What Does Sex Positive Mean? Here's How Experts Explain It
If you've been watching The Bachelorette at all this season, there's a term you've likely heard over and over again: sex positive. Several of the men competing on the show have used "sex positive" to describe the current bachelorette, 30-year-old Katie Thurston, who is known for being super comfortable talking about sex.
Even if you don't watch The Bachelorette, you might be hearing the phrase "sex positive" pop up elsewhere. That includes Twitter, as people are making jokes about turning this season into a drinking game: Whenever anybody says "sex positive," take a drink.
But what exactly does it mean to be sex positive? Here's how experts explain it.
What does 'sex positive' mean?
Someone who is sex positive is open to learning more about their own body, other people's bodies, as well as consent, intimacy, and how to communicate about sex topics, Rachel Needle, PsyD, a psychologist in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, a company that trains couples and sex therapists around the world, tells Health.
It also means they're open to embracing and exploring their own sexuality and that of others-including sexual behavior, gender, sexual identity, and anatomy-in a respectful, non-judgmental way without shame.
But sex positivity doesn't only have to do with sex-positive experiences and ideas. Theo Burnes, PhD, a psychologist practicing in Los Angeles and the director of clinical training at Antioch University in California, tells Health that sex positivity can also be about fighting for people who work in the sex industry, making sure they have equal rights and that their work is decriminalized. It can include advocating for accurate sex education that is not abstinence-only or fear-based. Sex positivity can also focus on understanding sex in the media-and that sexualized pornography, movies, or ads tend to portray some types of people yet leaves other out.
Being sex positive can also mean being the person a friend can come out to or go to with "their own fears, their own internalized stigma, sometimes their own shame," Burnes says. Someone might call you, as a sex positive person, and say, "I'm really nervous about trying this new experience with my partner and I want to talk to somebody about it," he explains.
What sex positivity isn't
"Being sex positive doesn't necessarily mean that you're having an increased frequency of sexual behavior, or sexual encounters, or sexual arousal, but it does mean that you have an openness and a non-judgmental attitude toward engaging in sex, talking about sex, being open to other people talking about sex," says Burnes.
Being sex positive also doesn't mean you disregard the need for consent, Rosara Torrisi, PhD, certified sex therapist and director of The Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy, tells Health. "It's not about encouraging folks to have a certain sexual orientation, minimum or maximum number of partners, or engage in certain behaviors during sex," she says. "Expectations and pressure for anything about sexuality is inherently anti-sex positivity." Consent is always a must.
Why is sex positivity talked about more these days?
Sex positivity isn't just a concept that people identify with-it's also a political and social movement.
"One of the things that really started that movement is this idea that sexuality has been often talked about as secretive, shameful, unhealthy, and that being overtly sexual in any kind of way-whether that's talking about it, whether that's having conversations about it-is problematic," Burnes says. "And so the [sex positive] movement basically tries to say, 'Hey, wait a second, this is a part of our normative development. And it's not necessarily unhealthy or shameful, but having these conversations, doing exploration with sex when consent and trust and communication are part of the sexual process, is not wrong or unhealthy.'"
It's a movement that's been around for a long time. Recently, however, celebrities like Lady Gaga, Amber Rose, Jessica Biel, and Lizzo have spurred more conversations about sex positivity after speaking publicly about their experiences with slut shaming, sexuality, sexual assault, body acceptance, and sexual health and responsibility, Burnes explains. And yes, even The Bachelorette has expanded this trend.
"It wasn't some agenda that I had coming on to the show. It's just who I am and who I've been this whole time," Thurston said on the podcast Bachelor Happy Hour earlier this year, after viewers were first introduced to her sex positive attitude when she was a contestant on The Bachelor. "It wasn't until after the fact that I realized how big of a deal it was-which excites me, because I do believe it's 2021, and women should be comfortable talking about their sexuality."
"I appreciate being comfortable being able to talk about it," Thurston continued. "Hopefully that means other women will soon start to open up a little bit, because being sex positive is important in a relationship, [the relationship you have with] yourself, in your self-care, and so many different things, especially in this [ongoing COVID-19] pandemic."
Sex positivity has real health benefits
Being sex positive is "actually quite healthy and has been endorsed by a variety of organizations, like the World Health Organization (WHO)," according to Burnes. In fact, the WHO says that "a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships" is paramount to sexual health.
"When we are sex positive we are more sexually healthy," Needle points out. "To many, being sexually healthy includes being comfortable with your own sexuality and making decisions related to and communicating about it." Being sexually healthy can also mean enjoying sexual pleasure, having access to health care (including reproductive health care), having better communication skills with our partner(s) so that we are more likely to get what we want and need, and knowing how to avoid unintended pregnancy and minimize the risk of sexually transmitted infections (and accessing treatment if needed).
Having sex positive views can enhance your mental well-being too, according to Burnes. "That can mean decreased amounts of feelings of isolation, which can lead to things like depression and anxiety, [as well as a] decrease in shame and stigma, which can also lead to building resilience," he says. When we eradicate ourselves from stigma and shame, he adds, we often demonstrate better health-related behaviors.
How can you become more sex positive?
First, know that anyone can be sex positive. "Sex positivity has little to do with what your sexual behaviors, identities, etc. are and much more about your perspective about sexuality," Torrisi says. "It doesn't matter if you've had sex with only yourself, a million people, or no one. Sex positivity is a set of values that is inclusive and nurturing of your own and others' sexuality. It's not just for polyamorous and kinky folks."
As a whole, the US "has improved its understanding of sexual consent, pleasure, functioning, identity, orientation, behaviors, and expression," according to Torrisi. But there's still work to be done. "We're still grappling with dual realities about sex in this country," she says. "We are on one hand obsessed with sexuality, and on the other hand we are terrified of sexuality. Either end of this spectrum isn't sex positivity. Recognizing the nuances, the lived realities of billions of individuals, each with their own valid truths, now that's sex positivity."
It also helps to recognize the culture many Americans were raised in, "where we're constantly bombarded with images that sex is something we should think about, but never talk about," as Burnes puts it. Next, he suggests thinking about whether you want to see a therapist, read some books, or visit different websites to help you navigate what being sex positive will look like for you.
"Being sex positive doesn't necessarily mean that [you're] going to go and have certain sexual encounters-although if that's something that someone wants to do, that's great and awesome, as long as they're safe, consensual and communicative," Burnes says. Instead, he says, it can simply mean being more open to other people's and your own sexual curiosity and experiences.
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