Carnival of Aces: Asexuality and the sex-positive movement

This post is for June’s Carnival of Aces and it is a few days late.

I have a complicated relationship with the sex positive movement.

I can’t remember my first encounter with sex positivity. I remember that I very strongly identified myself as sex-positive for a long time, because I thought that was the only alternative to the sex-negative messages I received from my Catholic background. The first sex-positive people I knew had also been very serious about emphasizing sexual autonomy and recognizing that never wanting to have sex was one possible valid experience.

The sex-positive movement contains several different strains of people: there is the above-described strain who explicitly state their value of sexual autonomy and clearly articulate their acceptance of celibacy and asexuality–and there is another strain that misunderstands asexuals and celibates, and views them as repressed. While that other strain of sex-positive people does not explicitly advocate rape, it’s hard (read: impossible) to not be reinforcing rape culture when you are telling asexuals and celibates that they are repressed and that ideally, they should get over that repression and be having sex.

To be more specific, I have directly witnessed members of the sex-positive movement to do these things:

  • talk about sex to people who have expressed that they do not want to talk about sex
  • show porn to people who have expressed that they don’t want to see porn
  • assume that people who are uncomfortable with talking about sex or seeing nudity are repressed and need to get over it
  • think that the best way to get someone out of sexual repression is by forcing them to listen to sex talk or to see nudity

(I do not have an unblemished record. I am guilty of having, years ago, talked about sex to unwilling listeners in the name of sex positivity.)

I could not go to a going-away party for a former friend of mine, once, because the friend (who knew at the time that I was uncomfortable with nudity) wanted to be naked at their going-away party. Years later, I learned that this former friend regularly did the things in the above bulleted list in the name of sex positivity. I will not make a no-true-scotsman argument in order to prove that this former friend is not “truly” sex-positive, because the fact remains that people like this former friend form a significant-enough proportion of sex-positive people that this is a problem for the sex-positive movement.

I wrote this post back when I still considered myself a member of the sex-positive movement. At the time, I did not fully understand the term “enthusiastic consent,” or how relationships between asexuals and non-asexuals worked when sex was involved. I mention this old post because it suddenly in the past few weeks became more popular on Tumblr. In the post, though I didn’t perceive this at the time because I misunderstood the implications of the enthusiastic consent model (and misunderstood relationship dynamics between aces and non-aces), what I wrote amounted to that it is rape to have sex with a person whose response is a “yes” that is less enthusiastic than an “Oh my god, yes, fuck me right now!”

It is very common in the sex-positive movement for non-asexual people to agree with the idea that it is rape to have sex with a person whose consent is not enthusiastic. This idea strips many asexuals (and people with disabilities that affect how emotions are felt or expressed) of the ability to consent, by defining them as categories of people who are incapable of consent and telling them what their experiences are.

I feel very alienated from the sex-positive movement for the other people in it who believe that asexuals are repressed, for the people in it who believe that asexuals are incapable of consent, and because of the choice of name for the movement, which I have not until now felt it appropriate to mention. I do not believe that sex is an inherently positive experience. It is harmful to believe that sex is an inherently positive experience because the take-away message can be construed as “Saying no to sex is saying no to this awesome good thing. How can anyone do that?”

I share many beliefs with the first sex-positive activists I met: a strong value of sexual autonomy (especially of asexual-spectrum people and persons with disabilities), a willingness to critically examine existing and emerging consent models, and a commitment to working against rape culture.

I don’t self-identify as sex-positive because of the many people in the movement that don’t share those values with me.

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Talia C. Johnson

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