Sex Q&A

Sex Question Friday: Are There Limits To Being Sex-Positive?

November 9, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader of the blog who wanted to know more about what it really means to be sex-positive.

Do you think there ever comes a point when being sex positive has its limits? I mean, like anything else, being extreme is usually not a good idea. Let me elaborate using an example: I try to be a very sex positive person, and attempt not to judge other peoples’ preferences, perspectives, fetishes, etc. However, I have come across a few scenarios where I found myself hesitating. One is a guy who will only have sex with women who are cheating on their spouses because that’s the only thing that turns him on, and he takes zero responsibility for potentially hindering someone else’s relationship. Another is a couple I met where the husband was a feeder and said he won’t be “truly” attracted to his wife until she’s well over 1000 lbs and basically immobilized. At this point I can’t help but ask myself if being sex positive might actually be promoting something that is unethical (and unhealthy). In theory I’d like to think that sex positivity in and of itself is an ethical approach, but these extreme cases make me question that theory. What are your thoughts on this? I know it’s not my place to judge others’ decisions, but if we want to live in a just and respectful world, it seems that we all need to take responsibility for ourselves and play a role in that, no?

Thank you for this insightful question! Let me begin by clarifying what sex-positive means for readers who may not be familiar with this term. Perhaps the most common definition I have seen states that sex positivity “regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.” Proponents of this view typically emphasize the importance of consent and safe-sex, but no single sexual activity is elevated above others or is considered more or less valid. The only universally agreed upon limit in the sex-positive movement centers around the issue of consent, which means that being sex-positive does not constitute an endorsement of sexual assault, sex crimes, or non-consensual paraphilias (e.g., exhibitionism, voyeurism, beastiality).

Although there are certainly variations in people’s personal definitions of sex positivity, what some within this movement seem to be suggesting is that, as long as it’s consensual, anything that brings someone sexual pleasure is good. However, I would argue that this philosophy takes us down a rather dangerous road because “consensual” and “pleasurable” are not necessarily synonymous with “ethical” and “healthy.” Let me illustrate with a rather extreme example. Let’s consider vorarephilia [1], a very rare fetish in which an individual experiences sexual arousal from either the thought of eating another person or being eaten by someone else. Most vorarephiles do not act upon their urges, but some have. For instance, consider the case of a 43-year-old German man who solicited a younger guy online who wanted to be eaten (literally). I don’t know the full extent of their relationship other than that they kissed and dined on the young man’s penis together before he bled to death (you can read about the gory details here), but the activity was supposedly consensual (there’s a videotape to back it up) and presumably was pleasurable to the people involved (the cannibal says it fulfilled a fantasy of his). So does this mean that we should accept such behavior? I would argue that we shouldn’t and that consent therefore cannot be the only limit when it comes to defining sex positivity.

The fact of the matter is that not all forms of sex are consistent with maintaining our personal health and the health of our relationships and, as a sex educator, I think it’s very important for the definition of sex-positive to be inclusive of health, beyond just practicing safe sex. From my perspective, sex-positive individuals do not have to endorse sexual behaviors that are either self-destructive or pose serious harm to the well-being of others. I think the scenarios you raised in your question are good examples of things that we should not blindly accept and encourage. Helping a partner gain weight to the point where they become physically immobile may be pleasurable to a “feeder,” but it will slowly but surely kill their partner. This is yet another case where the behavior may be consensual, but one partner’s life will be cut short because of it. As for the man who only enjoys sleeping with married women, I would argue that it is pathological when someone can only get off on a behavior that hurts someone else (in this case, the husbands). Yes, of course, the women this guy is sleeping with bear the ultimate responsibility for harm because they are the ones who are violating their relationship agreement; however, an individual who goes out of their way to seduce and sleep with someone in a monogamous marriage also has to accept some degree of culpability because they are intentionally and enthusiastically participating in a behavior that has the potential to wreck someone else’s life. The other issue with this scenario is that the husbands are affected by this behavior both physically (through risk of infections potentially being introduced into the relationship) and psychologically (they will be upset if and when the incident is discovered). Thus, there are people directly affected by the activity who have not consented to it.

In sum, sex-positive does not mean having to accept and validate any and all sexual behaviors regardless of the consequences; rather, sex positivity and sexual health should go hand-in-hand. Let me close by giving you my own personal and complete definition of sex-positive: (1) adopting comprehensive and inclusive definitions of gender and sexual orientation, (2) rejecting narrow definitions about what constitutes sex (e.g., the view that only vaginal intercourse “counts”), (3) giving due consideration to the potential positive and negative consequences of being sexually active, (4) providing people with the information and tools they need to optimize their sexual health and to make healthy decisions, (5) promoting healthy and respectful sexual and romantic relationships, (6) recognizing that monogamy and marriage are not universal relationship goals and ideals, (7) understanding that not everyone is a sexual being and that a lack of sexual desire is not inherently dysfunctional, and (8) respecting people who have different views about sex than you.

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] Agmo, A. (2007). Functional and dysfunction sexual behavior: A synthesis of neuroscience and comparative psychology (pp. 430-475). New York: Elsevier.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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