Like Sex with Dr. Jess on FacebookFollow Sex with Dr. Jess on InstagramFollow Sex with Dr. Jess on TwitterSubscribe to Sex with Dr. Jess's channel on YouTubeSubscribe to Sex with Dr. Jess's RSS feed
Sex with Dr. Jess


January 6, 2020

How To Be Sex-Positive When People Around You Are Not

I was recently asked to share my thoughts on what it means to be sex-positive and I’ve shared an excerpt of the interview below. Feel free to chime in below in the comments, because this is just the tip of the iceberg and I appreciate your experiences and insights.

1) What is sex-positivity?

Sex positivity involves an attitude and approach to sex that minimizes moral judgments and honours personal agency and preferences.

There are certainly differing definitions of sex-positivity. For example, some people claim to be sex positive, but their definition of moral sex is narrow — they may not have sex workers and trans rights. This is not sex positivity — it’s selective sexual freedom.

My understanding of sex positivity includes respect, support and celebration of everything from abstinence to consensual non-monogamy and everything on the edges and in between. There are of course intersectional issues to consider when it comes to sexual agency — we don’t all have the same choices and our sexual freedom varies according to age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, ability and other factors. Sex positivity embraces the freedom to choose, but we also have to consider how oppressive structures limit this freedom for some people more than others.

2) How does sex-positivity help young people?

Sex positivity may offer a host of benefits :

  • Increased likelihood to talk about sex in terms of desires, boundaries, likes and dislikes.
  • Heightened sexual confidence. When we acknowledge that sex can produce both positive and negative outcomes, we have the potential to develop a better understanding of our own motivations and desired outcomes. This can help to boost sexual self-esteem.
  • Better sex. Research shows that the willingness to talk about sex and communicate needs before and during sex leads to more satisfying sex.
  • More mutually pleasurable sex. When we see sex as a potentially positive element of relationships and acknowledge that it’s an experience and not a gendered performance, we can focus mutual pleasure which leads to better sex for all partners.
  • Safer sex. We have evidence that talking about sex leads to better sex and that data suggesting that confidence increases likelihood of condom use.
  • The acknowledgement of privilege and intersectionality; sexual freedom for some does not equal sexual freedom for all.

3) Does being sex-positive require living in a sex-positive environment?

You don’t need to live in a sex-positive environment to value and embody sex-positive values. We live in a largely sex-negative environment — one in which gender, age, ability, appearance, social status, income, and a variety of other factors affect our sexual freedoms; many people, however, are sex-positive.

4) How can the internet help sex-positive young people (or people aiming to be) build their identity and confidence?

Digital spaces allow young people to collaborate and learn from one another’s lived experiences. There are also many sites that offer evidence-based information that young people can consume and discuss together and with educators, parents, nurses, etc.

Increased access to accurate information can lead to more realistic expectations with regard to sex and relationships. Websites like Scarleteen, Sex Etc., and others address sex from multiple perspectives and can help young people navigating the landscape of sexual identity.

Research also indicates that digital empathy can be cultivated online; as we learn about people whose sexual identities may differ from our own, we develop perspective, understanding and care for a broad range of experiences. This can boost our own sexual self-confidence and help to support a sex-positive perspective.

5) What are the biggest struggles for young people who live amongst people who are not sex-positive?

It can be challenging to be sex-positive in a sex-negative world — especially because sex-negativity is rooted in inaccurate assumptions and shame. Overcoming shame is particularly challenging; even if we accept evidence-based findings about sex, cultural notions that tie sex to morality and frame it as inherently harmful can be difficult to overcome.

If you want to conquer shame, naming it and acknowledging the negative messages can help, as this addresses the secrecy that allows shame to fester. Shame and secrecy have a bidirectional relationships – one reinforces the other. If you feel shameful (or negative) about sex it follows that you’re less likely to talk about it. And we have evidence that talking about sex leads to better sex and that data suggesting that confidence increases likelihood of condom use.

6) What are 3+ actionable tips for young people who want to be sex-positive, even when the people around them are not?

1. Talk about sex. Talk about what you like and dislike, what you fear, how you feel and any questions you might have. Our culture is simultaneously hyper sexual and sex-negative, and sexual messages are therefore highly contradictory. By discussing your concerns, uncertainties, vulnerabilities and desires more openly with trusted friends or partners, you can address some of these contradictions and embrace a life in which sex plays an overwhelmingly positive role.

2. Accept that not all outcomes of sex are positive and not all sex is good. Being sex positive does not require that you gloss over all of the challenges and negative consequences of sex. The sex-positive perspective acknowledges that sex can have both positive and negative outcomes and we can enact behaviours to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

3. Acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-alls approach to sex. What works for you may not work for others and no one has it all figured out. We’re all imperfect and we make mistakes. Whether you’re consensually non-monogamous or monogamous, sexually active or abstinent, vanilla or kinky, you have a right to feel great about your sexual identity and relationships.

Mindful Sex Banner (1)