History of the Sex Positive Movement

This piece originally appeared in the No Experience Newsletter Issue #277 (Aug 3, 2015) Starting this month I am the sex columnist for No Experience with a new column out every Monday. To subscribe and get it in your inbox 3 times a week send your email address to noexperiencenewsletter [at] gmail [dot] com. If you have a sex question you want answered in an upcoming issue, email me at rachels1088 [at] gmail [dot] com.  

As we move towards a greater understanding of the fluidity and spectra of sex, sexuality and gender, the term “sex-positive” can be heard in nearly all conversations about these topics. But sex-positivity and sex-positive feminism are not new concepts, and they didn’t emerge without difficulty.

For much of Western history, societies’ –under the heavy influence of religious dogma-– views on  eroticism, sex and masturbation evolved. Lust and sensuality were considered vile and disgusting, and the act of (heterosexual) sex itself was often only redeemed by the divine gift of pregnancy. But as modernism swept the Western world in the early 20th century, new ideas about the brain, the body and the universe began to emerge. The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a protégé of Sigmund Freud’s, encouraged sexual liberation, advocated for the sexual revolution and viewed orgasms as a way to combat neuroses. He coined the term “orgone” – the life force energy of orgasms- and even developed machines (orgone accumulators) to harness the power of orgasms. His work served as a precursor to the free love movement of the 1960s.

In 1965, Betty Dodson, now widely considered the grandmother of the sex-positive movement, divorced her husband and embarked on a search for  “sexual self-discovery” through art, holding the first ever one woman show of erotic art in 1968, and later began conducting workshops for women to discover their own sexuality.  In 1987 she published “Sex for One” in an effort to take the shame out of masturbation. It has sold over 1 million copies internationally since its publication.

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a schism in the feminist movement between the anti-pornography feminists and the pro-sex  feminists. Anti-pornography feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, considered all porn as a form of violence against women and worked towards creating new laws to limit pornography. Meanwhile, the pro-sex feminists, such as Wendy McElroy and Ellen Willis, saw this as sexual puritanism, moral authoritarianism and a threat to free speech. They promoted sex as an avenue of pleasure for women.

While Dworkin made a name for herself as a crusader against pornography she also fought against rape, pedophilia and domestic abuse. She wrote an analysis of heterosexual sex in society called “Intercourse” published in 1987. She argued that sex between a man and a woman, as it is often presented in  patriarchal society, is a form of occupation.

The debate (or “feminist sex wars”) raged on through the 1980s but by the 1990s, the pro-sex feminists seemed to have come out on top. In 1998, Sex And The City premiered and in the first episode, Samantha Jones declared that a woman should “have sex like a man.” As in, casually and advocating for her own pleasure.

In 2000, however, extremely conservative lawmakers allocated $20 million of federal funding to abstinence-only sex education in the US through initiatives like the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE), despite numerous studies citing its ineffectiveness. The result was an increase in teen pregnancies across the nation. Non-white teenagers, and those living in poverty are disproportionately affected by this and about 25% of teen moms give birth a second time within 2 years of having their first child. Luckily the federal government changed its policy for funding abstinence only education in 2010, the teen pregnancy rate dropped again, except in states that mandate abstinence until marriage education.

Today, many modern feminists (though certainly not all,   a divide still exists among feminists about whether sex and sex work can be conceptually removed from their patriarchal and misogynistic history) consider themselves to be sex-positive. Sex-positivity in 2015 means embracing everything from asexuality to sex work while also fighting against rape culture and human trafficking. It also recognizes the struggle towards body acceptance and sexual autonomy is different for people of color, the differently-abled, the LGBTQ community and those from non-Western backgrounds.

There is still a lot of work to be done to break down the stigma and shame so many people associate with sex.  We talk about slut shaming through events like the Slut Walk (and its detractors, who say it’s a waste of time for feminists to focus on women’s sexual dichotomy instead of the other ways women are routinely oppressed in society) and how to deal with the lasting effects of the AIDS crisis. Sexual education reform is an important tool in breaking down the stigma and ensuring future generations have sex that is safe, pleasurable and free from shame.

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