The Sex Positive movement is an important development in thinking about sexuality. This perspective regards sex as a positive attribute of human life, rather than a negative and frightening force to be repressed and controlled. The sex positive movement sees all mutually consensual sexual behavior as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable. Pleasure, curiosity, and experimentation are encouraged. Carol Queen writes, “It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life. Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationship structures, and individual choices based on consent.”
Sex positive ideas were first put forward by early 20th century psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who hypothesized that societies differed on their views of sexual expression. Some societies (early Polynesia, for example) viewed sexual expression as natural and healthy, while other societies viewed sexual expression as negative and needing to be controlled.
Western culture predominantly sex-negative
Positive sexuality advocates see Western culture as predominantly sex-negative. The traditional Christian view, developed over two millenia, held that sex was a potentially destructive force except when used for procreation. Sexual desire and sexual pleasure were temptations to commit sin. St. Augustine, a fourth-century Church leader, taught that proper love denied selfish pleasure and elevated love of God over physical desire or lust.
The Church has for centuries held firm ideas about which sexual acts are acceptable. Heterosexual marital sex for the purpose of procreation was normative. Homosexuality, masturbation, extra-marital sex, and recreational sex have been viewed by longstanding Christian tradition as sinful and wrong. Christian clerics were to abstain from all sex in order to remain devoted to their calling.
Western legal thought has, until very recently, followed these religious traditions. Contraception, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, interracial marriage, masturbation, “obscenity”, and abortion have all been outlawed by state and federal law in the U.S. Many antiquated laws remain in force.
U.S. government policy has historically upheld sex-negative views, banning gays from the military and from high government posts; providing funding for abstinence-only sex education programs despite overwhelming evidence they are ineffective in preparing teens for responsible and healthy sexual behavior; denying marital benefits to gays and lesbians; looking the other way when hate crimes are committed against sexual minorities and women.
Sex-positive thinkers believe sex education is an essential tool for equipping young people with positive ideas about their sexuality so they can enjoy pleasurable and healthy sexual relationships in adulthood. Sexual behavior in humans is learned behavior, rather than instinctual, as in many animals. Without adult guidance and accurate information, young people are left to figure it out on their own. Many young people get much of their “information” and attitudes on sex through talking with their friends and viewing porn.
Western societies require extensive education for their young, to equip them with skills and knowledge for the complexities of adult life. We teach our children to read and write, be on time, take responsibility, add and subtract, drive safely, be a good friend and a good citizen: everything they need to know except how to have healthy, positive adult sexual relationships.
Sex Positive perspectives offer a needed corrective to the negative attitudes about sexuality that saturate our culture and leave many with confusion, sexual woundededness, shame, and guilt. American culture is simultaneously sexually repressed – and sexually obsessed. Sex Positive approaches can guide us toward healing and wholeness.
Sex Positive Resources for further reading
Carol Queen, Exhibitionism For The Shy, San Francisco: Down There Press, 1995.
Leonore Tiefer, Sex is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays, Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.
Sallie Tisdale, Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex, New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Also, see my bibliography of Positive Sexuality Resources.