I learned two new phrases recently: “Sex positive” and “sex negative.”
Sex positive means you have a “healthy” and “open” attitude toward sex. All sex. Any sex. With anybody or bodies. As long as it is consensual.
Sex positive has a bit of a history, but it was pushed into living rooms everywhere by Katie Thurston, this season’s “Bachelorette.” According to Variety, “Thurston was first introduced to viewers on Matt James’ season of ‘The Bachelor’ when she stepped out of the limousine with a vibrator in hand,” becoming “a buzzy fan-favorite for her sex positivity.”
Sex negative (you are probably way ahead of me on this) would describe those who think sex is reserved for marriage between two people, ideally two different genders assigned at birth.
It is a shrewd stroke of marketing, since we all know that being positive is way better than being negative, like all those fuddy-duddies who support traditional marriage.
This continues a line of attack that has been going on for at least the last century, claiming that traditionalists in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, are obsessed with the “pelvic issues.”
Because of this hang-up, we are told, we have all sorts of problems resulting from this sex negative attitude, with a particular emphasis on guilt and shame. Walking on to primetime television with vibrator in hand like Lady Liberty holding her lamp aloft in New York Harbor is a declaration of independence and tolerance, and, you know, all that good stuff.
It seems hard to believe that society still needs evangelists of sexual tolerance. Perhaps in the dark ages of the 1950s this was so, but we live in a society with no guardrails and very few boundaries. Every sort of coupling is tolerated these days.
We have advocates for polyamory and sex workers. We are awash in porn, which means we are awash in what is coyly called “self-pleasuring.” We parade our preferences. In short, we tolerate everything with the exception of those darn sex negatives.
We must be the happiest, most positive people in the history of the planet. Except we are most definitely not.
Depression and anxiety among our young people are at sky-high rates. They face a world of infinite sexual and lifestyle choices, and it seems to be paralyzing.
We are awash in consumer options, shoppers perennially strolling the aisles of a carnal mega-mart of sexual choice. Besides the usual alphabet list, we have demisexuals, and asexuals and two-spirit persons. (I’ll let you look the definitions up at home.)
Against this astounding array of choices are pitted the poor, pitiful sex negatives who are committed to a stable marriage and a stable family.
The truth is that we live in a world positively obsessed about the pelvic issues, a world where the Church and all of us sex negatives can hardly get a word in edgewise.
Of course, we sex negatives do view things a bit differently. We believe sex is best understood within the context of marriage, in an atmosphere of trust and self-giving. The love between husband and wife “combines the warmth of friendship and erotic passion, and endures long after emotions and passion subside.” Pope Francis wrote that in the remarkable fourth chapter of his document “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.”
In a beautiful passage in the same document, he calls erotic love “a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a ‘pure, unadulterated affirmation’ revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that ‘life has turned out good and happy’ ” (152).
The truth that the Church defends is that which the human heart longs for. “The very nature of conjugal love [is] to be definitive,” the pope writes. “Marriage is rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person.”
Sex is a powerful impulse. We have countless examples in our society of its abuse, as the #MeToo movement has graphically demonstrated. Pope Francis calls for a “healthy realism” when it comes to a vision of sexuality, recognizing how it can be depersonalized and exploitative.
Even in marriage, “sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation,” he writes. The church is not so foolish as to think that marriage is some sort of guarantor of bliss. And yet it is in marriage where both the pollsters and the theologians say we can find a deep and profound joy, that combination of friendship and passion that is both positive and life-giving, and the best foundation for children.
At the end of the day, phrases like “sex positive” and “sex negative” are simply ideological slogans selling a passé vision of human sexuality that feels more and more like a dead end rather than a brave new world.