Why is it such a controversial thing to be sex-positive? a reader writes. The more I grow and age, the more I think that’s what I need to be.
When I was very little, my mother decided she wanted me to be her sidekick. This could have been wonderful, except we had very little in common. Well, on the inside. On the outside, we did look alike and sounded so similar on the phone that people often confused us for one another.
But that was where the resemblance ended. Because I was a bookworm with wild ideas. I loved writing, composing music, and playing video games. And socially I gravitated towards children who were different from the others. Kids who didn’t have very many friends and seemed lonely. I had a lot of friends growing up, but they were mostly fellow artists or introverts who had been bullied (and some both).
My mother, conversely, had been a popular cheerleader with little use for art or academics. She instead grew up laser focused on what would land her the best husband. Mom had been one of the mean girls in school. And she’d carried this with her into adulthood. One of her favorite pastimes was walking around the mall singling out people who passed by and delivering cutting criticisms about them just softly enough so that they couldn’t hear her.
I’d cringe every time that she’d cut someone else down in front of me, feeling disgustingly complicit, yet never quite sure how to break out of the cycle we were in. The cycle where she’d tell me to drop my homework because she wanted to go to the mall and look around. “You can do your homework when you get back,” she’d say, before adding, “I’ll buy you something.”
The bribes were unnecessary. I knew there was no arguing with her. I’d made that mistake in the past, and the results had been insufferable. So off to the mall I went, knowing all the while it would be an uncomfortable experience.
I learned a lot about my mother on those walks around the mall. And a lot about the world, how people operate. Because that’s the thing about my mother: She’s not that unusual. A lot of people are like her.
“They Just Don’t Respect Themselves”
Mom took particular notice of women who dressed in ways that she decided were overtly sexual. And in Bangor, Maine, in the 80s and 90s, this didn’t take much. A pair of pants that were a smidge too tight would be enough. A form-fitting top that brushed the right areas in a way that implied the wearer had large breasts (even without the presence of any cleavage). A hair color not found in nature. A tattoo.
“Would you look at those sluts?” she’d say each time she passed such a sight.
Now that I’m an adult, I don’t spend a lot of time with her (we live hundreds of miles apart), but if she ever does this in front of me, I argue with her. But back then, I couldn’t. I wasn’t on equal footing with her. It always went so badly when I pushed back even a tiny bit. So I’d mostly shrug or laugh or do something ambiguous that could be mistaken for agreement. Uncomfortable. Knowing disagreeing wasn’t an option but not wanting to agree.
“They just don’t respect themselves,” she’d say. “I’m glad you respect yourself.”
Later in the fitting room, she’d have me try on clothes and would inspect the results. “No, that won’t work,” she’d say of something that looked good on the hanger but clung to me in scandalous places once I had it on. “That’s something easy girls would wear.”
And as the years wound on and I began to develop and then continued, it became harder and harder for us to find outfits that would pass her self-respect test.
“If You Respected Yourself, You Wouldn’t Let Him Do Any of That Kinky Stuff”
Respect was another feature of the way she talked about sex itself. I can remember other times overhearing conversations she had with her friends (other moms) about sex.
“If you respected yourself, you wouldn’t let him do any of that kinky stuff.”
And I’d listen with wonder while she’d brag about how infrequently she and my father had sex. That she got away with it.
There seemed to be a kind of transactional way that she thought about sex: That women only had sex because men wanted them to, so women had to make sure they got something major out of the deal. Which in her case was a reliable financial provider. Children. A nice home.
And ideally, a woman had as little sex as possible to achieve all of that.
Marriage was of course the best vehicle for this. A way of officially securing a contract.
Viewing Sex as Inherently Disrespectful
Underlying all of this was an unspoken but ever-present premise: When a man had sex with a woman, it was a form of disrespect towards her. A man took away from a woman every time he made love to her and added what he took onto his own pile. And women who respected themselves would never put up with that without getting something of equal or greater value in return.
There was no room in this model for a woman who actually enjoyed sex. Or who could fend for herself and didn’t offer sex as currency to buy other things society wouldn’t let her access.
My mother was incidentally also the kind of heterosexual person who didn’t believe that naturally gay people actually existed. Instead she seemed to believe that they were only failed straight people who couldn’t find a partner through regular channels and so resorted to the same sex out of desperation. (She ended up with two straight children, one gay child, and a bisexual child.)
Now, I’m sure what they were telling us all at church didn’t help. It only solidified this. But Mom also had a habit of ignoring other parts of scripture that didn’t line up with cultural convenience or what she selfishly wanted.
So that told me that it wasn’t just the church that gave her this belief system and kept it solid over the years, even as the world around her changed.
It Was Confusing When Sex Turned Out to Feel Good
As desperately as I tried not to turn into my mother, I did in fact internalize some of these beliefs. Not the anti-gay stuff since my favorite sister was gay (which honestly made a lot of sense to me when she came out to me, it explained a lot), and I myself grew up bisexual, actually having my first sexual encounters with other girls long before I did anything with boys.
But the idea that sex was inextricably linked with disrespect? Yep. That one stuck.
And yet, Mom had seemed to have left something very vital out: How freaking good it could feel.
I navigated this divide for the longest time by viewing sex as a kind of self-harm that nonetheless felt terrific. And as I became fairly sexually active as a young woman, I simply understood this behavior to mean that I didn’t respect myself.
Being Casually Sexually Active While Believing that Sex and Disrespect Were Intrinsically Linked
Later on this would actually become folded into my kink, a bit of self-humiliation. Dirty girl. Letting people use you. The disrespect, humiliation, and desire spiraling into an intoxicating cloud. In the proper context with the right people, this could be a really good time.
But in the early days, it wasn’t nearly as fun as that. The way that sex and disrespect were nearly indistinguishable for me — as were wrong and hot — instead caused a lot of problems. First and foremost, it seemed to lead to my feeling that anyone I had sex with had a right to treat me badly afterwards, because I had lowered myself by having sex with them. (Oddly, in my equation, I never seemed to consider the fact that they had also had sex with me.)
And as fun as play disrespect could be in my own fantasies (and would later be in the right context once I discovered a respectful, sex-positive community), it didn’t feel great in the real world. To be gossiped about, put down:
“So I ran into someone you know while I was at the mall today,” my roommate Noah said.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Who?”
He said the name of a theater director I knew. A friend of a close friend.
“Nice,” I said. “How’s he doing anyway? I haven’t talked to him in ages.”
“It was the funniest thing,” Noah said. “The first thing he said when he realized I knew you was that you were crazy and not to listen to a word you said.”
I boggled at this. I couldn’t understand why the director would say something like this. Sure, I had my quirks (still do). But the entire time I’d known him we’d been on good terms.
“Did you guys hook up or something?” Noah asked.
“One time. It was very casual,” I said. “How did you know?”
“It seemed like he was defensive about something. I bet he was worried you were going to tell me that he was bad in bed or something,” Noah said.
I sighed. “Why would I do that?”
“I’m not saying you would,” Noah said. “Only that he’s scared of it.”
“So he decides to discredit me before I have a chance. That’s awesome of him,” I said.
“How was he anyway?” Noah asked.
“Honestly?” I said.
“I forgot we even slept together until you asked me,” I said. “It wasn’t terribly memorable.”
This shit got old fast. And all served to reaffirm what my mother had taught me.
Finding Sex-Positive Communities
But one day things changed. Over a decade ago, I went on quite a life-changing journey after close friends of mine came out to me as polyamorous. While I was initially skeptical, I tried to stay curious and learn as much as I could about polyamory and saw that if I could put aside many of my biases that it actually seemed like it was working out well for them. Within months, I was opening up my own relationship and starting to question a lot of what I’d been told about love, sex, and relationships.
This questioning took me to places I never expected I’d go. I met new people, heard new ideas. And in the process of that questioning, I met sex-positive folks in various communities: Kinksters, feminist groups, polyamorous circles, pagan organizations, secular humanist clubs, hackers, activists.
And I found I resonated with many of these new friends. In ways that frankly shocked me. Came as a total surprise.
Slowly but surely, I came to realize that I preferred the way that they viewed sex to my mother’s biting criticisms and bleak view of what human physical connection can possibly be (i.e., a nuisance and harmful outside of baby-making).
What Sex Positivity Means to Me
Now, sex-positive shouldn’t mean sex-mandatory. Consent is important. No one should have to have sex unless they actually want to. But to me, sex positivity is all about understanding that people can have sex simply because it feels good and they enjoy it. And it’s also about throwing the idea that having sex with someone is the same thing as disrespecting them right out the window.
It’s about understanding that respect is a different thing than sex. You can have respect without sex, sex without respect, and you can certainly have sex with respect.
And being a decent human being means that you should be respecting your partners whether or not you’re having sex with them.†
For my own sake, I wish these were universal beliefs, but they’re not.
I spend so much time in sex-positive communities that I often forget what it’s like outside of them.
It’s always shocking for me when I encounter someone who adheres to my mother’s paradigm.
I used to find the experience exquisitely painful. I would feel a reflexive guilt, part of me becoming extremely defensive. Worrying that they were right. But as time has gone on, that really doesn’t happen anymore.
And the good news is that it mostly serves to simply remind me of where I’ve come from and appreciate where I’ve gone.
So if you’re dealing with a lot of sex negativity and still struggling to find a supportive community, I want you to know that they’re not always easy to find but that not everyone equates sex with disrespect.
†Unless of course if you’re doing some sort of disrespect play that everyone’s consented to. That’s a different thing. Your kink is okay!