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The journey I have found myself on over the past few years has got me thinking a lot about the difference between being promiscuous — with all the negative connotations that go along with that label — versus being sexually empowered.
With the popular social narrative still stuck in Victorian values, sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether taking sexy selfies or having sex with multiple partners is truly liberating or unhealthy. Furthermore, from a wider social lens, is it empowering, or just another way to perpetuate the heteronormative ideal that womxn’s sexuality centres around men. Because the negative connotations of promiscuity nearly always only apply to womxn.
There are two important points there: personal agency, and the reasons we make the decisions we do.
The dictionary definition of promiscuity is defined as: “A lack of discrimination when it comes to sexuality or having casual sex.”
There are no issues here. Having sex indiscriminately is surely an unhealthy behaviour.
However, the problem for me comes in the example sentence they then offer: “Having sexual relations with five different women in one week is an example of promiscuity.”
My problem with this is that promiscuity isn’t actually quantitative. The number of people you choose to sleep with has no bearing on your sense of worth, and isn’t inherently negative. Going by this example, having drunken sex with four strangers, without protection, would be ok, yet having sex with five people you see regularly, while taking precautions, would not be.
Promiscuity (rather than sexual empowerment) is often unhealthy. It can be linked to low self esteem, as a way to seek external validation, and it can be an unhealthy coping mechanism when we feel low.
From experience, promiscuity — having sex indiscriminately, regardless of the number of people — is often closely linked to low mood or alcohol/ drugs and has led to putting myself in some truly tricky (and sometimes dangerous) situations. For a start, sexual health was not my priority and promiscuous behaviour for me often meant sex without protection. In a number of different ways, promiscuity has been a form of self harm.
It is also worth noting that promiscuity is also cited as a symptom of mania in bipolar disorder. While the word “bipolar” seems to be used fairly commonly now to describe ups and downs, bipolar disorder only actually affects 1-2% of the population so should not be used to excuse or explain promiscuous behaviour without a diagnosis.
What, then, is sexual freedom?
In direct opposition with the above, I would say that sexual empowerment is simply a level of discernment where your sexual choices are concerned. The ability to be discerning is rooted in healthy decisions: knowing your boundaries and being able to communicate them; not being intoxicated; not confusing liberation with availability; and knowing your motivations for your behaviour. Self knowledge is vital for sexual empowerment.
But even self-knowledge can be a challenge when presented with the wider backdrop of what is, in reality, a prudish culture. One that whispers about sex, that promotes monogamy and marriage as the ideal relationship models, and that too often turns discussions about female pleasure into pornography. So what if you’re a womxn that enjoys sex? Who isn’t in a long-term monogamous relationship and perhaps doesn’t want to be? Sometimes it can be hard to truly know what YOU think, vs what tradition makes you feel.
According to a 2009 paper from Indiana University, “sexual empowerment might best be conceptualized as a continuous and multidimensional construct.” Zoe Peterson argues that sexual empowerment is best thought of as subjective: though this may mean that womxn can “confuse feelings of agency with cultural and institutional power”, ultimately, thinking of empowerment as subjective validates their personal experiences and perceptions.
In short: if you feel sexually empowered, you are.
Only YOU know whether your sexual behaviour is empowering or not but it’s challenging and complex, and sometimes there are grey areas.
While I would absolutely class my sexual behaviour as healthy and empowered, I know I also make mistakes; I misjudge situations and sometimes find myself questioning my motivations. The thing is, on any journey of self discovery that involves other people or unknown variables, we are not going to get everything right the first time. There is a certain level of resilience that’s required, and an analysis of risk and reward.
People have a “risk profile” — an evaluation of an individual’s willingness and ability to take risks — and knowing this about ourselves can be very useful. Sexually, I can be a risk-taker, I often throw myself into things with a “Yes Man” mentality; my personal motto is, “Try everything twice.” But in a sexual setting, feeling empowered or not, this can be risky.
While taking risks can absolutely be a part of having fun, risks are only really fun if safety is actually your priority (and the priority of your partners). Otherwise the feelings on the other side are more trouble than they’re worth: fear, shame, guilt and panic for starters. Waking up the morning after with a sense of regret is something I work hard to avoid.
So promiscuity versus sexual freedom? I would argue that promiscuity is nothing to do with the number of people you choose to share your body with in any given week, and far more to do with the motivation and associated risk of your decisions. Be aware, be conscious in your decisions, wake up revelling in the delicious encounter you had, because you did it deliberately and you know you were safe.
Sleep with zero people in a decade, sleep with 10 in a week, but whatever you do, do it from a place of self knowledge and thoroughly assess the risks and your motivations.
And now I’m off to listen to Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and dance around my room.