Posted at 15:00 on 4 Dec 2020 by Pandora / Blake
For many people, sex is uniquely confronting. Many of us carry trauma, baggage or shame about sex. These difficult feelings make sex hard for us to talk about.
Where do this traumas and discomforts come from? They come from a society which is deeply dysfunctional about sex. In this post I'm going to talk about the post-colonial Anglophone culture of North America, Canada, the UK and Australia, but some aspects of human culture are distributed throughout the globe, and a lot of it applies to other societies and countries too.
In one way sex is everywhere, talked about way too much for some people’s comfort; but in another way, we never really talk about it at all. The view of sex we get from advertising, media, TV and film maintains rigid ideas of normality and acceptability. If you fall outside this limited framework in any way, the message is that you're 'abnormal'. It’s understandable if receive this input and start to feel that there’s something wrong with you.
Then there's the intergenerational trauma passed down from our parents and elders. Consent violations, sexual harassment and experiences of sexual abuse have historically been the norm rather than the exception. When so many of our parents have themselves been violated, abused, suppressed and shamed, is it any wonder if they pass that shame onto us - even without meaning to?
I was four years old when the UK passed Section 28, banning references to homosexuality from schools and city councils for fear of corrupting the young. That legislation was repealed 17 years ago, but its impact continues to reverberate through a generation of queer youth who were erased, silenced and shamed by the culture they grew up in.
In recent years I have been delighted to see same-sex marriage legalised in the UK, Ireland and all fifty American states. Rocky times continue for the trans community, and so does outright persecution of LGBT folk in some countries. But nonetheless I see a trend where queerness in general, and same-sex relationships in particular, are slowly becoming more accepted.
I’d love to see other marginalised sexualities such as those which fall under the BDSM and fetish umbrella achieve the same level of legal and social acceptance. Once we delve into the details of these sexualities and enquire as to the things all of us fantasise about, we realise that these so called "alternative" sexualities might be more normal than the wider culture is willing to admit.
Why don't we realise that others share our sexual desires? Because the culture bombards us with normative sexual imagery in adverts, magazines and music videos - at the same time as trying to stop us from talking about our own sexual experiences.
We're fed a diet of cis, straight, vanilla-ish, male-gaze sexual norms in which consent is barely talked about, some bodies are invisible and others are over-objectified, and a limited set of sexual scripts are expected to keep everyone happy.
Meanwhile talking about sex is banned from most of the big social media platforms in the name of keeping them ‘family friendly’ and discouraging 'sex trafficking'. Google’s algorithms demote sites that talk about sex in search results and bans them from advertising. Payment services make it difficult and expensive to cover the cost of hosting online conversations about sex, or publishing sexual media. The killer combination of Government regulations and corporate prudishness establishes a chokehold that squeezes conversations about sex into smaller and smaller spaces.
Offline spaces are policed vigorously by social norms and stigma. It’s unacceptable to talk about sex at the hairdresser, near young people, or in the workplace (unless you're a sex worker too: hi!). Many therapists, like parents, find it hard to overcome their own sexual shame, and too many of those who are meant to be helping and guiding us explore our sexualities are instead steeped in their own judgements, insecurities and misinformation.
Part of sex work is helping people figure out what they want - which can be a worthwhile contribution to a more open sexual society. But in many places, sex work is illegal. Obscenity laws make it illegal for us to share acts of pleasure with each other and film ourselves doing so. Our governments are doing their best to make it hard for us to generate our own sexual signals to counter the noise.
In some places sexual self-expression and partner intimacy is outright criminalised - especially if you’re queer, trans or kinky. Where these things aren’t illegal, they are stigmatised.
If we engage with the culture at all we can't avoid receiving messages about sex - which mostly conform to certain mainstream ideals - but we aren’t free to talk about it. We are not taught how to sexually express ourselves, and for good reasons, we don't feel free to do so. Few of us have the vocabulary to talk about our desires, or the tools to talk freely about sex with our partners. Too many of us think we can get away without talking to someone before we touch them - and the impact of these violations makes it even harder for survivors to freely express themselves. Many religions still teach modesty and sexual abstinence - which overlaps greatly with body shame and pleasure negativity. All this sexual repression, anxiety, assault, trauma, shame and guilt adds up to a heavy burden of emotional baggage that affects every single one of us.
At one point or another we all have sexual impulses, ideas or reactions about which we feel confused, embarrassed or ashamed. We all have questions which go unanswered. Many of us are left to educate ourselves online, and some of the resources we access are woefully inadequate. Others simply start groping in the dark, experimenting in person without knowing anything about how to talk about power, vulnerability or consent, and sometimes without even knowing how to tell what we ourselves want.
So talking about sex can be a minefield. We need to start talking and sharing in order to heal, but how to do so without inadvertently setting off buried bombs deep in each other’s psyches? Most of us, if not all of us, have sexual secrets and trauma.
It's up to each of us to start enquiring what our needs, wants and boundaries are. And up to all of us to practice talking about sex with gentleness, respect, kindness and compassion.
In the age of #metoo, this conversation is more needed than ever. If we can’t talk about sex, we can’t negotiate consent.
Talking and sharing isn’t just needed to avoid violations - it’s also an essential part of our collective healing process. And on a personal level, if we can be fully honest with ourselves about our erotic desires, it makes it possible to own them, take responsibility for them, and ultimately accept, celebrate and enjoy them.
As I'm revising my manuscript, I'm cutting out sections that don't fit and posting them here. Become a Patron to get access to cut sections about my personal kink journey, and excerpts from what I'm keeping.