Let’s talk about sex, shall we?
Just with that line, I’ve opened up all sorts of doors. Talking about sex takes many shapes and forms, particularly in present-day America, where we have a cultural obsession with famous people’s sex lives that sells thousands of tabloids and occasional copies of The New York Times.
But what do we talk about when we talk about sex?
Language matters. Language shapes how we look at the world. And when it comes to sex, the language around sex shows us what our problems are. The slang, the way one shapes a conversation about sex can tell you a lot about a person’s thoughts or behaviors—or can it?
The most public conversations we have about sex and sexuality are when a public figure is tripped up by his or her own, whether it be Mark Sanford’s affair, Michael Jackson’s abuse allegations, or Britney Spears failing to put on underwear. Our public discourse frames sex as dysfunctional, as something that should be kept in the closet and thus fair to point and laugh at when it escapes. But anyone who’s read Freud can tell you that keeping it in the closet only leads to it escaping in more and more unmanageable ways. Thus politicians who publicly moralize about sex and presume to legislate other people’s behavior are often privately having all kinds of sex that would be called illicit by their constituents—and just as often, they get caught.
There are really three parts to the discussion of sexuality: there’s public policy, media perception, and private behavior. Public policy is Roe v. Wade, gay marriage bans, the regulations on pornography and sale of sex toys. Media perception is tabloid obsession with Britney Spears’ underwear or lack thereof and Angelina Jolie’s sex life, “serious” news outlets’ obsession with Mark Sanford’s affair and Larry Craig’s bathroom arrest, as well as movies, TV shows, books and magazines and how they portray sex and sexuality. Finally, private behavior is what public policy seeks to regulate and media seeks to portray, but ultimately can’t be captured quite so easily.
Ideally, we’d like our private lives to stay private, but in practice, public policy invades and the media shapes our views, feelings, and experiences of sexuality. Activists and others seeking to understand and to change how we think about sex, to bring about a more sexually healthy population, are often trapped in terms dictated by the public policy battle. Thus we talk about “reproductive” health and “reproductive freedom” as euphemisms for sexual health and sexual freedom.
Using the frame “reproductive justice” is defining sex as something that has to do with reproduction, not with pleasure. Aside from the fact that it ignores anyone whose sex life doesn’t lead to children (gay or lesbian, postmenopausal women, or just the happily childfree), it denies pleasure as a valid motivator for sexual behavior. No wonder sexuality is often discussed in terms that sound more like a business deal than a shared experience. People have sex for lots of reasons, yet the use of terms like “premarital” sex stigmatizes any sex that takes place outside of marriage, which is controlled by public policy. Other forms of sexual behavior are legislated away—sodomy laws, obscenity laws, and prostitution bans—and the public discussion yields the ground, rather than questioning the usefulness of these laws.
Even when we do specifically deal with the reproductive system, the language is just as problematic. We avoid conversations about abortion that might open the door to the bold statement that women do indeed have a right to have and enjoy sex without “the consequences.” (And don’t you just feel for the kids of any person who refers to a child as “the consequences” of sex?) We avoid discussions of the problems with birth control or the health care industry because we fought for access to those things for so long that any admission of difficulty seems like ceding ground to the right, but in fact by refusing to admit that there are problems, we allow the right to be the sole voice out there for a woman who has a problem with birth control or has mixed feelings about her abortion. We need to acknowledge the nuance in these issues, to have a frank and honest discussion that will still have as its goal shaping public policy, but allows the space for people to discuss their personal experiences.
The backlash against a pamphlet from Britain’s National Health Service titled “Pleasure,” which offered up the radical idea that parents should be honest with their teens that sex is fun and can be positive, shows us that much of society simply is not ready for a discussion of sex that includes the idea that we have a right to feeling good. Ellen Willis wrote years ago, “Most people agree that untrammeled pursuit of sexual pleasure is one thing, socially responsible relationships quite another; debate is usually over the proper ratio of license to repression.”
Beyond just pleasure, sex and love can be some of the most fundamentally egalitarian impulses and experiences we have. I don’t mean that in some romantic notion of a perfect union, or to negate the many, many thinkers who have pointed out the power relations that are all too often played out in the bedroom. But the problems with power that are acted out sexually are all too often blamed on sex itself, as if there is something inherently wrong with sex instead of something wrong with how we think and talk about it. As if the solution is to stop having sex instead of to try to have better, more honest and mutually pleasurable sex.
Denying that sexuality is a human need has denied the need for a certain type of connection between people. Sexuality for women was almost completely erased from the record—a woman’s sexual pleasure simply didn’t matter, while a man’s was compartmentalized into something to be dealt with (something we see put on public display in the Eliot Spitzer case). Even now, women and especially teen girls have an ambivalent relationship with their own pleasure, treating sex as something you give to get connection and love.
It’s easy to blame the media for these problems, but they’re not new enough to be blamed on television or on women’s magazines. Instead, the media is the site of that return of the repressed, where our suppressed sexuality comes bubbling back up and explodes in stories about Paris Hilton’s sex tape or Mark Sanford’s Argentinean affair. And each time, instead of stopping and admitting “That could’ve been me,” we point fingers, we judge. The Internet has created a whole new world of discussion, and yet so much of it is taken up with the same kind of policing that has been done for hundreds of years, only now with badly-scrawled white lines from Perez Hilton.
How can you have a healthy personal life in a world that only has two notes for sexuality: scandal or reproduction? A more libertarian public policy is only the beginning of real sexual health and happiness. Changing the terms we use will only take us so far. What we need is more open, honest discussion about sex and sexuality in public policy, in the media, and in our personal lives.