Historically, our culture has been filled with negative references about sex and sexual identity.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
But the idea of being “sex positive” — an attitude about sexuality that is free from judgments — has gained new momentum over the last few years.
Psychologist Adriane Bennett, PhD, talks about sex positivity and why it’s an inclusive way to think and behave.
What does “sex positive” mean?
You are sex positive if you emphasize openness, nonjudgmental attitudes, as well as freedom and liberation about both sexuality and sexual expression.
This can mean you support all gender identities, gender expressions, gender presentations and sexual orientations.
“It’s more of an attitude and acceptance of trying not to be judgmental either to yourself or other people who may have a different lifestyle,” says Dr. Bennett. “As long as they are consenting adults, you don’t see it as problematic behavior.”
Sex positivity’s origins
Dr. Bennett says that sex positivity can be traced as far back as the 1920s. Even the 1960s and ’70s had expressions of sex positivity with the feminist, LGBTQIA+ and social justice movements.
“I think it’s something for us to talk about now as a result of the culture wars going on over the last four or five years,” says Dr. Bennett.
From the differing viewpoints on subjects like women’s rights and gender identity, Dr. Bennett says religion and society both play a role in how we talk about sexuality. Sex positivity is all about re-educating yourself and being open to diverse points of view.
“There’s a lot of polarization in the country,” she says. “But it’s about understanding that for example, gender identity is not just what your genitals are.”
Sex positivity versus sexually active
You do not need to have sex — or be sexually active — to be sex positive. Being sex positive is about accepting yourself and all the different identities that are out there.
“It’s more about us as a person and our emotional development,” says Dr. Bennett. “Our relationships, how we bond with other people and how we express love with other people.”
Sex positivity versus sex negativity
As the opposite of sex positivity, many of us have dealt with sex negativity — attitudes that attach shame and judgment to others’ experiences and feelings about sexuality — whether it comes from other people, society or education.
“Much of it is stems from religion or sex education that only emphasizes sex as being just about physical reproduction,” says Dr. Bennett. “Our brain is our biggest sex organ, so it’s going to include our emotions, our identity and our relationships.”
Examples of sex negative messages and behavior:
- Abstinence-only sex education.
- Purity culture.
- Shaming others for their sexuality.
- Using someone’s sexuality to make a joke.
- Assuming LGBTQIA+ individuals have a mental health condition.
How to be more sex positive
Having a more sex-positive culture and society can reduce the shame people feel, help prevent depression and even suicide, says Dr. Bennett. Here are a few ways you can be more sex positive:
Rethink what you were taught about sex and sexuality
Many of us grew up with negative messages regarding sex. “It may take some time, either through exposure to other cultures or even just exploring within yourself to realize that you are comfortable with different aspects of sex,” says Dr. Bennett.
Call out sex negativity
For example, if someone is making a homophobic joke at work, speak up. “Don’t tolerate negative things,” says Dr. Bennett. “You can say, ‘I don’t really want to hear that.’” If you feel comfortable, you can have a conversation with the person about why they feel the need to engage in sex negativity. “They may come from a culture where they have some beliefs tied to sin, morality and shame,” says Dr. Bennett.
Be an ally
Being in touch with yourself and being open-minded will help you connect with others. “Maybe a friend who enjoys sex, but finds it shameful, is afraid to find a partner who will match her needs,” says Dr. Bennett. “Letting her know it’s OK to talk to you helps to remove stigmas.”