CW: Reference to sex, sexual content and sexual abuse.
I’m a day early, I know, but this subject has been bouncing around in my brain since Worldcon. During Dublincon I attended a panel about sex positivity and, while fun (it was late, mid con and we were all a bit wired by that point) it didn’t really satisfy the subject for me. So, what is sex positivity and what is its place in literature?
I’ve written before about sex in fiction, sometimes used as a mechanic to mark the development of character relationships. All too often, sexual violence is used as a stresser or a mechanic to dis-empower a character or create ‘threat’ (check out this great article for challenging that Mythcreants – Six Rape Tropes and How to Replace Them).
Sex positivity is all about how you approach sex in your writing. There’s a culture, carried over from our overbearing and repressive ‘forefathers’, that sex is a shameful act unless it is for the purpose of procreation. We know that that is an antiquated view, and for decades there have been efforts to encourage sexual freedom and, whilst the majority of the population are more open to sex for enjoyment there’s still a pervasive opinion that sex equates love and relationships and marriage etc. There’s a lot of guilt and shame attached (mostly to women, and it’s the double-standard here that’s shameful) who ‘break’ these socially enforced standards, and that carries over into film and literature. Characters who enjoy responsible sexual liberty are commonly seen as ‘irregular’. But why? Why can’t consenting, responsible adults engage in sexual activity without falling under that pall of shame? This is the purpose of sex positivity.
Now, without denying that there’s a lot of ‘bad’ associated with sex (rape, people-trafficking and other abuses of trust and or power) the purpose of writing sexual positivity is to promote healthy, consensual relations and practices. If we deny the bad entirely it creeps into the shadows, but by promoting the good we provide examples of how to be and challenge the bad.
By writing positive sexual experiences we can help to wipe out the stigma that is still attached to certain sexual practices. The most important aspect for sex positive writing is consent. If either party can’t or hasn’t consented you’re not being sex positive (that includes animals [unless it’s fantasy where they’re sentient but that’s a whole other ‘rabbit hole’] or individuals unable or emotionally unprepared to give informed consent).
Other things to avoid are external judgment from any character not involved. If we’re trying to present sex positivity, then presenting negativity or judgment is counter-productive. Body positivity, support of sexual identity, communication between the sexual partners and a sharing of responsibility (for things like birth control and sexual health) are key features of presenting a sex-positive arrangement.
So what areas suffer from sexual negativity?
- Initially and possibly earliest, masturbation. Self-satisfying is stigmatized. We use terms like ‘Wanker’, ‘Tosser’ or ‘Jack-off’ as insults in everyday life. It’s seen as the last resort of lonely individuals rather than a healthy expression of sexuality.
- Pornography (not without justification). Porn suffers from it’s long history of exploitation, abuse (substance and physical) and presenting unrealistic standards of human development, but, does that make everyone who follows a career in porn immoral? No, it makes the opportunists and the immoral individuals in porn immoral. Over the past few decades the industry has seen a rise in actresses taking the reins as producers and making their own films, a rise in awareness of sexual health and support for the talent. The rise in visibility due to free access via the internet (and not having to sneak into sex-shops) has not only increased society’s consumption of pornography, but a rise in standards within the industry itself.
- Polyamory, the practice of having multiple sexual partners in a network. Unlike the Mormon practices depicted in Big Love (HBO, Olsen and Scheffer 2006) polyamory doesn’t require a romantic attachment, but is best described as “consensual, ethical and responsible, non-monogamy”. That is that every partner in the network is aware, informed and understanding or the wider arrangement, nobody’s ‘flying under the radar’ or going behind anyone’s back. Polyamory is based upon communication and mutual respect.
- Prostitution. Firstly, the word itself. Sex-workers (and the term covers performers in the porn industry too) have been around as long as society itself, and they haven’t always been stigmatized like they are today. Secondly, much like the porn industry, Sex-Work has been a breeding ground for abductions, people-trafficking, enforced substance abuse and other amoral practices enacted by those in positions of power against those in desperate situations. Examples of individuals who choose to pursue a career in sex-work as a means of personal empowerment are few, but not non-existent. The idea of an empowered, responsible and happy sex-worker is almost diametrically opposed to the media perception of victims suffering poverty and abuse. It is the dichotomy between society’s resistance to decriminalizing sex-work and the persistent demand for sexual services that continues to make it a profitable enterprise for criminal organisations. That said, there are those who pursue it as a career of choice without suffering under a ‘pimp’ and, while examples of that in media are rare, they do exist.
- Hypersexuality (nymphomania/satyriasis)/Sex-Addiction. Just like any other form of neuro-diversity or addiction, these are serious subjects not to be played for laughs or as a justification for aberrant behavior. Again, for those who manage these conditions (most without clinical aid since, as of 2010 the condition failed to get the support of the ADA for addition into the DSM) there’s a lot of stigma that sufferers of conditions such as alcoholism or substance abuse have (largely) overcome.
The main point about writing sex-positivity is that it doesn’t detract from the story. Relationship stress, action, and violence are all still viable tools, the point to stress is that they aren’t related to the sex. Should you still choose to use sexual violence in your fictional plot, the onus of wrongdoing should remain firmly upon the perpetrator, but do take the time to research survivors’ accounts, we owe it to them.
Remember, informed consent, communication and respect between the subjects and avoidance of external judgment are cornerstones of sex-positivity. Promote healthy sexual relations and don’t lean on bad ones as a plot crutch.