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What is positive sexuality?

What is positive sexuality? Positive sexuality has several meanings. The first is understanding sexuality as a positive force —be it through sexual expression, desires, or identities—for individuals, relationships, communities and institutions (i.e., education, the law). When something is “positive,” it is affirming and including, as opposed to negating, withholding or excluding. In essence, being positive about sexuality is recognizing the best parts of what is good about this part of our lives and humanity: connection, intimacy, pleasure, body comfort and increased health, feeling alive, having a sense of entitlement to health, safety, relationships, and bodily integrity and autonomy. While “positive” may be a judgment situated in moral beliefs and values, “positive sexuality” is meant to denote not judging how other people experience or express their sexuality (with the important exception that interactions with other people are consensual) and not imposing one’s values on other people’s sexuality. There are many areas of sexuality that people have strong opinions about and question whether it is possible or even moral to be positive about: BDSM or kinky sex, pornography, masturbation, same-sex sexuality, polyamorous sexuality, even celibacy or being asexual.

Aren’t some things about sexuality just not normal? Positive sexuality means normalizing sexuality. Sexuality is part of the normal life cycle, present, in various forms, in psychosocial and physical development. It includes recognizing that there are multiple ways to be sexual and to express sexuality rather than one correct way (i.e., heterosexual, married, monogamous, penile-vaginal intercourse, oriented towards traditional forms of reproduction). It is an attitude towards sexuality—“sex positive”—the belief that awareness of and choices about one’s sexuality is a good thing. This does not mean that sexuality is a mandate—that to be sex positive, one must have sex in some way, shape or form. Rather, it is having a sense of entitlement to express and explore the various dimensions that are part of sexuality, including the choice not to be sexual if one does not want to be. For individuals, being sex positive is not meant to be another thing to “achieve” or “do right” or do to be cool or hip or popular or edgy. It doesn’t mean taking sex lightly (unless you want to) and it doesn’t mean you are open to or say yes to anything and everything. It is a recognition of sexual agency—the ability to know and decide what’s right for you in any given moment. Or that you’re not sure, and that should be respected. Being sex positive includes being accepting of or being open to the diversity of sexuality. It is being honest with oneself about making mindful sexual choices (including the choice to “go with the flow”) and being respectful of other people’s wishes and boundaries. It is about being open to the range of pleasures that sexuality brings, without limiting the definition of pleasure to orgasm or partnered activities. Rather than meaning “anything goes,” it emphasizes consent, tolerance, the right to learn about, know and express your boundaries and curiosities. This requires things like access to information, learning about and being open in communicating to partners and others about your sexual desires and limits and how to take precautions for your and your partners’ safety, including your own bodies and your surroundings or contexts

What about all of the negative aspects of sexuality? Positive sexuality can sound like an oxymoron–two words that don’t seem to go together. More often than not, it seems we talk about sexuality in terms of what is negative; sexuality seems rife with risk and fraught with problems: unintended pregnancy, STIs and HIV, ruined reputations, rape, sexual dysfunction, not enough desire, too much desire, the “wrong kind” of desire (queer or same-sex, kinky, romantic but not sexual), and all of adolescent sexuality. Positive sexuality does not ignore or gloss over the real risks that can be part of expressing or exploring sexuality; it means balancing those risks with what all that is positive about our sexuality. Thinking of sexuality as positive makes it something to protect, cherish, and be educated about, free of violence and including consent. An understanding of sexuality as positive leads to different research topics, the inclusion of sexuality in health care and education, and in social policies and practices that support everyone’s ability and right to be and express themselves as the sexual people they are.

Who is positive sexuality for? Everyone! Positive sexuality is inclusive, consensual and nonjudgmental; to be aware of and challenge negative, dismissive or even destructive stereotypes about sexuality. Positive sexuality recognizes that all people have the right to their sexuality and to sexual citizenship regardless of age, ability, sexual orientation, gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, type of relationship, as well as people living in institutions.

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