This article was originally published by Jamila Reddy under its original title “Sex-Positivity Means Unlearning Shame” and is republished with permission.
When I was five years old, my parents gave my sister and me a book called Where Did I Come From.
Published in 1973, the book featured illustrations and explanations of how babies are made. On the front and back covers were a sea of cartoon sperm swimming across the page with smiles on their faces. The book featured a friendly-looking (straight white) couple in various forms of undress; kissing, holding hands and “making love.”
My next lessons on sex came in the fourth grade, in North Carolina public school health classes. On a special day that required parental consent in order for students to participate, “boys and girls” were separated and sent to two different rooms to view scientific diagrams of our reproductive systems. I remember feeling awkward in a room full of pre-pubescent youth, all of us squirming nervously through informational videos on puberty, groaning and giggling through re-enactments of first periods and wet dreams.
Before I started having it, however, most of what I learned about sex came from TV, music, and movies.
Of course. I remember being shocked and delighted to see portrayals of sex as a young person — the iconic sweaty backseat-window-of-the-car moment from Titanic, music video countdowns featuring scantily clad women, suggestive choreography at my very first Spice Girls concert.
As a kid, my media consumption was regulated to the extent that it could be. My mother would very likely be horrified to know that, in middle and high school, I spent many an unsupervised hour at sleepovers watching BET Uncut, a late-night program that streamed sexually explicit, raunchy music videos. Many of these videos were, essentially, DIY low-budget films bordering on actual porn, and the rest were more mainstream but deemed too “mature” to show during regular countdowns. Women were almost exclusively featured in these videos as sexual objects — sporting thongs and tight dresses, licking and poking out their glistening lips, winding and bouncing and bending.
Coming of Age: Sex and Sexist Messages
I grew up unknowingly queer in the Christian, conservative South, and heteronormativity (the assumption of heterosexuality and adherence to a gender binary) pervaded most, if not all, of the lessons I learned about sex. These lessons on what was “acceptable” or “standard” behavior when it came to sex distorted my understanding of what sex was and what it could be. I did not know I was queer until my twenties because, before my twenties, I did not even know what “queer” was. I did not know that sex could be something other than the penetrative sex between cisgender, heterosexual woman and a cisgender, heterosexual man because I had never seen it.
Until adulthood, nobody in my life talked openly about sex outside of conversations on abstinence, and if they did, they certainly didn’t talk to me.
I learned about sex as a practical endeavor (for the purpose of making babies) and as the standard rule of intimate engagement between cishet men and cishet women (for the purposes of male orgasm). I learned that sex was a thing to be done behind closed doors. I learned that sex was for dangerous and risky. I learned that sex was complex and rife with double standards.
Much of my sex education came from social myths. It seemed widely understood that for people assigned male at birth (AMAB), pursuing sex was totally normal and natural, but for people assigned female at birth (AFAB), it was devious and shameful. Adolescent me looked on in horror as the girls who wore low-cut shirts or miniskirts were admonished for having no self-respect, and the ones who made out in the back rows of movie theatres were villainized and shamed for being “sluts. l I learned, through years of observing the social stigma attached to sexual girls, that sex was something to do quietly and privately — that if I was going to do it, no one should know.
For years, I believed that something was wrong with me for being curious about sex for pleasure and for fantasizing about being intimate with another body like mine. I saw sex as something strange and dangerous, not just for the physical risks it posed to the body, but for how quickly it could lower one’s social worth. So I suppressed my sexual desires. I learned to be ashamed of them.
Sexual Initiation and Sexual Passivity
The first time I had sex was on the top bunk of a dorm room bed at 19.
My boyfriend at the time, like most of my cishet male sexual partners, had had more experiences with sex than I, not only through engaging in it but through watching porn. Since I was a “virgin” (language that, to this day, makes me cringe), I deemed him the expert and deferred to him to facilitate our first sexual encounter. It was uninspiring, to say the least. I lay on my back in the dark, stiff as a board, as he huffed and puffed on top of me. It was awkward and uncomfortable, and after all was said and done, I turned over and wept into his pillow. Gut-wrenching, loud, ugly sobs. I left feeling dirty, ruined. I felt like I had “lost” something. Like my value as a person worthy of respect had just dropped tenfold.
Despite spending three (monogamous) years in a relationship together, this boyfriend and I never actually had a conversation about what positive, consensual sex looked like. Our sex was boring and routine, and almost always ended with his orgasm. After we parted ways, my sexual experiences varied slightly but pretty much had the same script, different cast. Even when my sexual partners were not cishet men, I followed their lead. I was agreeable, I went along for the ride.
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My fear of being labeled a social deviant, a slut, yielded a sort of sexual apathy — I learned to be passive within sexual encounters. I learned not to consider my own desires and instead to be “okay with” and “down for” anything. I spent years prioritizing my partner’s’ sexual experience and pleasure over my own, following their lead, essentially doing what I was told. It was not until well into adulthood (and several difficult, transparent conversations with my current genderqueer, trans, sex-positive partner) that I realized how desperately I needed to unlearn what I had been taught about sex.
Queer Conversations: Finding Sex-Positivity
Several months into our relationship, my partner — who, for a bit of context, describes themself as “pro-ho” — asked, “What do I have to do to get you to ask me for sex?” The question stopped me in my tracks. Admittedly, I hadn’t even noticed that they were always the one who initiated our sexual rendezvous. My partner expressed frustration over this discrepancy and communicated their desire to feel wanted and to be pursued. After reflecting on why it rarely occurred to me to play a lead role in our sex life, I realized: I never did it because, in the past, I never had to. All of my previous partners came on to me. I had never protested, and none of them had ever complained.
Being in a partnership with someone whose sexual expression is a core part of their identity — someone deeply invested in the pursuit of pleasure and joy — made me glaringly aware of my own internalized sex-negativity.
I discovered how much shame around sex I had internalized, and how much that shame had stunted the growth of my own sexual identity and sexual expression.
I realized that I had allowed myself to become, as James Baldwin so brilliantly put it, a “co-conspirator” in my own oppression. Patriarchy, a social system in which cisgender heterosexual men dominate, is fundamentally rooted in AFAB people not feeling in control of their bodies. Under patriarchy, women — and especially women of color — are systematically disconnected from our bodies. We are socialized not to consider what feels good to us, but as to how we can use our bodies in service of men.
I am working to unlearn these lessons and to exercise full agency over my body. I am working on moving away from shame, stigma, and silence towards a personal sex-positivity. Sex-positivity is a complex notion, and lots of folks have lots of things to say about what it actually means. For me, sex-positivity is the belief that sex, as long as it is healthy and consensual, is a positive thing. The Center for Positive Sexuality provides this definition:
“A sex-positive perspective acknowledges the wide range of human and sexual diversity among individuals; a multitude of sexual identities, orientations, and practices; gender presentations; and the need for accessible healthcare and education. Sex positivity also encourages open and safe communication, ethics, consent, empowerment of sexual minorities, and the resolution of various social problems that are associated with sexuality.”
Moving away from shame and towards sex-positivity means, first and foremost, that I must affirm myself as a sexual being. I have to stop pretending sex isn’t a part of my life. I have to let go of thoughts and beliefs that prevent me from taking control over what happens to my body.
Ultimately, what I want out of sex are the same things I want out of my life as a whole: curiosity, a spirit of play, openness, vulnerability, connectivity, pleasure, freedom.
Unlearning shame is not a journey that will happen overnight, but it’s a worthy endeavor nonetheless. Being sex-positive is about so much more than just having great sex. It’s, in the words of Toni Morrison, about “letting go of the shit that weighs me down.” It’s about prioritizing my own opinions, my own desires, and ultimately, my own happiness. It’s about taking full responsibility for my life and the experiences I have within it.
And what could be more radical than that?
[Featured Image: A person with brown skin and long dark hair standing on the beach. They are looking over their shoulder. They are wearing a pink dress slid down low off their shoulders and back. The dress is blowing in the wind. Source: pexels.]