The Language of Sex Positivity

By Glickman, Charlie | Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

The Language of Sex Positivity


Glickman, Charlie, Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality


Sex-negativity, the belief that sex is inherently bad, is one of our most deeply rooted convictions. It is so deeply intertwined with our cultural norms that is becomes difficult to even begin to explore it, much less find ways to change it. One of the more subtle ways it affects us is in the way we speak about sex, the words we use and even the words we have available to us. In turn, our language around sex reinforces sex-negativity. Just as developing a new set of words and theories to describe and then change the world is an integral part of any social movement, creating a new language to discuss sex is a necessary part of changing our attitudes towards sex. What makes this challenging is that, lacking the language, we have a difficult time even beginning to explore our ideas. This is a source of conflict and confusion that further frustrates our efforts.

Sex and food

As a sex educator, I need to be able to reduce this confusion in order for my message to be heard. One method I have found helpful is to compare sex and food. There's a lot of value in this; not only does it take much of the reaction out of the discussion, but the analogy works remarkably well and can be used to suit all sorts of situations. For example, you never know what you like until you try it, you might be in the mood for pizza one day and Chinese the next, and if you're going to have dinner with someone, you have to agree on what you'll be eating. I've used variations of this metaphor to teach people about safer sex, queer issues, poly issues, sexual assault and just about every other aspect of sexuality you could name. It's true that the analogy is not a perfect match, but it does remarkably well.

Try to imagine the following world: Accurate information about food is freely available and exists for all ages in appropriate ways. Talking about what sorts of food you like and negotiating with a dinner partner is a simple and relaxed experience. Different preferences, whether personal or cultural, are important for the information they provide and are no more or less important than hair color or family history, unless people are trying to figure out what to eat together. Some people prefer to eat with the same person indefinitely, others prefer to eat in a group and still others eat with a variety of partners as the mood suits them and nobody is ever forced to eat anything or with anyone. Each person is an expert in their desires and needs around food and their choices are respected.

While there are many examples of how our world is different from this food-positive one (as anyone who becomes vegetarian in a family of meat eaters knows,) it isn't too hard to imagine this place. Now go back through the last paragraph and substitute "sex" for "food" and "have sex" for "eat." How much more difficult is this world to imagine? How much more work would it take to make this happen?

Sex-negativity keeps us us from moving towards this world. Some people also talk about erotophobia, the fear of sex. In many ways, they are really two sides of the same coin so I tend to conflate the two, but it can be useful to explore the two sides separately.

Defining sex-positivity

Working to break down sex-negativity is much like working to break down racism or homophobia- it's a process that takes a lifetime. Rather than being a goal you can reach, it's more like an asymptotic approach; no matter how close you are, you can always get a little closer. Although words like anti-racism exist to describe one version of this process, anti-sex-negativity is rather clumsy (as well and being a double negative) so most people call it sex-positivity.

One common definition of sex-positivity is that it's the belief that sex is good. Perhaps some of us would further describe the mind/body, male/female, good/bad division that various political and religious structures have adapted to their needs. However, it can be more useful to reframe our definition of sex-positivity from "sex is a positive thing" to "working towards a more positive relationship with sex. …

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