3 Reasons We Need to Be Critical of Sex Positivity in Queer Spaces

Originally published on The Body Is Not An Apology and republished here with permission.

Two people holding one another pose on a front yard in front of a yellow house.

Two people holding one another pose on a front yard in front of a yellow house.

Sex positivity often acts as an implicit – or sometimes explicit – foundation of leftist, feminist and LGBTQ+ spaces for completely valid reasons. As women and queers, sex has been the driving force behind both our oppression and the spaces we create to separate, heal, and liberate us from our oppression.

Sexualized socializing spaces predate the creation of the categories that comprise the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and when these social identities emerged people began to socialize around their sexuality in ways similar to dominant heterosexual practices (that are invisibilized through heterosexuality’s governance).

Mirroring straight society, sex clubs and bars with sexual undercurrents became inevitable spaces for queer folks to congregate for many reasons. Separatist queer social spaces became an understandable respite from pressure and oppression rampant in heterosexualized spaces, and the sexual and romantic possibilities quickly followed.

Even outside of LGBTQ+ spaces, the basis of our discrimination is sex-based. When people read our queerness, they are making assumptions about who and how we like to have sex with, regardless of if we want to or actually are having this sex. Even structurally, queer sex has been positioned as threatening to the integrity of society as a whole.

While the idea that we really could be challenging, subverting and destroying the patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism (et al.) that our society is built on with our sex practices is really exciting to me, personally, in reality this is not only not the truth, but we often end up replicating these systems in the microcosms of our sex lives.

But the potentiality for this threat by an anxious and fragile dominant straight majority hasn’t stopped this idea from destroying the lives of many queers historically and presently through practices like The Lavender Scare under McCarthyism, gay bashings, conversion therapy, job and housing discrimination, the historic criminalization of our sex practices and murder, just to name a few.

Everyone’s sexuality is ever-present, but heterosexism has invisibilized straight people’s sexuality while keeping it at the forefront of all societal practices and made hypervisible queer sexual practices, even if they are imagined, inflated, inaccurate, or completely true.

I understand why queer and feminist communities have embraced sex positivity as a reaction to the oppression we face as a community.

Reclaiming sex and sexuality is a reasonable reaction to the histories of violence we have faced in the name of policing, critiquing, or attempting to destroy our sexual lives and desires. It is a real and well-utilized tool of resistance to embrace and reclaim that for which you are oppressed by nearly every community from racial to gender minorities to fat, disabled, and undocumented populations – all of which also include LGBTQ+ members.

And the uncritical embracement of sex positivity can work to erase the complicated relationship to sex many of us have, including the trauma that shapes our relationships to sex as well as the trauma that is born of sexual experiences. Here’s how.

1. Sex Can Be Triggering for Survivors of Sexual Assault

A common reaction to sexual assault is to become disinterested in sex, or for thoughts or discussion of sex to become triggering. Naturally, being violated in such an intimate way can complicate or even sever any positivity tied to sex.

Nearly half of people who identify as LGBTQ+ are survivors of sexual violence.

While a sex positivity that demands that we all have a positive and healthy embracement of sex has been critiqued, an expectation to even feel neutral to sex can feel erasive for those who have a negative or even traumatic relationship to sex.

And while there are certainly survivors who maintain a sex positive alignment in valid ways, a sex positivity that isn’t sensitive to the variety of experiences we have to sex can be alienating.

2. Accessing Sexuality Can Be Difficult Based on Our Own Other Identities

I’ve realized the ways in which my own relationship to sexuality has been facilitated by my fatness.

Meaning – because I have existed in a world that views fat people not only not as sexual subjects but as outright disgusting, I have consistently been desexualized by my peers and ostensible sexual partner pool. This has caused me to hide or minimize my sexual desires in many ways, particularly when I am attracted to someone.

Because my automatic assumption is that they are not attracted to me, I rarely initiate a sexual or even romantic relationship – primarily for a fear that my pursuit will evoke shame or embarrassment or discomfort from them.

Fatness adds another layer onto my sexuality. While I feel totally comfortable with my queer identity – especially as it extends beyond my actual sex practices – accessing and participating in sex spaces as a fat person adds a layer of stress and anxiety when trying to engage with my sexuality, especially outside of spaces that are especially designated as fat sexual spaces… which many queer social spaces are not.

A popular study of OkCupid response rates revealed racial biases – particularly against Black folks as well as Asian men. For those of us who have disprivileged bodies, this did not feel like much of a surprise. We are well aware of the ways in which social biases – including race – reveal themselves not just on dating website or hook-up apps, but they manifest in interpersonal queer social spaces generally.

For many of us, we have unpleasant, negative, or dysfunctional relationships to sex simply because we are not seen as sexual possibilities in our communities. On a purely physical level, this can be disappointing, but it can feel like a bigger betrayal when it reveals biases even in intentional radical leftist spaces that would like to otherwise obscure our differences or the ways we are replicating systems of oppression in our spaces. Particularly when we formulate our social circles – consciously or unconsciously – based on potential sexual or romantic partners.

Those of us without (or with less) sexual capital end up losing access to not just sex and romance, but friendship and community, and other networks of support that are vital to our survival.

In some ways, our sexual practices can be hyperintimate replications of systems of power. I have seen too many intentional queer of color spaces where the sexual capital continues to be distributed solely amongst the thin, cis, not-disabled, and light skinned people in the space.

When we fall outside of these categories, there is a heightened pressure to access our sexualities in ways that don’t feel entirely available, as much as we may want to. Without this access and experience, it is so easy to feel shamed and outcasted by a sex positivity that not only encourages us to have frequent sex, but presumes those around us are accessing those experiences.

3. Many of Us Have Unhealthy Relationships to Sex

Recently I confessed to a friend that, frequently, my primary motivations for seeking out sex stem from feeling sad and/or undesirable. In these moments, sex becomes a way to prove my own desirability to myself, or sometimes simply as a distraction from the things that are making me feel sad or overwhelmed.

Because of this, every sexual encounter feels pregnant with the burden to compensate for the larger forces that shape my sexual potential.

Historically, sex for me is rarely about the actors enjoying each others’ bodies, and is often loaded with so much more meaning than it does not and simply can’t deliver. And I have continued this pattern knowingly at times, so much so in a way that I can see the ways in which sex practices have become a method of self-harm for me.

Sex is no longer a neutral pastime but a tool I have used to self-medicate, a tool I use not only when I’m sad or lonely but when I want to feel bad about myself – the most consistent expectation it can deliver.

With this knowledge, it becomes difficult to pretend sex is an inherently neutral or even positive act. It can and has be used to harm so many of us – particularly when so many mimic these reasons for seeking out sex as well.

It isn’t enough to be positive about sex without demanding that we have the opportunities for positive experiences of sex. There is so much work required for this to happen, beyond basic understandings of consent. It requires us having relationships to each other and our bodies that allow all of our encounters to feel emotionally and physically safe, mutually pleasurable, and a decentralized sexual capital away from the most visible embodiments of privilege.

There is a reason that sex has become a focal point of not just our movements but of human history generally. At its best, sex can be anything from downright fun to empowering. In practice, sex is a complicated hydra that we all have very different relationships to and experiences with. This does not, necessarily, mean that we need to disavow sex completely. I am not calling for us to stop talking about it, having it, making it a part of our communities.

What it does mean, however, is that we should be much more critical about the ways in which sex does show up in our spaces. A sex positivity that assumes that we all have the same experiences with sex is not only not true, but harmful to our communities.

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Caleb Luna is a working class fat, brown, queer, living, writing, performing and dancing in Oakland, California. They are a first-year PhD student at University of California, Berkeley, and their work explores the intersections of fatness, desire, fetishism, white supremacy, and colonialism from a queer of color lens. You can find more of their writing on Black Girl Dangerous and on Facebook and Tumblr under queerandpresentdanger.