We were all born. The act of our creation was one of physical connection: our lives resulted from sex, from something carnal. Because of this, sex is a natural, innate, and healthy part of us that sustains humanity and without it, would lead to our demise.
Now this may sound a bit odd, as if I’m promoting sex solely for the preservation of the human race. Not the case at all … instead, I want you to consider that no matter how much you deny it, sex happens. It is how we happened. And what is shameful about that our origin, about the physical connection that led us to be?
From this idea of sex being a natural part of the way humans express themselves—as sexuality is a part of who we are and sex is one of our desires— comes the concept that sex can be a pleasurable activity in and of itself, without any context—that you can engage in sexual activity for the sole sake of wanting to, not because you are hoping to reproduce or because you are in a relationship and that it is expected. Sex positivity celebrates our sexuality as it is, empowering us to be aware of what our desires are and to be in control of how we fulfill them.
In order to be sex-positive, we should be knowledgeable of how to engage in all kinds of safe, consensual sex in whatever type of relationship you choose. This includes respecting and appreciating various sexual activities: masturbation, abstinence, engaging in only certain sexual activities and refraining from others, being non-monogamous, practicing kink and BDSM, engaging in role play… the possibilities are endless. Sex positivity is an honoring of all that sex is—the emotional aspects, the health aspects, and the desire. It does not mean you have to be very sexually active and it does not mean you’re not allowed to be vanilla (that is, more sexually conservative). Instead, it means that you can be the sexual being you desire to be and that you are comfortable with and empowered by that. It also means that you are open minded about others’ sexual practices, even if they are something you would not engage in yourself. Part of being open-minded means also engaging in honest, open discussion on sex and sexuality. That is essential to sex positivity.
Some of you might agree with this concept. Some of you may have never heard of sex positivity and are now pondering what it means to you. Some of you don’t agree with this at all. Some of you might be having sex instead of reading this article (well, get it!). Whatever you’re thinking matters. What you believe about sex contributes to the perception of sex in society. And hopefully being open to examining your beliefs on sex because sex positivity makes for healthy relationships and healthy people who are not ashamed of their sexuality.
At Princeton, I feel that sex positivity is often ignored. Either people are unfamiliar with the term, or have never been exposed to the concept. Both institutionally and culturally, I feel that sex positivity could be improved. In order to gain a broader perspective on how people felt about Princeton and sex positivity, I had conversations with two girls: one sophomore, Vivienne Chen, and a junior, Sarah Rounsifer. I had hoped to find more people to talk to (like some menz, and some people not quite in my social circle, to be more balanced), but when I asked a friend to find some people to discuss this issue, he said that no one was willing to talk. Which is a reflection of the culture surrounding sex positivity: either they did not know what sex positivity was, had no opinion, or were too afraid to voice their thoughts. Despite not finding more folks to discuss the matter with, both Chen and Rounsifer had a good deal to say. You will find their comments interspersed throughout my observations.
Institutionally, Princeton provides us with the basics. While understanding our sexuality is a personal journey that can only be achieved on your own, we need to improve awareness of the resources available on campus that deal with sexuality. While we do have organizations like SHARE, SHA, and a discussion group called Let’s Talk Sex (LeTS), they are only able to do so much and are all focused on different parts of sex positivity.
I think the most important, as well as the most fitting things the University should impart to students in terms of sexual well-being are the concepts of sexual health and consent. SHARE and SHA focus on these issues, but in a limited way. As Chen, Rounsifer, and I discussed, the University assumes that incoming freshmen all have some basic knowledge of sexual health, which is not always the case. Just within the United States, the differences in sex ed by school, even by teachers within one school, are massive. There are so many disparities: some people may not know much beyond abstinence, and some may know about condoms but not about other contraceptives. Both Rounsifer and Chen mentioned that all of us have to take an AlcoholEdu course but there is equivalent for sex ed. I had not thought of that, and I agree that some sort of mandatory sex ed program would be a great improvement that would increase people’s knowledge on sex and sexuality. While I understand that we are capable of using the Internet to research information on sex ed, it is something most people probably do not bother to do. And while there are resources like SHA and SHARE and RCAs that do discuss sexuality during frosh week, they are limited in their scope. The Sex Jeopardy that SHA organizes is an optional activity. The RCA provides us with free condoms but does not tell us about the process of getting hormonal contraceptives (i.e. birth control). SHARE focuses on consent, especially when it comes to the use of alcohol, which is fitting for a college environment, but I think they could also focus more on negotiating safe, consensual activity within all types of relationships (not just when alcohol is involved) and to continue to reach out to freshmen beyond frosh week. Furthermore, across the board, the sex ed we receive is very much heteronormative, and though the various groups have attempted to address the LGQBT side of things, there is room for improvement.
Finally, with LeTS, I think they need to be more visible as an organization. There are only two freshmen involved: myself and another girl. The rest of the members I believe are all upperclassmen. The group is pretty small, which makes sense because only a certain set of people would be attracted to it, but I would love if more people joined so that a variety of opinions were represented. LeTS seems to be the one student group on campus that creates a safe space to discuss all aspects of sex positivity, yet it could attempt to attract a larger, more varied membership. With greater membership, it could host more events.
Beyond these organizations exists the general culture and attitude towards sex: not what opinions and programs Princeton provides for us, but what we provide for ourselves. As a freshman, I observe some of the sex culture on campus, but because my time here has been so short, part of my perception of it is based on generalizations: there’s a big drunken hook-up scene at the Street and then there are people who are in long-term relationships but no one really does casual dating. For the most part, Chen agreed that at Princeton, our dating scene is different than most colleges as we do not have a lot of opportunities besides the hookup. Rounsifer also says that there is a large hookup culture that usually happens at parties and on the Street, because we are pressed for time and seek to get our fill of partying and sex within the same time period. Beyond that scene, Chen thinks that the people who are in a healthy, casual dating situation or are in a happily committed but open relationship are not as visible on campus; that the weird dominance of the two ends of the spectrums—the hookup culture and the long term relationship one—still persists. There is no middle ground.
I believe part of this dating binary at Princeton exists because so few students are willing to discuss what they actually want and then to act on it. Since we do not discuss what we want for ourselves and what we want to do with each other (ooh!), it never happens. We ignore our sexual desire, diminishing its importance because our academic and career goals take precedence.
Alcohol is a means for us to finally be able to express our sexual desires without having to take the responsibility for having those desires. It helps us become more comfortable, which is perhaps why sober hookups are rare. Rounsifer, Chen, and I all feel that only being comfortable engaging in sexual activity when using alcohol is not necessarily healthy: one should feel that they can be sexual without the aid of some drank. At the same time, Rounsifer points out sometimes a little alcohol can eventually lead to healthier expression of sexuality—sometimes it is just used to initiate sexual activity and then beyond that push you find yourself happily fulfilling your desires. But of course it is tricky to negotiate the use of alcohol in terms of sexual behavior, so if we could have a more sex-positive Princeton, then perhaps we could rely on alcohol a lot less in the process of getting some. It is the shame we feel that causes us to be hesitant or repressed sexually, and alcohol mitigates that sense of shame, permitting us to be sexual.
Since this culture is so dominant, what would it mean for Princeton to be sex-positive? It is something that varies from person to person. Like I said earlier, part of sex positivity is figuring out what you want and what you do not want, so for me, I’d want Princeton students to think about their needs and desires more often instead of neglecting them. Chen believes that “what we want could mean anything from just handholding and cuddling to whips and chains” and that “a sex-positive culture means that any individual at Princeton is unafraid to express their sexual identity (including a non-sexual identity! Asexuality, celibacy, and informed abstinence are all part of this conversation too) and can choose to have a conversation about it if they want to.” For Rounsifer, it meant “viewing the act of sex and having a sexual personality in a positive light” and “being able to express your sexuality without judgment from others. If you’re willing to put yourself out there and talk about sex, you shouldn’t be judging yourself about it too harshly.” Here we see that a sex-positive Princeton is one in which students can feel unashamed, honest, and open about their sexuality and sexual activity.
This is what we strive for Princeton to be like. How far away are we from this? Chen says “no closer than society at large is. However, I think Princeton has much more intellectual potential to understand and converse respectfully on these issues than society as a whole.” Rounsifer has similar feelings: “as a whole, we’re not as sex-positive as we should be. You see flyers about heteronormativity and SHARE and people are trying and working at it, but we need to think of the people that come to Princeton, the backgrounds. It’s tough to figure out how it can be improved. The different groups are trying to have an impact but I think that until, as individuals, we become more sex-positive, it’ll be hard for the entire campus to become that way.”
I agree with Chen and Rounsifer. We could be better, we could be more aware. And that starts with individuals. Go forth and figure out what sex positivity means to you. Figure out what you want from sex, figure out who you are as a sexual being. Then, once comfortable with this, engage in discussions with others about it. And of course, if getting some is what you want, then take action. Hold hands with someone if that’s what you desire, or fuck someone who’s gagged and tied up. Masturbate to some great porn. I don’t care, just make it safe and consensual! You do what you want and I do what I want and we’ll talk about it, accepting and learning from each other.