Recently, the YouTuber, blogger, and overall sex and relationships guru Hannah Witton released a video entitled “Why I’m sex-positive.” Taking into consideration Witton’s content, her support to the sex-positivity movement wasn’t a surprise to me. However, the following week she released another video titled “Why I’m not sex-positive.” Both videos made valid points that got me thinking, where do I fall within this debate?
When I first heard about sex positivity, I completely identified with its ideals and what it stands for. Growing up in a society where a woman’s value is based on how modest she is or how many sexual partners has she had, sex positivity seemed like the answer to this constant dehumanization of women based on such a trivial thing. It was extremely refreshing to see women rejecting the patriarchal values projected to us by friends, family, popular culture for centuries now, and wash off the shame and guilt that we unwillingly internalized and be open and unapologetic about their sexuality and their desires.
Sex positivity also calls for proper sexual education as well as decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work and adult entertainers. This is beneficial for multiple reasons. Removing the shame and secrecy around sex and relationships leads to openly talking about it and therefore teaching people from a young age how to be good partners, the risks around sex and therefore, creating more responsible and safer adults able to express their desires and be able to love and be loved. The destigmatization of sex work leads to legal and, therefore, safer sex work in which sex workers have a clear choice, are not discriminated against, and are financially independent.
Despite all that, we can’t ignore the negatives that come with sex positivity, or specifically, the factors that sex-positivity doesn’t address properly. Sex positivity fails to take into consideration the power structures that influence our decisions. The idea of women expressing their sexuality in their own terms sounds fantastic, but to what is extent is that possible within the patriarchy and capitalism? Pretending that the shame that women have been internalizing their whole lives will just magically disappear is unrealistic. Furthermore, it’s no secret that women are taught to be pleasant, to make everyone else comfortable, to massage male egos, and prioritize others than ourselves. In this context, consent is a little more complicated than how it’s dealt with within the context of sex-positivity. Is the woman consenting because she wants to, or because of the reasons mentioned above?
Sex positivity without constructive criticism could also add unwanted pressure. Without sex-positivity, we had the sexual repression of women, and sex-positivity could lead to pressure at the other end of the spectrum, and nobody wants added pressure. First of all, this ignores people who, for whatever reason, are not interested in sex. Additionally, this new norm of sexual liberation within the patriarchy could easily be translated to just being sexually available and pleasing men, so how is this not blatant sexism just wrapped in a prettier package? Do we just teach women and girls for them to belong to this new-cool-sex-positive club they have to be up to anything and, therefore, placing new expectations on them?
Also, regarding destigmatizing adult entertainers and sex workers, it must be kept in mind that while this is a positive thing, problematic aspects of the sex industry are still existent. We shouldn’t be quick to label everything empowering and not be critical of what we are watching or how sex workers are treated within the industry. Such industries are built on abuse, sexism, fetishization, and toxic masculinity. Industries are quick to jump on the bandwagon and call themselves empowering and sex-positive in order to capitalize on a new demographic, but do they really care about women?
What I want to highlight in this article, is that neither of the two sides is perfect nor evil. However, we should be critical of what we support and consider how other people with different experiences are affected. Both sides have considerable arguments, but one or the other without being critical and constantly challenging the status quo could be detrimental.