Sex Positivity Outside the West

Sex Positivity Outside the West May 24, 2016

Ancient stele from the Louvre featuring Egyptian and Syrian fertility deities. Creative Commons work from Wikimedia Commons.
Ancient stele from the Louvre featuring Egyptian and Syrian fertility deities. Creative Commons work from Wikimedia Commons.

Is there room to be sex-positive outside contemporary American contexts? I sure hope so, though I’m not always sure what my role in the conversation is.

I define sex positivity as the attitude that all consensual adult sexuality is to be regarded as potentially healthy, constructive, pleasurable, and contributing to the well-being of all involved. This is in contrast to sex negativity, wherein most or all sexual activity is seen as suspect, dangerous, and/or pathological (or, all sexual activity outside a narrow, heteronormative slice of it that isn’t representative of what most of the adult world engages in anyway).

While I spend a lot of time looking at sex positivity as it appears in folklore, it’s also important to look at sex positivity in other cultural contexts and other realms of culture (pop culture, the media, institutional culture, religious culture, and so on).

Specifically, I’m curious about what sex positivity looks like in non-Western cultures. I attended a panel on decolonizing sex positivity at Catalyst Con (a sex positive/sex education/sex advocacy convention) Midwest this year, and a lot of the discussion happening at the hashtag #ccondecol was pretty thought-provoking. We addressed questions such as systemic racism and white supremacy in how sex is conceptualized and talked about in America; how to navigate sex education in Muslim contexts, in the U.S. and abroad; and just how embedded American sex positivity is in responding to a history of Puritan/conservative Christian approaches to sex…which definitely ought to be refuted, but which are unique to our cultural context.

With these concepts circulating in my mind, my interest was piqued by this news article about the backlash a Muslim feminist faced when writing about sex positivity. Mona Eltahawy wrote about her sex life, her sexual desires, and the suppression of female sexuality in religious contexts in what was apparently a frank but not sensationalist way.

Describing her version of sex positivity, she writes:

My upbringing and faith taught me that I should abstain until I married. I obeyed this until I could not find anyone I wanted to marry and grew impatient. I have come to regret that it took my younger self so long to rebel and experience something that gives me so much pleasure.

The statement that one’s sexuality can bring one pleasure is a key tenet in Western sex positivity, but one that continues to be controversial, both here and abroad. In the U.S., for example, there’s so much trepidation around teaching about sex in schools – especially if we connect sex and pleasure – because that would be seen as teaching student TO have sex or that they SHOULD have sex. And in other cultures, teaching that sex can be pleasurable outside of a married, religious context is seen as downright dangerous, enough to warrant censorship.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m very curious about how the specific cultural context in which a lot of American sex-positive conversations are happening – secular, intellectual, feminist, LGBTQ-friendly – are influencing the conversation. What does sex positivity look like in other situations? How can we take the basic tenets of sex positivity and make sure they translate successfully into other cultures… and is that even a job for “us” (e.g. Western feminists) or is that too much of a colonizing move? Maybe the better question is, how can we support activists in other settings as they develop and explore their own culturally-contextualized versions of sex positivity?

I have some thoughts about how sex positivity and religion interact (not nice thoughts, in case you were wondering), which I’ll write about another time. But for now, if we start with the assumption that sex being potentially consensual and healthy can be expressed in a number of ways… what does that look like in religions and cultures that have different views on how sex fits in with the rest of life? And how can we have that conversation if we’re not a part of those religions or cultures, but want to support the development of sex-positive discussions?


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