Maryam*, a 24-year-old Somali woman, sports a long skirt covering her ankles and a hijab, and is a whirlwind of energy. A devout Muslim, she is a virgin by choice, waiting for a real connection that will lead to marriage before she has sex. Often, she encounters unconscious stigma about her sexual status, citing the choice language commonly used to refer to Internet trolls: “a virgin in their mom’s basement.” “I feel like it’s very en vogue right now to be like ‘LOL EATING ASS!!!!’” she says. Despite her discomfort about being on the receiving end of TMI, she never voices her apprehension, for fear her distaste for the subject matter will be seen as unsupportive, or worse, shaming. “It’s not that my religion doesn’t teach people to enjoy sex, just that it’s a private thing, outside of educational purposes,” she says. “I think you’re only included in the sex positive movement if you are someone who, one, has a bumpin’ sex life or, two, loves to talk about sex.”
Sex positivity, as a movement, is “simply the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing,” according to the Colorado State University Women and Gender Advocacy Center. In sex positivity, it’s okay to have lots of sex or none at all, kinky or vanilla, with whomever you goddamn please. But sex educator Kate McCombs admits that there’s often a big difference between the sex positivity that gets translated in the media and true sex positivity. “Some people are talking about it in a way that I think is really holistic and balanced, but other people are doing it in a way that feels like they’re just validating their own sexual journey.”
As a result, there’s a growing backlash among women who want to be more open about being closed. While the sex positivity movement strives to make people more comfortable with their own preferences, it also creates a false binary—are you positive or negative? Are you chill or are you a prude? By purporting to be inclusive of everything, sex positivity has become an orthodoxy.
And not all of the criticisms of the movement are coming from a cabal of pitchfork-wielding reactionaries or the hopelessly repressed: they’re also coming from snappy and smart young women who look at sex positivity as the philosophical equivalent of a one-size-fits-all sweater—draping effortlessly on some but tragically lumpy on others. As the performative enjoyment of sex has essentially become a mandatory part of being alive, the act has been commodified so much that for many, it’s become an imposition.
The concept of sex positivity was popularized by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1920s and ’30s. Reich believed that sexual repression was the cause of society’s ills, and was dubbed a “sexual evangelist” by the Guardian for spreading his belief that more orgasms could improve mental health. He is also credited with inventing the orgone box, essentially a closet filled with “energy” designed to improve overall health by increasing “orgastic potency” that supposedly induced spontaneous, hands-free orgasms, enjoyed by luminaries such as J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and William S. Burroughs. While many of Reich’s theories have been debunked as pseudoscience, they directly contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s; during the 1968 European student uprisings, protestors scrawled his name on walls and threw copies of his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police. No longer would they believe that masturbating makes you go blind or, as the saying goes, “lie back and think of England!”
Post-birth control pill, the Helen Gurley Brown-edited Cosmopolitan became the bible for women learning how to navigate sex outside of marriage, while Playboy magazine encouraged women to liberate themselves via lush sexual availability. “Taking off our clothes was an important part of the project of undoing the constraints we perceived our elders to have been immobilized by,” writes Jenny Diski in The Sixties. Since that decade, the sex positivity movement has contributed to significant social change: major strides have been made in the fight for equal rights across spectrums of sexual and gender identity and for those who identify outside of gender binary, and monogamy is now one of many relationship options rather than sacrosanct. These days, sex positivity manifests a number of different ways, from the empowering “war cry” of Missy Elliott to the self-commodification of Kim Kardashian. Even Beyoncé, arguably the most important entertainer of the 21st century, held up the banner for sex positivity when she sampled the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Flawless: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
“It always struck me as dumb that all women could end up at the same ‘liberated’ place through fucking.”
August McLaughlin, a health and sexuality writer based in Los Angeles, says that sex positivity is helpful for those who feel a deep-seated sense of shame surrounding their sexuality. McLaughlin grew up in a religious family in which sex was taboo and certainly not a source of pleasure. “I used to have a lot of shame for having a relatively high sex drive,” she says. “You’re not supposed to want sex and be a good girl.” In her late teens and early 20s, she suffered from a severe eating disorder, and credits learning about sex positivity as one element that assisted her road to recovery. In university, she was introduced to the concept by a “wonderfully feminist” professor, and realized that so far she had failed to embrace her sexuality as an integral part of who she was. Doing just that became a great source of empowerment and strength.
Most people have experienced one form or another of sexual shame, and it seems that the more shame you’ve endured, the more you stand to benefit from sex positivity. McCombs says, “The idea that sex could be for pleasure and not an exclusively matrimonial reproductive thing is really revolutionary for them.” But the shame goes both ways. “In order to fight against the arbitrary moral codes the bourgeois world imposed on the young,” Diski writes, “the young imposed on themselves arbitrary physical requirements that took very little account of the complexity of human emotional connections. We cut a swathe through the conventions, but invented new conventions that gave us just as much heartache. Liberation, at least in its new sexual form, was a new form of imposed morality, quite as restricting and causing at least as much repression as we accused our parent’s generation of creating.”
While enjoying sex is still a source of shame for many, for some, it’s a lack of ability to enjoy sex that holds them back. “A lot of my friends brag about how much sex they have and tell me ad nauseam about the experimenting they do, so I always feel left out,” says Hayley, a 24-year-old writer from New York who suffers from vaginismus, a condition involving involuntary tightening of the pelvic floor that makes sex feel like torture. She labels herself as a “woman with a sex drive” yet bemoans that she’s never orgasmed with a partner, and describes the best level of sex she’s ever experienced as neutral. “This is terrible, but I’ve gotten really good at masking my discomfort,” she says. The excruciating pain Hayley feels during sex is a constant source of shame and anxiety. “It sucks as a liberal sex-positive woman to dread sex. It makes you feel really weird and really conservative, like there is something wrong with you.”
Vaginismus is a medical condition, but Hayley’s wary of seeking treatment. “It’s not like I can say, ‘Doc, my knee hurts and I can’t jog,’ it’s very different.” She’s waiting until she is more financially independent and no longer on her parents’ medical insurance, and will likely spend another few years missing out on the titillating kind of sex presented in the New York magazine sex diaries—The College Student Choosing Between Three Men, The 18-Year-Old Extensively Cheating on Her Boyfriend, the Young Dominatrix in an Open Relationship. These accounts, polished and processed for mass consumption like a Pop Tart, favour the undeniably salacious. McCombs explains that what is reflected in mainstream media tends to affect our perception of the kind of sex we should be having.
“It’s a bit like roller derby, maybe it’s just not for us,” says Liz,* a 33-year-old queer woman from Toronto who works in tech. She takes issue with sex positivity because of its “aggressively heterosexual” nature, noting that nobody in the media associated with sex positivity looks like her, which is to say, butch. There’s a major gap in who is presented in the public eye as a sex positive icon; perhaps Lena Dunham can have sex with a hot older man on TV and Amy Schumer can “catch a dick” whenever she wants, but they’re both white, able-bodied, femme-presenting women. “I’m not super sure I like being excluded from being positive about my own body. And I also just don’t like this portrayal that it’s always ultra-feminine women,” she says.
“What makes me uncomfortable about sex positivity is the same thing that has always discomfited me about white, westernized notions of self-actualizing as a woman,” says Muna Mire, a 26-year-old journalist in New York and Hazlitt contributor. White feminism “assumes that the way white women experience misogyny is the way all women experience misogyny,” says Zeba Blay on the Huffington Post, and seems largely focused on promoting armpit hair, bralessness and #freethenipple as pathways to empowerment. But while such notions might be liberating for a few, they tend to forget that women of colour, women with disabilities, trans women, and basically any kind of person who might experience the world in a different way than a white woman, exist. (For an example of systemic racism at work in a sexual context: a 2013 study on dating app Are You Interested showed black women were considered the least desirable category by users of the service.) “Sex doesn’t treat people equally or impartially. There is a clear, defined hierarchy of desire,” says Mire. “I guess it always struck me as dumb that all women could end up at the same ‘liberated’ place through fucking.”
The problem with sexual liberation is that it can feel compulsory. “Historically, sex positivity came as a response to the idea that sex is dirty and wrong and morally corrupt,” says Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth. “But when you’re fighting for people to be able to have sex outside of a committed relationship or with people of the same gender, you’re not necessarily also thinking of the fact that some people are stigmatized for not being sexually active,” she says.
There’s a certain squeamishness that comes with admitting sex positivity isn’t your thing, because we haven’t yet figured out what the alternative looks like. For me, sex is not merely a recreational activity to pass the time but a psychic surrendering of near gargantuan proportions. I’ve had enough casual sex to know that I have difficulty expressing my deepest desires to people I barely know, and as a result, casual sex for me is basically an oxymoron; any sexual experience lacking intimacy and vulnerability just isn’t that hot to me—if the stakes are low, my pussy says “no.”
If you’re being measured on a scale of positive to negative, then you’re either an Annie Sprinkle, the peppy porn star/performance artist whose piece “100 Blow Jobs” involves her giving head to several dildos, or an Andrea Dworkin, the ’90s-era anti-porn activist. In 2013, xoJane published a personal essay titled “UNPOPULAR OPINION: I’m a Sex-Negative Feminist.” The article was met with a firestorm of critical response from women in the BDSM community who didn’t take kindly to the notion that their desire to act submissive in the bedroom reinforced the patriarchy. But in the wake of compulsory sexuality, sex negativity is enjoying a new renaissance. “I am so glad we’re on the cusp of the sex negativity moment,” writer Jamie Lauren Keiles tweeted. “[I] feel overburdened by all the imperatives to love myself, would rather just cut my losses and think about other things.” Such proclamations are laced with an almost Daria-level of irony, yet they still ring true, because sometimes mocking something is the only way to undermine the power it holds over you. Referring to yourself as “sex negative” is simply one way to eschew the constant pressure to enjoy and experiment with your sexuality.
In The Sex Myth, Hills spent the better part of a decade travelling around the world to interview hundreds of young people about their experiences of their own sexuality. What she found was a remarkably uniform sense of anxiety. Almost everyone expressed the belief that their sexual experiences were lacking or abnormal while everyone around them was busy whooping it up on the Sex Train. Clara from Seattle, interviewed by Hills, said, “I always have this paranoia suspicion that everyone else is in consensus about appropriate sexual practices, and I am an awkward, immature, insecure anomaly.”
Ultimately the book revealed that so much of what it is to be a fun, sexually liberated person is just going through the motions. It’s possible to have a lot of sex and not enjoy any of it, and it’s equally as possible to have a totally fulfilling sex life and still feel like you’re not measuring up. The result of the sex myth is that we feel anxious and inadequate no matter the frequency and quality of sex we are having.
So far, there’s still no terminology that adequately describes my complicated relationship with sex; sex critical makes me feel like I’m marking up an essay in red pen, while sex skeptical makes it sound like I’m anxious about having sex for the first time. There needs to be a better way to express that sex can be great, but it needn’t be the entire focus or the be-all-end-all of our lives. Last month, the digital artist Molly Soda tweeted, “I low-key love that I don’t have sex with anyone ever. I’m either extremely sexually repressed or extremely sexually liberated.”
Research Editor: Daniel Viola