Recently, I was grilling my friend Rachel* about her sex life in hopes that an anecdote could turn into fodder for a story, and she was hesitant, but not because I'm nosy. "I'm the worst example for this," Rachel said, "because I'm really sex positive, but I'm just not having sex." Now there's a story.
Rachel isn't wrong to consider herself both sex positive and (temporarily) celibate — you can be sex positive and have a totally stagnant sex life. But when people talk about sex positivity, it generally has to do with folks who have lots of sex, with lots of people, in creative and adventurous ways. And that can feel alienating for people who aren't quite up to those things 24/7, or who want to take a sexual hiatus.
By definition, part of sex positivity means you acknowledge that sometimes you won’t want to have sex, and that potential partners might not want to have sex with you. Being sex positive just means that you have nonjudgmental attitudes about sex, and feel comfortable with your own sexual identity and with the sexual behaviors of others, according to the International Society for Sexual Medicine. So practicing what you preach can just be a matter of saying you support other people's choices.
"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," says Jessica O'Reilly, PhD, a sexologist. But she adds that there are definitely differing definitions out there. Sex frequency is a very personal topic in itself, and whether or not it has a place in your own definition of sex positivity, there's no reason you need to justify your habits, Dr. O'Reilly says. "Frequency [of sex] isn’t necessarily an indicator of relationship satisfaction or happiness," she says.
If you need hard facts to believe that not every sex positive person wants to have sex all the time and with a different partner each time, millennials, specifically college students, aren't actually having more sex than their parents were, Lisa Wade, PhD, author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, told NPR last month. "About a third of students are completely opted out [of casual sex]. The rest of the students are somewhere in the middle, and they're ambivalent about the idea of casual sex," she says.
The sex positive movement does focus on being open to learning more about sex and sexual activity, and research suggests that having more information about sexual health can increase the likelihood of positive behavioral outcomes, like using condoms, Dr. O'Reilly says. "And we have evidence that talking about sex leads to better sex, and data suggesting that confidence increases likelihood of condom use."
This goes both ways, because if you are having tons of sex, power to you. There's no reason why you should be ashamed of that, either. "Shame and secrecy have a bidirectional relationship — one reinforces the other," Dr. O'Reilly says. In other words, if you feel negatively about your sexual activity, you're less likely to talk about it, and the cycle of shame continues.
Dr. O'Reilly says that, overall, sex positivity has to do with embracing the fact that we have the choice to do what makes us happy, and it's important to recognize that other people's preferences may not be right for us. "We don’t all have the same choices, and our sexual freedom varies according to age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, and ability," she says. "Sex positivity embraces the freedom to choose [what we do], but we also have to consider how oppressive structures limit this freedom."
So whether you're having no sex or lots of sex, you're still sex positive if you have an open attitude. Accepting other people's views about sex, even when you don't agree with them personally, isn't just good for you, it also helps bridge the gap for people who are often left out of the conversations about sex and equality. Simply put? Being sex positive is a net positive.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.
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