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Sexuality

We pick our fights. Presumably, we pick them according to our priorities. Politics matters more to me than atheism, feminism matters more to me than other political issues, and sexuality matters more to me than all of the above. A dear friend of mine used to sport a button that bore a quote attributed to Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” In my case, the quote could be, “If I can’t fuck, I won’t join your revolution, your religion, your social movement….”

Why sex and not something else? It’s hard to say why it’s so important to me, but I speak up about it because I’m always hearing people make broad pronouncements about sex and sexuality that don’t jive with my personal experience.

About a month or so ago, I put up a post that contained a quote from Holly of Love and Heretics.

I think the distinction was made that waiting for sex until you are older and more mature, and the realization that having sex does indeed do things like give an emotional bond between people, and is more than just “causally having a cup of coffee” as sometimes it is tried to be made out to be is an important observation.

There’s at least three incorrect statements in this one sentence. I feel a little bit like I’m picking on Holly and I don’t really mean to. If these weren’t commonplaces, I wouldn’t be addressing them. Holly has just happened to put them in a sentence that’s easy to quote. For now, I’m going to limit myself to the notion that there is something positive about waiting for sex until “you are older and more mature.”

The first problem with this idea is that I’ve never heard anyone give an approximate age that would be a good time to start having sex. In English grammar, “older” is a comparative but Holly uses it without a comparison, which is possible if the comparison is implied. It begs the question, “Older than what?” Should an individual wait for sex until he or she is eighteen, twenty-one, thirty, fifty?

Conveniently for this post, I lost my virginity at fourteen which I am quite sure is younger than most of the people who make statements like that would recommend. We’ll fast forward past the first three or four boys I fucked and move forward a year when I found myself in history class sitting next to an adorable boy. Better yet, he was one of those shy, sensitive types that hadn’t a clue about exactly how adorable he was.

After futile attempts to engage him in conversation, I shoved a piece a paper at him. “What’s this?”

“My phone number, and you had better use it.”

Quite a charmer, wasn’t I? Thus began the relationship with the boy that I believe I can legitimately call “my high school sweetheart.”

Considering his shyness and upbringing in a religion that frowned on extramarital sex, it was clear to me that I was going to have to take the lead, which I did. It wasn’t long, perhaps a month at most, before I led him through the various stages of sexual contact. We were not permitted to be alone in the bedroom he shared with his brother on the third floor of their father’s house. His bed was under the window which faced the street and it wasn’t long before we figured out that in the time it took his father to navigate his bright red car up the street, into the driveway, park, get out and walk to the door, we could go from naked on his bed to fully clothed, sitting on the sofa looking like the two most innocent things in the world. In the hour or two that would remain between walking to his place from school and the moment we sighted that little red car, boy, did we have fun.

Sex was fun, playful and affectionate. We got along well outside of bed. We shared an interest in art. My friends took a strong liking to him, although his friends, who never got girlfriends, seemed to resent me a little bit. In the end, those boys were polite enough and it never erupted into a real problem.

Frankly, we had a ton of sex. We went from buying those little three packs of condoms to getting those big boxes. We took turns buying them.

There was a really good side to starting young that I think few people ever acknowledge, we had few expectations about what sex was supposed to be like. Sure, we each had seen a bit of raunchy material, but at fifteen you just haven’t racked up a whole lot of hours looking at porn, or romance novels and r-rated movies for that matter. We explored one another’s bodies with an openness I don’t think would have been possible at a much later age. Finding out what we liked and didn’t like was a matter of trial and error, and we tried a lot of things.

We did things that, years later, I would find out were supposed to feel degrading to me, but neither of us knew because no one told us. To this day, I don’t feel that there’s anything degrading about them and it blows my mind when men think it is. At some point or another, it seems to me that we tried almost every kink imaginable without even knowing what we were doing was supposed to be kinky. It was fun, joyous, sometimes romantic, sometimes silly, affectionate, tender, wild and even occasionally clumsy. It was different things at different times.

Furthermore, I hadn’t yet entirely internalized being ashamed of my body. I thought nothing of stripping off my clothes and lying in broad daylight fully exposed on his bed. Eventually, men would tell me that my thighs were too full, by ass was too round, my tits too small, my skin to pale, my calves too muscular, my pubic hair too bushy, my body hair too dark… have I missed any body parts… my feet too flat. Although my high school sweetheart had certainly seen softcore porn like Playboy, he hadn’t yet become comfortable critiquing women’s bodies in the manner that makes me want to hide under the covers with the lights off.

Most importantly, I learned, and I believed he learned as well, what I liked and what I didn’t like, where my boundaries were, how to be giving and how to take, how to please and how to make sure I was pleased in turn. Somehow, all that playing and exploring left me feeling confident about communicating what I wanted as well as how to listen to what my partner wanted. Most of all, I developed a notion that sex is meant for mutual pleasure.

I’ve retained the postive attitude I developed about sex at that time. I wish I could be as confident and self-assured about my body as I was then. In any case, I know my life would have been much poorer without the sexual exploration my high school sweetheart and I had done. It’s enough of a shame that some people are simply not fortunate enough to meet the right person at that age. It’s even more of a shame that other people do meet the right person but don’t feel comfortable exploring one another’s bodies because they’ve been told it would be bad for them.

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I’m a naturally critical person. Present me with any argument, any man-made object, any work of art and one of my first instincts is to poke at it trying to find the weaknesses. Generally, being critical of a point someone makes, or part of their argument, does not imply that I disagree with everything, or even most. However, publicly, meaning on this blog since that’s my only real public forum, there are people of whom I tend to not be critical because I want to avoid potentially undermining people with whom I more or less agree. The most prominent of these groups, or at least the ones that make me bite my tongue most often, are atheists and feminists. So, with that elaborate introduction, please consider that what follows is in no way intended to be interpreted as invalidating what Jinan Younis has to say.

It’s not a coincidence that “sex” is the first word in my tag line. The sexual revolution may have happened decades ago, but there are times when it feels that sexual liberation for women is still in its infancy. One of the reasons I started this blog was to talk about sex. I have had acquaintances refer to me as a “sex-positive feminist” and in the near future I will talk about why I don’t embrace that term, but for the moment I would just like to point out that I frequently express view that causes people to put me in that category. I’ve started writing down my memories partly because I feel that I can’t speak for anyone else and, also, because concepts of sex and sexuality are so laden with stereotypes the only way to combat those stereotypes is to be highly specific, sometimes graphically so.

In “What happened when I started a feminist society at school,” Younis, recounting her reasons, says:

…I started to notice how much the girls at my school suffer because of the pressures associated with our gender. Many of the girls have eating disorders, some have had peers heavily pressure them into sexual acts, others suffer in emotionally abusive relationships where they are constantly told they are worthless.

However, she does not name denying oneself sexual pleasure as something which causes girls to suffer. Feminism’s message, that I could enjoy sex, that I didn’t have to say, “No,” when I wanted to say, “Yes,” was an integral part of its appeal for me. Admittedly, the list of how a male dominated society can harm women could be a long list and some things in a one sentence explanation will be omitted. Still, in a series of photographs of women holding a whiteboard reading, “I need feminism because…,” several of the pictures reinforce gender stereotypes regarding sexuality and, disappointingly, not one counters them.

“Groping is not okay.”

“A woman should have the power and confidence to say, ‘No.'”

“I refuse to live in a world where my ‘holes’ are considered as ‘goals.'”

Ironically, this week’s installment of my memories is tentatively entitled “Groping in the Dark.” Of course, the groping in my story was entirely consensual, and done with a boy my own age, I might add, while the groping mentioned on the sign is, I presume, non-consensual. Once, around the age of twenty-six, while crossing the street wearing an outfit k.d. lang could comfortably borrow, three men passed me in the cross walk. One grabbed me from behind, slipping his arms under my armpits, effectively rendering my arms useless and involuntarily arching my back. Another grabbed my breasts with both hands and squeezed rapidly several times. Then they let me go, they giggled stupidly and ran off. That episode stands out as one of the weirdest because it happened in broad daylight, crossing a busy intersection, with a sizable crowd watching, most of whom seemed as surprised as I was. There have been enough other episodes of this nature in my life, that I understand them to not be a isolated incidents, but a pattern of behavior which, over time, has the result of making women feel insecure. Depending on the locale where you live, this is not “groping.” It is sexual assault, albeit of a comparatively mild kind. I suppose “Non-consensual sexual contact, no matter how brief, should be recognized as being illegal and, despite the probable difficulty in prosecuting any given incident, immoral and anti-social” wouldn’t fit on the whiteboard.

Now you may, very reasonably argue that sexual assault is a more important, and more urgent, issue than feeling good about one’s sexual desire. However, I need to disagree because I see cultural attitudes as a network of connected memes, bits of received wisdom and assumptions. The dominant narrative, if I may use a phrase that makes me cringe, is: “Men want sex while women want relationships. Men have a high sex drive and value women primarily for their looks; women have a low sex drive and value men for their ability as providers. It’s acceptable for men to do whatever it takes to have sex and avoid relationships. Women will do whatever it takes to have a relationship and avoid sex.” Feminists would like men to understand that “No means no.” However, that can only be the case if one presumes that women will say, “yes,” when they mean yes.

Similarly, the woman who talks about “holes” and “goals” probably doesn’t expect, or even want to, live in a world where no men want put their penises in women’s mouths, vaginas or anuses. We understand the message on her whiteboard, or think we do, only because we bring to it a necessary set of assumptions about sexual behavior, assumptions that men seek sex while women deny it, therefore, when heterosexual intercourse occurs, the man has won, and in many circumstances the woman is viewed as having lost, especially if a relationship does not result.

The whiteboard that makes me the most sad, however, is the one that says, “I need feminism because my boyfriend thinks women are inferior.” If you are in an abusive relationship, I am probably not the friend you want, but I am the friend you need. This young woman needs a friend to tell her exactly how awful this is in no uncertain terms, probably impolite ones.

Thinking about some of the emotions and psychology that might lie behind that terribly sad sign brings me to some of the difficulties the young women are having on social media. As I found myself saying to Holly a few days ago, women are taught that their bodies have value and their affections do not. Boys are taught the opposite. As long as everyone agrees on these complementary facts, men and boys will continue to believe, as a general rule, that they have the upper hand in social media. They believe that their approbation, or lack thereof, is important. Like the existence of Tinkerbell, it’s only true as long as everyone believes in it. Speaking to the young women in question: If you think your affections, your esteem, your friendship and your company are of value, then you need to withdraw them from people who are undeserving of it. I could say the same thing to young boys as well. If you have value, then your friendship has value and you should not be friends, even Facebook friends, with people who undermine your well-being. We all know, because we’re taught by overly paranoid adults, about self-destructive behaviors regarding drinking, promiscuous sex and drugs. Befriending people who treat you poorly is also self-destructive, probably a more common form of self-destructive behavior than any of the more obvious “vices.” Nota bene: If you have confidence in yourself, other people will seek your approval. It took me a bit of being beaten up and ostracized in school to learn that one. If I can pass that on to anyone without them having to suffer the blows, I’d like to.

As someone who has called herself a feminist since the age of thirteen or fourteen, I’m gladdened to see that Younis has started a feminist group at school. I know that there’s nothing as tiring as an older person saying, “Been there; done that.” However, if I can give you a bit of hard-won advice, hold your head up! Yes, sometimes it can be hard to weather the storm, but it will pass. If you give in, the bullies will taste blood and the response will be worse the next time.

Younis wrote the article not because of the harassment online, but because of the fact that the response of her school was to suggest that the students should take down the offending photos. The rationale? For their own protection. I won’t sugar coat the situation. Standing out will draw hostile responses. However, so will standing out in any way, by being too pretty, or too ugly. Too smart or too talented. Too successful. Too feminine. Too masculine. I hardly think your school would like all of you to try for perfectly robotic averageness. Well, I originally came across the article via Shattersnipe, who handles that part better than I can.

Boy, do we live in a schizophrenic society or what? I’ve been trying to get a post out for most of today. After reading one by Holly over at Love and Heretics, I wanted to write something to the effect of “Speak for yourself. I love sex. It doesn’t have to be a big emotional thing at all.” That seemed a little too short, so I followed all the links in her post trying to find something more profound to say, or, failing that, at least interesting, or longer.

The first link led me to Holly’s initial post in which she discusses what she feels are the negative consequences of being a virgin on your wedding night. She discusses it pretty frankly and I have to give her a lot of credit for that. It of course put me in mind of my wedding night, which was some of the best sex I ever had. Despite the fact that I was far from a virgin, our wedding night was still pretty special. My now ex did one of my absolutely most favorite things which, as able as he was, he only managed to succeed in doing on a handful of occasions. It’s a real shame that he turned out to be an emotionally stunted mess, because he was great in bed. I can’t help thinking that that might be one of the drawbacks of “kicking the tires” first. Sometimes the tires are so damned good, you don’t notice that the rest of the car is non-functional. Of course, the real reason I made such an oversight is because we were having a long distance relationship. I used to joke that we got married on our fourth date. It was the fourth time we met in person, although we’d been writing letters for over a year and a couple of those visits lasted a week. The relationship reached a point where it was jump in with both feet or end it, and we jumped.

Afterwards, he held me in his arms and was crying and said, “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.” That statement validated my own feelings. Sometimes after sex, when I’ve had a particularly intense experience of what I can only describe as being of a transcendental nature, I find myself wondering whether or not the other person experienced the same thing. Usually, they do. Still, sometimes you find yourself brought back down to earth wondering how much of what just happened was real. As a wiser man than I once said, the sexiest part of the body is the brain. Yes, there is physical stimulation, but a large part of what makes the experience so intense sometimes is in our heads. It can also ruin the experience.

It’s ironic that our wedding night was so intense because the first discussion I ever had with my soon-to-be husband when he was still a stranger on a park bench was about how neither of us believed in marriage. But governments do, so we got married.

After reading Holly’s initial post I followed her link to an article on the Huffington Post, which reminded me immediately of why I never read the Huffington Post. It’s so trashy that I feel like I need to take a shower afterwards. Beneath the article there was a painfully stupid “quiz” about which celebrities postponed sexual intercourse with their significant other until they got married. I was actually relieved that I’d never heard of half the people in the quiz. I don’t like to be totally clueless about popular culture, but I don’t want my head to be totally in the gutter either. The article itself was barely an article. It was a short video clip of interview with a woman who wrote about how taking a purity pledge as a teenager wrecked her marriage. There was a link to an article she wrote that appeared in Salon, which the Huffington Post with its usual low quality incorrectly identified as Slate.

This is where the world gets schizophrenic. Salon may not be as trashy as the Huffington Post, but it’s not exactly the New York Review of Books either. I could barely read the article that had brought me there with the title of another article staring out at me from the side bar. The Worst Porn Ever! Really! Ooooh. Don’t rush over there. It’s sounds pretty banal. Backdoor Teen Mom. Apparently there’s a television show that makes z-list celebrities out of women who have children at a young age and – don’t be too shocked now – one of them has cashed in on her celebrity by making a porn video. Guess what, the acting is bad. You’re shocked aren’t you. And here you thought that Backdoor Teen Mom would be the film that cements pornography as a legitimate art form.

Meanwhile, in our schizophrenic culture, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez was recounting her experience at a bible camp where she pledged herself to Jesus and received a purity ring.

And it wasn’t just the ring. This was a movement with T-shirts and hats and the added bonus of superiority over kids in school who couldn’t keep their clothes on, those sinners.

Missing out on sexual pleasure during her teen years made her feel “superior.” What can I say? It’s a big world and it takes all kinds.

She then goes on to say:

After an intense and very detailed sex talk with my mother , where she stuttered and I blushed and we both used the word “flower,” I was terrified of sex.

This reminded me of an incident that occurred the last time I went to the hairdresser’s. My sister came with me. The hairdresser is about my age and still absolutely beautiful. She is tall and thin, has a huge head of wild hair, rides a motorcycle and just has a look that you expect her to be pulling out a guitar rather than a pair of scissors. Unsurprisingly, she had a story about how the previous night she had gone with a friend to hear a band and ended the evening making love to the guitar player half her age. I said to her, “You say that as if there’s something wrong with that.”

“You don’t think so?” she asked with a leading high note on the last word.

“Well, was it good? Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh, it was great. He’s so good-looking, and he’s great in bed. And he’s funny. We just had such a good time. I haven’t had a night like that since I broke up with my girlfriend last year. It was just what I needed.”

“So, then what’s the problem,” I asked, sensing a negative note in her tone.

“Well, I’m not looking for a relationship with him.”

“So….”

“Well, it’s my precious flower.”

In perfect unison, the muscles controlling both my and my sister’s jaws relaxed and our mouths slowly opened hitting the bottommost position at exactly the same time. Together, our heads swiveled on our necks, hers to her left and mine to my right, and we said, “Your… flower?”

The hairdresser took a step backwards, visibly defensive. Later my sister told me that she felt bad about her reaction but she had just been so surprised to hear a grown woman talk that way. “Yes,” she stammered, “my mother told me not to give my precious flower to just anyone.”

“Look,” I spat out, “you’re divorced, with two kids. You just ended a relationship with another woman. Please tell me you’re not still thinking of the advice you mother gave you when you were thirteen and everyone’s biggest worry was that girls would have babies before graduating from high school. We’re both of us baring down hard on fifty. If you don’t want Mr. Twenty-Something Rock-n-Roll, send him my way. He sounds like what I need, too.”

I sat down in the chair. As she cut my hair, I tried to reassure her that there was nothing inherently wrong about casual sex. It seemed that her only qualms about the night before had to do with what she was told by her mother over thirty years ago.

Unfortunately, Ciencin Henriquez’s story lacks any truly satisfactory introspection. We learned that she married young, had boring sex for a few years, then got divorced. As a coda, she tells us that she has since had good sex, some casual and some with a new husband. I do believe, do to my own experience and discussions with both male and female friends, that our beliefs about sex shape our experience of it.

What prompted this post to begin with is that in Holly’s otherwise fine post she says:

I think the distinction was made that waiting for sex until you are older and more mature, and the realization that having sex does indeed do things like give an emotional bond between people, and is more than just “causally having a cup of coffee” as sometimes it is tried to be made out to be is an important observation.

Truthfully, I often feel like the sour note in the chorus when I talk about sex because I do think it can be great if it’s casual. Looking back from the perspective of a woman in middle age, I’m glad I first had sex when I was fourteen. I know other people think it’s irresponsible to say that out loud, but that is the truth. I agree with Anthony Bourdain that, “Your body isn’t a temple; it’s an amusement park.” True, sex can be an opportunity for an emotionally bonding moment, but so can sitting up and talking until dawn. Finding a man I can enjoy fucking is easy. Finding a man I like talking to is hard. Everything in society tells me that I’m supposed to be stingy with my body and generous with my heart. Sex, they seem to say, is never an end in itself.

So, everyone seems to worry whether or not being a virgin on your wedding night is good for, or bad for, your marriage. The presumption, of course, is that marriage is the goal – for everyone. To me, sexual pleasure is a good in and of itself. No one asks if this crazy pressure towards marriage has a negative effect on your sex life. It’s marriage that is everything. Your pleasure is nothing.

Towards the end of Ciencin Henriquez mentions that her wedding dress cost more than the family car. This put me in mind of another episode in my life. My sister was getting married. They did have a real wedding. They were even married by a minister since my brother-in-law’s brother was a minister and he agreed to perform a non-religious ceremony. My sister and I had both sometime earlier agreed that spending a huge amount of money on an official “wedding dress” made no sense. If you just go to your favorite store and buy the prettiest white dress you can find without checking the price tag, you will probably wind up buying something that costs a fraction of a dress marketed as a wedding dress. So, one day I went to the store and I saw a pretty dress. I phoned my sister and told her about it. She said buy a size 8. I put it in large envelope and mailed it to her. She looked as lovely as any bridezilla and was a lot more fun to be around. Despite her lack of concern about her dress and the details of the wedding, she’s still happily married.

After all, your wedding day is still just one day. Your wedding night is still just one night. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Sex isn’t even for everyone. I don’t think there’s any one right way to live. I know I’ve done things that I’m supposed to feel ashamed of, but I don’t. One day, I’m going to write all of them down. There’s something out there that lies between thinking sex is not an experience to be valued in its own right, but only a means to an end, and Backdoor Teen Mom.

Oh, yeah, and the hairdresser, as she finished cutting my hair the phone rang. It was that guitar player. Guess he’d had a good time too.

Forsythia bushes in bloom lining a path along a quite side street.The sex addiction post got me thinking about some additional things. My blasé attitude towards monogamy helped me rack up a lot of points on the men’s version of the quiz. Apparently, the deep thinkers on the subject of sex addiction are so blinded by biased, stereotyped notions of sexuality, they don’t even think to ask women as many questions about that.

I’ve been writing down my memories primarily as a way for me to explore why I believe the things I do, not because I’ve had such an unusual or fascinating life. For instance, yesterday’s post about a group project in school, was probably yawn inducing. However, my thoughts on multiculturalism have been shaped by events like that. I’m still just laying out the themes that will recur.

So far, I’ve only touched lightly on sexuality, but it will be having a big role in the near future. My experience of my own sexuality is a large part of why I see the world the way I do. I feel like I’ve spent my whole life rebelling against a society that has tried to tell me up was down, that has tried to tell me that sex was bad, or at best a means to an end, rather than a good that was good in itself. Eventually, you will get a blow by blow of each lover, or at least those who left a lasting impression. I will explain how, through trial and error, I came to not value monogamy.

One of the reasons that I’m writing all these views as a sort of memoir is because I don’t want to speak for anyone else. I can’t. I don’t want to convince anyone to abandon monogamy if it’s working well for him or her. It didn’t work well for me.

For many years, I was a terrible cheat. If I didn’t cheat on a boyfriend, it was probably because we didn’t date long enough. Finally, I came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t the infidelity, the problem was the promise of monogamy in the first place, often simply assumed by a boy or man after the first sexual encounter. It was rare that a partner would actually ask if I would be monogamous with him. The next morning it was just assumed. For a long time, I went along with it because that is what the culture tells us to want. It’s what seemed natural and normal. Then a good-looking boy would pass by. I’d sleep with him. Fights, arguing, tears. So much drama. Then one day I thought to myself, why are all these boys assuming that we’re going to be monogamous. I’m sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and so are they. Do we really believe that neither of us will ever sleep with another person over the next seventy or so years? I realized that I never had an intention of being monogamous. Finally, I resolved to stop making promises I had no intention of keeping. Only making promises I believed in and actually wanted to keep was the key to being true to my word.

Throughout my twenties, I kept that resolve. I had several long-term non-monogamous relationships. These weren’t polyamorous relationships, a form of relationship of which I was yet unaware. They were far healthier than the previous relationships I’d had. A couple of them continued literally for years. The men became important people in my life. These weren’t “fuck buddies” or “pillow pals.” There was still a sense of romance, of getting together with a boyfriend.

Eventually, I met someone and I did feel moved to promise monogamy. We had a nice chat about what we were feeling and it turned out that he felt the same way. Eventually, we married. I remained faithful to him throughout our marriage. As far as I know, he did as well. It ended in divorce for reasons having nothing to do with fidelity.

During my twenties, when I had about four or five regular lovers, my female friends were highly critical of me. “You date like a man,” they said. It took some courage and resolve, as well as knowing what was right for me, to carve out a love life that was satisfying for me. I know very well what it is to have social norms forced on you. I also had to develop my own code of ethics. Since ethical behavior is important to me, I spent quite a long time thinking about what was the best way to behave in regards to sex and what was the best way to treat my lovers. So, yes, I think I have something to say on the subject of sex.

I mentioned a paper yesterday, but it seems that I forgot the link. My apologies. In it, Levine and Troiden describe three cultural “scripts” that govern erotic behavior in our society. They lay out three different scripts. The first, they call the procreational. In this view, the only form of healthy sex takes place within marriage. The second, they call relational. A relational view of sexuality sees a relationship and intimacy, almost always monogamous, as being the purpose of sexual contact. The third script is recreational. The recreational script views sex as enjoyable in and of itself and worth having for that reason alone. The only bounds put on sexual activity in a recreational script is that it be consensual.

The recreational script was only ever dominant in this society during the seventies, but that is when I entered adolescence and that is the sexual ethic I learned. A recreational script doesn’t inevitably lead to promiscuity. My sister also has that view of sex, yet she’s been happily married for about twenty years.

In my post on sex addiction, a commenter gave a link that she claimed would show that sex addiction is not a culturally bound idea. The link, as it happens, shows quite the opposite.

After noting contemporary society’s consumer culture in which the individual has come to expect instant gratification, the author, Vincent Estellon writes,

In just a few decades, access to pornography has not only been developed but also become banal. We are far from the censure of the early 20th century when kissing scenes were simply cut from cinematographic reels. Consumer studies show that on Google, the world’s number one search motor, the terms ‘sex,’ ‘love’, ‘porn’ arrive at the fore of all requests by both type and nature. Sexuality has become recreational, and even imperative. In effect, it was as if the slogan of the new societal Super-ego had become: ‘Unfettered and unlimited pleasure is a must!’ (emphasis mine)

It is clear that the writer is disdainful of this attitude towards sex, an attitude that he clearly identifies as coming from the recreational script described by Levine and Troiden. Further on Estellon says,

Progressively, sexual excitement is increasingly distanced from the loving feelings associated with a relationship.

Here, we see him clearly articulating the relational script. It is entirely possible, that the relational script is the dominant script today. One experience that helped me arrive at a skeptical attitude towards monogamy was my observation of the behavior of other young women. Female friends would meet a man and declare that they were “in love.” They would have sex. After a few months the relationship would sour. Soon they would be “in love” with a new man. These females friends didn’t call me a slut and a whore because I slept with more men than they did, but because I refused to engage in the charade of pretending to fall in love in order to justify going to bed with someone. It’s clear that among women saying “I like sex even if it’s not in a relationship” is taboo. I’m very interested in the origin of this relational script.

Tracy Clark-Flory acknowledges the debatable nature of sex addiction in her article “Is Sex Addiction Real.”

What’s the difference between the symptom of a compulsive disease and a disease itself? Repeatedly lathering up in the sink is a sign of OCD. We don’t call those people hand-washing addicts, now, do we?

She also points out,

An online test designed by Carnes casts a wide, sweeping net in its search for signs of the condition. Anyone who enjoys regular masturbation, has a porn collection, or indulges in an active fantasy life will likely be labeled a potential addict … potentially in need of Patrick Carnes’ services.

Richard Siegel, a licensed sex therapist, says he frequently comes across “normal, healthy college-aged guys” who have been unfortunately convinced by “flimsy pop psychology” tests that they are sex addicts for simply masturbating every day.

Well, at least it’s good to know that I’m not alone.

Clark-Flory notes that the people who support the idea of sexual addiction insist that they are not anti-sex. However, in discussing this, Clark-Flory appears to have in mind a binary model of being pro-sex or anti-sex. The sexual addiction advocates’ approval of sex within a committed relationship leads her to see them as not being truly anti-sex. However, that dichotomous view doesn’t take into account the three different scripts. When that is taken into account, the differing opinions of Dan Savage and Vincent Estellon become clear.

Clark-Flory tries to maintain a journalist’s objectivity. Barry Reay, Nina Attwood and Claire Gooder feel no such obligation in their article “Inventing Sex: The Short History of Sex Addiction,” which appeared recently in the journal Sexuality and Culture.

Sex addiction began as a 1980s product of late twentieth-century cultural anxieties and has remained responsive to those tensions, including its most recent iteration, ‘‘hypersexual disorder.’’ Its success as a concept lay with its medicalization, both as a self-help movement in terms of self-diagnosis, and as a rapidly growing industry of therapists on hand to deal with the new disease. The media has always played a role in its history, first with TV, the tabloids, and the case histories of claimed celebrity victims all helping to popularize the concept, and then with the impact of the internet. Though it is essentially mythical, creating a problem that need not exist, sex addiction has to be taken seriously as a phenomenon.

“Hypersexual disorder.” Wow. It’s almost enough to make me glad to be old.

However, I’m old enough to have seen the demonization of sexuality grow over my lifetime. It’s time to reverse this trend.

Today, I saw on Think Progress the article, “Family Research Council: Unmarried People Should Be Denied Birth Control and Punished for Having Sex.”

Well I could really go on. Since sexuality is one of my major interests, I probably will, but that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, here’s another read on the subject: “Reinventing Perversion: Sex Addiction and Cultural Anxieties.”

When I was young, I was a Cosmo Girl. I read Cosmopolitan magazine religiously. That means I can’t resist taking quizzes which promise, in ten short minutes, to reveal some hidden subconscious secret about yourself that you didn’t know. I took the quizzes whether they were relevant or not. So before I’d even been kissed, I learned that my marriage could, indeed, be saved. At thirteen, I was told to dump the loser and move on. So I hope you won’t use it as evidence against me that I took a sex addiction for women quiz the other day. Then I took the sex quiz addiction for men. Maybe I need a quiz addiction quiz.

Crocus buds that have not yet fully opened.I came across the quizzes after following a link from Jack Games over at Step 14. This led me to a criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous on A Healthy Place: Your Mental Health Channel. On the right hand side was a link to a psychological test page. Like the Cosmo Girl I once was, I thought, “Ooh, quizzes.” You will all be glad to know that I don’t have ADHD or OCD. Apparently, I suffer from anxiety and depression, but I already knew that. All the quizzes were for both genders except for the sex addiction quiz. I took them, both the “for men” and “for women” quizzes. I learned that I would have a much bigger problem with sexual addiction if I were a man. I confess, that wasn’t the result I was expecting. Of course, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as sexual addiction, so I shrugged my shoulders and did not make an appointment with a therapist.

Then I came across a post entitled “The Purity Myth” over at Critic of Christianity and I thought maybe our different expectations of men and women’s sexual behavior might be worth discussing.

All of the quizzes were followed by the disclaimer that you can’t diagnose mental illness with an online quiz. However, the sex addiction quizzes had an additional disclaimer.

There is a wide range of prevailing opinions as to what is acceptable sexual behavior.

The Sexual addiction entry in Wikipedia states:

Addiction is the state of behavior outside the boundaries of social norms which reduces an individual’s ability to function efficiently in general routine aspects of life or develop healthy relationships. (emphasis mine)

I’m not sure how social norms interact with, let’s say, heroin addiction, but in the case of sexual addiction, social norms strike me as everything. Despite never for a moment worrying about my sexual behavior or feeling self-destructive or out of control, I came out on both these tests as a sex addict.

Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one with skepticism about sex addiction. Back in 1988, when the idea of sex addiction was still relatively new, Martin P. Levine and Richard R. Troiden published a paper questioning whether such an illness existed. They note that as sexual mores have changed, the definition of sexual pathology has also changed.

…mental health professionals viewed nonmarital and nonprocreative sex as pathological. The first edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for example, defined masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, and sexual promiscuity (e.g., “Don Juanism” and “nymphomania”) as forms of mental illness.

As the counter culture of the sixties and seventies changed the prevailing norms of sexual behavior, the mental health profession followed suit.

Against the backdrop of a (briefly) sex-positive culture, mental health professionals and sexologists re-evaluated professional definitions of erotic control and deviance. ….they depathologized nonmarital and nonprocreative sex. The DSM: III (1980) no longer listed masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, Don Juanism, and nymphomania as psychosexual disorders.

Sexually permissive values, however, also provided grounds for adding new psychosexual disorders to the DSM. “Not enough” sex and “inappropriate” sexual response became pathologized. A number of problems of living were transformed into sexual dysfunctions, and were regarded as clinical conditions amenable to therapeutic intervention.

The cusp of the nineteen eighties saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic, a growing dissatisfaction with the self-absorption of the “me decade”, and the rise politicized religious movements broadly known as the “religious right.”

Thus by the 1980s, “too much sex”rather than “not enough sex” began to emerge again as an issue of concern both to the lay public and to mental health professionals. In the permissive climate of the 1970s, it had been unthinkable to argue that there were people who were”addicted to sex” or “out of control sexually.” …. In the increasingly sex-negative 1980s, however, the time had come for the ideas of sexual addiction and compulsion.

In the context of national concern about drug use and addiction, sexually transmitted disease, teenaged pregnancy, and an ethic of commitment, “sex addicts” and “sexual compulsives” were mentioned increasingly in professional publications and in mass media. Nonrelational sexual conduct that had been legitimized in the 1970s was reclassified in the 1980s as a symptom of mental disorder.

The upshot is that “sexual addiction” is a term used to enforce conformity in sexual behavior. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that society accepts a greater degree of sexual behavior from men than from women. Consequently, I expected that the separate male and female tests would reflect this and that a women’s behavior would be seen as pathological with at a lower level of activity. Boy, was I wrong. That might have been the case if the questions were the same, but they weren’t.

The most prominent difference between the two tests is the phrase “not related to sexual orientation” which appears repeatedly in the test for men but not once in the test for women. For instance, women are asked:

16 ) Do you hide some of your sexual behavior from others?

While men are asked:

9 ) Do you keep the extent or nature of your sexual activities hidden from your friends and/or partners? (not related to sexual orientation)

It’s hard to be certain what prompted this difference, but I’m inclined to think that, since dykes are viewed as sexless, gay women are not seen as having sexual behaviors that need to be hidden.

The women’s questions focused more on relationships while the men’s questions presumed casual sex. So one question on the women’s test that has no analogous question for the men is:

3 ) Have you stayed in romantic relationships after they become emotionally or physically abusive?

Meanwhile, an example of a question that is asked men and not women is:

12 ) Do you believe that anonymous or casual sex has kept you from having more long term intimate relationships or from reaching other personal goals?

Considering how differently I scored on the two tests, it’s not surprising that more men than women are diagnosed as sex addicts.

I don’t want to mock people who feel that they have harmful compulsions that they need to overcome to have the sort of lives they’d like to have. I just don’t want other people imposing their values, values that everyone does not share, on others. I feel that I was fairly fortunate in that I was raised by a mother who felt like she had been harmed by the Catholic Church’s attitudes to sexuality and intentionally tried to avoid passing negative attitudes about sex on to her daughters. I also came of age during the late seventies, that little window of time when our culture was sex positive. Sometimes, when it comes to sex, I feel like I’m living in a foreign culture these days.

The concept of sex addiction is based on values that everyone does not share. The following are some of the values that are implied by many definitions of sex addiction:

    • sex and sexual desire are dangerous
    • there is only one “best” way to express sexuality
    • sex that enhances “intimacy” is the best sex
    • imagination has no healthy role in sexuality
    • people need to be told what kinds of sex are wrong/bad
    • if you feel out of control, you are out of control
    • laws and social norms define sexual health

— From Marty Klein, a sexologist and therapist.

Intellectually, I have a lot of problems with the way society views sexuality these days. I don’t feel out of control, degraded or depressed about my sexual activity.

Unsurprisingly, sexual addiction was first conceived by a group of AA members.

Two titmice perched in an azalea bush.

The birds…

Two bloggers over at Patheos Blogs, Libby Ann and Daniel Finke, have started a project that they call “Forward Thinking.”  In Libby Ann’s words:

It is our hope that this series will serve as an invitation to readers and fellow bloggers big and small to participate in forming values and grappling with thorny questions. 

Like many other bloggers, I spend most of my time criticizing the ideas of others – toxic religious beliefs, patriarchal gender roles, the elevation of virginity, and the agenda of the religious right – and comparatively less time building positive alternatives. While it’s critical to contest values and ideas we find harmful, it’s also important to build up positive alternatives, and it’s that understanding that birthed Forward Thinking.

They describe it as a “values development project.” I already went on at enough length about Alain de Botton for any regular readers to know that I’m not jumping for joy at a “values development project.” I’ve had, as it has turned out, quite a few reversals of fortune in my life, enough to have questioned all the received wisdom I’ve ever heard and to make me scoff at people like Alain de Botton. Yes, I’m one of those miserable people who did all the “right” things and everything still wound up wrong. Are the well-intentioned bloggers participating in their project any wiser than the people they hope to advise? And once the values are developed, what are they going to do with them?

The exterior of a topbar beehive.

the bees…

Besides having my doubts about the project in general, I also didn’t participate because I didn’t feel like I had anything relevant to say about the first subject: civic responsibility. Sure, I could have blathered on for at least five hundred words on the topic, but who am I to tell anyone about civic responsibility. I have no special insight on the subject – at all. I’d just be another person thrusting my ill-considered beliefs on other people.

This month’s subject, however, is one that I feel strongly about, “what would you tell teenagers about sex.” Sex is right up there in my tag line. It’s a subject I’ve spent a huge amount of time thinking about. I really got very little guidance one way or another about sex and a tremendous amount of things people told me were self-evidently incorrect. My mother felt that everything she had been told about sex was infected with the shaming beliefs of the Catholic Church and tried hard to not pass them on to her daughters. The moment I lost my virginity, I discovered that sex is my single greatest pleasure. Period. Nothing even comes close. When I was younger, I spent a very large amount of time trying to develop my own ideas about how to think and act on the subject of sex. One of the primary reasons I started this blog was to talk about sex because I am in such strong disagreement with much of what I read on it. When I was in my early twenties, I wished there was a career option such as sex guru, that’s how strongly I felt about the subject. Now that I’m going on fifty, I have some perspective, I believe, to see what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

A three legged squirrel in a tree eating a peanut.

and a squirrel called Tripod.

Although they’re often written with a tone of voice that implies an objective perspective, in reality there’s always a personal bias in these sorts of advisories. So I want to acknowledge up front that my own personal experiences have informed my ideas, as well as things I read or was told by people in authority when I was young, though more often than not those authorities were wrong, whether they were teachers, preachers, moralizing parents of friends (I got a lot of this!), or feminists. Being female, at first I thought my statements applied to girls, but after thinking about it a bit, I realized that they apply to boys equally as well. In either case, take it where it comes from.

First, know that you have a right to your own body and your own thoughts. Sexual feelings are normal, healthy and natural. Pleasure is a good thing. We should enjoy pleasure without guilt. Many people will try to tell you otherwise. Some will tell you that any sexual thoughts are bad. Others will try to tell you that some thoughts are bad and some are good. Know that we cannot influence reality merely with our thoughts alone. We do not enter the realm of ethics until we start to act on our thoughts and involve other people in our actions.

It is important to get in touch with your feelings and your thoughts, to not be alienated from them. We are especially inclined to be alienated from our sexual thoughts because we are told from so many sources that certain impulses are good or bad. However, it is really important to be in touch with your thoughts. Consciously acknowledge your thoughts. Work on accepting them without feelings of guilt. Know that you are in control of your own actions, and thought and action are not identical. You can act, or not act, on your thoughts. That is a separate question. Do not feel uncomfortable for simply having sexual thoughts.

Accept that we are animals. We have desires and needs like food and shelter. These desires and needs are, in and of themselves, morally neutral. Before we can make good decisions about how to behave sexually, we need to acknowledge those desires, frankly.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you should feel.

If you are a young person, congratulations, you have years of fun times ahead of you. There are ecstasies in store for you of which you have not yet dreamed. All portrayals of the pleasures of sex, whether written, drawn or filmed, pale in comparison to what you can experience in real life.

For most of us, our desires involve other people.

First, you need to find an appropriate partner or partners. Unfortunately, all sorts of received wisdom, from religious prudes to people who think they’re being politically correct to people who think they’re saving you from disease by grossing you out and scaring you, will bombard you. It can be hard to find a partner who has not had his or her mind polluted with this nonsense. Try to engage with partners who are comfortable with their own sexuality. If you find yourself drawn to someone who isn’t, encourage him or her to become more comfortable. If that person tries to burden you with their own brainwashing about sex, you need to move on. Anyone that makes you feel uncomfortable with the fact that you are a sexual being with sexual desires is a bad partner. They will make you miserable in the long run.

Find someone with whom you can engage in sexual exploration. You must find someone with whom you feel comfortable being naked, someone who you feel is not sitting in judgement on you. You should try to empty your minds of preconceived notions of what sex is supposed to be. Try to explore one another’s bodies so you can find what is physically pleasurable to you and what is physically pleasurable to your partner. It may or may not  be what you expect.

Sex with another person needs to be about mutual pleasure. I like to think it’s called intercourse for a reason. Try to be generous with your partner and insist, really insist, on a having a partner who is generous to you. If your partner doesn’t have a genuine interest in giving you sexual pleasure, find a new partner. If you are a generous lover who treats his or her partners well, there will be a lot of potential partners out there for you.

Now that I am older, I can look back and say that my main regrets regarding sex when I was a teenager are all the times I didn’t indulge when I coud have. If I could go back, I would have lots more sex. Lots. Actually, that goes for just about any period of my life except when I was married, because we had tons of sex when we were married.

So take advantage of your youth. It’s going to be fun. Savor the moment. Most of the reasons to say “no” to sex when you’d like to say “yes” are fatuous. At fifty, you won’t give a damn about your high school reputation, but you can feel good about not have wasted your youth trying to live out someone else’s notion of what your life should be. You’ll never get these years back. Have all the fun you can manage.