Sex-postive or Sex-radical?

I said I was going to seek your input, explicitly, and here’s why:

Language shapes how we think about issues. I love language. I agree with Chelsea Girl that “good grammar is hott.” I think semantics is sexy. I am fascinated by the nuances of word choice. (It should be no surprise that I’m generally more turned on by written porn than video porn.) And in this obsession about language and sex lies the root of my current dilemma.

Let me start by saying that Carol Queen is one of the smartest, sexiest writers I know, and it was her writing that introduced me to the term ‘sex-positive.’ I am convinced that she is a goddess! Her nonfiction explorations of sex and culture are brilliant and her erotic novel, The Leather Daddy and the Femme, is the hottest thing I’ve ever read. If Carol Queen says ‘sex-positive’ how can I possibly question the term myself?

And this, exactly, is my dilemma: whether or not to use the term ‘sex-positive’ to describe the kind of culture I hope to see created — to participate in creating — as the US struggles through its — our — cultural-sexual issues. I’ve used the term ‘sex-positive’ uncritically for years to describe a state of mind, of being, of culture, where no consensual sex, no sexual or gender identity or expression is stigmatized, criminalized or otherwise forbidden. What could be clearer? And how could I now be questioning that usage?

It started over breakfast when my friend Richard told me how much he disliked the term ‘sex-positive.’ Since I think of him as one of the more sex-positive people I know, I was surprised. I asked him why he disliked the term. He explained that he saw people divided not so much about whether sex was good or bad (in other words not so much over whether they felt positively or negatively about it) but over what kinds of sex they felt positively or negatively about. Then I thought about the introduction to the book I’m working on, where I uncritically use the term ‘sex-positive’ but where I also use a different set of terms. I describe those who talk about sex as belonging only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage and as existing primarily for reproduction, and as a marital duty, and perhaps as a way of expressing intimacy and love between married people, as people who use a conservative sex narrative. People who are more flexible about sex, and think that people should be able to do whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes, but who would prefer to see sex expressed within the bounds of “loving relationships” (regardless of gender or marital status) use what I call a liberal sex narrative. I contrast both of these with what I, and others, call a sex-radical narrative that sounds exactly like what I defined above as ‘sex-positive.’

So: sex-positive, or sex-radical? There are good political reasons to use ‘sex-positive.’ It’s harder to argue with, first of all, which makes it, potentially, a more effective framing device. It captures the sense that sex is good without sounding frightening to people. Lots of people, before reading the definition I gave above, would identify as ‘sex-positive,’ so it is a term that resonates with a wide range of people. On the other hand, it is confusing because lots of people who like the sound of ‘sex-positive’ do not agree that all consensual sex, all gender and sexual identity and expression, is okay. That idea is really a rather radical idea. In that sense, ‘sex-radical’ is more descriptive, more accurate. But politically, it is more problematic. It does not have the advantage of resonance that ‘sex-positive’ has. It is immediately alienating to people who are turned off by radicalism of all sorts. In short, it has a ‘preaching to the choir’ problem.

I wrote in an earlier post about some sex toy and sex advice web sites that market themselves to a Christian-identified audience. These are sites that encourage a wide range of sexual expression but only within the very specific boundaries of a Christian marriage. They encourage exploration of BDSM fantasies, of dildo use, of talking dirty. People who are inclined to follow this advice may well think of themselves as ‘sex-positive.’ But they are certainly not the people I have meant when I’ve used the term. These folks, while valorizing the vibrator within their own bedrooms, also condemn pornography, condemn same-gender sex, condemn sex outside of marriage. They are positive in their attitudes about a very limited range of sexual options.

My inclination is to go with the more descriptively accurate ‘conservative, libereral and radical sex narrative’ language, and to use ‘sex-radical’ where I would have otherwise used ‘sex-positive.’ But I am mindful that ‘sex-positive’ is a much more widely appealing term and I hesitate to give too much ground to the conservative sex-narrative folks by using a term that may be alienating to people who otherwise agree with the underlying idea that no sexual and gender expression and no consensual sex deserves stigma and condemnation.

Of course I, myself, love the term ‘sex-radical’ and am an advocate of many radical changes to the dominant US culture and social structure.

What do you think? Sex-postive? Sex-radical? Something else altogether? (If this whole thing sounds like a foreign language to you, I encourage you to browse this Wikipedia entry for more background on the origins and use of terms like ‘sex-radical’ and ‘sex-positive.’ I don’t always recommend Wikipedia, but this is a pretty good entry.)

Submit your comments below or email them to me using the “Drop me a note” link.


Filed under public discourse, sex, sexuality

3 responses to “Sex-postive or Sex-radical?

  1. First comment received was from my partnerwho pointed out a noun-verb agreement problem around the word “semantics” and then alerted me to the fact that the remainder of the paragraph about Carol Queen was simply missing altogether! Both items are fixed, and a prize goes to Will for his editorial acumen.

  2. talkingfigleaf

    “Sex-positive” suggests one of a number of choices, as if it were different from but roughly equal to sex-negative or sex-neutral. Rather than go there I’d rather use another term.

    To the extent that semantics matter (and I agree they matter a great deal) then “sex-radical” is more appropriate in the sense that “radical” means, roughly, “of or from the center.” But to most people’s ear the word “radical” has other connotations so, again, I’d rather use another term.

    I prefer the term “normal,” or “healthy,” or “ordinary,” or any other word with a meaning comparable to our descriptions of well-nourished but not overfed human beings, an educated but not educationally-incapacitated human, a fit but not muscle-bound human being.

    I don’t choose the term to be either twee or wilfull. Whether we live where starvation is endemic, or where most people are so fat they waddle when they walk, we still know what’s meant when we say “healthy.” We don’t say “nutrition-positive.”

    And now that I think of it we probably wouldn’t say “nutrition-radical” either, but I think you’re closer to the mark with “sex-radical” than “sex-positive.”


  3. Hey Elizabeth! I am back from vacation–I’ll get in touch with you when I get the chance–but I am catching up on some internet reading and I wanted to throw something else into your mix here: What if the problem with terms like “sex positive” or “sex radical” is that they ultimately focus attention too narrowly on sex per se? Leaving aside questions of political expediency, like the ones you bring up about the term “sex positive,” which are valid and but which too often get in the way of theorizing, doesn’t the term “sex” in each of those phrases at least implicity stand in for a whole range of socioeconomic, cultural and political issues that are not obviously sexual per se? I’m not so much arguing that there needs to be yet another term–because even though I think another term would be very useful to have, I think there is value to the “shock value” that the word sex has in either of those phrases, though “sex positive” is, as you point out, clearly less threatening than “sex radical”–but rather wondering about the rhetoric that surrounds a term like, say, “sex radical.” In your post, you define the term like this:

    all consensual sex, all gender and sexual identity and expression, is okay

    Now, I know you did not write this to be a definition, and I know you were writing, in part, to people who are already familiar with the term and the politics packed within it, but the quote I have pulled from your post is also, in my experience, a good approximation of the thumbnail definition that people who are sex-radical give of what they believe, and, as such, it *sounds* pretty narrowly focused. If I didn’t know otherwise, in other words, I would not know from that definition that sex-radical includes/embraces, broadly speaking, much of the feminist agenda when it comes to gender and economics; nor would I understand that there is a critique implicit within sex-radical of both certain kinds of feminist approaches and patriarchy.

    Now, I realize that it is impossible to ask a single term like “sex radical” to do all the communicative work I just talked about. What I am trying to get at, I guess, is that thinking about the difference between “positive” and “radical” is only part of the problem; a much larger part of the problem–at least to me–is figuring out how to build a rhetoric that wrests the term “sex” from its conventional moorings and invests it with the much broader significance it has to have if a notion like sex-radical is to become a part of mainstream consciousness, with anything even remotely resembling an accurate understanding of what it stands for, in the way, say, that the term “feminist” has.

    (I should add that I realize sex-radical writers are, in fact, in the process of doing what I am talking about, and my comment is not meant to imply that this work is not happening; I just wanted to raise this point in conjunction with the questions you were asking about “sex positive” versus “sex radical” as labels. My vote, by the way, if it’s not already clear, would be for “radical.”)