It’s come to my attention that maybe I’m a little bit of a prude.
Okay, okay… that’s too harsh.
But I have discovered that maybe I’m not as sex-positive as I thought I was. Sure, I can say a lot of the right things about sex. And sex as an abstract concept is a-okay. But the hard truth is that when it comes to my own relationship to sex, I’d rather just tiptoe away and leave it completely unexamined. I’ve got a wild double standard going: I’m sex-positive(ish) for the masses and a giant whirlpool of shame about my own sexuality.
The good news, at least on the parenting front, is that I don’t have any trouble talking to the twelve year old about sex. And recently I’ve had copious opportunities to discuss sex with the kid, sometimes in way more detail than I’m ready for at the moment.
I blame Rebel Wilson.
The kid and I stumbled upon Senior Year (which was my first intro to Rebel Wison) by accident. It was her turn to pick the Friday Night Movie–and it didn’t even occur to me to check the rating (it’s R, by the way. Just in case you also get hit with a case of lazy parenting and can’t be bothered to look it up).
Rebel Wilson is funny as shit.
Which I would have known if I’d seen Pitch Perfect (1 or 2). But there are a lot of gaps in my movie watching. We can discuss that later. What’s important right now is that I didn’t know that sex jokes were about to come flying at me from every direction. And that I’d be explaining them all in excruciating detail.
I’m all down for being the explainer. I’d rather explain sex to my twelve year old than have her friends do it. When a kid pops off about sex at school, there’s an almost zero percent chance they have any idea what they’re talking about. And my kid likes to know things. In detail. Knowledge is power and all.
Anyway, Rebel Wilson brought us two things: a virtual avalanche of raunchy jokes and an understanding that the kid can ask me anything and I’ll explain it–even when she wishes halfway through the explanation that she’d never asked at all.
I am an over-explainer by nature, sure. But my willingness to muscle through the discomfort of telling the kid what a blowy entails is mostly about giving her access to information I didn’t have growing up. Here’s the extent of my sexual education beyond the basic mechanics: Jesus would be hella pissed if I had intercourse, oral sex was disgusting, and masturbating next to/near/in the vicinity of a same-sex friend could make you gay.
It’s about more than information, though. We get information all the time, because we live and breathe our society’s understanding of and parameters around sex: including who gets to have sex, who gets to enjoy it, and how much sex they should have. Unsurprisingly, this varies depending on gender (especially for cis/het folks). Things get a little freer the queerer they get. But every person, at some point, has to reckon with expectations, stigma, and shame about sexuality.
The first time I remember being deeply ashamed of my body was in seventh grade on an overnight church camping trip. We’d tipped the canoe, which was all fun and games when the sun was out. But now it was getting chilly (which in Florida means about 70 degrees). I was in a tent, hunched over, tugging at my stupid bathing suit, which I was trying to take off so I could put on something dry, shaking like a leaf because I couldn’t get it off fast enough, and I was just sure someone would walk in on me. That fear was staggering. Not just because I was modest. I’m not sure that naturally I am modest really. But because I felt a deep loathing about my body.
I felt gross. And ashamed.
Fast forward to my sophomore year of high school, and I can report that this level of shame did NOT extend to my escapades with my first honest-to-god boyfriend. I remember kissing him for the first time, feeling my heart thud against my ribcage, and noting with absolute wonder that I was tingling everywhere. I did not feel dirty. Or shameful. All I felt was desire. And I ran straight towards it every chance I got (which meant a lot of time parked in a car in suburban Florida).
Then, in a completely predictable twist, we broke up.
But breaking up didn’t mean I wanted to stop (doing everything but) having sex. So we kept fooling around. Constantly. Even though he didn’t invite me to his prom. Even though I knew he was seeing someone else. Even though everyone told me to let him go. Instead, I kept chasing him. And hating myself more for it each day.
But the (almost) sex we were having was a problem. Because I liked it. Really, really liked it. But if I went out and found someone else to walk right up to that sex line with (or maybe even just actually have sex), well wouldn’t that make me a slut?
(Yes, it was mortifying to even type that out).
I had friends who were having sex. Not once did I think they were slutty. I think I honestly just thought they were free. Because this shame bullshit was exhausting. (Also, slut shaming is bullshit, but I wouldn’t figure that out for many more years)
But something else kept me tied to the ex-boyfriend-constant-hookup-companion (besides the misguided impression that I was in love with him): I couldn’t get past kissing any other guy without wanting to bolt. I found even the most benign make-out session with another guy utterly cringy. Even if they were super cute.
Which I was sure meant I was broken.
Spoiler: not broken.
I’m not broken, but I am also not down for random hook-ups with people I haven’t formed a connection with. Totally not a moral judgment (really!). If random hook-ups work for you, then have at them! Connection is just part of the way my sexuality is oriented. I’m not (typically) sexually attracted to someone I don’t have an emotional connection to (it’s called demisexual). Which is why I totally don’t get the concept of Grindr. And why I suck a the Who in This Bar Would You Fuck Game–which one of my ex-girlfriends wanted to play endlessly.
But even with the handy little label “demisexual,” which makes me feel seen and not so weird, dissecting my feelings about sex is still tricky. My drinking days were riddled with ill-advised hook-ups. And throwing myself at people who would really have preferred I not do that. So my late twenties were a shame-filled cycle of waking up in someone’s bed that I didn’t even like and/or being constantly rejected because I had no good sense about who I should be propositioning.
Take a whole bunch of (wholly justified) rejection, add a heap of shame, and couple that with my lurking suspicion that I’m in some way repulsive–well, I think it’s pretty easy to see why my attitude around my own sexuality could use a little work. The way I feel about sex is messy. No matter how I try to spin it in my own mind. The deep shame that I felt after the high school ex-boyfriend and I hooked up still resurfaces (in a watered-down version) after sex. More often than I’d like to admit. Like I’ve done something wrong, something that has marked me as defective, broken, dirty.
Trust me, I wouldn’t be writing about my tangled, messy feelings about sex if I thought I was the only one who felt this way.
But I know I’m not.
How? Sex columnists, of course.
I’ve been low-key in love with Dan Savage of Savage Love for over twenty years. He’s changed the way I think about monogamy and family, sex and love. He’s pretty damn brilliant.
And so, when he blurbed the Advance Reader Copy of Boyslut that arrived at the store recently, I knew I had to read it. Besides… this cover. The 1990s version of myself wants it on a baby tee.
The amount of raunchy sex references in this book would make Rebel Wilson blush. But what I took away from this memoir/manifesto is that Zane owns his sexuality and is completely shameless about how much sex he wants to have (and has! Like a lot, a LOT of sex), the kind of sex he wants to have, and how he chooses to structure his intimate relationships. The clarity, kindness, and openness that he uses to approach his (many) sexual encounters is refreshing–and a little inspiring.
Besides being wowed by all the sexual possibilities Zane trots out–it really was mind-blowing!–he also compassionately and wisely reminds readers that confusing feelings about sex are the norm. That no one is really all that weird, kinks (or vanilla!) and all.
Sometimes we have less than adequate sex because we don’t know how to respectfully talk about sex with the partners we’re engaging. Sometimes our sex lives are unfulfilling because we let tradition dictate the bounds of our relationships, instead of really figuring out what works for us. And sometimes we’re just plain scared to dig into our notions about sex, our hangups, and our shame.
All this adds up to a really fraught relationship with sex.
In the past few years, I’ve kept inadvertently bumping up against books that tout real sex-positivity. Which is likely the Universe’s way of telling me that I am finally ready to unfuck my relationship with sex. That sounds all kinds of scary (and like it will require a therapist). But it feels more and more necessary as I try to offer sound guidance to an adolescent girl who deserves more than shame and confusion around sexuality. She deserves to be healthy, sex-positive, and to own her own sexuality.
I suppose I’ve finally decided that I deserve that, too.