(This post will contain straightforward descriptions of sexual stuff. If you think that's obscene, now is the time for you to stop reading... and reconsider your sense of morality.)
In this post, I'm going to talk about what sex is, as in
to have sex or
to be sexually active. Like a lot of other things I've talked about, our society thinks this is really important, but can't figure out what it means!
Society is full of myths and lies about sex – about what it means to have sex, about when you should have sex, about who should be having sex, about how many people you should have sex with, and so forth. In fact, there are so many myths and lies that I can't possibly address them all, or even a representative sample of them, in one post. There are the traditional, Puritanical lies (
You should never do anything sexual except with your spouse in a heterosexual marriage), and you'd hope that there'd be a counterculture that rejects them... and indeed there is, but it only rejects them to set up its own system of myths and lies, like
You should always have sex before your third date1. In short, no matter who you ask, someone is going to tell you how they think you should live your life.
There are so many problems with this that if I pointed out any three of them individually, I'd feel guilty for not pointing out all the rest.2 So I'm going to throw that all out and start over from the beginning.
What the fuck is sex, anyway?
Humans are strange creatures with strange feelings. I could mention a bunch of terms like
orgasm... But if I tried to describe sex in terms of those things, I'd be writing a circular definition. Imagine you don't know what any of those terms mean, but still have sexual feelings yourself: How could you identify them with the words? After all, a person can enjoy the appearance of another's body in a non-sexual way; ze can be physically excited in a non-sexual way, satisfied in a non-sexual way...
A lot of definitions try to start by saying that sexual feeling is something associated with your genitals, but that's not a good place to base the definition. There are plenty of ways to be sexual that don't involve genitals, and plenty of things to do with your genitals that aren't sexual (peeing comes to mind). And there are people who don't even have genitals who still have sexual feelings, so it's going to be really hard to find a way to clearly define sexuality. We can sort of get an approximate idea of what it is by talking about genitals and touching and arousal and stuff, but how do we define it?
There's only one solution:
I'm going to take a step sideways here.
Some people say that consent is an important concept when talking about sex and sexuality. The doctrine of
No means no is that if a person says
no to a sexual activity, then it's bad to push them into doing that activity. The much-stronger doctrine of
yes means yes, which I prefer, says that if a person doesn't actively agree to the activity, then consent hasn't been established, and it's not okay to go through with it.
Look at the above paragraph. There is no reason for the word
sexual to appear in it.
Suppose you and a friend are hanging out and you want to play a board game. You suggest playing the game; your friend shrugs. You go and get the board game and set it up, then hand your friend the dice so that ze can take zir first turn. Ze hesitates.
Come on, you say,
I already set it up and everything. Then ze rolls the dice and makes a move.
You've just pushed your friend into an activity ze did not want. Compliance is not consent, so you're now nonconensually playing a board game, and that's a bad thing that you shouldn't have done.
I admit it's less bad than pushing someone into sex, but that's mainly just because sex usually involves stronger feelings than playing a board game. My point is that the principle is the same: One of them is worse than the other, but they're both bad in the same way. Humans are supposed to cooperate with each other to do things that help everyone. And because humans are often very different from each other, it's impossible to cooperate without clear communication. In the example above, instead of deciding what you wanted and then trying to get your friend to want it too, you should have asked zem what ze was interested in and tried to find something you'd both like.
A personal story
I enjoy tying myself up for sexual pleasure. I can (when I want to) get very sexually aroused by the idea of being helpless, of being immobile, of having other people beat me at games or contests, of being held or touched or hurt against my will. I'm also extremely hostile to anyone who tries to do any of these things to me, or even play at doing them to me, without my consent.3
Most of that has been true since I was in elementary school (ages 5-9, for non-US people). I didn't have a
sexually aroused feeling until after puberty, but I enjoyed tying myself up, with as little clothes on as my family would allow, and I associated my thoughts about that with a feeling in my genitals (which, in my case, are a penis and testicles; I have a typical
male-sexed body). I liked reading books that talked about medieval torture methods, because I was fascinated with that feeling. I didn't talk about it much, because other people, both at school and at home, had discouraged me from touching my genitals, talking about my genitals, or, basically, doing anything that acknowledged the existence of my genitals. In this way, adults prevented my child self from enjoying zir sexuality. Adults should not do this; it's a bad, harmful thing to do, and I won't forgive any of them for it any time soon, although it's hardly the worst thing that anyone did to me in my childhood.
(There's also a complicating factor: Throughout my life, my non-sexual daydreams and fantasies have also often been about traumatic experiences that I haven't personally had. I remeber reading a book about some real-life heroes who suffered severe injuries, not because I liked heroism, but because I liked injury. I don't know why I'm so fascinated with pain and suffering, but it's something that is pretty much innate and constant for me.)
I remember that I was always unwilling to play a lot of physical games, like Tag and Capture the Flag, with other children, and when people did force me to play the games, I cheated at them. I'm beginning to suspect that that's because I associated losing at games, especially games involving touch, with sexuality. I am not okay with anyone doing anything sexual with me unless I have complete trust in them as a friend, and there are less than a dozen people in the world whom I trust that much (although it's been going up now that I've been at college). Of course, it was extremely not okay for anyone to be forcing me into playing those games in the first place; I think some adults did it because they falsely believed that it would help me socialize with other children. (I didn't want to socialize with groups of other children, so that wasn't even
good intentions with a bad result – it was hostile intentions in the first place, and if they didn't know, it was because they were too arrogant to ask me what I wanted.)
While I'm talking about myself, I might as well mention that I'm not sexually attracted to humans, regardless of their sex or gender, and I don't particularly like orgasms. I masturbate to orgasm sometimes, but that's really only in order to stop feeling aroused. There's a stereotype about men as being only interested in sticking their penises in things until they orgasm; I'm not sure if I count as a counterexample, since I have a male-sexed body but I'm not male-identifying, but anyway, I much prefer slow and deliberate touch, over all my body, rather than excessively genitals-focused, goal-focused stuff (and I think that stereotype connects to a lot of other male stereotypes. Ugh.).
All of those attributes of me are perfectly normal and nothing to see a psychologist about. And if, on the other hand, you don't have any of the attributes that I've just described, that's also perfectly normal and nothing to see a psychologist about.
Back to the big picture
By now, you probably get the main point I'm trying to make: Different people like different things, and that's exactly how it should be. Some of those things are sexual, but it doesn't really matter too much to figure out which ones are sexual and which aren't. Since people aren't all the same, they don't instantly know how other people feel, but it's possible to deal with that by communicating in a clear, honest, cooperative way. And you shouldn't listen to other people telling you what you should like; you should figure out what you like for yourself.
All of that should be obvious.
(Oh right, there's a cultural norm that says it's bad to just enjoy yourself for the sake of enjoying yourself – especially in a sexual way, but also in general, becuase it's more important to do what's culturally acceptable than to do what you like! And there's this whole notion that what two (or more, or just one) consenting people4 do in private is anybody else's business. And there's the belief that— ...but all those beliefs are stupid and ridiculous and I have no idea why anyone believes them5 and I should have stuck to my plan to not try to talk about them in this post! Clearly I should stop now before I accidentally dignify those notions with a response.)
If you liked this post, join me again in a few
days when I rant about pornography.
- Which assumes that you were dating in the first place, which I could write an entire rant about separately. back
- Actually, I wouldn't feel guilty; I'm not sure
guiltis a feeling I ever experience. But I would feel like my essay was not doing as effective a job as I wanted it to be doing. back
- I'd be somewhat interested in doing it consensually with other people I trust, but coordinating with other people is too much of an inconvenience for me to try very hard at that. If you're reading this and you know me... you interested? :-) back
- Yes, PEOPLE. I only just noticed that people usually say
consenting adultswhen they say this; I will now have to be horribly offended whenever I see someone write it in that way. back
- Actually, I do have a lot of ideas about why people believe those things. It's just that they don't make any sense. back