Harris O’Malley explains that for a country that places so much importance on sex, we seem to go out of our way to make ourselves miserable as possible over the subject.
It’s 2013. We1 live in a world that is more open about sex and sexuality than it has ever been before. The United States is slowly being dragged into the 21st century as state after state legalizes gay marriage – finally catching up to most of Europe. The history of sex research has been turned into a critically acclaimed TV series on pay cable. Porn is gaining mainstream acceptance, HBO and Showtime are winning awards for things we used to have to wait to see on Skinemax at 3 AM and damn near everybody is texting and Instagramming their wangs, their boobs and their asses, while Miley Cyrus is swinging around naked on a wrecking ball while Uncle “Bad Touch” Terry is shooting pictures of it from his lair at the Chateau Marmont.
So if we’re so much more open and aware of sex than ever before2 then why the hell are we still getting it so very goddamn wrong?
As we alternately clutch our pearls over how sexualized culture has become and pat ourselves on the back for being so mature and cosmopolitan about sex, we’re still fucking up entire generations of men and women when it comes to understanding human sexuality. How so?
Well let me count the ways.
1) Sex-Ed In This Country Is Woefully Insufficient
Let’s start with the most obvious problem: we’re allowing people who hate sex and believe that women who have sex should be punished, to dictate how children and teens learn about sex. And they have decided that the best way to keep kids from having sex is to pretend that it doesn’t exist until Jesus gives you the big thumbs up after the wedding. Because that works so well.
Small wonder that the states that mandate abstinence-only education lead the nation in STD infections and unplanned pregnancies.
Unfortunately, even in the more enlightened states that actually teach comprehensive sex-ed (based on, y’know, actual medical science), it’s painfully insufficient. We get the mechanics – how babby is formed, what the testicles do, the difference between the vulva, the vaginal canal, the uterus etc. – and a little about contraception and STI prevention… but that’s it. And while it’s nice to have some of the basics, this tends to gloss over (or ignore completely) the fact that sex is about more than just insert tab-a into slot-b.
To start with the obvious: it’s almost always strictly heteronormative. There will be plenty about how straight folks have sex but absolutely nothing for gay men and women, leaving them to basically have to try to figure things out for themselves – and as a result, they may end up hurting themselves out of ignorance. Anal sex, for example, doesn’t work like it does in porn; slamming away with minimal preparation, foreplay or lube is a great way to end up tearing the lining of the colon.
And naturally, gender identity is ignored entirely; trans men and women may as well not exist when it comes to sex-ed.
Moreover, sex ed tends to focus almost entirely on penetrative sex. There is rarely any discussion about other forms of sex other than a mention or oral sex or hand-jobs – and even then then they’re taught as being either inferior to (or precursors for) penis-in-vagina sex. It encourages the idea that sex only “counts” if you get it in the Holiest of Holies – otherwise it’s simply second-rate at best. Thus we have the rise of “technical virginity”, when blowies and butt-fucking aren’t “really sex”… despite the fact that it affects people the same way emotionally and psychologically.
And while we’re at it: we get nothing about psychological health and safety – why we have sex, why and when we shouldn’t, the fact that women are equally as sexual as men are if not moreso, the methods and risks of sexual expression, enthusiastic consent, the difference between limerence, lust and love, or – critically – what abusive relationships look and feel like. I’ve lost track of how many people who have written to me who didn’t realize that they were stuck in an abusive relationship because it didn’t conform to what they thought abuse looked like.
Of course, this is without even getting into the ideas of sexual pleasure or the myriad ways men and women get off. And then there’s the related problem…
2) We’re Never Taught How to Get Sex
Even assuming that one happens to live in a state that teaches comprehensive sex-ed, we’re taught about the mechanics but nothing about how to actually go about finding it. We’re basically taught how it works and tossed out into the wild without even the vaguest idea of how to navigate the tricky world of sexual and romantic relationships without so much as a map or compass.
Now to be fair: I’m not suggesting that schools teach courses in seduction; if you thought that having the gym teacher explaining menstruation was awkward…
… but we do need to be willing to actually have an informed conversation about finding and starting relationships – including ones that are purely sexual.
The dominant cultural narrative is still that understanding social dynamics and being good at seduction should be instinctive and effortless. Some people are lucky enough to have an innate grasp of social interaction and attraction. Most don’t. Very few of us ever have any sort of conversation with anyone about how to date or find relationships and admitting that you wantto get better is synonymous with saying “I’m a complete, helpless loser”.
When you have people who are taught that “only losers can’t get laid” combined with genuine ignorance as to how to actually get a woman or a man to like you, then you have a recipe for disaster. This is how you end up with a frat culture that believes the key to getting laid is to get women drunk – it’s an “easier” shortcut than actually learning how to generate sexual attraction. More and more teenagers are using sexual coercion – manipulating their partners into “giving it up” by getting angry or playing on their guilt; sometimes out of malice, but often because they don’t know any other way to get laid.
Of course, nature (and the free market) abhors a vacuum and people will try to fill it any way they can. And when the loudest voices out there offering to fill the void are the frat bros and the pick-up artists, then these are the ones that desperate and lonely people are going to turn to… and often learn all the wrong lessons in the process.
3) Women Aren’t Allowed to Own Their Sexuality
Speaking of the wrong lessons…
One of the hardest things I’ve found is overcoming the constant double-standards in human sexuality, even when they’re well-intentioned. To pick a random example: one of the problems I have with “no means no” is that it puts all of the emphasis on the “no”. While respecting a “no” is of vital importance, it still codifies the idea that a woman’s default position on sex is supposed to be “no” and thus men have to convince them otherwise. It’s a perpetuation of the idea that women simply don’t like or want sex as much as men do… and when they do, it means that there’s something wrong.
Enthusiastic consent, on the other hand, allows for the idea that instead of avoiding a no, you want to find a “hell yes”… but it’s difficult to do this when the cultural narrative still insists that women aren’t allowed to take ownership of their own sexuality except in certain, pre-approved ways. Women are encouraged to be sexy but not sexual - sex is meant to be held back, to be reserved for others rather than something women can establish agency over.
To pick a recent example, let’s look at Miley Cyrus.
Over the last several years, she’s been going out of her way to shed her “Hannah Montana-good-girl” image with increasingly sexually provocative performances – culminating with riding a metaphorical swinging dick in the video for “Wrecking Ball”, posing for breast-baring photos with Terry Richardson and grinding up on Beetlejuice during the MTV Video Music Awards.
Of course, there was the typical clutching of pearls as everybody was simply aghast at a barely-legal pop-idol acting sexual at the VMAs – conveniently forgetting every single previous Lady Gaga/Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera/Madonna performance ever and completely ignoring Prince showing his ass… but then Miley doubled down by appearing half-naked in Rolling Stone and all naked in her next music video.
This immediately set off yet another firestorm of concern trolling as various pundits and talking-heads tut-tutted and tisk-tisked over just how tawdry it all was. The narrative culminated of course with Sinead O’Conner’s open letter to the young chanteuse warning her that she was being “prostituted” by the powers that be and that she was damaging herself and was “worth more than her body or her sex appeal”.
Now here’s the problem with this: while I have no doubt that Sinead’s letter was well intended as a way of warning a young singer about the very valid dangers of the music industry machine that delights in chewing up young ingenues and spitting them out, it carries the same cultural baggage of “women can’t possibly be sexual on their own”. It implies that not only could Miley not possibly want to enjoy and exploit her sexuality but that this had to be the actions of some Svengali, swaying her down the dark road to Slut Mountain before using her up and casting her aside.
And, let’s face it: this isn’t the first time that this has been part of the Miley Cyrus story. Remember when everybody was ready to burn Annie Leibovitz at the stake for this picture?
At the time, everybody was blaming Leibovitz for manipulating and exploiting Hannah Montana who of course, was pure and innocent and, oh yeah, had her parents at the studio with her to sign off on things. Nobody was willing to stop and think that perhaps Miley – like many other teens – was enjoying and exploring her burgeoning sexuality… not to mention making a conscious decision to use it to hold on to an audience base that was aging right along with her. Every interview with her shows that, far from being a scatterbrained innocent, Miley is a shrewd and press-savvy performer who had very carefully plotted out her career trajectory. In fact, it seems pretty clear that Miley is in charge of Miley Cyrus Inc., not some lothario taking advantage of her naïveté.
Moreover, by throwing out loaded words like “prostituted” and telling her that she’s worth more than her body or her sexuality, Sinead O’Connor is implying that for a woman to be sexual is to be degraded… as though liking sex or being sexually expressive outside of a sanctified relationship cheapened women. In short: it’s the commodity model for sex – Miley’s value is inherently tied to the amount of sex she doesn’t have and by being so expressive she’s devaluing herself in the sexual market place. It ultimately infantalizes women by insisting that their “value” lies in their being young and innocent; once they’re sexual beings, they’re doomed to be a depreciating asset.
Miley is getting slut-shammed for expressing her sexuality in unapproved ways… even from women who should know better. Now, I will grant you that this made more complicated by the way that women are sexualized by… damn near everyone, really. But if we take it as given that women should own their sexuality and express it in ways that make them happy, then we have to accept that there is a wide spectrum, from the conservative to the provocative and everything in between.
Of course, male pop and rock stars have been exploiting their sexuality for decades – from Elvis’ swiveling hips to Prince’s down-to-the-crotch v-necks to Mick Jagger’s strutting and ass-shaking to many the long parade of shirtless, muscled and oiled up rappers, with nary a complaint.
But then again: guys get a raw deal too.
4) Men Are Controlled By Their Sexuality
Where women aren’t allowed to own their sexuality, men are confined by it.
To be a man – we are taught – is to be stuck in a pernicious Catch-22; we’re defined by our sexual voraciousness but derided for it as well. On the one hand, a man who has lots of sex is lionized, but at the same time, we’re seen as oafish and animalistic in our seeking of sexual pleasure. Men are taught that they’re supposed to be ravening beasts who simply can’t control themselves when it comes to sex. We’re so perpetually horny that we don’t need silly things like emotional connections or even sober consent - any hole is a goal and we’re supposedly trying to make that goal all the time. Men who commit to a monogamous relationship are taunted by the idea that they’re going to stuck with one pussy for the rest of their lives – the sexual equivalent of having only one kind of sandwich for the rest of their lives.
Of course, when you’re defined by your sexuality – by your sexual appetite, by your conquests and by your potency – it systematically devalues everything else about you. Not as adept at finding a relationship? You’re less of a man. Can’t get it a rock-hard erection at the drop of a hat? Might as well be a chick. Not interested in fucking as many women as humanly possible? What are you, some kind of QUEER?
Gay men don’t escape this trap either; they are consistently stereotyped as incapable of monogamy and, often, of having a meaningful emotional relationship at all.
Defining men by their sexual prowess gives no allowance for variation – quantity is valued over quality, continual fucking is valued over love and cross-gender friendships aren’t allowed; it’s impossible for men to have a genuine platonic friendship with a woman because he’s always, always looking for a way to get into her panties. Women have to guard themselves because men are incapable of reining themselves in.
And this attitude hurts men more than they realize.
Once again pulling from recent headlines: Chris Brown gave an interview with The Guardian where he revealed that he lost his virginity at the tender age of eight to an older (14) woman. Reading the article, it sounds as though Chris is bragging – he’s such a stud that he was a player at 8 years old, don’t you wish you were him? He was watching so much porn that by 8 he was ready and rarin’ to go and so preternaturally skilled that he was able to land someone nearly twice his age for his first time. Go Chris Brown go.
Except… that’s not exactly true. What actually happened is that he was raped.
But we’re less inclined to call it rape because hey, guys are always horny, so how do you rape the willing? This is a variation of the same discussion that occurs every time a female teacher (especially if she’s hot) has sex with one of her students: jokes about how it wasn’t sexual abuse so much as “dude got lucky”, jokes about every teacher we had a crush on or wish we could’ve boned and the comments about it’d only be rape if she were ugly.
Of course, we wouldn’t be having that conversation at all if the genders were reversed, no matter how attractive the older male was or how eager the younger female insisted she was.
The cultural trope that men always want sex makes it much harder for men to process their own abuse; people are far less likely to believe them or to take their claims seriously. They may have a hard time understanding that they were abused or may end up confused and conflicted because it was pleasurable – something many women have also had to work through. They may even have thought they wanted it… but a child (especially an 8 year old, whether or not he’d been raised on a steady diet of porn) is in no way capable of handling a sexual relationship, especially with someone older than them or in a position of authority.
But when manhood is equated with being ready willing and eager for any and every sexual encounter, it’s hard to admit you’ve been hurt – even to yourself.
5) Sex Is The Most Important Thing In The World (Except When It Isn’t)
American culture is almost uniquely conflicted about sex. We love it and despise it at the same time. Sex sells, but we shake our heads at the sexualization of our culture. We teach are children that sex is dirty and wrong and devalues you as a person and you should only share it with your husband or wife. Sexual satisfaction is of utmost importance in a relationship… unless one or the other partner isn’t getting as much as they would like and then it’s important for them to just suck it up and deal.
This paradoxical, contradictory attitude towards sex – with all its attendant double-standards – permeates everything.
Take, for example, simple sexual pleasure. In this day and age, it’s taken for granted3 that a woman deserves sexual fulfillment, whether she’s in a relationship or not. Vibrators, dildos and clitoral stimulators have gone from medical treatments for “hysteria”, to shame-inducing penis-stand-in, to late-night talk-show punchline fodder, to a perfectly normal, even expected part of a woman’s personal possessions. What once were the province of dingy sex-shops have become so ubiquitous that it’s possible to buy them at CVS.
Sex toys for men however, are still the mark of being a loser or a freak. A man who admits to having a Fleshlight or any other masturbation sheath, may as well be confessing to the world that he can’t score a woman on his own and needs a Pocket Pussy to get off. And yet there’s literally no difference in purpose between a Hitachi Magic Wand and a Tenga.
Sexual monogamy ends up being another area where society as a whole can’t seem to see the inherent contradictions. A single moment of infidelity is seen as the greatest betrayal, a crime so great that it torpedoes a long-standing relationship almost immediately, even if that relationship spans decades. Forgiveness – when it’s an option at all – is seen as being hopelessly naive or outright manipulative; it couldn’t possibly be that the injured party is willing to consider the relationship as a whole to be more important than an affair. But if sex is so important that a single liason is enough to destroy a long-standing relationship, then why is it that partners who develop mismatched libidos are taught that the hornier of the pair just has to learn to do without? Otherwise they are told to split up – even if they’re compatible in every other way? It turns into a false dichotomy: either sex is so unimportant that one should do with less without complaint, or so monumental as to end a relationship that is otherwise mutually fulfilling and satisfying. There is no accommodation to be reached, no arrangement to be made.
We’re taught via pop-culture over and over again that sex is important and good people have good sex… but only strictly vanilla sex. Lovers may get enthusiastic – throwing each other up against the wall, going from missionary to female superior and back – but any non-standard sexual practice is immediate proof that the character is deviant, if not outright evil. 9 times out of 10, when a character is portrayed as having, say, doggy-style sex, it’s almost always framed as a way to show somebody being degraded, rather than just they both like sex from behind. An open relationship, whether monogamish or active swinging, is usually played for comedy – look at these people having freaky sex, aren’t they just weird? Anyone participating in bondage or power-exchange is shown to be untrustworthy.
But of course, if a main character shows interest in deviant4 sexual practice… well, odds are by the end, he – and it’s usually a he – will be cured of it. The player will be convinced of the wonders of mongamy by healing the hole in his heart with the power of love. The freak will be introduced to the joys of “normal” sex and forswear his evil ways forever onward.
50 Shades of Grey is a perfect example: Christian Grey is a domineering, outright abusive figure who doesn’t “make love”, just fucks and is a hard-core S&M top. But over the course of the series, we find that it’s because he has mommy issues and by the last book, he’s been so won over by Anastasia Steel’s magic vagoo that he’s able to give up bondage forever and enjoy vanilla sex happily ever after. Not, of course, before 3 books worth of badly written bondage scenes mind you; like the “scandal” pulps of old, the reader gets to enjoy the naughtiness before being assured that the bad people were punished and the good people eventually turned back to the light of heteronormativity and renounced all the kink they were enjoying earlier.
For a country that places so much importance on sex, we seem to go out of our way to make ourselves miserable as possible over the subject. And until we start confronting the myriad ways that we keep just getting it wrong… we’re not going to be coming up with any answers any time soon.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove
- Let’s take the tacit “in western society” and “First World Problems” acknowledgements as read, shall we? [↩]
- Not actually true; ask any historian about ancient India or Egypt… [↩]
- Well, there are the usual neanderthals who view female sexual pleasure with a mix of scorn and fear but frankly they can fuck themselves… [↩]
- I use the loaded term deliberately [↩]
Photo: Flickr/Pål Joakim Olsen