Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Notes & Comments

Sex Positivity

What does the sexual revolution look like today?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Shutterstock, Inc.

I’m not Michel Foucault, but here’s a history of sexuality, greatly abridged: First came the slut shamers. The traditionalist, patriarchal religious haranguers. Things weren’t great for men in the before times, but they were particularly unpleasant for women. Then came the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, which involved chucking all the rules. This had some good effects (ambitious women at last permitted to leave their houses and become doctors, lawyers, bosses) and some less good ones (moviemakers permitted to assault underage girls). In the 1990s and early 2000s, following however many backlashes against backlashes, the sexual revolution re-emerged as sex positivity.

In theory, sex positivity is friendlier to women than sexual liberation (more negotiated nonmonogamy, fewer bunny girls). It involves applying an open-minded but gender-neutral approach to sex and relationships. This is not the same as overtly catering to men but amounts to the same thing. Sex positivity brings about situations like the one described in a recent Paris Review essay, Jean Garnett’s “Scenes From an Open Marriage,” in which the mother of a six-month-old baby graciously consents to her husband’s wish to sleep with other women. Garnett asks the reader to understand their arrangement as consensual, and to set aside the extreme constraints of a woman in that situation. If you’re a member of the sex that can get pregnant, and that is stigmatized for promiscuity, and that is considered over the hill past age twenty-five, there are limits to how far easy-breezy can take you.

Often, sex positivity manifests itself as positivity toward sexiness, a.k.a., the right to be hot without judgment. As such, it has some shared mission with feminism, insofar as feminism is not not about the right of women to be appealing without being mistreated. Most obviously, sex positivity takes a favorable stance toward sex work, going beyond sympathy for those who find themselves selling sex.

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