(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 agree on 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 in one post. There are the traditional, Puritanical lies, like “You should never do anything sexual except with your spouse in a heterosexual marriage”. Lots of people disagree with that now, you say? Well, yes. But plenty of them have their own myths and lies, like “You should always have sex by your third date”1. No matter who you ask, someone is going to tell you how they think you should live your life.

All these myths cause a lot of problems. But there are too many problems for me to discuss one at a time. 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 “sexual attraction”, “sexual arousal”, “sexual release”, “lust”, “orgasm”... But if I tried to describe sex in terms of those things, I'd be writing a circular definition. Suppose you don't know what any of those terms mean, but still have sexual feelings yourself: How would you know which word matches which feeling? After all, a person can enjoy looking at someone else in a non-sexual way; ze can be physically excited in a non-sexual way, satisfied in a non-sexual way...

We could say it has something to do with your genitals, but would that really work? 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, like peeing. And there are people who don't even have genitals who still have sexual feelings. We can get a vague idea of what it is by talking about genitals and touching and arousal and stuff, but how do we define it?

I propose a novel 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 first rule is “No means no”: If a person says “no” to a sexual activity, then it's bad to push them into doing that activity. The stronger rule is “Yes means yes”: Unless a person actively agrees to do a sexual thing, then they have not consented, so it's not okay to do 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 doing something ze did not want. Compliance is not consent, so you're now nonconensually playing a board game. That's a bad thing that you shouldn't have done.

Certainly, this is less bad than pushing someone into sex. People usually have much stronger feelings about sexual stuff, and many sexual things have some risk of physical harm. But the principle is the same. One of them is worse than the other, but they're both bad for the same reason. 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 with the board game, 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. I also associated my thoughts about that with a feeling in my genitals (which, in my case, are a penis and testicles). 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, 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 remember, around age 9, 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. 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 with sexuality, especially when the games involved physical touch. 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. Or maybe they just did it because that was how they normally do things. If they had paid attention, or asked me, they would have realized it wasn't helping anything. I didn't want to socialize with groups of other children, anyway.

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; although I am not male, I arguably still count as a counterexample, because that whole system of stereotypes would assume that I am male, too. 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 not unhealthy in any way. (Adults mistreating me was unhealthy for me, but my preferences weren't unhealthy by themselves.) 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 not unhealthy in any way.

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. However, 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 weeks when I rant about pornography.

– Eli

  1. Which assumes that relationships only happen by dating, which I could write an entire rant about separately. back
  2. Actually, I wouldn't feel guilty; I'm not sure “guilt” is a feeling I ever experience. But I would feel like my essay wasn't doing a good enough job. back
  3. 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
  4. Yes, PEOPLE. I only just noticed that people usually say “consenting adults” when they say this. Now that I thought about it, I'll have to be a little skeptical whenever I see someone write it in that way. back
  5. 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
Approximate readability: 8.10 (8066 characters, 1847 words, 103 sentences, 4.37 characters per word, 17.93 words per sentence)