had an experience where someone sitting at the top of their own respective perch said, “Nah man, you got it all wrong.” I looked back at them and thought, “How on earth could you think that?”
Well, because they’re not me. They haven’t lived the life I've lived. They don’t know the things I know and I don’t think the way they do and vise versa… who’s more sex-positive?
More importantly… Who cares?
If I was a prominent leader in a Christian community and I said, “Sex outside of marriage is wrong and sinful, but once you are married, you should enjoy your sex! Procreating is important, but it’s also important to know your body and enjoy the sensuality and intimacy of sex with your partner. It will bring you closer together as husband and wife, and thereby closer to God!” In the past, I would have called this person sex-negative. How dare anyone tell me sex outside of marriage is wrong! How dare anyone not acknowledge that marriage can be between non-heterosexual people! They’re wrong!
Yes… and no.
I don’t think it’s okay to shame people for their sexuality and calling something wrong and sinful is pretty much the outfit shame put on before going out to get milk this morning (you know, for cereal). I also cannot ignore the sex-positive message that it’s valuable to know your body, and that pleasure is good for you and your relationships. To completely write off that statement, or worse that person, as being entirely sex-negative would be incorrect. It would also dismiss the potentially important work they are doing for their community. Relative to the world around them, they could be downright revolutionary. Who am I to say, “fuck you, try harder”? How arrogant. As long as I keep thinking of people as sex-positive vs. sex-negative, as yes or no, black or white, I will continue to miss the worlds in between. Which is to say, I will miss seeing the world as it is.
I have experienced several sexual traumas in my life. Some days I am more sex-positive than other days. Sometimes reading sex-positive blogs or hanging out with my hardcore sex-positive friends is hard because on bad days my experiences make it feel like sex has done more damage in my life than good. On bad days, I resent feeling pressured to have explosive life-changing sex whenever and wherever I want because it’s my right to live my sexual truth! On bad days, the old shame of being a slutty pervert has been replaced by the new shame of being perceived as a sex-negative person. I’ve rejected one form of dogma for another only to be rejected all over again. I’ve rearranged the words, but the story is the same: I am not enough.
Those days pass, like all the others, and then I snuggle up to my sexuality like the dear friend that it is and we have our way with each other and I remember that I don’t owe the world a damn thing. I don’t have to do the work that I do in sexual health. But I choose it, because I believe in it, and for some I am exactly the right person for the job. I don’t have to be right for everyone. That much I know for certain.
So! To my new year's resolution: I will not be number one. I will not be number one. I will not be number one. I will not be number one. I will not be number one. I will not be number one.
I will make an effort to remind myself of all the wonderful grey areas of life that give this world the shading and depth that make the journey worthwhile. Like a never-ending meditation, I will gently remind my brain to come back to focusing on the grey when my mind wanders to thoughts of trying to decipher if this person is more sex-negative or more sex-positive than me. I will continue to commit to holding stories of pain, delight, pleasure, shame, pride, triumph, loss, clarity, insight, and stagnation.
Maybe to think of it as a spectrum isn’t quite right either. Maybe we should be thinking about sex-positivity as a circle with cycles, like the moon or the sun. Influenced by the world around it and the person who holds it, with seasons that change over time and context. Whatever the shape, it needs space to breathe and live. Expand, contract, shift and move. “Fluid” is the word, I believe.
I will not be number one. I will not be the queerest. I will not be the smartest. I will not be the most sex-positive. I will be queer, smart, and sex-positive.
Because it is enough.
And there is other work to be done.
Picture at the top of the article: A Geisha and Her Client in the Osaka Pleasure Quarters (Osaka iromachi no geisha to kyaku) from the series The Safflower Princess (Suetsumuhana) by Katsushika Hokusū
Picture at the bottom of the article: photograph by Marcos Demenech