You’ve probably heard the term sex positive, but do you know what it means? In recent years, it has shifted from its feminist roots and has been used to refer to people who enjoy sex and are open to all forms of sexual expression. But, as with many aspects of sex and sexuality, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that.

Sure, embracing your (and other people’s) sexuality and forms of sexual expression is a beautiful thing. But when we dig a little deeper into what it means to be sex positive, the idea really blossoms - and so do we. What most people agree on is that sex positive people see sexuality as a healthy part of human nature, and they see expressing that sexuality as a choice we should all have the freedom to make - without shame or judgment.

That said, even the most sex-positive people evolve over time as they grow in their understanding of their own sexuality, and sexuality in general. Here are seven things that sex positive people know – and how you can learn them.

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Having sex is healthy … but so is not having sex.

People have kind of exploded with warm and fuzzy feelings around sex over the past few years. We’re talking about sex more, both among ourselves and in the media. People are becoming more open to different sexual choices and expressions. Sex toys are going mainstream. We’re putting more thought into pornography and sex work and where those fit in. These are all great things. But in the midst of all this enthusiasm, it’s easy to push right on past the idea that sex is normal and healthy and extend that to the belief that all sex is healthy - and even that not having sex isn’t healthy.

The truth is that being sex positive doesn’t mean that sex is a free-for-all, or even that you need to be having sex to be a sex-positive person. Maybe you love sex and do your best to have a lot of it in a lot of different ways. Cool. But what if you don’t? Maybe you’ve chosen to be celibate for a while because you feel it’s right for you. You can still be sex positive. Maybe you don’t feel the need to masturbate. You can still be sex positive. Maybe you’re asexual and have very little interest in sex at all. Yes, even you can still be sex positive. Sex positivity is not the same as being enthusiastic about sex. (Read JoEllen Notte’s excellent take on this in On the Other Hand: Remembering That Masturbation Isn’t Mandatory.)

Sex positivity isn’t about having lots of lots of sex. It’s about making your own decisions about your sex life and how you choose to express your sexuality. That might even mean not expressing it at all. It also means accepting others for their choices in this department, no matter how different or unusual they may seem to you, which leads us to …

Being sex positive requires an open mind

To some degree, making judgments is natural. Seeing the world through the lens of our own values, opinions and experiences is part of how we makes sense of things. However, part of being sex positive includes avoiding being judgmental. Yes, there’s a difference: While making judgments is about our own opinions, being judgmental involves framing other people’s actions, decisions and behaviors with our own values in a way that can have harmful or negative consequences. For example, while you may not agree with someone else’s sexual conduct based on your beliefs and values around sex, that doesn’t make them wrong. After all, that person may not get their values from the same place as you do.

BDSM, diaper fetishes, casual orgies – no matter where you look, there will be people getting off on things that skeeve you out. (And vice versa!) Get used to it. Just because someone else’s preferences provoke a strong negative reaction in you doesn’t mean they’re wrong for them. And no matter how open minded you think you are, this is probably a point that you’ll have to revisit time and time again. The real lesson here is that the more empathy and acceptance you learn to have for other people’s differences, the more you will learn to accept yourself. (Funny how that goes, right?)

And introspective, critical thinking

Just because you consider yourself to be sex positive doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you do will automatically be sex positive - or even healthy. Unfortunately, the label can be used as a way to avoid examining our own behavior. So, while it’s totally cool to sleep with a different person every damn day if that’s what you’re into, it’s also important to look at that behavior, how it makes you feel and how it’s impacting your life. (Read: On Self Acceptance.)

Just because you like something sexually doesn’t always mean it’s good for you. Being sex positive is about enjoying the pleasure our bodies are capable of, sure. But it’s also about self-exploration and development and discovery. The point here is to figure out what’s positive for you. Having sex – even the safe, sane, consensual kind – is not positive if it causes you pain.

A body is a beautiful thing – and worth getting to know

One of the best things to come out of the sex-positive movement is the desire to give people – all people – the space to discover themselves as sexual beings without shame or judgment. That doesn’t mean that the whole world has caught up but, in sex positive circles, you will meet a lot of people who embrace their bodies and the pleasure they can bring.

In a society that often teaches us to aspire to unattainable beauty standards, loving your body as it is truly has become a revolutionary act. That said, for many of us, it’s a daily journey. Maybe you have to fake it until you make but rest assured, your thoughts are powerful. Focus on the things you like about yourself. Be kind to yourself when you slip back to hating on your wide hips or your stretch marks. Surround yourself with things that champion body positivity and surround yourself with positive people who accept you as you are. Finally, start looking at your body for what it can do, rather than just how it looks. For many people, that means exploring their sexuality and pleasure through masturbation.

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Consent is sexy (but it isn’t simple)

Don’t have sex with people who don’t want to have sex with you. Simple, right? Maybe. But the details aren't - there isn’t a lot of debate and discussion about this in the sex positive community for nothing. It’s just like a cup of tea! Or … not. Yes means yes! Or does that oversimplify things?

What we know for sure is that consent is important. But, just like everything else in interpersonal relationships, figuring out all the details can be tricky sometimes. Start by setting and respecting boundaries in your relationships long before you hit the bedroom. Watch not just what partners say, but also their body language and how they behave. Ask your partners open-ended questions about what they’re liking and how you’re doing when you’re having sex. In return, be open and honest with your partners about what you like, what you're feeling and when you want to stop.

So is communication

Sex positive people learn how to tell their partners what they want. And that is one of the most powerful drivers for a super-hot, super-satisfying sex life. Talking about sex can be hard, but sex positive people know that it gets easier when you try – and when you learn the skills that come with doing it appropriately, kindly and respectfully.

It’s a work in progress – so start talking! Be honest, be open and be willing to share your fantasies. Just start talking. It will get easier.

Real sex is messy – and beautiful

It’s easy to bring a lot of baggage into our sex lives. We might have preconceptions about what sex should be about, or hold unrealistic expectations of what sex should be like. Sex-positive people learn that because sex happens between two (or more!) totally unique individuals, it’s pretty hard to hold it to any specific standard. And that’s a beautiful thing! Real sex isn’t like in the movies. It can be awkward. It’s often messy. It happens between all different kinds of people with all different kinds of bodies who like all different kinds of things. That’s what makes it so interesting!

Let go of your ideas of what sex should be and embrace it in the moment for what it is. Indulge in your fantasies and encourage your partners to do the same. Experiment with sex toys or BDSM or whatever makes you shiver. Focus on sensation and pleasure rather than appearances. Oh, and keep learning about sex in all its fascinating, glorious and messy forms.

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