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Embracing Sex-Positivity with My Strong, Bare Arms

The first floor of our barn growing up served as my dad’s woodshop and the second floor loft was where he stored lumber. But any open spaces around those piles of stacked wood served as our playground. In the dim light, you could make out our “fort” made of an old tarp. A corner of dusty school lockers, desks, and other random boxes of stored treasures served as props for many imaginary scenes. We could spend an entire morning sailing across the splintery, planked floor on the knotted rope that hung from the ceiling.

But before it was our play-place, I think the teenage son of the previous owner enjoyed it. Graffitied across one of the wooden beams in fading blue paint was the title the sex lair. Eventually, I was old enough to sound out what the words said, but I still didn’t know what they meant. Waiting my turn on the rope swing one morning, I dared to ask my cousin, who maturely told me that sex was “when two people kiss naked.” This was only part of the definition and I’d spend several more years trying to piece together all that this word entailed. As my exposure to things of a sexual nature was limited, the process of understanding “sex” always felt like seeking mysterious answers in nooks and crannies as shadowy as our loft.

As I grew older, I had most of the logistics figured out, but I was still sorting out the meaning of sex. As I sought to understand its place in the world and my own life, most of the answers I found were about what it wasn’t or what it shouldn’t be. My Christian upbringing told me ways it could be done wrong or at the wrong time or with the wrong people. My studies in the field of psychology only talked about what sex looked like when it was broken. Viewing people through a medical model, I knew all of the “sexual dysfunctions,” all categorized by bodily functioning that doesn’t respond to sexual stimuli in the expected way.

Fast forward to my mid-twenties as my husband and I sit down to our first sex therapy appointment. We were asked to set our goals and I started thinking in measurable terms. Did I want to increase or decrease times a week? Duration? The activities performed? But what came out of my mouth was: “I don’t know if at the end of therapy our sex life will look any different. But I just want to feel better about it.”

What I needed were some positive definitions around sex and I found those in sex-positivity.

The International Society of Sexual Medicine sums up the sex-positive movement by saying its generally about “having positive attitudes about sex and feeling comfortable with one’s own sexual identity and the sexual behaviors of others.” How this plays out could take many forms and if you asked three different people, they would probably tell you three different ways. It’s beautifully diverse, much like sexuality and human bodies.

Instead of sexuality being limited to physical functioning and biological mechanics, sex-positivity broadens the definition of sexual health to include psychological, sociological, and emotional aspects of functioning as well. Instead of a rigid list of right and wrong behavior, sex-positivity keeps it broad: the point of all sexual intimacy, orientation, and eroticism is to enhance our personalities, communication, and experiences of love. Instead of definitions of sex gone wrong, I got a definition of sexual health: the presence of safe (non-coercive), pleasurable sexual experiences and relationships.[1]

I began to embrace a sex-positive framework because positivity and comfort was exactly what I’d been missing before. Being “sex-positive” had to start with myself in the ways I talked and thought about my own body and desires. With lots of practice and support, I slowly became more confident, empowered, and positive.

This new energy spread into having vulnerable conversations with my husband while we worked through the difficulties in our own sex life. And the energy continues to spread as we aim to parent our daughter in a sex-positive way that offers freedom and joy in her sexuality. As my confidence has grown, so has my passion that these conversations have to begin by freeing people from shame and fear. I now find myself starting the “awkward” conversations about sex to create space for what people want to talk about anyway. I hear my voice grow louder against stigmatizing sexual comments or negative self-talk. And I keep sharing my own journey to let people know they’re not alone.

That is what I hope to do with this blog. I want to inject positivity into sexual topics. I want to create safe spaces to make sense of this subject that can still seem so mysterious and dark, even in our sexualized culture. And I want to offer hope to anyone else who finds this area of life lacking the freedom and joy it promises, as I once did.

Instead of the wooden floor of the barn loft, these blank pages are my new play-place. I grip a pen now instead of a swinging rope, but I still hope for ascent.

[1] Burnes, T.R., Signh, A.A., Witherspoon, R.G. (2017). Sex Positivity and Counseling Psychology: An Introduction to the Major Contribution. The Counseling Psychologist 45(4), 470-486.

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