Updated: Mar 24, 2022
The principles of sex-positive culture are interdependent and logically anchored in personal freedom and autonomy
Sex-positive culture arose from the sexual liberation of the 60s and the Feminists Sex Wars that started in the 80s and persist until today. This protracted confrontation between radical feminists and sex-positive feminists gave rise to a larger sex-positive culture that eventually spilled out of feminism into the general society.
Sex-positive ideas are based on the fundamental principle of personal autonomy, which states that everyone has the right to decide what to do with his/her body and mind. This is not an absolute principle, but one that need to be balanced with the rights and safety of others. It can be overridden by some collective goods, like drives to vaccinate or quarantine people in epidemics. Still, these should always be extenuating circumstances.
The simple will of the majority cannot erase personal autonomy. That would be a dictatorship of the majority. A democratic system is not just one in which decisions are made by voting or by elected representatives; it should include respect for the rights of minorities and the personal autonomy of individuals. This is what we call freedom.
I write this article as a compendium of the main ideas of sex-positivity. I also want to show how these ideas derive logically from the principle of personal autonomy and empirical facts about human sexuality.
1) Sex is a human right
We need to start by recognizing that sex is a biological drive in humans as powerful as our need to breathe, drink, eat, be warm and be safe. Since these biological needs are recognized as basic human rights, the right to safe and consensual sex should also be a human right.
2) Sexual desire and sexual pleasure are intrinsic goods
Sex should not be considered just as a need to be satiated, but as something positive that contributes greatly to enriching our lives.
Sexual desire should be valued, not considered something that needs to be satisfied in the most expedient way.
Since sex is good in itself, it does not need to be justified in base of anything else, like reproduction or strengthening a relationship.
Science has shown that, in humans, sex is not exclusively for reproduction, but has been co-opted to promote bonding. Evidence for this are numerous anomalies of human sexuality when compared with that of other mammals. Therefore, the claim by some religions and philosophies that sex is only ethical when its goal is for reproduction is based on false ideas about human nature.
Sex-positive culture also rejects the idea that sex is only ethical when done by people who are married, in a relationship, or who love each other. That would render masturbation and casual sex unethical. Quite the opposite: since sex is a human right, it should not be forbidden to people who are unable or unwilling to form a relationship.
3) All sexual acts - vaginal, oral, anal, kinky, and other - are equally valid
Since sex is good by itself and doesn’t have to lead to reproduction, all forms of sex that are safe and consensual are valid. Besides, multiple forms of sexual expression are good because variety enriches human life. Just like we like to drink different drinks and eat different foods, it’s okay for us to enjoy different forms of sex.
4) Homosexual sex is valid and should not be persecuted
The fact that sex is intrinsically good justifies sexual acts between people of the same sex. Conversely, repressing homosexual sex is unethical because it violates personal autonomy. This is a main point of confrontation between sex-positive culture and social and religious conservatives. It is not logical to defend freedom for some activities and not for sexuality.
5) Sexual repression is sexual abuse
Sexual repression is unethical because it infringes on freedom and personal autonomy. If sex is a human right and an intrinsic good, it is wrong to take it away from anybody.
6) Rape and sexual abuse are crimes that produce enormous psychological trauma
The principle of personal autonomy shows that rape and sexual abuse are profoundly unethical. Furthermore, we know that rape and sexual abuse produce a particularly nasty form of psychological trauma.
Therefore, consent is paramount in any sexual activity. Since there are many subtle forms of coercion, it is important to establish clearly the details and limits of consent.
Another concern is safety from sexuality-transmitted diseases (STDs), pregnancy and emotional trauma. However, personal autonomy also dictates that people should be free to engage in unsafe behavior as long as they don’t compromise the safety of others. Otherwise, we would give the state the right to prohibit any unsafe behavior, like practicing risky sports. Still, if we place other in danger - for example, by withholding information about a STD - then we violate their personal autonomy.
7) Sex between adults and minors is also traumatic and criminal
Sex between adults and children or teenagers is also traumatic. Besides, having sex is a decision with important physical and emotional consequences, which require maturity.
Still, children have their own sexuality. They masturbate and even interact sexuality with other children. This should be allowed, otherwise we risk traumatizing the child with repression and sexual shame. Of course, this raises concerns about consent - a child could sexually abuse another child - and safety - physical and emotional harm produced by sexual games. The best way to address these problems is by giving children sexual education from an early age.
8) Reproductive rights are paramount
Although sex is not exclusively for reproduction, pregnancy can be an undesired consequence of heterosexual sex. Today’s sexual freedom was enabled by the discovery of safe and efficacious contraceptives in the 50s and 60s. These should be available to everybody, as should be fact-based education about their safety, efficacy and personal indications.
Since women have a right to body autonomy, they should not be compelled to carry an unwanted pregnancy. The idea that the embryo and the fetus are persons is a religious belief and should not be imposed on people who do not wish to share it. Therefore, abortion should be available and safe by being performed by medical professionals with the means to do it safely.
The converse side of reproductive rights is that people should be allowed to have children when they wish to, and to have access to means to fight infertility and to adoption. This is a point of contention with religious conservatives, who want to ban procedures like in vitro fertilization. Conservatives also want to ban homosexuals from adoption.
Although radical and sex-positive feminists agree about contraception and abortion, radical feminists want to ban surrogate pregnancies. As with prostitution, women should be free to use their bodies to carry a fetus for other people, and to be paid for this service. Otherwise, this would infringe on their right to body autonomy.
9) Masturbation is ethical and a great way to learn about your sexuality
This is another consequence of the principle of personal autonomy and sex being intrinsically good. Religious conservatives have spread many lies to convince people that masturbation is unhealthy. Quite the opposite: masturbation is one of the safest sexual act, without risks of STDs, pregnancy or emotional trauma. Masturbation is also a good way to learn about one’s own sexual desire and pleasure. It prepares young people for healthy and satisfactory sexual encounters.
10) Pornography is ethical
Most people these days use pornography to masturbate. Pornography has been one of the main point of contention between radical feminists (also called anti-porn feminists) and sex-positive feminists. In the 70s and 80s, radical feminists claimed that pornography was used only by men, that it was degrading to women, and that it exploited its performers. These claims were proven wrong when women started watching pornography and doing their own pornography, sometimes for money, sometimes just for fun. Exhibitionism turned out to be part of the sexuality of a lot of women. This came to light when social norms against it started to be eroded and the internet and cell phones allowed to anonymously post sexy pictures.
Pornography entails the personal autonomy of two kinds of people: those watching it and those producing it. Repressing it violates the rights of these two classes of people. Of course, lack of consent and exploitation can infringe the rights of pornography models. Still, exploitation is not unique to this business, and it is made worse when pornography is banned, persecuted or stigmatized. Consumers of pornography can make sure that they are not exploiting the performers by paying for it and obtaining it through legitimate channels.
This is a battle that conservatives and radical feminists have largely lost. But they are not giving up. Their latest push is to depict pornography as unhealthy and leading to addiction. This should remind us of the lies about masturbation. While it is true that some people develop compulsory behavior towards pornography, this is also true of other activities like eating, drinking and gaming. But compulsory behavior and addiction are different things. Compulsion is a in pre-existing problem in these people; it is not caused by the things they obsess about.
11) Prostitution and sex-work are ethical and should not be persecuted
Prostitution has become the main point of contention between radical feminists and sex-positive culture. Together with pornography and BDSM (bondage, dominance-submission, sadism and masochism), it made the triad that radical feminism started fighting in the 70s and became the subject of the Feminist Sex Wars. Unfortunately, in this issue radical feminists won their largest victories. They were able to impose in many countries the Nordic Model against prostitution - based in persecuting the clients and not the prostitutes. Allied with conservatives, they spread the lie that prostitution and sex trafficking are the same thing.
Personal autonomy entails that any adult should be able to engage in consensual sex. Whether the sex is paid for should be irrelevant. Repressing consensual sex violates personal autonomy, and therefore is unethical. Therefore, not only prostitution is ethical, but prohibiting, persecuting or stigmatizing it is unethical. These are the tenets of many sex-positive thinkers and the organizations that prostitutes are creating to defend themselves.
The internet and modern sexual practices have blurred the lines between prostitution, pornography and other monetized sexual activities. Nowadays we have escorts, sugar babies, gigolos, cam girls, phone sex, professional Dominatrices, professional Dominants, professional submissives, financial domination, Only Fans, erotic writing, lap dances, and many other ways of monetizing sex. That’s why the all-encompassing term sex work is much more accurate than prostitution. And that’s why the drive to make sex work illegal will ultimately fail.
12) BDSM is a valid form of sexual expression
Sadomasochism, nowadays properly known as BDSM, was one of the three main targets of radical feminism in the 70s. It was the one that directly caused the Feminist Sex War, when the BDSM lesbian organization Samois rebelled against radical feminism. But Samois was just one among several BDSM organizations that starting sprouting in the 70s and flourished in the 80s: The Eulenspiegel Society in New York City, the Black Rose in Washington, DC, Threshold in Los Angeles, Society of Janus in San Francisco, and others.
BDSM was an easy target because dominating others seems to be antithetical to personal autonomy. The desire to give or receive pain, or to dominate or being dominated, also seems unhealthy. Because of that, BDSM groups set to work during the 80s on defining the terms in which BDSM was ethical. The principles of “safe, sane and consensual” were established, as well as devices like negotiation, limits, safewords and aftercare, to safeguard these principles. In fact, similar devices are being adopted nowadays to ensure safety and consent in vanilla sex.
Basically, kinky desires and the ways to satisfy them are as legitimate as any other sex acts. The principle of personal autonomy applies equally to them, within the limits of safety and consent. In fact, these limits have been explored in more depth in the realm of BDSM than of any other sexual activity.
13) Polyamory, swinging and open relationships are ethical alternatives to monogamy
Ethical non-monogamy has old roots, going all the way to the writings of psychologist Eric Fromm and novelist Aldous Huxley. Contemporary books about ethical non-monogamy and polyamory include The Ethical Slut, More Than Two, Opening Up and Polysecure. The somewhat chaotic free love movement of the 60s crystalized of several distinct forms of non-monogamy:
Swinging is when couples have sex with other people or couples, usually without romantic involvement.
An open relationship is when people in a couple seek sex independently of each, also without romantic involvements with the outside partners.
In polyamory, both sex and falling in love are allowed, giving raise to triads, quads and polycules involving complex romantic configurations.
Cuckolds fetishize adultery by having a partner (the cuck) watch while the other partner (the hot wife) has sex with a stranger (the bull).
Relationship anarchy seeks non-normative sexual and romantic relationships without hierarchy, possession and control.
Again, the principle of personal autonomy establishes that there is nothing unethical about sex and love between multiple partners. The existence of various forms of ethical non-monogamy contest the idea that humans are naturally monogamous. Jealousy is seen as a culturally created emotion that can be overcome and even turned into its opposite, compersion: feeling happy when our loved one is happy and is loved by others.
These new forms of relationships are raising awareness that monogamy is a set of cultural norms and laws as oppressive as patriarchy and heteronormativity. Infringing monogamous laws can get you killed in many countries as surely as being homosexual. Even in advanced Western societies, being non-monogamous is more stigmatized than being gay. It can cause you to lose your children, your social status and your job.
Questioning monogamy is lowering the stigma attached to adultery. There is an increasing realization that being able to engage in ethical non-monogamy is a privilege not accessible to everybody. When people are trapped in a sexless relationship and their partner does not allow them to practice non-monogamy, adultery can be the best of all the bad options.
14) Trans rights
Your sexuality is not just what you do, it’s also who you are.
Nowhere is this more clear than in people who experience sexual dysphoria: the feeling that your assigned gender is not what you want to be. Modern biomedical technology has made it possible to change the sex of people through hormone replacement and surgery.
There is much controversy about the difference between sex - which is biology-based - and gender - which is culture-based. However, science shows that many biological sex differences are mediated by the sex hormones. Hence, hormone replacement largely accomplishes a change of sex, which can be completed with surgery.
Being able to choose your sex and gender represents an enhancement of human agency. Denying it is another violation of the principle of personal autonomy.
And yet, the rights of transsexual people have become the latest battle between radical feminists and sex-positive feminists. And, one more time, radical feminists ally themselves with social conservatives in this battle. It seems that radical feminism is not as progressive as it pretends to be, but an oppressive ideology that, time and time again, opposes the freedom of individuals in the name of questionable dogmas.
Sex-positive culture has unmasked the many layers of oppression that surround human sexuality and romantic love. It empowers us by naming homophobia, transphobia, slut-shaming, kink-shaming and oppressive monogamy, denouncing them as unethical. It has placed consent and safety at the forefront and center of discussions of sex.
This list ended up being much longer than I thought. And I am probably leaving some things out. If so, please point them out in the comments.
In any case, I hope this list is a good place to start.
Copyright 2022 Hermes Solenzol