Body Talk: Sex positivity in a college setting

When I pitched the concept for this article to my editor, he asked me to define what sex positivity means to those who participate in it. I gave a rather rambling answer which included the de-moralization of different types of sex, throwing out the traditional model of abstinence-based sex education for a more comprehensive approach and, of course, the inclusion of all bodies in conversations around sex and sexual health. To be sex positive does not mean you have to have sex, but rather that you try to understand your internalized phobias concerning sex so it can become less taboo. Destigmatizing sex can also involve removing the stigma around choosing not to have sex.

According to Wikipedia, and much to my surprise, I was mostly correct. The sex positive movement espouses “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, encouraging sexual pleasure and experimentation.” It is accepting of relationships that challenge the cis- and heteronormative standards with which we were raised. It is often used to counter negative stereotypes around BDSM, polyamory and other sexual preferences that are often portrayed as deviant. 

Sex positivity at a university can take a variety of different forms depending on the context. For example, so-called “hook-up culture” is rampant in the college setting. Many students consider the pursuit of a long-term relationship difficult when we place so much importance on academic achievement, extracurriculars and maintaining other relationships with friends and family. Frequently moving around during school breaks is also not conducive to romantic relationships. As we become more independent from the rules and restrictions of high school, many students choose to engage in casual sexual encounters as a way of flexing our newfound freedom and curiosity about college life. 

Some feel that hook-up culture personifies sex positivity. You have a bunch of people unabashed about their sexual exploits, not tying themselves down to any patriarchal ideas of when, how much and for whom sex is appropriate. On the other hand, it can be a breeding ground, pun intended, for questionable consent when drugs and alcohol are in the picture. It can also serve to reinforce expectations of compulsive heterosexuality and gender roles in sex, rather than freedom and creativity.

Others would argue that hook-up culture goes against sex positivity because if someone truly respects their body and sexuality, they should wait to have sex with someone they really love and care for. This argument is basically garbage—“respecting yourself” can mean different things to different people. For some, it may mean waiting to have sex or only having sex with one partner; for others, it can mean exploring their own pleasure through casual sex. Neither way is better or more moral.

In my opinion, hook-up culture is not inherently NOT sex-positive (pardon the double negative). I myself have been guilty of shaming people who choose to engage in casual sex because I do not personally find the practice appealing. In the moments when our biases cloud our judgment, it is important to remember that not everyone likes the same things we like, and that does not make them less worthy of respect. Unless those things are social justice and cats…there are some things you just can’t compromise on.

An important aspect of sex positivity on campus is education. Many of us arrive with little to no formal sex education under our belts…erm, no pun intended. Under the abstinence-based sex-ed most U.S. high schools adhere to, everything useful we learned about how to reduce the risk of STIs or put on a condom was wrapped up in shame and fear-mongering. For many of us, college is the time to unlearn the harmful messaging about sex and our bodies. 

Since college serves as a jumping-off point into the world of actual adulthood, it is important for the campus to make sexual health and counseling services available, affordable and non-judgmental. The most powerful and effective thing they can do to make students safer and more knowledgeable around sex is to provide us the resources we need to educate ourselves in ways our previous schools failed. This can include STI testing, free barrier methods including different types of condoms and dental dams and functional sexual assault response teams. It can also involve fostering a community that values curiosity and compassion over bias and judgement.

Sex positivity is a framework that can be applied to any setting. It is important that we engage with it now, while we are still young and malleable, so that we can become more open-minded and accepting as we move into the next phase of our lives.