Editors Note: This article is a part of “Swat Takes,” a curated conversation between two authors about a contentious topic. This article is in conversation with an article written by Darya Matisko entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex.”
Sex activist, relationship coach, and educator Allena Gabosch defines sex positivity as “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.” The term was originally coined in the late 1920s by educator Wilhelm Reich, but expanded in use during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the feminist movement of that era. Since its introduction, the concept has informed the efforts of people and communities across the world to create healthy sexual cultures. While we strive on campus to utilize sex positivity in our language, I would argue that treating sex positively as a concept is not enough: we have to look at our experiences to judge whether our culture is truly healthy.
The question of whether sex positivity is beneficial is an absolutely massive one, and the answer changes based on demographic and location. For that reason, I’m going to focus specifically on our population here at Swarthmore. Although students all have the common denominator of attendance at this college, we come from extremely different backgrounds, and our experiences of sex positivity are wildly different and much less predictable than other traits. For young people, our education about sex depends on multiple factors: our school’s sex education, our internet and porn exposure, and our friends’ and parents’ knowledge and comfort in discussing this topic. In America, we have wild fluctuations in our public school system’s teachings. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate public schools teach sex ed; only 20 states require that information taught be medically accurate — with varying definitions of medical accuracy. Private schools, which are disproportionately represented at Swarthmore, set their own standards. In general, American parents don’t do a good job of communicating with their children about sex: a 2011 study by Planned Parenthood and the Center for Latino and Adolescent Family Health found that while 92 percent of parents talked to their children about sex or relationships, only 60 percent had discussed birth control. Conversations tend to focus on the risks and dangers of sexual activity, not how to create a positive experience.
With that information in mind, it’s fair to assume, and as a SHA, it’s been my experience, that people on campus arrive with very different levels of education. The basic consent and safe sex education provided by the college during orientation is helpful but, like parental conversations, tends to focus on risks and dangers, not the actual building blocks of healthy and positive relationships. I think it’s fair to say that the content our school puts out is sex-positive, and that our campus in general does a good job sticking with that definition. On the surface, our sex culture is sex positive by the definition given above. I would argue, however, that we have interpreted sex positivity the wrong way. In the way we approach it, sex is treated as a means of social capital and a public action, measured more by the attitudes of our peers than our own experiences. To create a sex culture that is truly sex positive, I would argue that we need to stop asking the question “Do we treat sex as a topic positively?” and move toward the question “Do we experience the act of sex positively?”
Let’s expand on that. A big problem with American sex culture is that it excessively promotes performativity. In other words, it presents a heteronormative, penetration-centric script through porn and the media. Young people experimenting with sexual activity feel pressure to be good at sex and desirable as partners, so they follow that script as closely as possible to create a close-to-pornographic experience for their partners. This creates a number of problems. Firstly, porn is male-centric, so a lot of those activities, even activities that are supposedly women-centric, do nothing for women physically. Secondly, it engenders an obsession with being desirable, rather than feeling desire. Thirdly, it creates a false standard for sex with metrics that have nothing to do with genuine sexual satisfaction. A few examples of those metrics include duration of intercourse, physical attractiveness of partners, and various body part dimensions. As a result of all of this, a person might hook up with an attractive person and report to their friends that they were hot, the encounter was exciting and passionate, and they did a certain sex act considered especially exciting. By the standards of our sex positive culture, that sounds like a great hookup. But all too often, reflecting seriously on how that encounter felt ends with it falling short of its outward expectations.
There are three questions I use to measure how genuinely satisfying or pleasurable a sexual experience is. The first is “Were you present in your own body?” This sounds like a strange one, but the concept of spectatorship is an important phenomenon that manifests a lot. It essentially means that during sexual activity, you look at yourself not from within, but from a third person perspective, imagining what your partner is seeing. The script I discussed earlier pops up here: people imagine what a porn star or an “ideal” partner would do, then act like that person would. Sex then becomes a performance, not a participatory experience. Besides spectatorship, people also experience a sort of bodily shutdown: they look at the ceiling and disassociate, and whatever stimulation they are experiencing ceases to feel any more sexual than if someone was just poking you in the arm repeatedly.
The second question is, “Were you attracted to your partner?” This seems like a no brainer, but it’s genuinely surprising how often people report hooking up with people they judge to be desirable in a social sense: based on the opinions of their friends or peers, not on their own attraction. Hooking up with someone who you don’t feel genuine physical attraction toward results in a sort of mechanicality: foreplay is just an artificial way of creating the necessary tumescence or lubrication to insert tab A into slot B.
The third question, which is the tough one, is “Did you experience the same level of pleasure that you do from masturbating?” This might be the most important metric of all, especially for female-bodied individuals. Masturbation involves no performativity or social pressure; it’s personally tailored and genuine. No one fakes an orgasm to themselves. The male-centric script emerges here again, with its abundance of information on male orgasms and absolute dearth of applicable techniques toward female orgasms. A 2015 study by the Institut français d’opinion publique of 1,039 representative American women found that 95 percent had had an orgasm from masturbating, and 83 percent described their orgasms from masturbation as achievable “without difficulty”. Those numbers are comparable to male masturbation and orgasm rates, but heterosexual women report orgasms in only 11 percent of first hookups, 16 percent of second or third hookups, and 67 percent in relationship sexual events. Orgasm rates for men stay steady at 85 percent for gay and straight encounters whether among hookups or established relationships. The ultimate conclusion from those statistics is that the male-centric script is standing in the way of equal satisfaction — not some unknowable complexity in the female body.
I’m not trying to place blame on groups or individuals here, or argue that we should stop supporting our friends for having sexual relationships. I simply think that in order for us to have positive, pleasurable sexual experiences, we need to throw away the script. We need to stop judging ourselves and our partners by what the media or our social circle portrays as the best, and judge our experiences by how they made us feel. We need to create a culture of sex positivity that has nothing to do with what our peers think and everything to do with how we feel with our partners. Talking about sex positively is not enough. We need to experience sex positively.