Somewhere along the line many of us conflated “sex positive” with “willing to have a lot of sex” – which is BS.
Shame, once it adheres to a person, is difficult to get unstuck. And the pervasiveness of shame isn't just a personal problem. An article published in The Atlantic last week underscored an emergent trend in “progressive inlets” of American evangelism. Christians, says The Atlantic, want to minimize the role of virginity in their religious practice, where all the attention to purity contributes to physical and mental violence in a very real way. From the original article:
Recounting an anecdote from a childhood teacher who compared having sex to being chewed like a piece of gum, [kidnapping victim Elizabeth] Smart, a Mormon, tells her audience that she "felt crushed" after being raped: "Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand, so easily, all too well, why someone wouldn't run."
I'm excited to hear that conservative Christianity is open to reforming its focus on virginity. Nor is this Christianity's first tango with sex positivity. Christian porn, for example, is a thing that exists (and if you were wondering, yes, they sell “Support Christian Porn” hats!) If you're looking for something less steamy, there's Prodigal Magazine, a hip Christian blog whose headlines include probing titles like “Shame, Sex, and Jesus in the Bedroom.” I've also been marathon-watching the Lifetime Original Series “Preachers' Daughters,” which is fantastic and not even in a hate-watch reality TV kind of way. You can check out a clip of the show below, in which (at a weekly family dinner, no less) the Koloff daughters defy their preacher parents by outing each others' sexual history.
Good on them. But those of us who aren't Christian evangelicals shouldn't just spectate. We should use Christianity's plangent sex obsession as an opportunity to reform our own conversations about sex and abstinence. I worry that the conflation of abstinence with fussiness does almost as much to churn up shame in the secular world as the focus on virginity does to women in the Christian world.
To demonstrate my point, here's an excerpt from a series on The Hairpin called “Interview with a Virgin.” (Guess what the series is about.) Here are “Bette's” thoughts on being a 32-year-old self-identified virgin:
So even though these are close friends, you’d still be embarrassed if they knew [you were a virgin]?
Embarrassed doesn’t even cover it. It’s this chest-crushing shame, like grief or something — although of course that’s a bad analogy, because grief is noble, and this is not. It’s walking around with this knowledge of something that has the power to crush you at random moments. On public transit, or at work, it’ll hit me sometimes and I just feel so vulnerable, suddenly, like someone’s about to smash me into little pieces.
Do you think that there’s any good reason you should be feeling ashamed?
Of course not! It’s so stupid! But not having erotic capital, not being a part of the sexual marketplace — and not being able to identify one satisfying reason why — that’s a serious thing in our world!
As with most things cultural, your mileage may vary, but in my own social circle the consensus is that somewhere along the line many of us conflated “sex positive” with “willing to have a lot of sex” – which is bullshit. My friends and I can't be the only people who have made this mistake. One commentor on the Interview/Virgin thread, for example, admitted that in her college's queer scene the community “went beyond "sex positive' to 'sexual capital as sign of worth'.” Which, again, is bullshit.
To clarify, I'm not promoting virginity or even mass abstinence. But secular and Christian sex positivists alike need to be more welcoming of the broad variety of attitudes people can have toward sex, and recognize the many contingencies – biography, environment, emotional state – that affect people's legitimate decisions to have or not have sex.
If sex positivity means embracing eros as beautiful in its many forms, a full account of sex positivity must include as many modes of behavior as possible, including abstinence from sex. The proscenium of sex positivity acknowledges this, but more of us would do well to actively remind ourselves not to equate sex with sex positivity.