What is sex positivity and why does it matter for women?

Sex positivity isn't just a philosophy, it's a movement, and educators, brands and women are embracing it

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Sex positivity is the school of thought that maintains sex and human sexuality are healthy, normal parts of adult life and shouldn’t be equated with shame. Generally agreed to have been coined in 1976 by sexual health academic Vern L Bullough in the book Sexual Variance in Society and History, the term has become a viral talking point on social media in recent years. Many celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Amber Rose, Jessica Biel, and Cameron Diaz have openly championed sex positivity, as well as authors, comedians, activists, and brands.

Sex positive people believe that everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, is entitled to experience pleasure on their own terms, whether that's trying no-strings sex apps, embracing female masturbation, or speaking openly about the joys of tantric sex with a partner. It's a progressive philosophy that has been endorsed by millions, especially educators and sexual health professionals, and wellbeing businesses. So why is the sex positivity movement so important? Not everybody agrees with the idea that sex is nothing to be ashamed of. People can have strong reactions when it comes to sex, whether because of cultural or religious beliefs, their upbringing, personal experiences, or the type (or lack of) sex education they've received. Over the years, we've seen sex and sexuality sensationalized by media, and much of the TV we watch or news we've likely been reading encourages us to place sex in one of two camps—the permissive but ultimately problematic, performative, and informed by the male gaze, or the criminalized, debauched and demonized. Many of our views about sex, whether influenced by family, education, media, culture, or something else, are at odds with sex positivity.

Sex positivity seeks to reframe sexual thoughts, feelings, and experiences, encouraging people to enjoy these things in the appropriate setting for the simple, natural human experiences that they are. Sex positivity is essentially a form of mindfulness—a positive mental attitude—and the practice encourages people to think critically about the ways they perceive sex, pleasure, and relationships. 

What does sex positivity mean?

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If someone describes themselves as sex positive, it means they believe sex is healthy, normal, natural, and that everybody should be able to express themselves sexually without fear, oppression, or shame. Some people are very open about their sex positive values, whereas others prefer to keep their beliefs private. There’s no right way to be sex positive and you should only ever be as open about your beliefs and your own intimate life as you want to be—feeling comfortable and secure with these things is a big part of being sex positive. 

“Sex positivity is a sovereign reclamation of our bodies and the return to the true divine nature of sex," says Lara Raybone (opens in new tab), a Self Love and Embodiment Coach who specializes in helping women to embrace their sexuality, womanhood and confidence spiritually, mentally, and physically. "Through reclaiming sex as a beautiful, healthy, positive, empowering act where we get to deeply connect with ourselves and a partner and be in heightened states of pleasure, we get to release all of these conditioned beliefs and blocks that we have towards sex and we get to enjoy and explore whole new realms of pleasure, without shame, guilt or fear," she explains. "Through sex positivity we get to reclaim our sexual innocence, bring full presence and awareness to our body and sensations.” 

But in a world where 71% of women feel stressed about their sex life, according to a survey by sexual wellness app Ferly, it's clear that people are still experiencing shame around sex. Heightened sexual anxiety can lead to problems like female sexual dysfunction and many people see being sex positive as an act of self-love and a way of reconnecting with their bodies. Sex positive education, coaching, and practices can be incredibly effective in conjunction with other forms of therapy, such as CBT, specialist sex therapy, and physical therapy, and can help with issues like loss of sex drive, struggling with sexual identity, or body image or dealing with a break-up. 

It’s important to note that sex positivity certainly doesn’t mean ‘up for anything’. Sex positivity isn’t an obsession with sex, constantly wanting to have sex, or being a kinky or non-monogamous person. It doesn’t mean you’ve had sex with lots of people or have tried all the best vibrators. You can never have had sex before, believe in no sex before marriage, be asexual or prefer 'vanilla' sex with your long-term partner and still be a sex positive person. Sex positivity isn’t so much about what you do or who you do it with, it’s about your values.

The sex positivity movement

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Brands and educators are leading the sex-positive movement online, creating resources and enshrining values on sites and social media that support a healthy view of sexuality. This visibility and normalization of particular messages and content is paving the way for more women to connect with and embrace a shame-free approach to sex and this sort of bold, honest and unprecedented marketing is shaking up multiple industries in ways we've never seen before. Just look to the likes of Goop (opens in new tab),  and you'll see sex-positive ads and messages that would never have made it to the public in years gone by. 

Sex brands that specialize in everything from the best rabbit vibrators to body-safe lubes have made their way onto beauty, wellbeing, fashion, and self-care platforms like Cult Beauty, Nasty Gal, and Sephora. You'll also see celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Cara Delevingne, and Lily Allen designing and endorsing sex toys, flying the flag for sex positivity all the way. “I champion sexual positivity, significantly for women, and hope to change the cultural script that dictates a male vision of pleasure so all women can define their own sexual pleasures,” says Elizabeth Hart, pleasure coach at sexual wellness retailer, Apples and Pears Co (opens in new tab). “As a business we champion sex positivity through a repetitive narrative—nothing is off-limits and women deserve pleasure.

A sex-positive brand doesn't have to be a sex shop, it can be anything from a clothing brand that champions female body positivity and sexuality, to a period care brand that shares empowering and educational messages about sex on your period or healthy expressions of sexuality between consenting adults. Some businesses don't share messages about sex positivity at all but do things like donating proceeds to organizations that protect and support young people's reproductive rights, sex workers' rights, or women's health and domestic safety, for example. 

"For years we've been fed an idea that sexual pleasure occurs exclusively between heterosexual couples but sex is more than penetration. It is the totality of the encounter," Hart explains. "It's been common to linguistically erase a woman's most erotic organ by referring to our genitals as a ‘vagina’, which of course is the part that gives a man the most pleasure. Using the proper terminology, 'vulva', 'clitoris' and the like, rather than encouraging women and girls to use nicknames and incorrect anatomical descriptions reinforces the importance of female pleasure, and reduces any shame or taboo around the words and ideas."

Language is naturally a big part of the sex-positive movement. With some social networks, like Meta and TikTok, refusing to champion sex positivity. These platforms regularly ban sex education content, have removed advertisements for women's health products according to reporting from the New York Times (opens in new tab), and ads that depict plus size and black bodies. Instagram has also actively banned hashtags and keywords associated with sex. The founders of femtech apps describe the struggle with these language bans as one of the main barriers to success they face. 

“Sex-positive businesses are the future,” says Elle Gerami, chief marketing officer of adult social and content site sex.com (opens in new tab). “These businesses focus on acceptance, inclusivity, and respect of the human condition and how this differs from person to person. As we’re approaching the first quarter of the 21st Century, there have been so many advancements in body positivity, mental health awareness, and celebrating the individuality of a person, yet many businesses have neglected conversations around sexuality. As a Middle Eastern woman, sex was a taboo topic in my upbringing.

"Due to the stigmatization of sex and female sexuality, I have witnessed those closest to me, with similar upbringings to mine, struggle with life-altering decisions, because topics of sex and sexuality were never nurtured and accommodated in a safe and open manner," she says. "In honor of those women, many women before me and for future generations, running a sex-positive business that and championing sex-positive education that celebrates female sexuality rather than hiding it and shaming women for being sexual is of the utmost importance for me and is a way to make my mark on the world.” 

Businesses like sex.com work to make viewing sexual content a shame-free experience, but also work to support content creators in the sex industry, ensuring they are safe, fairly paid, and treated with respect online and in the real world. The best porn for women should always be ethical and entrepreneurs like Gerami work tirelessly to normalize respect and fair treatment of creators and consumers of sexual content. Thanks to the widespread popularity of sex-positive thinking, working in an ethical environment in which consent, female agency, and representation are paramount is non-negotiable for many performers, content creators, and adult workers today. Before sex positivity became a commonly-used term, many professional adult workers were accustomed to ensuring misconduct at work and were not aware they had a choice between unsafe working environments and those in which ethics were upheld. 

Why is sex positivity so important for women?

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Historically, women’s pleasure has been viewed by many through a negative lens, and today, there is still a double standard between the way men are perceived when discussing and enjoying sex, and the way women are perceived. Men are rarely shamed for talking about or enjoying sexual experiences, whereas women frequently encounter shaming, embarrassment, and in some cases fear physical and emotional abuse. 

“Over the last 2000 years sex has been a victim of serious distortion,” says Lara, who also teaches women how to connect with their sexuality and how to have an orgasm on platforms like EKHO wellbeing (opens in new tab). “We have been taught that sex is dirty, sinful, wrong, gross, and only acceptable if making babies. Many of us have grown up feeling shame around our sexualities, courtesy of religious, societal, medical, and familial programming. This can result in deeply ingrained beliefs which manifest as energetic and physical blocks to pleasure and orgasm—we have it encoded in our bodies that sexual energy isn’t safe. Sex positivity, I believe, supports women in rebalancing the scales after years of oppression." 

Many women find that embracing sex positivity has helped them to enjoy their sex lives more fully and overcome sex-related worries and even sexual trauma. Some have simply found that learning about sex positively and changing the way they view sex and their own sexual identity has boosted their relationship with body positivity, helped them have good sex in a long-term relationship, or taught them new ways to enjoy solo sex. Many women still feel uncomfortable masturbating, leading to a masturbation gap between men and women of a staggering 76%, according to sex toy brand Womanizer, despite this being a totally healthy and normal practice. And many women don't fully understand how sexuality shifts and changes, how motherhood can affect your sex life, the link between sex and menopause, or how libido changes as you get older.

How easy is it to be sex positive online?

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Not everyone is happy about sex positivity and often, women who identify as sex positive and who are confident and open about their sexuality can have a challenging time using dating apps and social media. A 2017 study by Wayne State University (opens in new tab) showed that 73% of female content creators have found that speaking on feminist politics, in general, encourages unwarranted sexual harassment and online abuse. It's clear that since then, many more women and people who identify as such have begun to post more candidly about sexuality on social media, but online abuse remains an issue. 

Since 2017, many apps and services developed by women and LGBTQ+ people have been created in order to provide safe, ethical spaces for people to enjoy sexual content and explore their own sexualities, away from spaces where they might otherwise experience harassment, abuse, and judgment. Audio and video apps, such as sex.com, that offer sex stories, educational resources, and user-generated content, along with alternative dating apps, have become a way to express yourself and get off in a sex-positive way that supports female founders and the sex-positive and health and wellbeing economy.

"It's time for women to be part of conversations about their own bodies through the lens of intersectional feminism, rather than having to take a backseat in a patriarchal world," says sex.com CMO Elle Gerami. "In this era of self-care, we have invested so much as we strive to be whole and well-rounded, yet we've missed a piece of the puzzle. When the body is discussed, sexuality is avoided. Female sexuality is as natural as male sexuality, so why is it not discussed as freely? My hope is that through the emergence of sex-positive businesses we can raise a generation that supports and uplifts women, rather than degrading them for the choices they make about their own bodies."

Is it possible to be sex negative?

While sex positivity describes anything that embraces sexuality, sex negativity is broadly any approach to sex and sexuality that defines it as negative or limits the scope of human enjoyment. 

For example perceiving sex and sexual thoughts, desires, and behaviors as dirty dangerous, immoral, or unnatural. Punishing or criticizing someone for their attitudes to sex, sexual fantasies, or discriminating against them on the basis of their sexuality and sexual pride or joy is also considered to be sex-negative behavior. Other sex-negative behaviors include:

  • violence and online abuse towards adult workers
  • abuse of people who express their sexuality 
  • sex education that only teaches reproductive sex 
  • purity pacts and pressure to be abstinent  
  • slut-shaming and victim-blaming 

And it's not just individuals that can be sex negative. In many cases, banned words on social media, the removal of comprehensive sex education in schools, and the limitation of sexual rights and freedoms by governments, medical boards, and policymakers are all examples of sex negativity. “Negative attitudes towards sex equate to internalized shame and cultural expectations which lead us to become intensely self–conscious," says pleasure coach Elizabeth Hart. 

What’s important to remember about sex positivity is that it represents the normalizing of sexuality but also the idea that being sexual and talking about sex should be done as and where this is appropriate. Being sex positive doesn’t mean you should encourage conversations about sex at dinner with your in-laws or with minors outside of the classroom, for example, but in spaces and scenarios where healthy discourse about sex education and sexuality is appropriate.

Shaming, criticizing, or threatening anyone on the basis of their sexual joy, freedoms, tastes, the way they dress, present, or identify can also be considered sex-negative behavior. But this is more or less just unkind behavior too. Bullying another person or causing them emotional or physical harm on the basis of their lifestyle is never an acceptable way to behave, regardless of whether you disagree with their beliefs and choices.

A lot of sex negativity is perpetuated by fear and misinterpretation of what sex positivity actually is and what it stands for. Gaps in education are often responsible for this so a broad, robust, and unbiased education of sex and sexuality is vital for understanding how to develop a healthy relationship with sex and sexual identity, especially for young people. Research by Planned Parenthood (opens in new tab) shows that comprehensive sex education reduces the rate of teen pregnancies, STI rates, and instances of sexual harassment and assault across many communities in the UK, Europe, and the US, so sex positivity is already having a profound impact in classrooms across the world.

How can we become more sex positive? 

You don’t need a coach or a specific practice to be sex positive. You can be sex positive by learning how to be less judgemental of yourself and others, practicing sex positivity, engaging in all sexual thoughts and experiences with an open mind and a positive approach. And you can champion it by speaking about the movement and its philosophy, supporting sex-positive businesses, educators, and sexual wellness apps, and sharing your own sex positive messages. 

There are plenty of ways to embrace a more sex-positive lifestyle and to champion a sex-positive philosophy. Sex-positive experts and educators recommend a mixture of education, practice, and advocacy, including:

  • Seeing all people as sexual equals who are worthy and deserving of consensual pleasure and enjoyment
  • Setting clear boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others 
  • Educating yourself on consent, different types of sex, and sexuality
  • Using sexually inclusive language and having an open mind 
  • Broadening your knowledge through verified social accounts, books, and podcasts
  • Downloading sex apps
  • Enjoying ethical sexual content 
  • Respecting the choices of others and reserving judgment 
  • Listening to your body and doing what feels right for you 
  • Exploring your sexuality alone or with a partner without shame 
  • Practicing sexual mindfulness, self-love, and self-care
  • Join sex-positive communities online or in-person 
  • Work with a qualified sex-positive therapist or coach
  • Supporting sex-positive businesses and educators

"It takes a lot of introspection and unlearning, through reflecting on how you were brought up and taught about sex, to embrace sex positivity. But ultimately, the way to limit discrimination and ignorance is through sex-positive education," says Elle. "I believe body positivity is the root to sex positivity, so open-mindedness while participating in self-care is integral to bettering your own natural self. We are privileged to live in an era where sex-positive platforms exist, helping to shape a generation of open-minded, sex-positive people who respect each other's bodies and choices."

Sex positivity in theory and practice is a great way to understand sexual anxiety and the causes of it, both personal and societal, the study by Planned Parenthood also suggests. While a further survey by Ella Paradis (opens in new tab) shows that 65% of people want to try new things in their sex lives and embracing a sex-positive philosophy and lifestyle can help with approaching new experiences with an open mind. It can also help with setting clear, definable boundaries that encourage safety, communication, and a better relationship with your own body, as well as with your partner. 

Sex positivity can help young people to feel more relaxed about their own sexuality, more confident in their own body, and more inclined to practice self-care and safe sex. Ultimately, it's a way of thinking that enriches women's lives and teaches everyone that women's sexuality is just as valuable and worthy of respect and visibility as men's. 

Emilie Lavinia
Emilie Lavinia

Emilie Lavinia is a writer, entrepreneur and women’s wellbeing advocate. She is passionate about femtech, closing the gender health gap and campaigning for education and transparency across mental, physical and sexual health. Emilie presents All Being Well – a series that investigates the concept of wellness, good health according to experts and what it means to ‘be well’. She has a decade of experience as a journalist, editor and brand strategist and is the founder of four separate organisations that champion women’s health, marginalised communities and LGBTQ+ people.