Is sex positivity just another version of the male gaze?

Frankie
asks:
Hi! So I was scrolling through TikTok recently and I came upon the idea that sex positivity/sexual liberation is just the male gaze redefined. This made me upset, as growing up in a conservative household made me feel guilty for feeling any kind of sexual pleasure or confidence in my sexuality. Is it true? Should women not embrace their sexuality openly (by posting bikini pics or wearing revealing clothes)? Is that seeking validation from men?
Sam replies:

One of the weirder things about being on the internet for awhile is that you see the same arguments happening over and over again. I looked at your question, thought, "Didn't this discussion just happen?" and then remembered that the round of discourse I had in mind took place a decade ago. Which is all to say that debates over whether sex positivity is really something else are nothing new.

Some of these debates stem from the fact that when a progressive or feminist concept--whether that's sex positivity, fat acceptance, or something else entirely--moves into the cultural mainstream, parts of it get lost or buried during the trip. So let's start with an overview of what sex positivity is and is not.

What sex positivity IS

  • Believing that sex is not inherently dirty, sinful, shameful, or oppressive, but instead is something to be embraced, enjoyed, and celebrated.
  • Understanding that, beyond very basic things like consent, there is no single, "right" way to be sexual because human sexuality and sexual behavior are incredibly diverse.
  • Accepting the fact that your sexual preferences might be very different from someone else's, and that's okay! Part of acknowledging the diversity of human sexuality is being comfortable with the fact that there are sexual things out there that are not for you (or may even gross you out), and that the people who do like those things aren't doing anything wrong.
  • Rejecting the stigma attached to things like BDSM or sex work.

What sex positivity is NOT

  • Believing everyone should have as much sex as possible
  • Thinking that people who don't want to have sex, for any reason, are bad or repressed.
  • Insisting that no one gets to have boundaries around what kinds of sexual things--including conversations about sex--they're comfortable engaging in.
  • Believing that sex cannot be bad or traumatic, or that anyone who has negative or complicated feelings about sex is in the wrong.
  • Replicating the male gaze.

Since it's the crux of your questions, let's dig into that last point. When people talk about the "male gaze" they're talking about the tendency to position women's attractiveness to men as The Most Important Thing. The male gaze is how we get things like superhero comics where the men are in normal poses and the women are in anatomically impossible ones. Or think-pieces about how women shouldn't wear sweatpants or red lipstick, or have tattoos or short hair because guys find it "unattractive." It even plays a role in dress codes that assume girls wear spaghetti straps to get attention from boys and not because it's ninety degrees outside. In other words, it prioritizes men's feelings about a woman's appearance over the needs and wants of the woman in question.

Part of why sex positivity isn't the same as the male gaze is that the male gaze involves very narrow definitions of how a woman should look or act. Sex positivity makes room for--and encourages--a way bigger range of behaviors for people of all gender identities. It views the desires and actions of the conventionally attractive straight woman, the butch lesbian who loves to roleplay in the bedroom, the bi trans guy who has zero interest in strap-ons, and the asexual dude who only wants to kiss as equally fine and dandy. The male gaze, however, only sees the first person's preferences on that list as a desirable or "normal" way of approaching sex.

The male gaze also restricts who's "allowed" to be sexy in the first place. It has no room for fat bodies, disabled bodies, trans bodies, or non-white bodies (except as objects of curiosity or fetish). This narrow view also treats instances of people in those categories being sexual as gross. Sex positivity understands that attraction is not so restrictive, and that, no matter their identity, everyone deserves a positive, affirming sex life.

I also think it's interesting that the examples you gave of women "embracing" their sexuality are all about how they dress or whether they share certain images of themselves with the world. Our sexuality is about so much more than that: it's about if and how we experience attraction, how we interact with partners, and the kinds of sexual media we use or fantasies we favor.

When it comes to the framework of sex positivity, practicing it often happens in settings that are pretty dang private. At its heart, sex positivity is about unlearning negative beliefs about sex, which means the most crucial parts happen within us as individuals. We take time to think about where our beliefs about sex come from and unpack harmful messages about sex that we've internalized. In that introspection, we may also dig into what we really  want from sex and how we might go about exploring it.

That internal work we do with ourselves then extends outward in different ways. It appears in the private moments we share with partners as we learn how to honestly communicate desires and boundaries to each other. It appears when we're browsing a website, run across a sexual thing that is not for us, and react to it with a "Huh, guess that makes them happy," instead of an "Ugh, anyone who likes that is gross and bad." It even appears in our politics when we do things like advocate for inclusive, comprehensive sex ed or queer rights.

And yes, sometimes it appears as us sharing pictures on the internet. I'd argue there's nothing inherently anti-feminist or anti-progressive about posting sexy pictures of yourself in the hopes that other people will like them. For one thing, plenty of folks out there make their living doing just that because it's what works for their circumstances. More generally, many of us like feeling desirable now and then. Sometimes that looks like asking our partner to compliment us, or sending pictures to our friends so they can reply with "Dang, you look great today!" And sometimes it looks like posting a photo of ourselves in a bikini so that people on the internet will say we're hot.

I want to acknowledge that some people have had bad experiences with sex positivity, often in the shape of partners telling them they're "sex negative" for setting boundaries around sex (or not wanting sex at all). Or by being told that because they aren't interested in (insert sexual activity here) they're repressed. Given the actual purpose of sex positivity, those statements are in many ways the opposite of what it's meant to be. But that doesn't mean people won't use it in crummy ways.

One of the more depressing realities of life is that people who want something from you will use whatever language or ideas they think will work to get it from you. Let's say there's a scenario where your partner wants to open the relationship up, but you're not comfortable doing so. If they know you're someone who values science and logic, they might say, "But evidence shows humans didn't evolve to be monogamous."  If they know you put a lot of value on being loving, they might go for, "Well, if you really loved me you'd let me do this." And if they know sex positivity is important to you, they might decide on, "If you don't agree to this, you're a shame-filled prude."  That doesn't happen because sex positivity is inherently coercive or misogynistic; it happens because that person is a manipulative jerk.

All this is to say that if sex positivity helps you let go of the shame and guilt that you grew up with around sex, there's no reason to stop practicing it just because some people misuse it or misunderstand it. Navigating our sexuality in a culture that is still very sex negative is tough; you get to use the tools that help you best, even if those tools don't work for someone else. As sex positivity highlights, we're diverse, complex creatures, and that's okay.

In fact, it's more than okay; it's great.

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