By Sophia Tulp
Sex positive. It’s a term that’s been adopted and broadcast by celebrities, feminists and activists alike over the past few years. Joining the ranks are Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Ilana Glazer, to name just a few of the celebrities opening up dialogue about sex.
But sex positivity isn’t just another buzzword to look up on Urban Dictionary. It’s a framework that counselors, medical professionals and universities are using to educate and talk with young people about issues relating to sexuality and sexual health.
What is sex positivity? And what does it mean to be “sex positive”?
Carl Olsen, a program coordinator in Colorado State University’s Women and Gender Advocacy Center, says sex positivity is a philosophy — an outlook on interpersonal relationships.
He said the term “sex positive” can be interpreted in different ways. For most, it involves having positive attitudes about sex and feeling comfortable with one’s own sexual identity and with the sexual behaviors of others, and destigmatizing sex.
“Most of our programming lands in the area of consent and prevention,” Olsen told USA TODAY College. “Most of the students here have had zero sex ed or abstinence-only [sex education], and that can lead to uncomfortable situations talking about sex. … We are just absolutely cool with however many sexual partners you have had, however many times you’ve had sex or if you’ve had zero sex at all — as long as it is all done consensually.”
last time i checked most people enjoy having sex there’s no need to shame a girl who has more sex than you. jealously is an ugly trait boo.
— shelb (@shelbseb) March 16, 2017
Overall, Olsen says sex positivity is about establishing healthy relationships.
Yana Mazurkevich, an Ithaca College junior and activist, went viral last year for her photo series “Dear Brock Turner.” Since then, Mazurkevich has advocated for sexual assault prevention and awareness. Mazurkevich says she assumes the label of sex positive. To her, sex positivity is putting away shame or feelings of embarrassment in order to learn more about healthy sex.
“It allows you to open yourself up to facts, to educate yourself and pass that along to other people,” Mazurkevich says. “Getting yourself out of your comfort zone and learning how to talk about sex is the most vital thing so that you can be comfortable to open your mouth and not be too scared to do anything or say how you feel.”
What are the common myths or misconceptions regarding sex positivity?
Contrary to what some believe, Olsen said that sex positivity is not about having lots of sex.
At its core is the idea of consent and owning your own sexuality in the most comfortable way possible. For some people this means having lots of sex. But for other people it might mean abstaining — and that’s okay.
In current U.S. culture, and often in the college setting, Olsen said women are shamed for wanting and having pleasure from sex. The “virgin vs. slut dichotomy,” as he calls it, dictates that women can only fall into one category or the other, with stigma attached to both.
A lot of this, he says, comes down to socialization. Men can be socialized to believe that they need to have a lot of sex to show masculinity, while women are socialized to fear or feel shame about their bodies.
According to CSU’s Women’s Advocacy Center, another misconception is that sex positivity is only for women. Sex positivity challenges these notions by encouraging people of all genders to understand their own sexuality and to engage in relationships that affirm their desires. This includes people who want to abstain and those who love one-night-stands. As long as it’s consensual, there is no judgment.
However, some students still find that they encounter criticism for being open about their sexuality.
Mazurkevich says her sex-positive attitude has caused some people to judge her. “I hate the word ‘slut.’ It should be out of the dictionary,” she told USA TODAY College. “I think people should have as much sex as you want as long as they are safe, smart and consensual.”
Is there an app for that? You know there is
The University of Oregon has taken a unique approach to using sex positivity as an educational tool on campus. In a joint effort between the Office of Title IX, the Health Center and numerous student groups, the school released a smartphone mobile app titled SexPositive.
The app combines technology and language targeted at 18-23 year-olds to help students make healthy sexual decisions. The goals of the app are to decrease transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STI) and sexual violence, and to increase healthy communication.
“The university takes a broad approach to educating our students about behaviors and choices that may affect their current and future health, and their overall quality of life,” said Paula Staight, health promotions director for the university health center in a statement to the campus community last year. “Being informed and adding to a student’s existing knowledge is a powerful prevention effort.”
How long has sex positivity been around?
The term sex positive has only become widely acknowledged during the past decade, though the foundation has been around since the 1920s, when psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a student of Sigmund Freud, argued that sexuality was normal and healthy, and wrote that a good and healthy sex life led to improved overall well-being.
As feminist movements grew, changed and popularized over the years, the term has been used and molded to help liberate communities from patriarchal or heteronormative assumptions about sex and relationships.
And today, sex positivity is more common than ever. Take for example, the women of Girls or Broad City. Sex positivity has come to be categorized by realistic and unfiltered portrayals of sex and what that means to the young people navigating it.
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