A Sex-Positive Approach For Academia

Earlier this week, I was a guest speaker for a class at Stanford University. My talk on sex-positivity was a lot of fun and the students were awesome. And at the end of it, I was asked what students can do to bring a sex-positive lens to their academic studies. It’s been a long time since I was in grad school, and these days, I mostly work with individuals and couples rather than thinking in those terms. So I don’t think that my answer was really complete. In the days since the class, I’ve been sitting with the question and I have some new thoughts about it.

Some background

Sex-negativity is the belief that sex is dangerous, sinful, dirty, or wrong. It’s an attitude that has been codified in law and culture for centuries, and it has damaged countless lives over the centuries. At its core, it requires that sex be redeemed in order to be worthwhile. Traditionally, sex was redeemed if it was for the purpose of procreation within a heterosexual, monogamous marriage. In the early 20th century, there was the start of a cultural shift that allowed for sexual pleasure within a marriage because it would improve the relationship and strengthen the marriage. (see Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage as one example). In the time since, we’ve seen this definition expand. First, it included sex within a committed unmarried relationship, and later, sex within a loving relationship. And while these shifts were improvements, all they really did was shift the line between the “good sex” and the “bad sex.” The fundamental model of sex needing to be redeemed by the appropriate relationship was still the same.

This also extends to the kinds of sex people have. When I teach this as a workshop, I ask the group to brainstorm the ways people can have sex. I then ask them to name the sexual acts that are rarely at risk for being called sick or abnormal, and the responses are consistent. Kissing, oral sex and intercourse are “normal” and everything else is not. And that’s exactly the problem.

Sex-negativity labels some sexual acts as good (as long as they take place within approved relationships) and others as bad. These judgements get attached to the acts themselves, not to the effects they have on the participants. In short, sex-negativity judges what people do and who does it, without looking at why they’re doing it or how it affects them.

That’s a problem for two reasons. First, there is no sexual act that is always good. Even the “gold standard” of heterosexual intercourse within a monogamous marriage isn’t always good for the participants. Leaving aside the obvious example of rape within marriage, all you need to do to prove that is talk with a therapist or sex coach. Countless couples struggle with sex that leaves them unsatisfied, lonely, or hurt. And secondly, there is no sex act that can’t be done in ways that honor the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the folks doing it. Any of those activities that get classified as weird or strange or abnormal? There are people who do them and end up with big smiles on their faces.

The important thing about sex isn’t what you do. It’s how you feel about it. And people are really diverse in that regard. Some people like rock climbing, and others prefer to stay home with a book. It’s not that one person is right and the other is wrong. And their different tastes are only important if they want to spend time together. (Yes, I know that lots of people like both activities, and lots of people don’t like either. It’s an oversimplification to make a point.)

At its core, sex-positivity is the awareness that we each have different tastes, and that our preferences and desires will change over time. It’s not the same thing as enthusiasm for sex. Instead, it’s about how you can honor the experiences of people who do things very differently from you. No matter how happy you are about your sex life, if you think that someone else is sick or dirty or shameful because of their sex life, it’s time to check yourself. At the very least, it’s time to ask yourself what makes you think they have something wrong with them and whether you actually have any basis to assess that.

Where does this take us?

So coming back to the original question, it seems to me that in an academic setting, a sex-positive lens is part of critical thinking and media literacy. For example, the vast majority of research and writing about gender and sexual minorities is done by the dominant group. Cisgender folks write about transgender people. Straight people write about queers. Vanilla researchers write about BDSM practitioners. People who have never been sex workers write about sex workers. This is a manifestation of privilege that parallels (but is not the same as) the ways in which men write about women or white folks write about people of color.

It’s not that there isn’t room for that work. But when it’s done without sharing the voices of the people being written about, or when it assumes that cisgender/straight/vanilla/non-sex workers are normal, it’s just as problematic as when researchers assume that being male or white is the standard by which others are judged.

A relevant phrase that captures this comes from the disability rights movement, and many sex worker advocates have adopted it: nothing about us without us. It highlights the ways in which these two populations have been subjected to policies and legislation that are developed without any of the decision-makers actually listening to the experiences and concerns of the people affected by them.

So one way to bring a sex-positive lens to academia is to ask: where are the voices of the people being studied, researched, and written about? And why do researchers who are part of these different populations have to prove that their participation in these acts doesn’t disqualify their work. As Melissa McEwan put it, “Privilege tells us the lie that being oppressed by prejudice makes a person an unreliable witness to hir own life, but benefiting from prejudice makes a person an objective observer of that life.” I think it’s easy to see how that applies here.

Another way to bring a sex-positive perspective to academia is to look for the implicit and explicit judgements that sneak into research: How is “normal” being defined? Who is the control group and what makes that designation valid? Are there sweeping statements without sufficient qualifiers? Is the diversity of the group being researched reflected in the work? Who is being ignored or excluded from the discussion? Are the limits of the research adequately explored? What assumptions are being made about the people or the activities that are talked about? What other research exists on the topic? How much time did the writer or researcher put into listening to people, rather than talking about them?

Fundamentally, sex-positivity locates the value of a sexual practice or experience where it belongs- in the bodies, hearts, and minds of the people doing it. In many ways, this creates a conflict with the traditional model of academic research, in which the supposedly objective scientist is able to see things more clearly than the people doing them. We can overcome this difficulty when we remember that while it’s true that an outside perspective is often useful, it’s only relevant when it’s based on a deep understanding of the people on the inside.

So my answer to those Stanford students is this. If you want to bring a sex-positive lens to your analysis, you need to deepen your understanding of your own sexuality, be transparent about your individual perspective and personal biases (and we all have them), and use that to inform your reading. Look for the assumptions being made be the authors you’re reading. Find out what the people being talked about really have to say on the topic. Look for research that challenges the common stereotypes. (This is a good place to start.) And question the judgement of anyone who ignores how the folks who do something feel about it.

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