Here’s what it means to me
Sensual: An Erotic Life is a sex-positive publication, but what does that really mean? To be honest, it might mean slightly different things to different people, but as the editor of Sensual, I thought it might be useful to lay out a bit more about what it means to me.
The short dictionary definition of sex-positive is this: having or promoting an open, tolerant, or progressive attitude towards sex and sexuality. This is the most basic aspect of what it means to me. As someone who writes openly about sex and sexuality, I’m all for being tolerant, and progressive around everything related to talking about sex and sexuality. I believe that it is a fundamental part of the human experience for the vast majority of people and that we’d all do a lot better to treat it as such.
Most Americans are both sex-obsessed and prudish at the same time. Women, in particular, are expected to be sexy, but not to be sexual (unless it’s in order to satisfy the desires of her man). People want to see and hear about sex, but at the same time are often somewhat shy around that, probably due to cultural narratives that still teach that sex is somewhat dirty and unseemly to discuss in polite company. To normalize speaking about sex and sexuality is a big part of what it means to be sex-positive.
This also means that not only skinny, ready-for-Instagram bodies are primarily what is considered to be sexy. Nearly all human beings are sexual entities and that comes in all sorts of packaging. Having a flat stomach, big breasts or a giant penis is not necessary in order to be considered a sexy or sexual being. Sex positivity sees the potential hotness in all sorts of presentations. Particular ones that might resonate for some more than others, and that’s OK, but all sorts of bodies can be sexy. Not just the sort you routinely see in Hollywood.
I also believe that any sex act is valid and “normal” as long as it’s consensual, and that consent is not only important for legal reasons but because it conveys respect. Respect for your partner(s) as well as yourself is a major component of what it means to be sex-positive. Power exchange relationships are fine. In fact, they can be incredibly intimate and sexy, even if they involve elements of humiliation or degradation — but only when done as part of a pre-negotiated D/s (dominant/submissive) relationship that is based on caring and respect.
In the BDSM scene, partners explicitly negotiate specific sex acts beforehand, rather than assuming it’s kosher until somebody says no. Because BDSM can be risky and push people’s comfort limits, those who practice it don’t just assume a partner will be okay with a certain act just because they haven’t said ‘no’. ‘Everybody who plays BDSM games has their own ways of keeping themselves safe, and there are different community standards which different people subscribe to,’ says Blake. ‘One of the mantras that people use is Safe, Sane and Consensual, which is the idea that any riskier activities are done in a way that minimizes risk and is as safe as possible.’
The difference between abuse and kink is entirely related to the element of respect. The dominant’s job is essentially to help the submissive have the experience that he or she wants, not to do whatever they want. This is a somewhat foreign concept for the public at large, including some who consider themselves part of the kink community, because it so goes against the patriarchal dominance hierarchy that we’re all steeped in.
When the social system of patriarchy arose, approximately 6–9 thousand years ago, it pushed out or overtook cultures that were largely based in egalitarianism and the larger good of the group. Patriarchal dominance hierarchies brought more than a power imbalance between men and women, they also established gross wealth disparity and social classes for the first time.
In a demographic simulation conducted at Stanford University, researchers determined that patriarchy spread, not because it was a better or more efficient system, but because it was so disruptive.
Counterintuitively, the fact that inequality was so destabilising caused these societies to spread by creating an incentive to migrate in search of further resources. The rules in our simulation did not allow for migration to already-occupied locations, but it was clear that this would have happened in the real world, leading to conquests of the more stable egalitarian societies — exactly what we see as we look back in history.
In other words, inequality did not spread from group to group because it is an inherently better system for survival, but because it creates demographic instability, which drives migration and conflict and leads to the cultural — or physical — extinction of egalitarian societies.
One of the primary elements of a dominance hierarchy is that those who are stronger, more ruthless, or more socially dominant have the right to dole out abuse to those with less clout, and this abuse is expected to be tolerated. The only recourse is to in turn lash out at those who have even less power or social position. A sex-positive culture challenges that assumption, believing that everyone has the right to body autonomy, respect, and the right to decide for themselves what their sexual expression will look like.
Sex positivity also embraces all forms of sexuality and gender expression. I don’t need to necessarily resonate with someone’s understanding of their gender identity or pronoun preference in order to treat them with enough respect to honor their choices. Again, we’re back to that word — respect. A dominance hierarchy is a pecking order, in which with any interaction someone has to be one-up and the other one-down. There are no peers. You are either above someone or below them. If you don’t win, you lose. A sex-positive world is one that is egalitarian. I don’t need to establish whether I am “above” someone or “below” them. I can just connect with them on a human level.
One of the ways that sex-positivity normalizes consent is to make it a regular part of pre-sex conversations. In a dominance hierarchy, the person with more power simply takes what they want, in part because it’s considered vulnerable and therefore weak, to ask for input from the other person. This is a large part of why there is so much push back in some quarters against normalizing consent conversations, but it’s also how rape culture continues. Consent conversations can be incredibly sexy — just ask kinksters who engages in them regularly. The only people who find them not to be so are mired in a paradigm where one partner is a predator and the other is prey.
In a sex-positive world, establishing boundaries and expectations before engaging in sexual contact is just the way things work. It means that when you do actually start to take off your clothes, you don’t have to wonder if you are going to overstep in some way. My husband and I routinely have these conversations before engaging with any new partners, and it’s no big deal at all. They are usually very short check-ins that that simply establish the parameters. In fact, it means that once the clothes come off, you can be really free and uninhibited because you never have to worry about upsetting someone else inadvertently. It also means that we recognize that there is no one “right” way to be a sexual being and that everyone gets to have a say in what works or doesn’t work for them.
Our lover Tamara doesn’t like fingering because she’s had so many bad experiences with it in the past. Anal play is also completely off the table for her. No problem. We don’t ever have to have any awkward moments in the middle of sex because we already know that about her and abide by her wishes. Understanding and adhering to her boundaries conveys how much we care about her and frees her up to be really uninhibited because she knows we’ll never disregard them. As a result, we have some pretty stellar sex.
Providing a physically and emotionally safe environment is the number one way to promote a satisfying sexual encounter, particularly for women, but also for others. If everyone feels free to speak up about what they want without shame, to know that their boundaries will be respected, and to express their true sexuality freely, then everyone can reasonably expect to have a pretty decent sexual experience. Maybe even a really great one!
At its core, sex-positivity for me means that there is caring and respect between partners, even in a very casual encounter. We treat others the way that we would like to be treated and don’t exert dominance over them unless that is something that has been communicated to be a desirable aspect of the agreed-upon relationship. It means that we validate everyone’s sexuality even if we don’t understand it and that we believe that honest sexual expression, whatever that may be, is an integral part of being a human.
Sex-positivity means that sex is something to be spoken about openly and frankly, in the proper context, of course. It means that female sexuality is just as normal as any other kind and that all people are entitled to authentic sexual expression that takes place with the consent of the others involved. We don’t force ourselves on someone until they realize that they actually want it (rape culture scenario). We don’t badger someone with our attention until they finally recognize that as passion and not coercion (it’s coercion). We take “no” for an answer and don’t consider those we’d like to have sex with as prey.
There’s still plenty of room for flirting, for banter, and for fun. There can be power imbalance when that is something that is mutually agreed upon. Sex-positivity doesn’t mean clinical, sterile connection. In fact, quite the oppositive. It means that when everyone feels safe and respected enough their most uninhibited, most adventurous sexual self can come to the fore. That’s what sex-positivity means to me, and it’s what I want to have reflected in my publication.
I’m all for edgy, as long as everyone concerned has a say in how that takes place. There’s already too much out there in the world that portrays hot sex as being abusive and taking rather than mutual. That’s a by-product of what a dysfunctional world it is and how many people have been subjected to abusive sexual dynamics. The dominance hierarchy elements that we are constantly bombarded with try to make this seem normal, but it really isn’t.
Consent is very sexy and should be normalized as such. Mutual respect is the cornerstone of sizzling sexual chemistry, even when it involves agreed-upon elements of degradation or humiliation. Our sexual selves are complex and not always subject to socially acceptable norms, and that is just fine, as long as it is expressed without non-consensual domination or coercion. I don’t want to be a prey animal unless I decide that’s what would turn me on. I don’t want to be under someone else’s control unless I trust them completely and have given them the parameters for how far that is to extend. I want to know what your boundaries are just as I want you to know and respect mine.
This is what sex-positivity means to me and it’s what is reflected in the things that Sensual will publish. It’s fine if you have a slightly different understanding of what sex-positive means, but as the editor of this publication, those are the standards that I am adhering to when deciding what is to appear in Sensual: An Erotic Life.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2021
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.
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