This Women’s History Month, we sat down (virtually) with Richmond’s Reverend Lacette Cross, known locally as Rev. L, to learn about sex positivity in a society of sex negativity.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Rev. L is a womanist and sex-positive Christian who has dedicated her life to serving her community. She is a pastor of Restoration Fellowship RVA, co-founded Black Pride RVA, and founded Will You Be Whole. She is an advocate for sexual wellness and the LGBTQ+ community in Richmond, VA.
Michaela Parris, Communications Director: Can you define what sex positivity means to you and why the movement is important to you?
Reverend Lacette Cross: Sex positivity to me means having an open posture and mindset to all things related to sex and sexuality. It means that a person is willing to see that how we engage in sex, in identity, in our relationships, as long as it’s all healthy, mutual, consensual, affirming activities, then it’s good. Even around topics or activities that I might not get down with, I’m still sex-positive around them because to be sex-positive is to say there is a good in our sexuality. That good translates in all of the ways in which we as human beings are both sexual and spiritual persons. Sex positivity, to me, is a mindset, a guiding principle, and a lens to understand the world around us.
MP: What is a common misconception about the sex positivity movement?
Rev. L: That’s my favorite question! The greatest misconception is that sex positivity equals all things are acceptable, and that is so not true. You can be sex-positive and be abstinent or celibate. Sex positivity is about accepting the good of sex and sexuality. It’s not about how people engage unethically and immorally around sexual activity, identity, and behavior. My operating definition of sexuality is about three things: how do we show up in the world, how do we express ourselves, and how do we engage with one or more other persons? The greatest misconception I encounter is, “Well, if I’m sex-positive, then I’m thinking, child pornography is good.” No, actually, that’s wrong because that’s a misuse of power. To be sex-positive is to say, “We honor power and boundaries and what is right and what is good.”
So that’s one of my favorite questions, particularly when I’m in conversation with people who are religiously conservative or just even sexually conservative. They think that they can’t be sex-positive, because that means that you’re able to say all things go with every single body in every single way. Actually, that’s not true. Clearly, I’m excited about that particular question—that absolutely is the greatest myth around sex-positivity.
MP: It’s really interesting that when people think about sex positivity, they completely forget about consent and agency—these aren’t mutually exclusive! They have to work together. That’s the whole point.
Rev. L: Exactly.
MP: Can you give an example of what sex negativity is?
Rev. L: Yeah, I can give an example! All the ways that anybody that is anti-pleasure is sex-negative, anybody that is anti-body; anti-bodily autonomy, anti-bodily integrity—all of that is sex negativity. Sex negativity is a mindset that says we cannot and should not be living in the fullness of our sexuality. To be sex-negative is to be controlling and to inhibit people in their understanding of how they are living their lives as sexual beings and in relationships to others. Even the other that I may not understand, if I’m sex-negative, I’m quick to put labels and parameters on and dictate how that person can live their life.
We all see sex negativity show up in our culture, particularly in religion, even in people who may not go to church but who are what I call church-adjacent—you’re still impacted by sex negativity in religion, even if you’re not in the church because the church is the main purveyor of women’s bodies, how our bodies should show up, roles around gender—how men and women should act. There are layers around how we see sex negativity in our society and how that translates into our policies. No matter what, we cannot legislate people’s hearts, and the thing about the pervasiveness of religion is that it is often the religious morays or teachings that tend to be the foundation for the sex-negative mindsets and behaviors.
MP: Can you give three examples of how someone could actively practice sex-positivity—someone who’s with a partner, and for someone who doesn’t have a partner and is quarantining alone due to COVID?
Rev. L: The three things that come to mind for me around sex positivity are true regardless of social, political, and public health contexts. The first is that we embrace pleasure—pleasure through our five senses and pleasure through our bodies. To be sex-positive is to say, not only do I enjoy watching a sunset, or being touched or caressed, or smelling a beautiful candle, or listening to good music; the ways in which our senses are engaged, we receive pleasure through that. That’s my first practice: sex positivity shows up in the way we embrace pleasure.
The second thing is: how are we cultivating positive and healthy relationships with our intimate partners or even with our friends? To be sex-positive is to be in good relationships with people who see and love you and completely affirm who you are and how you show up in the world. That is going to give you the foundation to know when you interact with someone that is not loving you, respecting you, and honoring you in the ways that your tribe or your community, or your squad is. That gives you an indicator of what is mutual, affirming, consensual, in relating to others.
The last part about being sex-positive is to also be creative. The creativity can come in, “How am I pleasuring myself sexually?”—in solo pleasure, but also “How are myself and my current partner engaging in sex and sexuality or intimacy that may not involve sex,” but also, “How are we being creative to maintain a healthy intimate relationship?”
Creativity also comes in how we’re navigating our relationships virtually and in a distant way—so, what does it mean to read erotica together? What does it mean to use virtual platforms to talk sensually or to do sex play via phone, or what does it mean for us to watch the same movie together? You might be in different places or using any or all platforms, but are you creative in how you’re cultivating a connection? That connection can be relationally, sexually, intimately, and again is grounded in mutual, affirming, consenting ways that we’re being together. I believe we’re going to be all the better from the ways we’ve been forced to cultivate our relationships differently during this time. That means not only our friendships and deep connections with people that we know and love and know and who know and love us, but also our intimate and partner relationships, whether that’s with one or more people that we’re able to be creative, pleasure-filled, and communicative.
MP: Many women feel shame when it comes to being sex-positive; do you have advice or practices that can help women break through the shame that we’ve been conditioned to feel about taking control of our sexuality?
Rev. L: One of the differences between guilt and shame, which are like cousins, is that guilt makes us feel bad about what we do, and shame makes us feel bad about who we are. Sex positivity is about cultivating an internal identity that is grounded in, “I am created in the image of a creator that embraced sexuality, and that says that sexuality is a good thing,” and so to counter shame means to reorient the narratives in our mind or the tapes that run in our head about our bodies and about what is proper behavior and about a fundamental sense of, “Am I a bad person because I think sexual thoughts?” I believe that some of that reorienting comes through using affirmations as a way to remind ourselves, “I am good. My body is beautiful the way it is. Pleasure is my divine birthright. I deserve to enjoy pleasure.” And that pleasure doesn’t have to be centered in sex or sexuality.
For me, I love sunsets, and water is my thing. So I believe that the work of undoing shame has to come through what we’re telling ourselves.
There’s a quote that says, “Be mindful of what you say because you are the first person to hear it.” If we’re telling ourselves that we’re good, we’re telling ourselves that our pleasure is a divine birthright, we’re telling ourselves that, “What I think about myself is not dependent on what other people say about me,” “Am I living according to what I believe about me, what I believe about how I should be relating to others, that that is healthy, that is mutual, affirming, and consenting?” When matters of shame come up, you can say, “Well that’s your stuff, ‘cause I’m good right here,” or, “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m sorry that you haven’t done your work, but also, I welcome you on this journey with me, and I’m good!”
The workaround shame has to be an internal work. There’s never going to be a shortage of people willing to shame your freedom because freedom ain’t free, and the freedom that I have threatens the people that see me. My freedom threatens yours if you are still in bondage. It’s natural that we live in a society that will shame us because if I am in the fullness of my sex positivity and my liberation, you’re gonna be like, “Well, why can’t I do that?” and “What’s keeping me back?” and “Why’s she gotta be like that?” and “Who does she think she is?”
Really, the work needs to be our own work; that’s why I believe in the power of affirmation, in the power of having solid possibility models that are your squad and your people, and connecting to social media accounts that remind you that shame is not our gift. That is a byproduct of an oppressive society. It ain’t ours; don’t hold it. Let it go. I follow Adrienne Maree Brown, and I follow fat women of color because they have a lot of body-positive affirmations, like Sonya Renee Taylor; there’s a lot of folks out there that we can find on Instagram that remind us that we don’t have to be shameful.
I’ll mention three Black sexologists: Dr. Lexx James, @lexxsexdoc; Goody Howard, @askgoody, based in Texas, she does blowjob workshops and workshops on how to ride, however people choose to ride; and then Brittany Broaddus, @theintimacyfirm, she specifically comes from a Christian perspective when she talks about intimacy.
I believe that part of overcoming shame is having those messages constantly in our social media feed and being connected to those people because we have to re-wire and re-tell ourselves new messages.