words NAOMI HUTCHINGS
Self-love and self-pleasure are completely normal facets of the human experience that so often come with a mountain of stigma and societal taboo. The sex positivity movement is fighting to change that as clinical sexologist Naomi Hutchings explains.
With much of the world still reeling from the global pandemic, our phones often feel like a lifeline to the outside world.
This has seen a rise in so-called social media “therapy”, “self-help” and “self-care”. Included within this is the term sex positivity, which has had a notable resurgence in the online space. We have the ability to access all sorts of information, from so many different sources, at our fingertips. It can be hard to know what’s true or not – you would be forgiven for being a tad confused by it all. So, what does sex positivity really mean?
You may be thinking, well, it would surely mean having lots of sex? Lots of lovers? Casual sex? Sex outdoors? Signing up for Masturbation Month? A drawer full of sex toys? For me, a clinical sexologist who’s been working in the field of human sexuality for over 17 years, working from a sex positive framework means that I aim to breakdown the stubbornly persistent stigma and “taboo” that often surrounds human sexuality and human sexual behaviour. My goal is to create a safe space to support every client to be living as authentically as possible.
Working from a sex positive framework means that I aim to breakdown the stubbornly persistent stigma and “taboo” that often surrounds human sexuality and human sexual behaviour. My goal is to create a safe space to support every client to be living as authentically as possible.
At the crux of sex positivity is a belief that all folks get to experience their own unique sexuality, free of shame and judgement in a way that is always consensual. It includes people having access to comprehensive and inclusive, sexual health and relationships information and education, that does not just focus on STI prevention. It acknowledges the joys and pleasure of sexual activity, too. It argues that everyone who needs it should have access to safe and affordable contraception and know their sexual rights and responsibilities. Sex positivity respects a persons bodily autonomy. This means that everybody can make their own informed choices and define their own values about their sexual life and relationships. Sex positivity includes choosing not to engage in sexual activity (with yourself and/ or others). Yes, that’s right, sex positivity does include celebrating people who choose to have lots of sex, a little sex and those who choose not to have any sex. All these decisions are valid.
At the crux of sex positivity is a belief that all folks get to experience their own unique sexuality, free of shame and judgement in a way that is always consensual.
Sex positivity supports us moving away from, and letting go of, that old, unhelpful, yet dominant narrative, that ultimately suggests that sex – specifically P in the V – is the only “real” way to be sexual and therefore anything outside of that is just relegated to “foreplay”. This very narrow definition of “sex” has erased the sex lives of so many people for so long, particularly those of us whom don’t participate in cisnormative, heterosexual sex. While this narrative is slowly being dismantled by the sex positive movement, we have a long, long way to go. In fact, I haven’t used the term foreplay in many, many years. I just call it all sex play. Doing so takes the emphasis off this idea that any other sexual activity is just what happens before the “main event”.
This “traditional” view of sex has also led to what we call the “orgasm gap” – the fact that folks with vulvas and vaginas, who are sexual with those with penises, will often not experience orgasm, whereas the people with a penis mostly always do. This is because most people with a vagina don’t experience their orgasms through penetrative sex. It makes a lot of sense if you look at the vulva, and both the external and internal structure of the clitoris. If you ask those folks if they experience orgasms during solo sex play, they’ll most likely tell you a very different story.
This “traditional” view of sex has also led to what we call the “orgasm gap”…
Solo sex? Yes, sex with yourself. This counts too! Solo sex, or masturbation, is often the first sexual touch that we will experience. Did you know that during ultrasounds some fetuses can be seen touching their genitals? Babies and children will unashamedly continue to do this as they grow older (very often in public) and rather than shame them for self pleasure, I suggest parents and caregivers just gently remind them that it’s not great manners to touch our genitals at the dinner table, just like we don’t pick our nose or fart there too! Shaming them is what leads to people then developing negative associations with masturbation.
It’s no secret that masturbation has long been frowned upon. Historically there have been so many myths and lies about masturbation (and people who masturbate) that to this day, many folks who engage in solo sex then have their pleasure overridden by a mountain of shame and guilt. I spend a lot of time unpacking this with clients. It can be quite a complicated experience for some. A touch that can bring such joyful and exquisite pleasure then quickly elicits feelings of guilt and shame. I spend time with clients reframing their negative thoughts and beliefs into more helpful ones. I also work on legitimising solo sex as a valid part of their sexuality and sexual expression. Over and over again I hear that solo sex tends to lag behind (in what are mostly unwritten rules) regarding the narrow and limiting “hierarchy” of sexual activity.
It comes as no surprise to me that most of the people I see who struggle to orgasm have engaged in little to no solo sex. I like to share information about the physical and mental health benefits of masturbation. So many people have only heard negative messages about solo sex. Did you know that solo sex can assist with better sleep? The hormones released after ejaculation and orgasm can be a natural pain reliever. It can provide stress relief and soothe anxiety. We also know that solo sex can help you to learn about your body, what you like and don’t like and how you experience sexual pleasure. You can safely explore what you need to experience orgasm without the pressure of a spectator.
At the end of the day, personal pleasure is about doing what feels good for you – literally!
So what does sex positivity really mean? It’s a journey. One that involves learning and unlearning, and rewriting all those unhelpful sexuality and relationship narratives to redefine what it means to you. Because at the end of the day, personal pleasure is about doing what feels good for you – literally!