Re: Necessity of sex-positivity

Fellow FTB blogger Great American Satan wrote a post called Sex Positivity: Still Necessary, which defends sex-positivity against asexual discourse.  This is a response from an asexual perspective.

First, some general comments:

  • I consider myself sex-positive.  However, because I participate in the ace community, non-sex-positive, or sex-negative views are within my Overton window.  I will offer some defenses of these views, but I ultimately agree with the thesis that sex positivity is still necessary.
  • If you read the comments on GAS’s post, there are a few from Elizabeth Leuw.  I will say basically the same things she does, but with fewer links.  This does not necessarily reflect a consensus view, it’s just that Elizabeth and I are on similar wavelengths.  She is one of my cobloggers on The Asexual Agenda.

Sex positivity in principle and practice

The central problem with sex-positivity is its supporters.  If you meet several sex-positive people, and all of them advocate for harmful messages (e.g. everyone should enjoy sex; no one should ever be grossed out by sex; more sexual content in the public sphere is necessarily better in the long run), you might reasonably disidentify with sex-positivity.  You might like sex-positivity in principle, but dislike in practice, and what it is in practice is important.  Or perhaps you think that the roots of its problems lie within its principles.

I will point out that this is not so different from the way many FTB readers disidentify with the skeptical or atheist movements.  You could decide that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and DJ Grothe are so bad that you want no part.  Or you could decide that you want to stay involved.

It’s a personal decision, and it depends a lot on the kinds of contexts you encounter.  For instance, the ace Tumblr community is pretty young (median age ~20), and not necessarily involved in wider political contexts.  Instead they seem to spend a lot of time arguing with asexual exclusionary radical feminists.  They’re not really seeing the best of the sex-positive movement there.  I tend to interact more with SJ-oriented atheist spaces, and of course I think y’all are the greatest.  For me, sex-positivity is associated with abortion rights, sex worker rights, queer rights, anti-slut-shaming, and opposing conservative religious agendas, and I’m down with that.

It doesn’t help that sex-positivity has no clear definition, in ace spaces especially.  Historically, the meaning of “sex-positive” has been greatly diluted in the ace sphere, often used to mean “I’m fine with other people having sex”.  This turns it into a meaningless expression of respectability politics to reassure allos that our tiny little minority isn’t out to get them.  Disidentification with “sex-positive” typically constitutes a rejection of respectability politics, rather than a statement that people should stop having sex.  It’s a statement that we’re not going to hide or censor ourselves in order to be more palatable to the general public.

Even sex-positive allos seem to have different ideas about what sex-positivity means.  For instance, GAS offered the following:

Sex is natural and normal for people to engage in. They should not be shamed or abused for being sexual, within the bounds of consenting acts between adults.

I agree with these principles in their literal sense, but they have problems.  People tend to assume that therefore it is unnatural and abnormal to not engage in sex.  Obviously aces have a problem with this, a HUGE problem.  If they don’t interact extensively with sex-positive activism, they might even see it as the most salient characteristic about sex-positivity.  And if someone told me that the roots of the problem lay within the principles of sex-positivity, yeah, I could see that.

Shame vs aversion

GAS offered the following reasons why shaming sexual activity is bad:

One, sexual disgust is the basis of most homophobic oppression. Look at the propaganda used by US Xtian fucklords to promote ant-LGBT violence and state persecution in Uganda, Russia, Jamaica, etc. It is ENTIRELY based on presenting sex acts as disgusting. To see sex as positive in its various forms is a way of fighting against that.

And two, shaming people for the amount of and types of sex they have is the basis of much misogynist oppression, especially in the domain of women’s health and reproductive rights. Sex positivity and fighting against slut shaming directly fight back against those who would use promiscuity as an excuse to brutalize and oppress others. It’s so important, I’d go so far as to say it’s essential.

Lots of aces are what we call “repulsed” or “averse” to sex, meaning that they don’t like hearing about it or seeing it.  In some cases, this goes beyond mere discomfort, and in some cases can even be triggering (it can be triggering for plenty of allos too!).

This is not the same as shaming people for their sexual practices.  Shaming is a public action, a way to express or construct cultural norms.  Aversion is a personal disposition.  Unfortunately it’s all too easy to draw a connection between the two.  I’m not accusing GAS of drawing any connection, but rather saying this is a thing that sex-positive activists do sometimes.  Often the connection is mediated by “disgust” which may either refer to public shaming or to personal disposition.

And for what it’s worth, I think that shaming and aversion can feed into each other.  When conservative Christians express disgust with LGBT people, I believe their disgust is sincere.  And at the same time, that sincere disgust is culturally influenced.  Nobody gets a free pass just because their actions arise from sincere personal dispositions.

Where do we draw the line between shaming and aversion?  I think this is a nuanced issue that unfortunately doesn’t get much nuanced attention.  Ace activists tend to see only one side, and sex-positive activists see only the other.

Without saying anything too substantive, I will simply say that some disgust has got to be acceptable.  I don’t interact much with kinky discourse, but there are some obvious parallels to draw.  There are so many kinks that even kinky people will be turned off by some of them.  Is it wrong for them to be disgusted?  Is it wrong for them to publicly express their dislike?  Obviously not, although if the kink they dislike is widely marginalized they might try to be careful about it.  Sexually averse aces are in a similar position, although the things they’re averse to are usually more mainstream.

Bad asexual advocacy

GAS says the following:

Many asexual advocates are also SWERFs, or Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists. Their views line up perfectly with those of right wing religious opposition to pornography and sex work on pretty much every level. Given that keeping sex work illegal or on the margins of law prevents meaningful regulation that can save lives, given that it’s part of the reason prostitution is the single most dangerous profession in the USA, you’re going to need a mountain of evidence to convince me this is a reasonable position. And even then, I’ll take the word of sex workers over people who are admittedly “sex repulsed,” when it comes to matters of major impact on their lives and livelihoods.

I wouldn’t say that “many” asexual advocates are SWERFs, but I don’t wish to diminish the critique by saying #notallasexuals.  I can certainly recall a few specific examples of what GAS is talking about.  Asexual activists have much credibility in criticizing sex work, so I don’t know why they even bother (says the concern troll).

I don’t have much to say about this except that I agree.  Sometimes aces have substantive disagreement with even “good” sex-positive activism.  It is fair to criticize them on this.


  1. Siobhan says

    Where do we draw the line between shaming and aversion?

    Disclaimer: I use the Royal You a lot, and this is not necessarily directed at you, specifically, Siggy. I think this dialogue is difficult to navigate, because so many people weaponize a person’s sexuality, and there is a tendency for sex-positive proponents, myself included, to side-eye anyone that suggests restriction of an important aspect of ourselves.

    I say we draw the line where folks are being asked to change behaviours where they’ve been given a context to express them because of someone else’s personal taste.

    In Elizabeth’s example, she mentioned sex-positive kinky folk. I brought up the notion of a play party because even sex+ folk aren’t in the habit of engaging in sexual intercourse in front of others without a context.

    Play parties are usually that context. You sign a waiver saying “x, y, and z could happen tonight.” By agreeing to enter the venue, you agree that you might witness x, y, or z. Some venues, sex is allowed, so sex is a possibility–although not a guarantee. It’s like a legal “Content Warning.” Just as someone can look at the top of a content warning of a post and decide “I don’t care for this,” so too could prospective participants look at a party’s terms and decide it’s not for them.

    So the assumption is that if you’ve agreed to enter the play party, you’ve agreed to, at minimum, witness The Things defined by the party’s permissions. This renders unnecessary having to ask 98 people if they’re comfortable with x activity because they consented to be in the general vicinity of it when they signed the waiver. They don’t have to endorse it, they don’t have to watch it, but it might be in the background or the periphery, but that’s the situation set by the party’s conditions. It is, after all, an xyz party. It would be like objecting to *other people dancing* at a dance party. Objections would absolutely be warranted if someone pulled you into dancing without your consent, but you’re going to witness other people dancing at a dance party. That’s what it’s there for. You can drink at the bar or socialize or crochet on the couches or do something that’s Not Dancing, but you’re in a dance club, so other people will dance.

    I would not support navigating around personal aversion when the events define permissible activity from the get-go. I would, however, support an ace-night (or non-sexual night), where the host sets their own terms which would exclude sexual activity. If I agreed to enter such an event, I would be an asshole to engage in sex anyway–but I reject the notion that I should stop engaging in exhibitionism at parties where exhibitionism is expected/allowed to occur because some of the participants aren’t comfortable with it. You’re not being tied to a chair and forced to watch. Just watch/do something else. There’s a whole dungeon to look at and a social area entirely separate from the play.

    In other words, it’s not reasonable to tell me I can’t use the park because someone else doesn’t like sand.

  2. Great American Satan says

    I feel a bit ashamed I opened this conversation and now don’t have time to participate in it substantively. (I’m going to post this comment on my article as well.) I just want to say I appreciate well-reasoned and extensive responses. That’s great, thank you and your co-blogger from The Asexual Agenda. Also thanks to Siobhan for contributions from another view.

  3. says

    @Great American Satan,
    No problem. I usually respond pretty slowly myself, thus why I almost never cover news.

    I think a lot of this depends on the typical interactions that aces have with kinky spaces. I have no experience in this area and can’t speak to it.

  4. Elizabeth Leuw says

    @Siobhan: In case you check here first, I replied over on GAS’s post. 🙂

  5. Marksa says

    Do we really have to call it by a name “sex positively”?

    I have an issue with a Jew and his yarmulka, a Muslim with their hijab, gays kissing in public or making a issue of their gayness. BUT I have no issues with gays, Muslims or Jews!!

    I just have an issue with people sticking their views in my face constantly – I don’t want to know who they are unless I ask them.

    If someone wants to stick their dick into an orifice whether it be a chimney, duck or any other hole – that’s their problem not mine just do it in privacy or a mutually accepted environment.

    As I have said I have no problem with anything the human population does as long as they do it where it offends no one and doesn’t hurt anyone.

    Just to put it into perspective my my daughters godfather (I’m an atheist) is gay (he’s not an atheist! Which I find a bit of an anathema) and is probably best friend I’ve ever had.

  6. Nowhere Girl says

    Exactly: there is a problem with sex-positivity in practice. Recently I’ve been to the Equality Parade (Warsaw Pride) and I met a pal who is very sex-positive; I was wearing a rainbow T-shirt, rainbow bandana and a lot of rainbow jewellery and he said that his friend also loves rainbow stuff, so I joined his friends for a while. One of them was wearing a t-shirt with the words “Ask a sex ed teacher”, so I did and my impressions from this contact with sex-positivity are not very good. She said that of course, nobody should be pressured to have sex and that of course, if someone feels no sexual attraction/desire/whatsoever, a wise sex ed teacher should tell them that it’s OK – but she also said that she doesn’t agree with specifically teaching about asexuality because it still isn’t officially acknowledged as an orientation. This is exactly what I disagree with – I believe a more proactive approach to asexuality-friendly sexual education is necessary. I was lucky to be a non-conformist, to have experienced what I call the Revelation of Rebellion – long before I knew the term “asexual” (note: in Polish “asexual” as referring to reproduction and “asexual” as referring to sexuality are two different words, so also the mocking “So you can reproduce by yourself?” wouldn’t be comprehensible) and started using it to refer to myself, I already knew that I have a right to my own views and don’t have to live “like everybody else” (already at the age of 5-6 years I started declaring that I don’t want to marry or have children when I grow up). But later I have also read much about how many young asexuals struggle with feelings of being weirdoes. Many of their problems could be avoided if asexuality was included in sex ed programs. It’s also not just about aces – perhaps social approach to asexuality (there is a Polish expression which isn’t known in English, but sums up this approach very well – literally “making forcibly happy”) would slowly change if non-asexual young people would have gone through sex ed curriculum that would tell them that asexuality is a part of the normal spectrum.
    In fact I don’t really understand why we should pay so much attention to the idea of something being or not being “normal”. If someone does harm to anyone, this is surely a problem that requires intervention, but if some people just live their lives, function normally while being “weird”, “queer” or “abnormal” in some respects – why should it matter? I’m actually surprised that psychology can work at all – we are so immensely diverse that I don’t see any reason for our personalities to adhere to any standards.


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