Sex Positivity and the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy

This article first appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

There’s a pattern that I’ve seen in some circles to assume that people who describe themselves as sex-positive will do anything and everything. And while that affects anyone who moves in these communities, there’s a way in which it has an impact on women that’s different from the way that it affects men.

Clarisse Thorn has a great post about this. She describes how some men have assumed that because she is a sex- & BDSM-activist and educator, she’s sexually available to them. She’s had men grab her, largely because they thought that her ease in talking about sex meant that she had no boundaries. I’ve had many conversations with various female co-workers and colleagues who have had similar experiences and I see this as part of a larger pattern.

I’ve also talked with a number of sex-positive women who said that they’ve had partners or potential partners feel intimidated that they couldn’t measure up. This seems to be more common if the partner in question is male. “OMG! You must be into some crazy stuff. I hope I can keep up!” In fact, one Good Vibrations staffer I spoke with said that she doesn’t tell guys where she works until the 3rd or 4th date because it’s not worth getting into if she’s not sure that she’s interested in him. (She tells them that she works at a boutique, which is true. It’s just not the whole truth.)

Women who are able to talk about sex or who have a relaxed attitude towards sex are often seen as having no boundaries. But think about that for a moment- isn’t that just a rehash of the virgin/whore model of female sexuality? Doesn’t the virgin/whore dichotomy say that women are either pure and free from the taint of sex, or are available to any man because they have fallen off the pedestal of being a “good woman”?

The fact that sex positive men aren’t assumed to be sexually available to anyone who wants them highlights the fact that this is more about the regulation of female sexuality than anything else. Of course, I have had plenty of people assume that I do all sorts of crazy things, simply because I can talk about a wide range of sexual practices. But I rarely get attacked or shamed for it and I’ve never had anyone of any gender assume that they could have sex with me because of it.

It’s time for us to let go of the slippery slope model of sex. (Read Gayle Rubin’s Thinking Sex for a good explanation of how the slippery slope connects to sex negativity.) It’s time for us to recognize that women can be anywhere on any of the many sexual spectrums without that implying anything about her sexual availability or interest in other ways to have sex. And it’s time for us to recognize that when we make the assumption that a sex-positive woman has no boundaries, we’re reinforcing the virgin/whore split, with all of the negative consequences that has for women.

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