Ask Sex Coach Leigh: Body-positive in a sex-positive world

Question: Hi! I have a question that I have been struggling with lately. How can we be “body positive” in a sex positive world? I keep seeing “desexualize women’s bodies” everywhere. Can I be a sex worker and still advocate for that? I feel like I’m a walking contradiction. Thanks for any insight. I wasn’t sure who else to ask.

Hi lovely! Thank you so much for your question. I understand where you’re coming from – this is complicated, often contradictory-seeming stuff, made all the more confusing by the mixed messages we receive from our culture. So let’s start with what we talk about when we talk about body positivity.

The core idea behind body positivity is that all bodies are good bodies: that we can and should love our bodies and the bodies of others regardless of size, shape, gender, skin color, or ability. (I say “should” here, but even that can be complicated. Cultural messages, media images, or a history of disordered eating can all make it challenging to love our bodies. Body positivity doesn’t exist to tell us how to think about our bodies. If you can’t love your body yet, that’s okay. Just know that it is worthy of love.)

The other goal of the body positive movement is to broaden our notions of what is desirable. This is precisely where it fits in with sex positivity. Just as all sexual activities between consenting adults (including no sexual activity) are valid, all types of bodies are valid. You don’t have to fit into a certain mold, or meet anyone else’s standard of desirability, to be sexual and to enjoy your body. There is no goal line to cross. You have the right to love your body and fuck in your body exactly as it is this moment.

So how do we reconcile sex and body positivity with the call to “desexualize women’s bodies”? I think this comes down to choice and agency. The blanket sexualization of women is problematic because it reduces us to our bodies, and communicates that our worth is dependent on the way we look. When this sexualization starts young – with adolescent or even prepubescent girls – then agency is even further removed, revealing a culture that literally sexualizes people before they are able to consent to sex. This default sexualization of women’s bodies contributes to misogyny and rape culture, not to mention the self-esteem and mental health of the women who are objectified. A reminder from writer Erin McKean: “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’”.

Therefore, a plea to desexualize women’s bodies is a plea for agency. Women have the right to sexualize our own bodies or to ask (or demand) that they are sexualized – for work, for pleasure, for whatever reason we want. The problem exists when women are being sexualized without their consent and made a constant object of the male gaze. This is especially true for sex work. The commodification of women’s bodies only becomes troublesome when women don’t own the means of production (something that could be addressed through the legalization of all sex work, but that’s a different column).

As for you feeling like a walking contradiction: nothing about being a sex worker is at odds with body positivity or sex positivity. Finding fault with the sexualization of women’s bodies and advocating for a cultural shift in thinking doesn’t imply that you yourself are not a sexual person, or are in any way “anti-sex”. Sex work only negatively contributes to the sexualization of women when it is forced upon them, otherwise, it is just one of many ways of expressing sexuality.

So don’t worry – you got this. Just continue being your body positive, sex positive, hard-working self.

If you have a sex or relationship question you would like me to answer (anonymously), please contact me.

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