Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

The negative side of being ‘sex positive’

(Credit: Getty images)

‘Let’s talk about sex, baby,’ sang female rap duo Salt-N-Pepa back in 1990. More than 30-years later, it can seem as if we talk about little else. Today, we are not just expected to talk frankly about all matters carnal but to be ‘sex positive’. Emma Sayle, the founder of ‘Killing Kittens’ – which organises posh orgies for bored bankers – is the latest to urge us to speak up about sex.

‘Being sex positive is just being open about sexuality and being able to talk comfortably about sex without any shame or guilt or judgment,’ she said in an interview with the Times this week. Her words were revealing, but perhaps not in the way Sayle intended.

Numerous female celebrities have outed themselves as ‘sex positive’

Sayle’s comments are emblematic of the way that sexuality has moved from being concerned with private tastes and preferences to becoming a far more fundamental matter of identity. And, like everything to do with identity today, in order to be meaningful, our sexuality must be publicly affirmed and, if sufficiently diverse, celebrated. Being sex positive is less what you do and more what you say. And how often – and how loudly – you say it.

Numerous female celebrities have outed themselves as ‘sex positive’, so much so that Cosmopolitan – the magazine that’s done more than any other to get sex out of the bedroom and onto glossy pages – now compiles lists of the ‘sex positive celebs we love’. It features American rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B. whose explicit lyrics make porn-stars blush. Gwyneth Paltrow, whose company Goop released a sex manual, also makes an appearance, as does Cara Delevingne, Lily Allen and Demi Lovato.

You can hardly blame Sayle for jumping on the bandwagon. But such is the demand for high class fornication that occasional sex parties no longer suffice and Killing Kittens is entering the dating business. Make no mistake though: this is not Tinder, where you swipe right (or is it left?) ruling out those daft enough not to apply filters to their photo. This is ‘a big, sex-positive ecosystem’ right there on your phone.

Unlike ‘the world’s most popular free dating app,’ Killing Kittens is aimed at the more discerning ‘sex positive’ middle classes. This difference – between mass and niche, popular and picky – suggests that being sex positive means far more than just being absolutely positive you want to have sex.

In order to join Sayle’s sex positive ecosystem, it doesn’t matter what you like to get up to between the sheets with a partner – or, if you’re a member of Killing Kittens, multiple partners in a Mayfair townhouse. What’s important is that you talk about it openly, frequently and shamelessly and that you listen to others talk openly and frequently about their sex lives while – crucially – not passing judgement.

Call me a prude, but I have a problem with this. There are some practices that surely do deserve to be judged and even shamed. Anything involving children seems an obvious starting point. But beyond that, what about animals, violence or coercion? Does being cool now mean nodding along sympathetically to someone’s strangulation fantasy? These are extreme and, perhaps, clear cut examples. But the rise of sex positivity parallels the erosion of once certain taboos and boundaries.

Take Pride: what was an important political movement for equal rights has morphed into a rainbow-coloured festival of kink and perversion where old men in fetish gear rub shoulders with ‘furries’ (for the uninitiated, adults in cartoon-like animal costumes) for an audience of glammed-up teenage girls. Or take drag: what was once the preserve of adult-only nightclubs is now seen as a regular Saturday morning activity for young children on a trip to their local library. Thanks to the rise of sex-positivity, it’s considered more ‘awkward’ or ‘problematic’ to call these things out as inappropriate than it is to don a harness and tell a toddler they should be pleased you are living your best life.

The message today is that anything goes other than passing judgement. This is taught to children quite explicitly in school Relationships and Sex Education classes. Over the past few decades we have witnessed a shift from straightforward ‘sex education’ that focused on the facts of life and, later, how not to get pregnant, to ‘sexuality education’ which covers a far broader remit.

The School of Sexuality Education, which provides resources used by teachers, actively promotes sex positivity, which it describes variously as ‘being curious and being open’, ‘communicating without shame or embarrassment’ and ‘being able to have this dialogue in a non-judgemental, honest and open way.’ The risk is that children pick up on two messages; first: don’t judge, and second: keep nothing to yourself. Being able to talk about sex comes to be understood as an instruction: you must talk about sex.

What’s going on here is not just a question of changing tastes and behaviours but a more fundamental erosion of the boundary between our public and private lives. To be clear: I’ve no problem whatsoever with old men, or indeed anyone else, wearing fetish gear. I just don’t want to see it when I nip out for a loaf of bread. If you think it’s appropriate to wear fetish gear for school pick-up, I will judge you. And if you want to bore on about it, in public and at length, I will tell you to shut up.


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