Although sexual activity is one of the most natural aspects of being human and sexual dysfunction can affect a significant amount of the U.S. population, practicing social workers continue to be uncomfortable approaching issues of sexuality and sexuality social justice (Ballan, 2008; Diaz & Kelley, 1991; Galarza, J., & Anthony, B., 2015; Ng, 2007; Strawgate-Kanefsky, 2000). Sex positivity is embodied by individuals and communities that emphasize openness, nonjudgmental views, freedom, and liberation from anti-sex (or sex-negative) attitudes. Sex positivity can further be understood as a stance towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation. The term sex positivity has become a framework that integrates the emotional, intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of sexual being and sexual practice in healthy, positive and enriching ways (Burnes, Singh, & Witherspoon, 2017; Syme, Mona, & Camerone, 2013).
The World Health Organization has consistently asserted that within a sex positive framework, a person’s sexual orientation, eroticism, and orientation are considered to enhance their personality, communication, and expressions of love. Furthermore, sexual health is not merely the absence of dysfunction and disease, but requires a respectful and positive approach to sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having safe and pleasurable sexual experiences, free of discrimination, coercion and violence. In order for the attainment and maintenance of sexual health to be possible, the sexual rights of everyone must be respected and protected (WHO, 2002).
Related to sexual rights and sexual oppression, consent is a significant and integral part of sex positivity. Sexual consent is a direct and unequivocal agreement to participate in a sexual activity with others, and is characterized by an absence of any form in inherent power-imbalances. Before being sexual with someone, it is important to be honest about what you both want and don’t want, and that you know for absolute certainty that the person you desire to be sexual with, wants to be sexual with you too. Consenting and asking for consent are all about setting personal boundaries and respecting the boundaries of your partner. Beyond just “respecting” their boundaries, it’s equally important that you genuinely care about them as a fellow human being.
Without being granted consent, all forms of sexual activity (e.g., oral sex, genital touching, vaginal and anal penetration) are sexual assault. According to Planned Parenthood (2018) there are five basic components of sexual consent. Consent is (F.R.I.E.S.):
Freely given. Consenting is a choice one makes without manipulation, pressure, or when under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.
Reversible. Regardless of the situation, anyone can change their mind about what sensual/sexual activity they want to participate in at any time, even while in the middle of the act itself.
Informed. You can only consent when your partner “keeps it 100%” and is honest with you. For example, if your partner tells you that they have and will use a condom, and then they don’t, that is not full consent.
Enthusiastic. When it comes to engaging in sexual activity, people should only engage in behaviors that they truly want to, not things that they feel they’re expected to do.
Specific. Saying yes to one form of sensual and/or sexual activity (e.g., lying in bed while making out and kissing each other’s necks), does not mean that you consent to any other activity (e.g., engaging in oral, vaginal or anal sex).
It doesn’t matter if you and your partner have done it before. It doesn’t matter if you are both lying naked in bed. You (and your partner) get the final say regarding what happens with your bodies. You and your partner are allowed to say “stop” at any time, and you both need to respect that. As previously stated, sex positivity cannot exist without mutual and honest sexual consent. It ensures that sexual experiences are approved and desired by everyone involved. Mutual and enthusiastic consent is very, very sexy!
Ballan, M. S. (2008). Disability and sexuality within social work education in the USA and Canada: The social model of disability as a lens for practice. Social Work Education, 27(2), 194-202.
Burnes, T. R., Singh, A. A., & Witherspoon, R. G. (2017). Graduate counseling psychology training in sex and sexuality: An exploratory analysis. The Counseling Psychologist, 45, 504-527. doi: 10.1177/0011000017714765
Diaz, Y., & Kelly, J. (1991). AIDS-related training in US schools of social work. Social Work, 36(1), 38-42.
Galarza, J.,& Anthony, B. (2015). Sexuality Social Justice and Social Work: Implications for Social Work Education. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 20, 27-41.
NG, J. S. C. (2007). Sexuality and psychotherapy: An exploratory study of the subjectivities of
psychotherapists with experience and expertise in working with sexuality (Doctoral Dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (9B-1).
Planned Parenthood (2018). https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/teens/sex/all-about-consent
Strawgate-Kanefsky, L. (2000). A national survey of clinical social workers’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding sexuality. New York, NY: New York University.
Syme, M. L., Mona, L. R., & Cameron, R. P. (2013). Sexual health and well-being after cancer: Applying the sexual health model. The Counseling Psychologist, 5, 67-72.
World Health Organization (January, 2002). Defining sexual health. Report of a technical consultation on sexual health, Geneva, p. 38-31.