I recently moved from San Francisco to Chicago. One of the great fears I had about moving halfway across the country was how the cultural norms I was raised with might differ from that of more traditional, midwestern values.
I had lived in the Bay Area my whole life and attended UC Berkeley, a notorious bastion for liberal views and activism. While back home not everyone agrees with each other's views, there is a prevailing sense of "looking forward" -- that marijuana will be legalized, that healthcare is a right, that marriage should be accessible to all. How and when all that may happen is up for debate -- but generally we all agree that the status quo is never something upon which our ethics should be rooted.
In my short time here, I've learned how to make friends fast -- frequently going out to bars and approaching groups of strangers. I favor an earnest introduction, which always carries with it a necessary amount of awkwardness, but that typically subsides, particularly when people find out I'm "not from around here."
Recently, I approached two women and we began talking. I was lamenting the fact that a friend of mine, who I was casually dating, had gone home with another friend of mine earlier in the night.
"Wow, she sounds like a total slut," the women replied.
"Not at all. We've just been hooking up. We haven't set any terms. It just kinda bummed me out," I responded. "I don't own her. I definitely embrace sex-positivity."
As it turned out, sex-positivity was a term these women had never heard. I was a bit taken aback; sex-positivity was one of those words that it seemed everyone in San Francisco knew. One of those words we learned in our first gender studies course at Berkeley. But as I've discovered, it's a term most Chicagoans have never heard.
You can read all sorts of books on sex-positivity, but generally speaking, it's the idea that one's sexual preferences are a matter of personal choice, and that within the confines of informed consent, those preferences should not be subject to the moral imposition of others.
So if sleeping with 10 different people 10 days in a row (or hell, at the exact same time) is your thing -- more power to you! As long as all those involved have consented and you're not knowingly spreading some gnarly STI's, no one should be tisking at you in judgement.
Similarly, if you're the type of person that's embracing a period of celibacy, or perhaps you like to wait longer periods of time before engaging sexually with someone, that's fantastic too! The point is that your lifestyle is your choice, and what you do in your bedroom has no impact on what I do in mine.
All too often I hear the term "slut" used as a pejorative. In fact, it's the only way many of us have heard it used. So it might come as a surprise that many people in the sex-positive community, myself included, don't regard the term as inherently negative. In fact, I openly describe myself as a slut. Yes, I am promiscuous, as are many of my friends. But that doesn't mean that we're of low moral standards, or incapable of forming meaningful, lasting relationships with others, including those we sleep with. For us, we're just not hung-up on the idea that penis-in-vagina (or any place of your choosing) carries with it some inextricable meaning, or at the very least, we're aware that that meaning varies greatly from individual to individual.
We are completely transparent with our partners. We respect our partners. We are not "players." We are ethical sluts.
Frequently there's a misconception that those who are sex workers (meaning anyone involved in the sex industry from escorts to porn performers, sex therapists to strippers) are somehow damaged. That they're either uneducated or their career path is the result of a poor childhood. Sex-positivity looks to challenge that notion.
As the host of Full Disclosure, a podcast which looks to humanize those in the sex industry and generally destigmatize the cultural taboos surrounding sex, I've interviewed a number of adult performers, sex workers, sexologists and the like. The overwhelming majority of those I've interviewed are exceptionally intelligent and well-rounded individuals, those who do not come from a background of child abuse or neglect -- certainly no more than anyone else working in any other industry. I'd feel pretty silly chalking up Jim in finance's decision to become an accountant to his father leaving him when he was five, and I'd feel just as silly saying that's why Lexi is now a webcam model.
Being sex-positive doesn't just inform our own personal relationships. It's an attitude that sexuality, in its many forms, is an innate part of who we are as humans. And with that belief, sex education needs to be an integral part of our schools' curriculum. Children should know that not everyone, perhaps themselves, need to defined by a male/female sexual binary. Students don't just need to hear "it gets better," we need our schools to lead the charge in being able to tell them "it is better." Young women should not be told that their pleasure and shame go hand-in-hand. All too often sex is presented to our youth as something abnormal, immoral and "other," and consequently when sex does rear its head, it's often in unhealthy, irresponsible and uninformed fashions.
Unfortunately, most of this was lost on the women back at the bar. They had never heard of sex-positivity, and it was a lot for them to soak in. It directly challenged everything they'd ever been told about the lens through which we view sexuality. When they first heard the term sex-positive, they thought I was talking about something related to HIV status, or inviting them to a sex club. I'm exceptionally grateful for how hospitable Chicagoans have been to me, inviting me into their home. I think we both have a lot we can learn from each other.
Sex isn't something we're going to get rid of. It's why we're all here after all. And that's not something any of us should feel shame over, but instead we should be celebrating and educating ourselves about, and embracing with an attitude of positivity.
You can hear more from Eric Barry on the latest Full Disclosure podcast. This week features an emotional interview with Chicago improviser and Second City member Caroline Allen.
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