Sex and Taboo – a discussion review

ShhhI recently attended a Café Psychologique meet-up-style discussion in Brighton: a good turnout of probably 30-odd people and a talk by local author / academic / researcher Katherine Johnson set a good scene. Ultimately though, my friend and I were unsatisfied all the way home with the depth of discussion and I find myself still wondering why.

Sadly I didn’t take notes on Johnson’s talk, so I can’t give a summary, much less any accurate reflections on how well or directly she actually spoke to the stated theme of the evening: Sex, sexuality and taboo. She was very engaging though and the ground she covered was naturally what is close to her own heart, issues relating to LGBT*+ research/experience and latterly work with trans kids. This leaves me with the uneasy feeling looking back, that as a group we were positioned to discuss sex and taboo/s, or sexual taboos, as if LGBT*+ issues are or have been the entire field of what is considered taboo in our lifetimes.

It wasn’t at all long before someone referred to paedophilia as an example of a taboo though. Before the evening I felt strongly that it might be a good context to begin a safe discussion on this topic – still scary, but not threatening. I was relieved and heartened when others did this, and I suppose, not surprised that the room didn’t all rally to begin a movement there and then to transform the way society discusses paedophilia. A few interesting points were made and I got my chance to bang on a bit when people got stuck at cross purposes and needed to be unhooked. A young guy at the back, very articulate and with interesting experience informing his views on a number of topics, put forward the view that paedophilia is not a type of sexuality, that it should not be considered listable alongside homosexuality, heterosexuality et cetera. Exploring this question properly would be fascinating and I may well do that in another post. What truth does any sexuality label express about a human being? Does listing by sexual object (same sex adults, opposite sex adults, children), confer legitimacy on that form of sexual desire? If so how, why and who decides?

However, while it is only one issue, not some kind of de facto pinnacle of sexual taboos (I’m pretty sure nobody mentioned bestiality, more’s the pity – suggesting it is more taboo), this fundamentally important topic was eventually made light of, which I could not understand. Yes, it might seem like a cliché to name paedophilia as a taboo, but that is because it’s taboo. (Almost) no-one wants to talk about it.

For me, attending was motivated by intrigue as to what/which taboos might be discussed in ways which could educate and enlighten me, and by a nebulous anticipation that I might somehow be unburdened from the struggle of holding in or suppressing some previously forbidden thoughts, opinions or feelings – in short, catharsis – nebulous because I was unable to tell myself what these might be. Yes, I saw a political opportunity to raise an issue which I still believe most people are just too squeamish to address head on, but it’s not one which fully belongs to me. Which taboos do? I didn’t find out. And are our intimate taboos only sexual?

Towards the end of the evening a little attention was given to the fact that what constitutes a taboo for a particular individual may not be at all these big flagged-up paraphilias but apparently tiny personal details, like the size of our bum or a desperate need to have our head touched. Things which we cannot say for fear, these are taboos. On reflection I feel the conversation could have got to this point much sooner, leaving time to explore the mechanisms by which taboos in real lives get created and maintained – and even more interestingly and importantly, how they get unpicked, challenged and de-tabooed, drawing on first-hand accounts. I suspect that could be emotionally transformative for many.

I’m not critical of the organisers, who did a grand job to get 30 odd people out on a cold, wet, January, Tuesday night and an interesting professional speaker. However, if I am complaining that it was a missed opportunity, without wanting to be critical, I ought to call it instead an opportunity: for an evening of discussion on sex and taboo/s which is curated to dodge the pitfalls. Taboo is both noun and adjective, both personal and cultural; all combinations are a tantalising pull for audiences; the organisers need to find a firmer but still flexible format which can deliver. It needn’t be a problem to have a broad discussion (only) about what is or is not a taboo in wider society, because the why is always going to be juicy. It’s just not quite what it says on the tin, especially if the general public still want to avoid the difficult ones.

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About time for another post about sex

IMG_0053Having had this blog for several years and never shared it, I begin to wonder, if I really only want to talk to myself why do I distinguish this from a diary kept at home? If I need to talk publicly about sex, why won’t I be public with it? Given that I started the blog with the theme of de-sexualising adult sleep and rarely talk about that now, does the life of this blog say something about my sexual development?

Since I left my job I have written more (here and elsewhere) and feel more and more that I must write, that I can’t not write. Since I separated from my boyfriend I feel more and more that my sexuality is (to me) an incredibly open-ended and big part of my life. Not simply because I enjoy sex and miss it, or because in a certain sense it has held huge sway over me during my adulthood, but because I want to write about it. I have known this for a long time, I have been clear about it in my mind, but it remains near the bottom of a long list of good intentions and rarely gets dusted off and done.

Why do I not think that when I write a blog about sex that it is worth taking the time to share it with readers? Why do I think that two or three readers a year is a good start and all I can handle? Is this how I see myself as a sexual being too? Do I think that there is (was) only one man on the planet who finds (found) me sexually desirable and that therefore there is no reason to draw attention to myself as a sexual being (not that blogging is a way to pull)? Am I so afraid of a real conversation about sex that I can only pretend to write about it?

If I started talking about de-sexualising adult sleep and now I more often just talk about sex, is that a cowardly abandonment of a difficult or fringe subject close to my heart because there is no-one to talk to about it, or does it just mean that I have just grown up and smelt the coffee? That in the end I heard my own protesting-too-much: much as I still believe that it is a potent subject, in the end I accepted that my interest in blogging about it was a suppressed interest in blogging about sex directly? Obvious, or too easy?

And what do I do with my precious anonymity if I want readers to engage with? Does it matter if people I know read my private thoughts – I have put them on the internet after all. Do I still feel I am protecting anyone I speak about by pretending not to be me? Can I balance being candid with being respectful or do I want to bend the truth, offend and be tasteless, is that why they mustn’t be able to find it? Do I hide my writing doubly from view, because deep down I am both afraid of not being sexually desirable, and afraid of being perceived as too interested in sex?

When is too much sex not enough?

Pile of threaded metal countersunk screws with a Philips head screwdriver on a white background for DIY and carpentry

Okay, so when is not enough sex for me too much for you? When I forget about quality and focus on quantity? Or when we have fundamentally different levels of libido? And what is the truth underlying the apparent universality that men want sex more than women?

Person A is pained when their partner says he thinks they have sex less than they used to, or that she doesn’t initiate enough. Painstaking discussion reveals that they are in a vicious cycle where he has been making it harder for her to initiate sex (by going straight to sleep) to protect himself emotionally from her not initiating. Is her not having been more insistent, say, waking him up to complain, or chasing him faster to bed at night, evidence that he is right? Or is it just a lot of disappointed person A?

Person P says: my partner wants sex more than I do. It has always been that way. Is this an unsolvable function of their libidos, or a long term chain reaction, triggered by a seed thought that goes unnoticed, like Person A’s ‘not enough initiation’? Is it a gendered problem which happens to loads of couples?

Maybe there is a problem of quality versus quantity. I don’t mean that they have crap sex, or not enough quality sex; I have no idea and don’t want any clairvoyant comments filling me in on that either, kindly thank you. I mean that if they have never completed a conversation about how much sex would be enough, not enough, and too much, by working out a perfect compromise on quantity and frequency of sex, to make them both feel as close to satisfied and as far from put upon as humanly possible, then maybe it’s because without realising it they have settled on a shared idea of what sex is that is just quantitative.

Let’s indulge stereotypes and call Person P ‘she’ and assume they are hetero. Maybe she doesn’t want sex as much as he does because she doesn’t enjoy it as much as he does. Maybe she has not-enoyed it more times than he has. Maybe he doesn’t even know she has not-enjoyed it as much as she has.

I don’t know about you but I think sex is fucking brilliant and I can’t think why anyone would not want to have sex all day long, every day, unless there were some pressing reason not to do so. Some of the reasons I don’t actually do this in my own life are: having to eat, cook, clean, look after others, go out to work, buy or grow food, pay bills, mend stuff, answer the phone, menstruate, socialise in public places and/or with people who are no good for having sex with. I would probably stop having sex to vote. I won’t count laundry because if I did have sex all day every day I wouldn’t bother to get dressed.

There are other reasons I don’t have sex this much, including: movies, books, conversation, Scrabble, my kids and other relatives and all my friends, sport, art, learning, live music and being outdoors in nature. Taken as a bundle these duties and non-sex pleasures take a really big chunk out of my sex time pie chart. There also seem to be times when my mate doesn’t want to have sex (and my solutions to this don’t include urgently finding someone else to have sex with). And finally, if we had sex all the time, surely we would pretty soon be doing the same thing over and over again, since how would we get a chance to even think of anything different?

Esther Perel tells us that many couples identify the times when they are stretched away from their mate, socially or geographically, as the times they are most likely to notice the rekindling of desire. These desiring moments presumably generate new energy and initiative for sex, whether any newness in bed is thought through or not.

My brain says the sex person P doesn’t want so much of must, almost by definition, be less fun for her that it is for him. Does he notice this when they have sex? Does he care? Does she notice this, or suspect it, or does she enjoy sex a great deal, but simply feel incredibly satisfied thereafter and find the idea of doing it again quite bizarre? Duty kills libido; does she have more duties, or not? I have heard of a hetero couple for whom him doing the ironing is a consistent initiation process.

Maybe their shared seed thought was that men enjoy sex more than women do. Maybe their vicious cycle is that he enjoys the sex more than she does every single time and neither of them has realised that they are both missing out. Maybe believing he naturally enjoys sex more than her means he doesn’t fully realise the value of showing her sexual affection even when she clearly does not want sex, and maybe she doesn’t show him sexual affection in case he wants sex more.

Why doesn’t he just fucking forget about the number of sexes he’s not getting for a while, and try to find out what is less great in her memories of their sex than in his? I do understand that some people have low libido. I agree that everyone has the absolute right to say no to sex, including within a relationship, heaven forbid that this should need saying. I also have a conviction that a large majority of sexually mature adults have the physical and hormonal apparatus to have and enjoy good sex and that good sex creates libido. I most want more sex when I have had good sex recently.

As if this post wasn’t long enough already, I will add: (menstruating age) women are definitely cyclic. If it seems that a conversation about what will make sex better will happen before how to have more of it, start by checking when you are/she is most likely to be hot. The second week after menstruation is a good place to start. And if that’s just passed, so much the better. Discussing what you are going to do to each other for a whole month is going to give that low libido some serious trouble.

 

 

 

Palmer, Rape, Gaga.

I have recently discovered the boundless joys of watching and listening to Amanda F*cking Palmer and the Dresden Dolls on Youtube. Map of Tasmania featuring the Young Punx is just about the most luxurious video I have had the pleasure to see in a long, long time – colour, light, music, humour, and right in your face an incredibly important and timely message of self-care and self-determination to young women everywhere. The Killing Type is a powerful and moving song which I can rarely get out of my head and Palmer’s performance of it on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago was a breathless glory. Imagine my dumbfoundedness when I discovered Palmer has met and married Neil Gaiman – I can scarcely contain my drool any longer.

So what do I do about the deep weirdness of The Oasis Video, with its apparent trivialisation of rape? On first watch, I am spellbound and deeply impressed. Her “shouty cabaret voice” is manna for me, a frustrated might-be-one-day singer-in-the-shower, and her lyrics are to die for. Her inch perfect comedy performance I adore. But: “it’s not my fault the barbarian raped me” followed by a coat hanger abortion; can someone old and wise please tell me how to react?

Well I accepted the song in its weirdness as the pushing-it edge of a stunning artist’s work and assumed the back of my mind would eventually settle on the issue without me. My boyfriend (first fan out of the two of us) told me Palmer had been accused of trivialising rape (and abortion), and this was why the song is banned in the UK. I replied (still devoted fan), “well it does.” He informed me that Palmer is quoted somewhere as having said that people who see the song as trivialising rape and abortion are some kind of stinky small mammal with mental problems. I am hurt.

I think acting a shag with a cheeky bloke while singing the above lyric is not a serious depiction of rape, it’s a comedy depiction of rape. I think, arguably, this is to trivialise the concept of rape. But the reason I now have this upsetting job to do of thinking hard again, is not that any personal experience, or those of my friends, cause me to condemn (or condone) Palmer’s song. The problem is that ‘rape’ in current society still disguises a massive contradiction.

On the one hand, the regular trivialisation of rape by masculine comedians and openly sexist commentators, suggests to the public ear that it is time we all grew up a bit and stopped making a fuss about rape. Is this okay? No, it really pisses me off. I like shock comedy as a form, because it shocks me and I get a kick out of it; that’s why anyone who likes it likes it. Shock-jokes about rape piss me off because they expect us to forget people who are traumatised by rape have a very low chance of getting justice. They have been physically and sexually assaulted and the majority of the time, nothing happens to their attackers.

On the other hand, attempts to strictly police use of the word rape adds to the sense that it is the Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen. Yes rape is always wrong – if it’s not wrong, then rape is not the word for it. Consensual rape is an oxymoron, therefore rape should be condemned and, as long as we have a criminal justice system that will punish us for speeding, stealing, taking drugs or knocking someone’s teeth out (even if they deserve it), then anyone who rapes someone should be punished by that legal system and made in any way available within the law to relearn either their attitudes or their behaviour or both. Nevertheless, can we stop assuming that every incidence of non-consensual penetration is as bad as every other? Can we consider for one moment that, wrong as it is, someone might not be profoundly traumatised by rape?

Not every rape is the same. Surely it’s never the same. We’ve established that it’s always wrong, by definition. Consent is a cornerstone of decent life and if we defend or trivialise any non-consensual sex we are in serious trouble. We need women (and men) to come forward, those who have survived rape, and are not so damaged by the experience as you might expect, because they are not suffering from deep, long-lasting shame, or fear that being forced to relive the experience in the dock will damage them still further. This is not to distract us from the needs of victims of rape who do experience this shame and fear, but On Their Behalf.

Men who rape are not all the same – there is stupid scum, there is the pitiful, and there is vile scum. Not every single individual rapist will have to be reprimanded before culture swings in favour of the victims of rape. By ‘in favour’ here, I mean that someone who is raped can prosecute their attacker in the way someone who is robbed can prosecute the burglar – okay it might not work, but if you’re really goddamn angry then you can give it a try. Generally if you know WHO committed a burglary you are doing really well already. Vulnerable and broken victims should not have to do this work on behalf of those who have the resources to carry on with their lives. It should be the other way around.

Amanda Palmer’s splendid song is quite blatantly a parody, suggesting that people’s obsession with pop culture can be so intense a distraction from real life it can dwarf the nastiest experiences. Yes I get it now. Why was I confused? Because culturally, we still think ‘rape’ is one big, unspeakably terrible thing, that happens mainly to women and causes them almost irreparable damage. There are lots of different kinds of rape and different kinds of victims. Only victims who are not in shame can change this culture.

Problems without solutions

Well I have asked myself a difficult question now, and one I can no longer keep asking you lot and avoiding myself – not if I want this blog to have any integrity whatsoever, or rather, to relate to it’s title!

My epic-fail example of asexual sleeping together (see Confession Part 1) and Marnia Robinson’s case studies illuminate the problem we are facing in the same way – albeit from two sides of the same coin. Her witnesses are amazed that their cuddling worked out, despite obstacles so obvious that we can all just fill them in. Then they loved it. On reading these I get the sneaking suspicion that, although some are clearly not destined to couple up, some could well go that way – in time – precisely because they have created a safe space to share love and affection. By subverting the expectations of sex, they have laid the foundation for trust that many couples never achieve.

What? Yes, here I believe there is a real problem. Many couples who don’t develop open communication about sex and non-sexual cuddling experience some anxiety almost every night: whether it’s about getting or not-getting sex or about giving or not-giving sex. The biggest stereotype is the sex-hungry man and the exhausted woman, but whatever truth there is in that, we know it will be happening in every possible combination, every night. In a relationship, do you know with certainty before you go to bed at night, every night, whether you want to be sexual with your partner or not and whether they do? How can we ever have this certainty?

Before I list so many problems I start to give up hope, bear with me while I try to break it down a bit:

  • It is normal for human beings to cuddle, and this includes to cuddle overnight – an obvious winner in any geographical region not sweltering at 30° all year round (IMHO).

  • Most adults in the West (which is all I know about) only share a bed with another adult regularly when they are in a sexual relationship with that person.

  • Couples may enjoy non-sexual cuddling at night, or may feel tense about sexual willingness/performance, depending on clear communication about sexual desire.

  • While many couples do enjoy non-sexual cuddling, a lot of people who are not paired up sexually miss out on night time skin contact or even clothed contact, maybe for years on end…

The so-called cuddle sluts show all this perfectly: we are conditioned to pair up and to keep sex in couples. People who have casual sex while not paired up don’t get guarantees for the level of pure cuddle contact they’ll get from temporary lovers. Which brings me back to my first aim with this blog: a nosy-as-hell call out to those of you in-betweeners who evade the strictures of a trad relationship – for whatever reasons – but have established bed relationships which do include affection and trust. Maybe one person, maybe several, maybe never the same person twice; maybe you had sex only to find you both wanted the cuddle more and struck a deal…

This is not to forget that a lot of people are engaged in non-trad relationships with unique rules, no rules, multiple partners and so on ad delirium and infinitum. Do these experiences enlighten us about the path to a cuddling world? You tell me. And what about age? Do young adults and older teens spend more time sleeping in beds with friends, without sex, than older people? Do you know?  Tell me tell me tell me.

Friends – ‘Platonic’

Now I confess I am not researching the term ‘Platonic’ before I write this bit. But I think lots of friends of the same sex, and maybe some of opposite sexes, feel quite comfortable with the lack of sexual tension between them, and such friends would benefit a lot from sleeping together from time to time.

This may seem a bit ridiculous to some people, because if you live with a monogamous sexual partner, you already have someone to sleep with every night. There are two responses to this. On the one hand, lots of people do not sleep with a monogamous sexual partner every night. Some couples don’t sleep together every night. Many people aren’t in a relationship of that kind, some because they don’t want to be.

On the other hand, people who are in a long-term relationship and live together are often under enormous pressure to keep being nice to each other every day and night, which can be extremely difficult, even if you are very much in love. A break is as good as a change, and does the world of good. Every partner who goes out with somebody else to the cinema or for dinner or for drinks, or meets up with groups of friends, or travels from time to time, knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Problems? Of course there are problems. A single person bedding down with a friend who is attached is at risk of suspicion of sexual motives – they both are – but this is also true of two single people or two who are attached (to others). This is not a frivolous action however. Sleeping together is not about getting drunk and giving the finger to possessive partners. This is serious science.

I once listened to an American man talking about a group of college boys he had taught. In his classes they must have discussed male homosexuality – his talk was about homosexuality in American history. Brave enough to discuss it again out of class, a group of the boys, being by social training strongly anti-homosexual, discovered that they shared a deep fear that if they were alone at night with another man they would have sexual feelings for them.

Some of his students came to him and told him they had got naked together and slept together but had not been aroused. They were jubilant. They had not discovered that they were latently homosexual, just that there was no reason to fear intimacy.

The core problem with Platonic friends sleeping together is not the reactions of others. It is the fear of becoming aroused, or of the other becoming aroused, and of being rejected, or having to reject the other, or not being able to reject the other … and losing or damaging the friendship. Someone who fancies you might well suggest sleeping together for scientific purposes so they can test your sexual boundaries from a much closer vantage point. Experiments must therefore be conducted with a great deal of honest communication up front.

Coming soon: Open relationships – a witness’ perpsective

Jealousy

Jealousy can be mild and flattering and endearing, and sometimes it gets violent and murderous. None of us are immune to feelings of insecurity. When somebody loves us and makes us feel secure we are bound to want to avoid losing them. The more we doubt our own worth, the more likely we are to suspect that a lover will find somebody better than us and jump ship. Sadly, the more we mistrust somebody, the more likely they are to believe that they can never make us happy and leave anyway.

One strong possible reason for sexual jealousy in men is (bio)logical: doubt about the paternity of one’s offspring. If you are 100% certain that you are the only man your partner has slept with in a certain period of time, you will feel secure that you are the father if a baby comes along. Add to this thousands of years of habit. Men apparently being in control of their wives in public is one example – even if a woman is very clear that she is not interested in sex with anyone else, a man can still experience pressure from other people to show her ‘who’s in charge’.

Why do women get jealous? Women being ‘provided for’ is another example of habit – even though most women work very hard, it is still true that a lot of women have depended on men for material security – for money or protection from other men. More or less intentionally, we have created societies in which men control financial resources far more than women do. If another woman is attracted to her partner a woman might be afraid of losing her income, her home, her family, her survival, not just her lover. Sexual prestige can also be as important for many women as it is for many men.

Why do same-sex partners get jealous? As above, everybody has insecurities – while being in a loving relationship can help us feel valued, special, wanted, etc., it also gives us something really big which we can lose. People leave, people die, people disappear. Every pair bond is as vulnerable to death and decay as our own bodies. While the idea that the only way to be happy is to be paired off is a rather horrible one, when it works well coupledom has a lot of rewards and couples don’t want to give them up without a fight.

In theory, we should only be committed to one sexual partner if we genuinely don’t want more than one. Sometimes people vow to stick to one without meaning it, because they love and want that person and don’t see the possibility of living happily if they are honest. Oftentimes one can be a lot. Some people decide to have no sexual relationships. Sex can be an incredibly powerful form of communication (especially when it’s done well and with a good listener) – we don’t want to be doing it so much that we can’t hear ourselves think.

Even in relationships where partners agree that sex with other people is allowed, jealousy is common and understandable. Jealousy is always understandable. How we express jealousy is what matters. The Sleep Project is not a way to make somebody jealous, or to test your ability to overcome jealousy. It’s a way to free ourselves from the causes of jealousy.