Many of us grew up with at best conflicting messages about sex and sexuality — that it was great if we were married but sinful right up until that moment, that it was okay to explore with a socially acceptable partner but not through masturbation, or that casual sex outside a committed relationship meant we were undesirable or inadequate romantic partners. For some of us, the beliefs we were taught were even darker and more direct: that sexual interest or desire was always shameful and sex should never be discussed full stop.

This can make it extra difficult to tackle these topics in our lives as adults, especially if we’re also queer and carry a level of internalized shame around that. Healthy masturbation, talking about sex with potential partners and actually enjoying sex when we do have it can feel impossible. This is a pretty common shared experience, as these cultural messages are widespread — and part of what the sex-positivity movement aims to address. Here’s what you need to know about sex positivity and how it can impact you.

What is sex positivity?

Put simply, sex positivity is an approach that asks us to approach sex with the understanding that it’s a morally neutral (or even positive!) act. This can sound too obvious and simplistic — until you start to think about how we really approach sex now. Even those of us who consider ourselves more comfortable with sex often have some silent exceptions to that rule: sex is good (when it’s with someone you love); sex is good (as long as it’s not kinky, or casual hookups, or polyamorous); sex is good (unless it’s something my partner doesn’t want, in which case I feel bad for wanting it).

One way of thinking of sex-positivity is as a decision to try to truly remove those judgments as they apply to both yourself and others. What if sex is something we consider fundamentally positive on its own terms, whether it’s in a relationship, whether it’s “normal” or “weird” sex, whether it looks like the kind of sex we personally like to have or not? We wouldn’t have to worry about whether the sex we were having or wanted to have, was acceptable rather than shameful sex — because the latter isn’t an option.

What does living a sex-positive life look like

There’s no one answer to that question, but there are a few places it might make sense to start.

One idea is to start noticing where shame shows up in both your inner and outer life currently. When you have a sexual thought, is there a rush of shame afterward? If you notice yourself being sexually attracted to someone else (especially someone of the same sex), do you feel guilt or anxiety? Do you feel shame or embarrassment after masturbating? You can start by simply calling your awareness to it when this happens – you don’t need to try to force yourself to stop thinking or feeling those things (hard to change your own emotions through force of will!), but you can be mindful about noting to yourself that those thoughts come up and any specific patterns or focus they contain. You can frame these in your head as what they are — thoughts and feelings — rather than objective truths. Once you feel comfortable doing that, you can start to gently and neutrally challenge those thoughts a little. Again, you don’t need to argue or debate yourself, or try to force yourself into having different thoughts; just leave some space for entertaining a different possibility by practicing asking yourself, “what if this isn’t something I have to feel guilty about?” “What if this isn’t shameful?” Just getting those gears turning in your mind can open up a lot of space for change.

Similarly, you can practice some of these techniques when it comes to other people’s sexual choices, too. When you’re hearing about a friend’s dating life or watching characters have sex on TV and notice that twinge of discomfort, disapproval, or disgust, practice naming the feeling that comes up – hm, I feel nervous hearing about Kate’s date being into spanking – without reacting too much to it. After a while, you can start to consider those feelings with neutral curiosity: what was that feeling about for me? Paying attention to what your associations are and what stories you tell yourself about what certain sex acts mean can be helpful in being more intentional in your exploration of sex-positivity.

What sex positivity isn’t

For some of us, the idea of sex-positivity itself might make us uncomfortable — and that may be in part due to believing some untrue (but common) myths about it. We can quickly debunk some of the most popular myths about sex positivity:

You aren’t sex-positive people unless you love sex and want to have it all the time.