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Katie Thurston's season of The Bachelorette debuted Monday night, and one tidbit about the show's new lead was pervasive throughout the episode: She's sex-positive.
Fans first met Thurston on Matt James's season of The Bachelor and earned early buzz for showing him her vibrator upon their first meeting. (She joked at the time that it helped get her through quarantine.) Promos for Thurston's season of The Bachelorette have since referenced her sex-positive stance, with one promotional poster for the show saying, "See what all the buzz is about."
Contestants repeatedly referenced Thurston's positive attitude toward sex during the season opener, and Thurston herself made a few jokes about it. She's also referenced it in recent interviews.
"Sex positivity is such a thing for me," she told Variety. "I talk about sex in a very casual way." Thurston said that she "knew there was a risk" that her vibrator entrance on James's season could backfire, but it was a risk she was willing to take. Producers "were supportive of it. It was great. It definitely made an impact, and honesty, it did start a lot of conversations that I think need to happen, especially in 2021," she said.
Thurston told Glamour that fans will see "some conversations" around sex positivity "because it is 2021 it’s important we talk about it, especially with our partners."
But what, exactly, is sex positivity? Here's what you need to know.
What is sex positivity?
The term is "a little broad," sex therapist Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First, told Yahoo Life. "It can mean having an exuberance about sex, and being true and authentic about your sexuality and how you want to express it," he says.
Sex positivity "can mean different things to different people but, in general, it is the idea that sex is a positive thing in someone's overall life," women's health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider told Yahoo Life.
But sex positivity also "means prioritizing informed consent and agency in all sexual encounters," said Shawntres A. Parks, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Parks & Powers Psychotherapy. "It also means removing stigma and shame from individuals' sexual choices."
"Being nonjudgmental is at the heart of sex positivity," Kerner said. "That means being able to talk about sex in certain ways, and being accepting of the desires of others." People can be sex-positive "on a micro and macro level, on a personal and cultural level," he explained.
Having a sex-positive Bachelorette is a big deal.
The Bachelor franchise traditionally prioritizes marriage over sex and often dances around having healthy conversations about sex. While show leads have "fantasy suite" dates where they could have sex, what happens during the overnight stays is often not outwardly discussed on camera.
There have been exceptions in recent years, though. Former Bachelorette star Hannah Brown revealed on the show and during the After the Final Rose episode that she and contestant Peter Weber had sex in a windmill four times. Brown was shamed on the show for her choice by contestant Luke Parker, who she sent home.
Former Bachelorette lead Kaitlyn Bristowe also came under fire during her season, both from contestants and the public, after she admitted to sleeping with contestant Nick Viall during filming and before the fantasy suites. Bristowe later defended Brown after the windmill episode, writing on Twitter that, "women can have sex if they choose."
Parks applauded Thurston for "promoting sex-positivity with her bold and unashamed endorsement of self-pleasure," adding that, "many women engage in masturbation but may feel embarrassed to share that fact publicly. Katie normalizes masturbation in a way that helps to start a conversation about just how self-pleasure is both common and acceptable."
Parks said that, because of the Bachelor franchise's popularity, there is "space for more recognition of sex positivity and room to engaged more prominently in sex positivity."
By adopting a sex-positive stance, Thurston is "really modeling that it is OK to make public choices with regard to your sexuality," Parks said.
This is especially important now, given that sex is still often viewed "as a sin," sex therapist Debra Laino, told Yahoo Life. "This can be a good move for this franchise to start the dialogue publicly on healthy sexuality," she said. "It can be the swing we need as a culture."
Thurston being openly sex-positive is "a good start, but I'm curious if her view of sex-positivity is inclusive," Jess O'Reilly, host of the Sex With Dr. Jess Podcast, told Yahoo Life. "For example, some people claim to be sex-positive, but their definition of sex is narrow — they may not support and show reverence to sex workers, who provide essential services, for example. This is not sex-positivity — it’s selective sexual freedom that is often self-serving."
Wider points out that there is an "undercurrent of sexual energy" in the Bachelor franchise that often isn't directly spoken about. "Addressing it like this, out in the open is much better," she said. "Having discussions about consent, respect, sympathy and understanding can only be positive, rather than leaving it in secret in the fantasy suite." O'Reilly agrees. She says she hopes the show's leaning into sex positivity will lead to "more open conversations," adding, that depictions of sex or allusions to sex on the show "without context are always incomplete. They leave viewers to assume so much and they also tend to depict narrow representations of sex."
Kerner said he hopes Thurston has the opportunity to address what sex positivity means to her on the show, and "not just say that she's sex-positive."
"That's how it will become meaningful and influential," he said.
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