I care a lot about language. It may be because of my configuration of majors and a minor, or because I have worked and want to work in communications and marketing, or because one of my best friends is a linguist. For whatever reason, I engage talking and writing with what I hope is a self-reflexive, critical lens. I think a lot about how every word is a constant struggle to express what I mean to say; about how putting words to a feeling or experience can allow you to reclaim it; about how the rhetorical decisions I make knowingly or unconsciously have a real impact on everyone I interact with. It makes writing difficult and time-consuming. A transition between paragraphs can take me hours, and I spend almost as long writing introductions as the rest of the paper.
Maybe it is because of my interest that my understanding of sex positivity relies heavily on an active reformulation of language and how we go about thinking about sex and romance.
Sex positivity is a movement dealing explicitly with the intersections between consent, contraception and protective barriers, sexuality, sexism, happiness in the bedroom and confidence in our bodies. These individual topics give us avenues to discuss the issues we see on and off campus, but through sex positivity we actively connect them to form a political position centered on healthy sexual and romantic expression. We can talk about the contradiction in American norms that exploit the bodies of women and female-bodied people while also denouncing their sexuality. We can think about the lack of diversely representative narratives of sexuality and romance in pop culture, which largely excludes everyone from people of color, queer people, trans* folk, complex chosen families, working class families, et cetera, et cetera.
While these discussions need to (and do) lead to action, I still think it is vital to take a moment and celebrate the power of creating dialogue around sex positivity. Because when done effectively, sex positivity is an entire movement trying to change the way we talk and think to place value in choice and our ability to make decisions that affect our bodies.
What this looks like: when you are in a sexual and/or romantic relationship, you have the right to commit and engage in any act as only long as you and your partner want to. Even if you are in the middle of having sex and your partner is having a good time, you have no obligation to continue if you suddenly don’t feel comfortable or safe. It is your right to say no, and your partner must respect your choice. And while there may be times when it would be appropriate to talk through why you need to stop, you do not have to justify not wanting sex. We should all be entitled to making decisions over we want to do with our bodies. What makes sexual and/or romantic acts so enjoyable is when our wants align with someone else’s.
The slogan “consent is sexy” is one way sex positive advocates have tried to summarize this dynamic, but while it’s catchy, it needs clarification. The language of the slogan is meant to get people excited about consent, but it can frame and trivialize consent as something that can be either a turn-on or a turn-off, as if to say that you can choose not to be consensual. And while I understand that this whole article is talking about choice, there is a huge difference between being able to say no and being able to say yes if your partner says no. Consent is only “sexy” because the only way to have a successful sexual and/or romantic encounter is to be consensual. Anything else is sexual and/or romantic violence.
This clarification is why we need to constantly reflect on sex positivity. Because while the message of the slogan is clear, the impact can be harmful to the very cause we are meant to be supporting. Being wary of whether or not our intents match our impacts is important to making sex positivity possible because it is so dependent on trying to change a sex negative culture.
Recognizing difference and infusing choice into everything is paramount for sex positivity to continue. I have personally tried to do this by changing the way I speak and write to include variation. One way I do this is when I write “sex and/or romance.” For me, it is a visual reminder that people want different things from their relationships, and it is not up to me to talk only about relationship models that include sex and romance while excluding those that only want one of the two.
This is one small change that goes a long way in reformulating language to better fit a more sex positive view of the world. Over the course of this past year, I hope I have shared and modeled ways to better think about sex positivity and to effect change for the movement. But since summer break is almost upon us, let us remember that there is still more to be done and talked about, and it is up to us to keep up the conversation.