There can be no BDSM — or at least no fun and satisfying BDSM — without a welcoming attitude toward sex and desire in all its different shapes and forms. American culture, however, is famously sex-negative, and often disapproving of sex in general and of alternative sexuality in particular. Publicly, we talk about sex primarily in terms of the “problems” of sex, such as teen pregnancy, sexual harassment, or sexually transmitted diseases. (You can find an illuminating article on our Sex-Negative Society here.)
Many sex researchers and educators are working hard to counter sex-negativity by creating more sex-positive information sources and messages and sending them circulating through society, from the individual level on up to the institutional. As part of that effort, the Los Angeles-based Center for Positive Sexuality, a non-profit educational and research association, was established in 2007 “to promote the positive, healthy aspects of sex and sexuality through open, honest, and accurate education and research,” according to their Web site.
The Center is quick to point out that the term “positive sexuality” is trendy these days, and easy to use in an automatic way as meaning good feelings or an easygoing attitude about sex. But the sex-positive movement is about a lot more than enthusiasm for a good time in the bedroom; it is about understanding sexual health, safety, dignity and pleasure as a basic human right, and beyond that, a force for good in society. To that end, the Center has developed a model for positive sexuality inspired by the World Health Organization’s definition of sexual health. This model focuses on eight different “dimensions,” and the expression of positive sexuality relies on each of these important factors:
Sexuality is not one-size-fits-all. Positive sexuality resists the urge to label non-mainstream sexual practices as abnormal or deviant. Each of us has our own values and beliefs, our own preferences and predilections, our own longings and desires. Positive sexuality defends and celebrates this diversity and individuality, along with the right of each person to express their sexuality in the way that feels right and good to them.
Positive sexuality is a “strengths-based approach,” and tells us that we do better when we stop looking at people as somehow broken or needing to be fixed, and focus instead on building on their strengths and resilience. Positive sexuality tells us we can trust people to know what is best for them, as well as trust that they can access their own inner resources in order to achieve sexual well-being.
Positive sexuality is holistic and embraces knowledge about sex from many different disciplines. It takes in medical and scientific discoveries about our biology and anatomy, but also looks to other disciplines such as sociology or anthropology and what they can tell us about sex and sexual practices, today and in the past. Feminist and queer theories offer different, well thought-out perspectives on the social constructs of sexuality that often operate outside our conscious awareness. Meanwhile, rich insights can be gleaned from personal life experiences through the arts, such as in movies or memoirs.
Our sex-negative culture often breeds guilt, shame and secrecy about sexuality. A positive approach to sexuality requires truthful communication and openness about our thoughts, feelings and desires around sex. This is important not only between intimate partners, but also in wider society, whether in educating our youth about sexuality, or talking about it in the media. This is not always easy, we are often pushed to retreat behind the concept of “privacy” when it comes to our sexual lives, or worry about making others uncomfortable by revealing too much. But taking advantage of opportunities to open up about one’s desires is not only liberating for the self, it helps others feel more comfortable about their own desires. Feeling free to tell one’s truth and become the most authentic version of oneself is essential for cultivating a positive attitude toward sex, for self and others.
Most of us have an inborn moral sense, but different people have different values derived from different sources, so relying on morality doesn’t always help us navigate sexual issues, especially when dealing with other people. That is why positive sexuality focuses on ethics, or codes of conduct set down by professional disciplines. One’s morals may say that a certain type of sexual practice is “wrong,” but ethics requires that person be treated with respect regardless. Ethics provides guidelines that help us protect the sexual dignity of others.
Few of us are exempt from what studies have shown to be an instinctive drive to mentally sort ourselves into tribes that give us a sense of belonging. This makes it tempting to see others as either part of our own group or alien from our group. The alien group is then “othered,” or denied basic humanity –- hence, the great social evils like slavery or war. Historically, this repudiation of humanity has applied to groups with sexual orientations or preferences different than the hetero norm, with often tragic consequences. Positive sexuality rests on seeing everyone as human, not unlike ourselves, and worthy of dignity, no matter their sexual practices.
We often think of sex as a private interaction between individuals, but positive sexuality understands that our attitudes toward sexuality impacts every part of our lives, personal and public. From individuals, to families, to communities, to institutions such as schools, churches and governments, each part of the social structure is connected to the others, and inevitably impacted by the others. To be effective, positive sexuality must be considered and practiced in any setting, at all levels of society.
When struggling to understand the sexual choices and practices of ourselves and others, those who are repelled by judgment and attack are often pulled toward peacekeeping; in other words, they either keep quiet, or do what they can to avoid confrontation and conflict. Peacekeeping, while certainly better than attack, does not really do anything to prevent conflict or oppression. Peacemaking is different, it is a positive effort to step out of our own bubbles of like-minded people and reach out to connect with others, to listen to them, to empathize with them. The peacemaking process helps us understand that our differences should not just be tolerated, but celebrated as necessary to the health and well-being of us all.