Defining sex positivity

What does the 20th century concept mean for Gen-Z?

Written by Abigail Swoap

Too many Gen-Zers remember their first encounter with themselves as sexual beings as an embarrassing experience. For Sophia, 21, this moment happened back in sixth grade when a boy came up to her in the hallway and told her she needed to start wearing a bra. “It was the first time I recognized that other people could see me in a sexual way, and it was riddled with awkwardness and anxiety. I had never thought about my body in that way. But of course, the next day I came to school in a bra.”

In the early 20th century, German researcher Wilhem Reich, hypothesized that human societies generally view sex in one of two ways: either as an essentially positive force, or an essentially negative force that must be controlled and repressed. He referred to the former as “sex positive” societies and the latter as “sex negative.” The United States developed as a fundamentally sex negative culture until the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s (where bras like Sophia’s were burned in massive protests). The Sexual Revolution served as a “coming out” for sexual ideas that had previously been considered deeply taboo in Western societies.

Many ideas about contraception, legal abortion, sex outside of marriage and LGBTQ+ relationships have now been culturally accepted for close to 60 years, but sexual research and education has been slow to adapt. Unlike these slow-moving bureaucratic systems, however, various sex positive communities on the internet have thrived, which puts digitally-native Gen-Zers at an interesting historical crossroads. One one hand, the conservative education system they are immersed in at school sits in direct opposition to the messages they receive about sex online. Zoomers are living in a world where information about sex is only a few clicks away. But does that make a culture more sex positive?

Sex positivity isn’t just about learning to see sex as a positive thing. It’s about unlearning many of the societal messages we’ve unconsciously absorbed about it, then developing confidence in our own understanding of what sex means to us. But that process, particularly for Gen-Zers, is a difficult one.

Sex education in the information age

In the United States, our beliefs about sex are shaped by systems that undervalue sex education and tend toward repressive, cautionary teachings. These systems are difficult to change because decisions about what information young people learn about sex are almost always left to local and state lawmakers. According to Planned Parenthood, only 29 states mandate sex education in their schools, and even in those states there is no guarantee of the quality of their curriculum. Only 15 states require sexual education to be medically accurate, and seven states either prohibit discussions about LGBTQ+ identities or require that they be framed negatively in conversation.

Before the internet, the lack of sex education in schools upheld sex negative culture by denying young people access to information about sex. But today, young people have access to a plethora of resources on the internet. Unfortunately, some of these resources perpetuate negative stereotypes and unrealistic expectations about sex (we’re looking at you, free porn). As Hayden, a 21-year-old friend of Coral says, “I’ve known I was gay since I was 12, so the heterosexual-only sex education I received in school was pretty much useless. I learned pretty much everything I know about sex from Pornhub.”

Now, a new Sexual Revolution is underway, but this time it’s about providing young people with accessible and accurate information that will lead to healthier sex and relationships. Sex positive websites like Scarletten and influencers like Ev’Yan Whitney, Karley Sciortino and shrimpteeth (to name only a few!) are helping young people fill the gaping holes in their knowledge about sex. Social media has proven to be an effective platform for outspoken advocates who promote healthy sex practices to wide circles of followers.

But just because information about sex is available on social media doesn’t mean we’re becoming a more sex positive culture. For one, not all young people have access to these internet sources, and those that do might not realize what foundational information they’re missing. A recent episode of NPR's Life Kit presented this dilemma as a metaphor about algebra. If having sex is like balancing two sides of an equation, then understanding consent, communication and healthy relationships are like addition, subtraction and multiplication. You can’t balance the equation until you understand basic math.

To expand a bit on that metaphor: Gen-Z’s algebra class is self-guided and mostly online, and they’re all on wildly different pages. Some of them may have happened upon internet sources that taught how to add and subtract, but others have been left to solve confusing equations on their own. The biggest problem, perhaps, is that they’re all still expected to know how to balance the equations at the same level.

And that expectation is one of the biggest caveats about the online world of sex positivity. Because there’s so much information about sex available online, younger people expect a certain level of sexual competency from their peers. Clara, a 20-year-old friend of Coral, had firsthand experience with this once she got to college. “I love that all my friends are so comfortable talking about their sexuality, but they’re a lot more sexually experienced than me. My own lack of sexual know-how sometimes makes me feel like I’m years behind them maturity-wise.” Selin, 20, encountered a similar situation during her freshman year of college. “The first time I had sex was so weird. Neither of us had had sex before but it still felt like he was trying to act out a porn scene. Afterward, he literally asked me why I wasn’t making noise while we did it.”

Towards a more inclusive form of sex-positivity

Clara and Selin’s stories are an important reminder that sex-positivity isn’t just about proudly announcing that you love sex. Although that can absolutely be part of it, it’s actually a much broader cultural philosophy.

Carol Queen, the American author, sociologist and sexologist who was an early and prominent voice in the sex positive feminist movement, has explored the nuances of sex positive culture throughout her career. She defines sex positivity as a framework that promotes sex as a “potentially positive force” in one’s life rather than the “problematic, disruptive and dangerous force” that sex negative cultures believe it to be. The operative word here? “Potentially.”

This more inclusive definition of sex positive culture acknowledges the validity of all human experiences with sexuality. It’s also more explicitly inclusive of anyone who identifies with the asexual spectrum. Gabriel, a 23-year-old friend of Coral who identifies as asexual, has had a complicated relationship with sex positive culture in the past. “Before I knew what asexuality was, a friend told me that I wasn’t sex positive because I didn’t like sex. I felt bad at first because I didn’t want my disinterest in sex to be interpreted as shaming others for liking it.”

Sex positivity, then, is about supporting sex with whoever you want, whenever you want, but it’s also about combating the expectation that everyone needs to have sex. The sex positive framework exists to remind us that our own experience with sexuality is by no means universal. It’s an invitation to learn about the entire spectrum of sexual diversity and to think critically about what has informed your own beliefs about sex.

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