When Sex Positivity Is Rape Culture With a Bow On It

a photograph of a cat with a bow on its head with an uncomfortable expression on its face
Image by JoshBerglund19 / CC BY

Content Warning: Sex Positivity as Coercion

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Today’s piece is a guest blog post from Fluffy, an academic in-training, who is studying organizational behavior in hopes of making the world a better place.

This is the seventh article they’ve contributed to Poly.Land (wow!). Here are the others:

  1. I’m Too Anxious to Be Jealous
  2. Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Non-Monogamy My Puppy Taught Me All Over Again 
  3. Is There a Right Time or Way to Break Up a Relationship?
  4. I Was Treated as a Disease Vector: Why There Are So Few Gay Men in Pansexual Polyamory
  5. Being Single Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Hear About It
  6. Consent Culture Is Hard, Yo. 

Fluffy’s regular blog is Eclectic Discourse (where pith goes to die; in-depth looks at awkward topics).

And check out what they wrote this time around for Poly.Land:

When Sex Positivity Is Rape Culture With a Bow On It

Content Warning: Sex Positivity as Coercion

When I was first exposed to the concepts of sex positivity and sex negativity, I was navigating polyamorous, pansexual spaces as a queer, monosexual not-quite-man. I was young as those communities go, only just entering my twenties.

Page Turner has previously shared two definitions of sex positivity:

One of my favorite definitions of sex positivity comes from Allena Gabosch: “An attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.”

Or, as Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy write in The Ethical Slut: “Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you!”

What I found when I first started navigating the concept of sex positivity, though, was something that made me intensely uncomfortable. I found there was an implicit challenge directed toward me, as a queer monosexual ostensibly-man in those spaces.

In ways cis women did not with cis straight or bisexual men, I was directly told details of sex lives, heterosexual sex (in this case, using the “clinical” definition that denies consideration of identity; penis-in-vagina sex), the sexual functioning of vulvas, and more. Often without being asked if I was comfortable with the topic. Indeed, it felt like a dare. Daring me to be uncomfortable. To voice discomfort. Daring me to say “hey, I don’t need to know about this kind of sex.”

I can’t say if that dare was real or simply felt, but I can say I was denied the opportunity to consent to the conversation, often. I was denied the opportunity to even know it was coming.

As a person with some sexual trauma, this can be, well, re-traumatizing.

Luckily I was resilient; I had studied heterosexual sex. Even did quite a bit of sex education with undergraduate students, ages 18-20. Many of whom were heterosexual. Many of whom were women.

On the opposite end, I was heavily encouraged to discuss my own sex life. My own experiences with men (queer and otherwise, as at the time most of my sexual partners were “discreet” and “straight acting” anonymous hook-ups). Not only encouraged, but my sex life was excavated at times. I was treated as a token, the sole arbiter of the gay male experience.

“Fluffy, what do you think?”

“Fluffy, do gay men hate blowjobs as much as straight men hate going down?”

“But, Fluffy, WHAT ABOUT WOMEN!?”

There was a coercive piece to this new “sex positivity” thing and I began to consider it, simply, “rape culture with a bow on it.” It didn’t feel like it was, for me, what it was for the generally cis and straight or bi women pushing it onto me.

Sex Positivity Wasn’t About Not Shaming Others For Their Sexual Choices

Sex positivity was about not being given the privacy of my own sex life. Not talking about my sex was “sex negative.” Not talking about my sex meant I would be implicitly shaming others for enjoying sex and having discussions about it.

Sex positivity was about not shying away from discussions and topics that simply didn’t interest me. Or some that repulsed me.

I could decide not to talk about fishing as a sport, but gods help me if “fishhooking while fucking a woman in the ass with a dildo in her cunt” (true story and actual words) came up and I didn’t provide the requisite “oohs and ahhs” expected.

Sex positivity became an avenue for straight cis women to lecture me on how it was misogynistic for gay cis men to not want to talk about the sex lives of heterosexual women. To diminish that lack of desire or interest or even, yes, occasional revulsion down to “ew vaginas” derisively. Often while simultaneously saying the SAME THING about their own bodies or the bodies of others.

“I hate pussy,” one woman wailed, “it’s just so ugly, I can’t believe men actually like them.”

“Well, not all men,” another laughed, pointing at me. “Right Fluffy?”

(Again, true story and actual words.)

There was a fundamental attribution error, happening. Their discussions were benevolent, empowering even. Gay men’s discussions (of which none had ever been directly involved in, having only seen some hyperbolic comedian discussing them in third-hand) were misogynistic and disempowering. Never mind that they were talking about gay men and gay attraction the same way they suggested gay men were talking about them and their attraction. Never mind that I’d literally never seen that as a gay (ostensibly) man in gay male spaces.

In my experience, gay men didn’t think about women in gay spaces. And they especially weren’t talking about them as sexual objects.

At the time I lacked the language to discuss the inherent homophobia in the sense of entitlement to my sex life. In the entitlement to force their sex life onto mine. Luckily, I knew better than to internalize “gay men are inherently misogynistic for not having sex with women.”

Sex Negativity

But on the other hand, I knew sex negativity was a real problem. Discussions of sex that were open or frank were often squashed, relegated to internet forums, cybersex, and pornography. Sometimes all three tied together. Like how I learned how gay sex works from furtive internet searches and deleted histories in my teens, only able to learn about heterosex through more official channels. Or how I learned about lube the night after my first time when I asked my boyfriend what that cold thing he did was.

I believed I would die before I was 35 from AIDS. I’m 31, now, and seronegative; in fact, thanks to some dedicated and more well-informed friends in my youth I learned enough to avoid STIs despite having anonymous sex with many men. It was readily apparent that this was not the experience of many gay men and other queer folks in and around my life, though. Many still believe that HIV is inevitable, even if not a death sentence anymore. Let’s not even get into the intense serophobia this has created in the community that seropositive people face; there’s just not enough space here.

By being forced to not discuss our sex lives except in furtive whispers and giggling drunkenness, we faced sexual harm, trauma, and unmitigated risk from ignorance. We experienced homophobia-through-erasure because any discussion of sex did not consider us unless it was a “special topic.” I internalized a depth of shame that still reaches into my life today, though I’ve managed mostly to starve it off with self-love, open sexuality, and a greater understanding of normativity.

Desexualization

In a way, my sexuality and sex were often removed from my context. Women spoke so freely around me because I was “one of the girls.” Because I also primarily had sex with men. Because I had quite a few off-color and weird stories about the sexual things men do (especially straight men).

Never mind that I was (ostensibly) a man. That my experiences of sex were different, mired in the fear and often self-hatred of same-sex desire (both mine and others’). Never mind that my experiences were often cross-sexuality, that is, with men who were heterosexual. The fact that I was a queer person with a penis was removed from the fact that I had sex with cis men, despite that context changing my experiences of sex fundamentally.

On the Value of Sex Neutrality

Nowadays, I consider myself “sex neutral.”

By this, I mean that I hold no shame for my sex life or the sexual choices of others; however, I recognize that sex is often a sensitive subject and one that itself requires consent to engage in. I’m not the type of person to argue that this consent must always be explicit, enthusiastic, or direct. However, the truth is if the only way to exit or not participate in a discussion is to be ridiculed or charged with hurting others through not participating, then we have created a double-bind for many people. Asexual people, people with trauma, and more.

Much has been written about trigger warnings, content warnings, and the like in various amounts of depth both for and against. My conceptualization of these sorts of “warnings” is as an opportunity for a person to opt out or (if they need to, like for a class) adequately prepare themselves for the content in whatever way makes the most sense for them.

Essentially these “warnings” are a form of implicit consent gathering; you are letting someone know “hey I’m about to talk about [sensitive topic]” with an implicit “if you would like to engage, keep reading/hang around.” In-person groups can hold for a moment to give participants a second to decide if it’s something they want to participate in.

“Can I address the elephant in the room?” I ask, looking around at the circle.

“Huh? What are you talking about?” one of the women across from me asks.

“Well, relationships. But specifically sex. My sex life. How it gives me perspective on some of what you’re all talking about.” The room stays dead-silent. My sexuality is a known quantity. My status of dating a man who has a girlfriend, and had a wife when we started dating is a known quantity.

Two women, closer to my age, lean-in. They’re also the only other queer people in the room. I wait for signals from the rest to continue. One steels herself with a deep breath and a tilt of her head. The one who spoke looks around the circle and, without noticing dissent from the other women, shrugs.

What occurs afterward is a generative discussion about sex, attraction, and cisheteronormativity. Of how men act around others they see as men. How men treat others they see as cishet men very similarly to how they treat women, judging by their stories.

Of how this treatment, so sexualized for women, often becomes sexualized by gay men and denied to us as a sexual experience. A function of how we other ourselves both in dominant spaces, and our own lives. How often it outs us as “other” in cishet male spaces. How that becomes more complicated for bisexual men. Transgender men. Transgender women and trans-feminine people.

We don’t manage to fix sexism or the world, but we manage to understand each other in our whole context. In this understanding, we built a lens to view the behaviors of straight men and the impact on women, men, and non-binary people across sexualities. We connected without shame.

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Thanks, Fluffy!

Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on polyamory and relationships in general.

If you have an idea for a guest blog post that you’d like to run by us, here’s a link to a post with examples of work that we’ve published in the past as well as our Submission Guidelines.

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