Monday, April 25, 2011

What Sex Positive Means (at least to me)

Lately, we've seen lots of blog posts (including a few of mine) about sex in YA. There are arguments and counter arguments and counter counter arguments and counter counter counter arguments and . . . well, I guess you get it.

One phrase gets thrown around a lot. "Sex Positive." We've heard authors talk about sex positive YA, we've heard about sex positive education, and we've heard some argue against sex positivity. Recently, a discussion with some friends I go to school with proved to me that not everyone knows what sex positivity is. This made me wonder - do *I* know what sex positivity is? I've been told my writing is sex positive, I've identified myself as an advocate of sex positive messages, but did I know what it meant?

That's how this post came about. After a few serious conversations with friends, I came up with what "sex positive" means to me, and, more importantly perhaps, what it does not mean.

What Sex Positivity is NOT
-Sex positivity is NOT sex encouragement. Sex positive messages aren't promoting sex nor encouraging teenagers to have sex.

-Sex positivity is NOT pressuring teenagers to have sex young.

-Sex positivity is NOT advocating sex . . . well, at all, actually.

So then what does it mean? Well, here's what it DOES mean - at least to me.

Sex Positivity DOES Mean (to me, at least)
-Sex positivity DOES mean educating young people about their bodies, about sex, about safety, and about things that are natural and normal human responses.

-Sex positivity DOES mean encouraging conversations about sex, asking people not to silence themselves, to ask questions, to learn.

-Sex positivity DOES mean treating everyone - teenagers included - with respect and honesty, telling the truth - the good, the bad, and the awkward.

-Sex positivity DOES mean talking about sex as a natural thing, not as something "bad" or "dirty," not treating those who have it as shameful.

I write this post because I've seen some confusion on this matter. Sex positive sometimes gets mixed up with "GO OUT AND HAVE SEX NOW IT'S GREAT!!!" which is so, so not what it means - not in my world. Instead, it means education on all fronts and treating sex as something normal - because, hey, every species has some way of doing it - and not something to be ashamed of.

I've talked a few times on here about slut shaming and the dangers of it. Well, sex positivity discourages this. Instead of treating those who think about or engage in sex as demons, it treats EVERYONE with respect.

So what does it mean to write sex positive literature?

Again, this is my personal definition, so others may disagree here. But to me, writing sex positive literature means writing books in which the characters are not condemned for their sexual choices. Maybe they face consequences - that's life - but the reader is not told that the characters should be ashamed. Sex positive literature is honest, it doesn't moralize, and it treats its characters AND its readers with respect.

Just as a note - a book doesn't even have to have sex in it to be sex positive by my definition. I'd call Andrea Cremer's Nightshade sex positive (I actually just presented on it and some other sex positive urban fantasy this weekend - I'll do a post on that later).

Anyway, I think that's the end of my little ramble. But now I"m curious - what does sex positivity mean to you? What do you think good examples of sex positive media (books, TV, movies) are? Let me know in the comments!


Ellen Hopkins said...

Fab post... I totally agree. And here's the thing. Teens may or may not be having sex, but hormones dictate they're thinking about it, and trying to define personal boundaries. They learn (positively or negatively) by example... or by reading about what sex is, what it means, what it might lead to. Denying they're thinking about these things is ignorant. Let's arm them with knowledge.

Kody Keplinger said...

Ellen - I totally agree! I was lucky enough growing up to have had a parent who encouraged questions and conversation, and who never censored my reading. My peers, though, weren't always so lucky. I see how being raised to believe that sex was "dirty" has impacted them as young adults, and it is sometimes heartbreaking. Arming teenagers with knowledge and with the knowledge that having/thinking about/talking about sex doesn't make you "dirty" or "bad" is so, so important for the rest of their lives.

Also - thank you so much for commenting!!!!

thebloodfiend said...

I totally agree. I am so sick of all the people telling teens to go out and have sex because it's great. And I'm just as sick of the people that tell teens not to have sex because it's dirty. Isn't there a middle ground? And I think you've found it. I've been reading your blog for a while, and I like the way that you've progressed with your thoughts this topic. Sex just is. It can be good or bad. But ignoring its existence does nothing.

Kody Keplinger said...

thebloodfiend - thanks for commenting! I agree. And I think there IS a middle ground, but I've come to realize that the term "sex positive" scares some people because they think it is that "GO HAVE SEX NOW!" extreme, and it isn't - at least, not by my definition.

And I'm glad you enjoy the posts! I worry sometimes that I over blog about these issues, but they have recently become huge concerns of mine, as an author, a reader, a student, and a feminist. (Also as the big cousin to two awesome little girls who I hope never have to deal with the shaming or pressure my friends did). So I'm glad the posts are at least enjoyable!

Andrea Cremer said...

Wow, Kody! As a feminist who advocates sex positive education I am beyond honored to be mentioned in this post!! Thank you!!!

Mundie Moms said...

I agree that sex is something that does need to be discussed. It's not dirty, it's natural and from a parent's point of view, it's important for teens to know all sides of it. Like you mentioned, the good, the bad, the awkward etc. Sex is something should and needs to be talked about, not just at school and not just in books, but at home too. yes, I know not all parents talk about it w/ their kids. I think it's important for authors to not glamorize sex, because sadly a lot of kids learn about sex through YA books. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on sex and sex education.

Tere Kirkland said...

Great post, Kody! I hope that someday our culture will embrace the idea of "sex positive" to the point where the double standard (sexually active guys are studs, sexually active girls are sluts) will become a thing of the past.

It seems to me that seeing sex as "dirty", only encourages "dirty" behaviors: sneaking around, having unsafe sex, spreading disease, and causing unplanned pregnancies. Is it too much to ask that YA lit will change that? Maybe if it didn't have to compete with the way sex is used in advertising and movies.

Thanks for this post, Kody.

We Heart YA said...

WONDERFUL post! Fave line:

"But to me, writing sex positive literature means writing books in which the characters are not condemned for their sexual choices. Maybe they face consequences - that's life - but the reader is not told that the characters should be ashamed. Sex positive literature is honest, it doesn't moralize, and it treats its characters AND its readers with respect."

We could not agree more!

(Ellen's comment is an excellent addition, too.)

my life with books -kjovus said...

Kody, Thank you for writing this post. I am going to print it and put it my journal (I hope you don't mind) So when I have the sex talk with my children I can remember to tell them what you said, because you have done a very good job.
Thank you

Daisy Whitney said...

I'm with you Kody! Writing about sex doesn't mean one is advocating having it or having it too soon or having it dangerously or anything! It just means you're talking about something we're all thinking about anyway! xoxo

BH said...

I disagree... in part.

I'm an outsider looking in, in a way. I grew up in the seventies (which means pre-HIV) in Europe (which means LOADS of firstclass sex-ed, free access to contraceptives and definitely less religiously raised than current US American teens are).

Just throwing a few numbers out there: our average age of having sex the first time as a girl was 15. We used contraceptives as a rule (if any of us was afraid of being pregnant, it was whether or not the contraceptive failed, not becaue we didn't know what could get us pregnant). No one pressured a girl into sex. We all talked about sex very very freely, and coercion inexistant. One reason was that guys had no problems finding a willing partner. The other reason was that web all knew that was absolutely inacceptable. By the time we left high school at 17/18 there were only 2 virgins left (out of very repressed catholic families) out of some 500 female students. Our teen pregnancy rate was zero. There were 4 known abortions (I accompanied close friends on two of those four). Sex positivity wasn't something we thought about. We were positive about it.

As a school and as a sample we were not at all exceptional. The teen pregnancy rate at the time was well below 1% and while basics were marginally different for schools of a lower education level, this wasn't that much. As teenagers we had access to everything faciliating responsible sexuality, and it was impossible to evade proper sex-ed. Parents had no say there either, so even those coming from ultrareligious homes got the knowledge early on.

"Make out parties" started at 12/13, usually in the party cellars of parents' houses and the adults were quite aware of the fact that up to heavy petting was taking place there. Alcohol by the way figured far less than in the USA (I was with US friends of my parents as a 16 y/o for two months) at the time, because most of us were allowed alcohol at the table by our parents anyway. Drugs weren't done much either.

BH said...

Sooo. I come from a rather different background. One where teens had sex, weren't repressed, knew how to take the risks and almost as a closed population bonked like the bunnies throughout highschool.

I've been researching the past weeks, and I have to say that what I read on such teen sites as, partially even written by young adults who marry as virgins and stand before a sexual life already dead at the starting gate (because they never had a chance at trying out what needs training like learning to walk or bike), partially written by older teenagers who haven't got a clue at all, or accept behaviour as normal which is close to sexual abuse, is a shattering proof of how fundamentally the whole complex topic is being mishandled.

There's way more to it as well, for instance, what absolutely struck me was the HUGE number of teenagers complaining of being physically unable to have sex, of being too dry, unable to insert farther than a few inches, of painful sex.

I can't remember a single case where this would have been so for us. And it isn't the use of condoms, we did use those a lot, as they are a good method of contraception. Short of the first times, there were no girls having such physical problems. And that needs another clarification right there, we do not use lube. None of our sex-ed texts advised using any, and even modern texts only advise it for anal sex. So that's a discrepancy which is more than a little striking!

So, CONTRARY to what some said here and in other posts, carefree sex (which doesn't equal careless sex) is what I associate with being young, being allowed to live out my youth. In short, I was so very lucky to be able to do all this, to have all that rather fun sexuality, all the breathlessness and experimenting without a baggage of admonishments and attitudes dragging me down.

If it were me, I indeed would include having sex as a means to learn about yourself as a sex-positive stance. Especially when there is such an attitude of vilifying it.

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