What Does Sex Positivity Look Like Today? We Asked Five Sexperts
Karley Sciortino, Eileen Kelly, Mia Li, Carol Queen, and Ari Fitz discuss being pro sex from their various corners in writing, advocacy, vlogging, sex work, and sexology.
The sex-positive feminist movement was started in the '80s partially in response to the rise of anti-porn feminism. Since then, Americans have made major strides in the ways we talk about sex, but there's still a long way to go. Amidst a cultural moment of public reckoning with sexual assault and many discussions on what sex shouldn't look like, Broadly wanted to know how we should be approaching sex.
What does sex positivity look like in 2018? To find out, we asked five people with expertise in sex, sex positivity, and feminism about sluttiness and sex activism today. The sex experts include: Karley Sciortino, sex writer and host of Viceland's new show exploring the world of sex, Slutever; writer and sex-ed advocate Eileen Kelly; adult performer and president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee Mia Li; author, "pleasure activist," and Good Vibes staff sexologist Carol Queen; and blogger and filmmaker Ari Fitz.
How does your work—your creative practice, scholarship, activism, etc.—push for a more dynamic understanding of the ways we think about sex?
Karley Sciortino: The goal of my writing has always been to support the idea of female sexual agency and to humanize people and desires that are often thought of as weird, gross, taboo, negative, etc.—but in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being beaten over the head with it or that isn’t too prescriptive. When I was growing up with a really conservative family in a small town with no sex-ed, the only education I had about sex was from porn and Cosmo, which are essentially secretly rooted around what women should do to make sex better for their boyfriends. So, what I hope that my writing and Slutever on Viceland do is just remind people that sex can be very fun, light, exploratory, awkward, weird, and kinky—and that it doesn’t always have to be this thing that’s scary or performative or that you feel like you’re going to fail at.
Eileen Kelly: I started [the website] Killer and a Sweet Thang with the intention of creating a space online where teens could come and learn about sex openly. I work vigilantly to question and ultimately clear the taboo around human sexuality. The site publishes the work of over a dozen college-age writers from across the country that share their own personal sexual experiences in a peer-to-peer form. This allows for a magnitude of diversity even among one topic. It really goes to show how across-the-board sexuality is, it differs from person to person, culture to culture. It also shows how inherently natural sex is. After all, it’s how we got here, isn’t it?
Mia Li: Being in adult film has been a monumental educational experience for me. This industry and the sex workers in this industry have broadened my language and understanding about sexuality. By being a sex worker in a regulated industry with constantly developing protocol, I’m continually parsing how identity, media, representation, sex, and culture interact. Being a sex worker was the catalyst of my growth as an intersectional feminist. My politics are driven by my insight into the marginalized people who make up this industry. Although our marginalization may be compounded and exacerbated by other aspects of our lives and identities, the sex worker identity carries stigma. It’s stigma that is related to sex-negativity, rape culture, misogyny, and systemic oppression. By combatting that stigma in my work as an advocate and a sexual educator, I hope to see transformative change in my lifetime. To see sex work decriminalized and comprehensive trauma-informed and pleasure-centered sex education would be a dream.
Carol Queen: I seek to represent and understand sexuality in as diverse a way as possible. Not just overlaying diversity awareness, but thinking of the sexual spectrum as itself a form of diversity, and then you must also think of race/culture/gender/etc. diversity as a lens as well. If you don’t do this, you can’t really grasp sexuality. Too many people have a really narrow understanding of what’s OK, desirable, “normal,” or even possible. Related to that but a little different: I don’t try to simplify, I try to complexify. I’m a postmodernist that way: I believe in looking at all the facets of the jewel I possibly can. When I do my talk “Seven Billion Sexual Orientations,” this is what I’m getting at. There are so many elements to consider about sex/gender identity and response that likely each of us is distinct in some way. Whereas the way the larger culture tends to think is in terms of norms, “being normal,” and a limited range of identity within which groups of people are mostly alike. This is seriously not my primary experience with sexuality. I’m interested in intersectionalism.
Ari Fitz: Most people know me for my work on gender, identity, and how all of it relates to fashion. Randomly, I started to also post videos about my love/sex life as a queer black masculine-of-center non-monogamous woman on YouTube. There are very few people who talk openly and honestly about sex on YouTube, and even fewer who look and love like me. That’s probably why the response to my videos was and continues to be overwhelming. Given all of this, the biggest way my work, these videos, push for a more dynamic understanding of sex is through their existence in the first place. Representation is everything. You won’t know that a woman like me can love the way that I do and fuck the way I do—and you, too, can love and fuck like me—without me first sharing these stories.
Watch: Slutever with Karley Sciortino
What do we have to gain from being more open about topics like intimacy, porn, fetishes, sex work, and sluttiness?
Sciortino: I think we have a ton to gain because options are always good, right? We have as much to gain by exploring sex and sluttiness and kink as we do from exploring any other aspects of our non-sexual lives, like culture, film, books, or a new job. I think new experiences and new people often enrich our lives and make us more complex, curious, empathetic people. I also think it's really crazy that in every aspect of our lives, like our careers, our hobbies, athletics, etc., we're told to take risks and try new things. People are always saying, failure will make you a stronger, better person. But with sex, it's: Stay in your lane, because if you end up in a scary situation you could be traumatized and you might never recover from that. I think that's a little too crazy, and we would all benefit from just being more open-minded or more willing to try things like aspects of kink or more progressive sexual experiences like a sex party or casual sex. In the end, the worst that happens is you find out you don’t like it, or you have a sexual experience that’s not great and then you’re like, OK, I learned from that and I know not to do that again, I’ll try something else.
Kelly: With education comes understanding and ultimately breaking down the barrier of ignorance and shame. People don’t naturally hate. They hate things they don’t understand. However, if you can humanize actions, if you can give examples that pertain to real people, well how can you hate on that? You may not agree with it and that’s fine! I believe in exposure. When we are open to topics under the sexuality or gender umbrella, we have a greater understanding for those who are different then us and more acceptance overall.
Li: By being more open, we create space to have necessary discussions about consent, boundary setting, sexuality, bodily autonomy. Because the taboo often is a great silencer, it challenges basic open communication to have healthy and necessary conversations about pleasure, desire, and need. The need to feel connected, intimate, desire/desired exists differently for every individual. By normalizing conversations about the titillating stuff, hopefully we can normalize conversations about the more challenging issues like sexual coercion, assault, trauma, violence, etc.
Queen: We gain a fuller understanding of sexual variation and the different paths that sexual impulse can lead. When people think some things are normal and some not, they can become caught up in shame—or blame their partner for being a pervert because of what they desire. Neither response brings us one iota closer to health and happiness as far as sex is concerned. Understanding fetish desire helps situate sex in the brain (which is really where it lives in the first place), and shows us to what degree almost anything can be imbued with sexual possibility… at least for someone. And sex work is the place where our society’s actual diversity lives, often in secret—if we respected and understood it, we would learn so much more about what people want, need, value enough to pay for.
"Any cultural, societal shift where women feel more comfortable claiming agency over their own bodies and their sexuality is a move towards a more sex positive culture."
Fitz: Better sex. I joke, but there’s honesty in that, no? When we hide our sex narratives—sex narratives that most adults have, by the way—we tell the world that sex is wrong, bad, etc. How weird is that when we’re all fucking? Why should we continue to make all of us feel really bad for doing something that’s so normal and feels so damn good? So, yeah we gain better sex from more communication around sex. But, we also gain better methods of communicating with our partners overall, more honest conversations to help aid those who struggle with sex-related trauma, less sexual violence due to conversations reducing sexual stigmas, less bullying… the list goes on. Honest conversations about sex help all of this.
Because of the #MeToo movement, we’re currently experiencing a huge public conversation about consent. That’s mostly been focused on gender dynamics and legal definitions of sexual assault, but how do you think that conversation relates to the sex positive movement?
Sciortino: I think at the core, #MeToo is about women claiming autonomy and authority over their own bodies and their own sexuality. So I think that #MeToo and sex positivity are definitely related. Obviously, #MeToo is specifically about a global reckoning and women calling out men for sexual misconduct, but at the heart of it, what that movement aims to do is allow young women to grow up in a world where they have control over their own bodies and their own decisions; where they can say anything from telling their boss, you can’t treat me like that in the office, to in a consensual sexual situation being able to say, I like this and that, this is what makes me cum. Just being able to speak up and say what you won't tolerate and also what you want. Women are so conditioned to be silent and not to make a scene and to be polite and also just to not make the situation awkward. I think that that leads to women being taken advantage of sexually in the workplace. And I think it also leads to women not reaching their sexual potentials and not having the most pleasurable, positive a sex life we possibly can because we feel like we can't be like, no that thing you're doing with your hand actually feels like shit, my clit is over here. So I think that any cultural, societal shift where women feel more comfortable claiming agency over their own bodies and their sexuality is a move towards a more sex positive culture.
Kelly: My definition of sex positivity is believing that everyone should be able to consensually explore their sexual identity. Including all sexual orientations, sexual behaviors, gender identities, relationship styles, and sexual preferences without coercion. Right there in the definition, consent comes up. I think the issue of assault and not respecting someone’s consent or lack of consent, is directly related to the sex positive movement. Sex positivity does not mean, you believe in sleeping with whoever you want, whenever you want. Of course, that can be part of it. But it’s what I stated above. If all people were educated on and practiced sex positivity, I believe that assault would dissipate.
Li: Sex positivity isn’t just about the celebration of bodies, pleasure, and intimacy, but also about being able to speak honestly, frankly, and clearly about consent, gender dynamics, sexual coercion, assault, and violence. As a sexual violence and domestic violence survivor, it is imperative to speak openly about the intersection of violence and sex. To reduce sex positivity to just the positive is harmful because it creates this huge blindspot to very real experiences, people, and necessary change. We’ve already seen how silence perpetuates violence. If we are to promote healing, growth, and thriving after sexual violence, we need to talk about the nuances of sexual violence. To move forward, we need to see more models of accountability from perpetrators. We need to see people listen to victims. Sex positivity includes unlearning the scripts of rape culture, misogyny, victim blaming, and slut shaming.
Queen: It’s key, because we can’t have any real functional sex-positive culture without consent as a paramount element. Sex isn't positive when people are forced or coerced. And sex can more easily be weaponized in all the ways we’ve seen come out this year in a sex-negative context where shame is the result of being aggressed on in these ways. And we don’t have enough information about how to move forward if we don’t clearly know what the problems are. The #MeToo movement seeks to illustrate that. I remember what a revelation it was to me to find out that my mother was a survivor of sexual abuse. It put what I had learned from her into a new and illuminating context. Now multiply her experience by millions. Our society (all societies?) are shot through with nonconsensual acts and experiences, mostly but not exclusively aimed at women, and this is one reason (but not the only one) why the default belief about sex is that it’s a problem or a danger. For thirty years, I’ve hoped that sex-positive activism would make a more even, and safe, playing field, but the popular understanding of sex positivity is “Whooooooooo! Sex!” Simple, not complex. Failing to understand that for sex to be a positive experience for everyone, we have to tackle shame, shaming, the lack of good education, and supportive health and other services, our control of our bodies and decisions—all social justice issues that are imbedded in the ways we culturally fail people around sex.
Fitz: I’m really happy we’re talking about consent. We have a longggg way to go—like, bruh, we’re not even close. But I’m happy it’s a key part of the conversation.
In a partner, what approach to sex (can be philosophical or physical) do you find most desirable?
Sciortino: What I really like is when sexual partners are playful and exploratory and specifically not squeamish, which I think is a primary sort of sub-genre of a playful sexual person. In my experiences, there are two kinds of people: There's the sort of person who only wants to go down on you after you shower and then there’s the kind of person who will lick your butt when you come back from the gym. I feel like the second type of person is so much more fun and exploratory and allows me, specifically, to be really playful and relaxed and exploratory, too. If I'm worried that someone thinks I smell weird or they’re getting a little bit squeamish about sex or the way my vagina smells or anal sex or whatever it is, then I'm just gonna feel so self-conscious that I'll never be able to enjoy myself or cum. So, you want a person who’s sexually resilient, someone who can end up in a sexual situation that’s sort of awkward or weird or not great and then laugh it off and be like, let's try something else.
Kelly: Openness to learn! No one comes into having sex or any sexual relations knowing everything. It is a learning process. Learning about yourself as well as partners. It is absolutely necessary for my partners to be of this mindset. There is nothing attractive about being with someone who thinks they know it all. I’m also a firm believer in the idea that our bodies are natural and beautiful. I prefer partners whose views of the human body align with this way of thinking. Any bodily fluids, secretions, illness, ailments are natural and are nothing to be grossed out over. I think with the large misunderstanding that we have over bodies and sex, comes shaming. If we can tackle that head-on, then we tackle this issue.
Li: Here is a short list of what I find extremely desirable: Intersectional feminist that is not performative, life long learner, accountability, self aware of strengths/weaknesses/blindspots, creative and exploratory, communicative, considerate of emotional labor, outdoorsy. This list definitely makes dating difficult because I tend to not shy away from asking about people’s feminism on dating apps.
Queen: Oooh, I think the philosophical helps shape the physical! I most desire people who really respect and are fascinated by sex. That’s not the same as being driven by it and wanting to have a lot of it, necessarily. I’d rather be with someone who is open to the sexual energy going lots of different ways, because that means their definition of sex isn’t limited or circumscribed.
Fitz: What a dope question! I’d say the thing that turns me on the most is listening. In a sexual relationship, I want to hear my partner and I want them to hear me. Before, after, during. It’s the only way to make it even better. Oh, and um, playing with my neck.
Some answers were edited for length and clarity.