Sex positivity often acts as an implicit — or sometimes explicit — foundation of leftist, feminist, and LGBTQ+ spaces for completely valid reasons. As women and queers, sex has been the driving force behind both our oppression and the spaces we create to separate, heal, and liberate us from our oppression.
Sexualized spaces for socializing predate our modern understanding of the LGBTQ+ umbrella. When the social categories marking these identities emerged, LGBTQ+ people began to socialize around their sexuality in ways similar to heterosexual practices; yet heterosexuality, of course, is made invisible due to its dominance as the status quo.
Mirroring straight society, sex clubs and bars with sexual undercurrents became inevitable spaces for queer folks to congregate for many reasons. Separatist queer social spaces became an understandable respite from the oppression rampant in heteronormative spaces.
Even outside of LGBTQ+ spaces, the basis of our discrimination is sex-based. When people read our queerness, they are making assumptions about with whom and how we like to have sex, regardless of whether we want to or actually are having this sex. And structurally, queer sex has been positioned as threatening the integrity of society as a whole.
The fragile straight majority’s anxiety over the idea that queer sex is a threat to the nation has resulted in the destruction of many queer people’s lives, both historically and presently. This includes the Lavender Scare under McCarthyism, gay bashings and murder, conversion therapy, job and housing discrimination, and the historic (and global) criminalization of our sexual practices under Western imperialism and colonialism, just to name a few. While society continues to make the sexuality of straight people mostly invisible as the demographic majority, queer people’s sexuality continues to be made hypervisible and hypersexual.
The idea that we really could be challenging, subverting, and destroying the patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonialism that our society is built on via our sex practices is really exciting to me. However, in reality this is not only not the truth, but we often end up replicating these systems in the microcosms of our sex lives.
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I understand why queer and feminist communities have embraced sex positivity as a reaction to the oppression we face as a community. Reclaiming sex and sexuality is a reasonable reaction to the histories of violence we have faced in the name of policing, critiquing, and attempting to destroy our sexual lives and desires. It is an important tool of resistance to embrace that for which you are oppressed.
However, embracing compulsory sex positivity without holding space for the ways some of us have been and continue to be harmed by sex glosses over the complicated relationship to sex many of us have. Here are three ways that’s the case.
1. Sex can be triggering for survivors of sexual assault
A common reaction to sexual assault is to become disinterested in sex, or for thoughts or discussion of sex to become triggering. Naturally, being violated in such an intimate way can complicate or even sever any positivity tied to sex. High numbers of people who identify as LGBTQ are survivors of sexual violence.
While a sex positivity that demands that we all have a positive and healthy embracing of sex has been critiqued, an expectation to even feel neutral to sex can feel erasing for those who have a negative or even traumatic relationship to sex. And while there are certainly survivors who maintain a sex-positive alignment in valid ways, a sex positivity that isn’t sensitive to the variety of experiences we have with sex can be alienating.
2. Accessing sexuality can be difficult based on our other identities
I’ve realized the ways in which my own relationship to sexuality has been impacted by my fatness, or more precisely, by fatphobia.
Because I have existed in a world that views fat people not only not as sexual subjects but as outright disgusting, I have consistently been desexualized by my peers and ostensible sexual partner pool. This has caused me to hide or minimize my sexual desires in many ways, particularly when I am attracted to someone. Because my automatic assumption is that they are not attracted to me, I rarely initiate a sexual or even romantic relationship. This is primarily out of fear that my pursuit will evoke shame or embarrassment or discomfort from others.
Fatphobia adds another layer onto navigating my sexuality. While I feel totally comfortable with my queer identity, especially as it extends beyond my actual sex practices, accessing and participating in sexual spaces as a fat person adds a layer of stress and anxiety when trying to engage with my sexuality. This is especially true outside of spaces specifically designated as fat-positive sexual spaces — which many queer social spaces are not.
In addition, a 2009-2014 study of OkCupid response rates revealed racial biases, particularly against Black folks as well as Asian men. For those of us who have marginalized bodies, this did not feel like much of a surprise. We are well aware of the ways in which social biases, including race, reveal themselves not just on dating websites or hook-up apps, but in interpersonal queer social spaces generally.
More Radical Reads: Sex is Political: How I, as a Queer Black Man, Confronted My Anti-Blackness
For many of us, we have unpleasant, negative, or dysfunctional relationships to sex simply because we are not seen as sexual possibilities in our communities. On a purely physical level, this can be disappointing, but it can feel like a bigger betrayal when it reveals biases even in intentional radical leftist spaces that would like to otherwise obscure our differences or the ways we are replicating systems of oppression in our spaces. Particularly when we formulate our social circles—consciously or unconsciously—based on potential sexual or romantic partners. Those of us without (or with less) sexual capital end up losing access to not just sex and romance, but friendship and community, and other networks of support that are vital to our survival.
In some ways, our sexual practices can be hyperintimate replications of systems of power. I have seen too many intentional queer of color spaces where the sexual capital continues to be distributed solely amongst the thin, cis, not-disabled, and light-skinned people in the space. When we fall outside of these categories, there is a heightened pressure to access our sexualities in ways that don’t feel entirely available, as much as we may want to. Without this access and experience, it is so easy to feel shamed and outcasted by a sex positivity that not only encourages us to have frequent sex, but presumes those around us are accessing those experiences.
3. Many of us have unhealthy relationships to sex
Recently I confessed to a friend that, frequently, my primary motivations for seeking out sex stem from feeling sad and/or undesirable. In these moments, sex becomes a way to prove my own desirability to myself, or sometimes simply as a distraction from the things that are making me feel sad or overwhelmed. Because of this, every sexual encounter feels pregnant with the burden to compensate for the larger forces that shape my sexual potential.
Historically, sex for me is rarely about the actors enjoying each others’ bodies, and is often loaded with so much more meaning than it does not and simply can’t deliver. And I have continued this pattern knowingly at times, so much so in a way that I can see the ways in which sex practices have become a method of self-harm for me.
Sex is no longer a neutral pastime but a tool I have used to self-medicate, a tool I use not only when I’m sad or lonely but when I want to feel bad about myself—the most consistent expectation it can deliver. With this knowledge, it becomes difficult to pretend sex is an inherently neutral or even positive act. It can and has be used to harm so many of us—particularly when so many mimic these reasons for seeking out sex as well.
It isn’t enough to be positive about sex without also producing the opportunities for positive experiences of sex. There is so much work required for this to happen, beyond basic understandings of consent. It requires us having relationships to each other and our bodies that allow all of our encounters to feel emotionally and physically safe, mutually pleasurable, and decentralizing sexual capital to move away from the most visible embodiments of privilege.
There is a reason that sex has become a focal point of not just our movements but of human history generally. At its best, sex can be anything from downright fun to empowering. In practice, sex is a complicated hydra that we all have very different relationships to and experiences with. This does not, necessarily, mean that we need to disavow sex completely. I am not calling for us to stop talking about it, having it, making it a part of our communities. What it does mean, however, is that we should be much more critical about the ways in which sex does show up in our spaces. A sex positivity that assumes that we all have the same experiences with sex is not only not true, but harmful to our communities.
[Feature Image: Photo of a person sitting outside at dusk, the sun illuminating their body so that just the dark outline of their profile is visible. They have short hair and a beard. Birds fly in the sky behind them. Source: Pexels]