The ever-thoughtful and articulate Clarisse Thorn recently shared a piece over at Feministe about what lessons she thinks are missing from liberal, sex-positive sex education. She writes:
Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.
Her list of five problematic messages is worth reading in full. As is typical with any “top five” type list, I find myself agreeing more with some points than others — in this case less because I think she has anything majorly wrong and more because she and I had slightly different experiences when it came to learning about human sexuality and relationships in our childhood and adolescence. We both had parents willing to talk about sex in a positive way, for example, and both experienced religious teaching on sex that was positive in a fundamental way. On the other hand, I never had any school-sponsored sex ed because — quite simply — I didn’t go to school. My exposure to mainstream messages about human sexuality was further buffered by the fact that my family consumed relatively little mainstream media, and I learned fairly early on to be skeptical about most mainstream scripts concerning human nature and human behavior.
Still, Clarisse Thorn’s list has got me thinking about what messages I wish I had gotten earlier about human sexuality. So here goes:
1. I wish I had learned earlier that human sexuality isn’t binary. My parents were really good about telegraphing (and sometimes outright articulating) acceptance of gay and lesbian sexuality in front of us kids. However, I grew up in a religiously and politically conservative area during the 1980s and 90s. Non-straight sexuality was fraught, no two ways about it. The basic message I imbibed from the adults I trusted was that homosexuality wasn’t sinful or icky (yay! good messages!) … but conversations didn’t go much beyond that, and I didn’t actually have friends who were openly queer until college. So I learned to be accepting in the abstract, and of these people who were a population other-than-me. And I basically learned that there were two populations: straight people and gay people. I didn’t know there could be other options, I figured you fit into one box or the other, and since no one suggested the possibility I might fit into a non-straight box, I grew up assuming I was straight. Which leads me to the second lesson:
2. I wish adults in my childhood had articulated the fact that you don’t always know what you want — and that that’s okay. My mother (who did most of the talking with us about sex growing up) was awesome in encouraging us kids to pay attention to what our gut was telling us about what we were ready for, and to take sexual decision-making seriously, as something with emotional and ethical significance. “You take off more than your pants when you have sex,” she reiterated more than once … not in a warning sort of voice, but as a gentle reminder that sex can be important to people. But I do wish that more grown-ups (including grown-ups in the broader media culture) had been willing to emphasize that we often learn unexpected things about our desires as we grow up. I got the message that it was okay to wait until I “felt ready” to have sex … but no one ever said to me, “and who knows what sort of person you might be interested in having sex with and what that sex will look and feel like.” As soon as I hit my late elementary years, I was getting teased (not by my parents, but by other adults and peers) about crushes on boys and men … no one ever suggested the crush I had on a favorite babysitter might be nascent sexual awakenings. Not that I appreciated any of my feelings being sexualized without my permission — but the message was clearly “when you become interested in sex, this is the sort of person you’ll be interested in.” It would have been nice if possibilities had remained more fluid until I expressed a preference myself.
3. I wish I’d gotten the message that you can be sexual even when you’re not in a relationship with someone. “Sex” in the culture I grew up in (the culture most of us grew up in) meant “relational sex.” To their credit, books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and even some of the klutzy puberty books I was given, didn’t frame masturbation as a negative activity, or as something that only ideally helps you become a better lover. But I imbibed the two-barreled message anyway that a) solitary sex is a poor substitute for a “real” relationship, and b) as such it’s a kinda-sorta shameful activity.
4. I wish someone had acknowledged that (some? most?) people don’t automatically know how to respond to arousal — and given me some (privately accessible) resources for exploration. This one closely mirrors Clarisse Thorn’s #4: “I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: ‘Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on’.” She writes:
I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like.
As someone with (until my twenties) a mostly responsive rather than spontaneous arousal pattern, I didn’t have any available resources or encouragement to pay attention to my body, explore what it felt like to be aroused (and how I would even go about doing that), or the role solitary sex and orgasm can play in grounding yourself in your own embodiment. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I spent most of my teens and college years assuming physical sexual feelings would be somehow magically activated when I entered a relationship with someone I was romantically interested in. It wasn’t until I started engaging more actively with my physical experiences and paying attention to pleasure responses that I actually got serious about pursuing sexual know-how for me. As something I could do in this body of mine, without any other bodies being involved!
5. I wish I hadn’t gotten such consistently negative messages about pornography/erotica. Growing up I definitely got the message that sexually explicit material is destructive to intimate relationships. Pornography was associated with men (virtually always men) who were bad news. No one ever explained to me that there were different types of erotic materials, and that they could be used in ways that were both positive and negative depending on context. Why it was bad remained a little uncertain. Sometimes it was because it was voyeuristic. Sometimes because it was a relationship substitute. Sometimes because it exploited sex workers, or encouraged misogyny. Mostly, it was skeezy. “Nice” people, healthy people, neither needed nor wanted it. Which, of course, was a difficult message to process when I discovered I found sexually explicit material thoroughly compelling on both an intellectual-scholarly and physical-pleasure level. When I discovered I was good at writing it. What finally put the nail in the all-erotica-is-bad coffin is when crafting it became a relationship activity for me — breaking down the assumption that sexually explicit materials somehow automatically detract from partner intimacy.
I wish instead of the “porn is bad” message, I’d gotten the chance to hone my media literacy skills and to think about what makes sexually-explicit materials ethical or unethical, how we might use the medium to subvert toxic messages about sex, sexuality, and gender. I wish it had been an opportunity to raise questions about what types of public conversations we do and don’t have about our sexual desires and behaviors.
That’s my bolt, Harpies — what do you wish you had learned from “sex ed,” or whatever sources of sexuality information you had growing up?