(And it's not because I'm a super sexy minx. Sorry.)
I used to be intimidated by people who wrote about sex, even long after I started writing about it myself.
Not all people who wrote about sex -- some of them were my friends, and I wasn't intimidated by them at all. But as a generalized category, I thought that people who wrote about sex -- or who framed their social media presence around their sexuality -- existed on a different plane to people like me.
Where I was all intellect and ambivalence, they seemed to be all body and certainty. They were people who had somehow, magically, had excised any remaining fear and anxiety around sexuality from their lives and replaced it with a self-delighted sauciness. I feared that if we were to ever sit down face to face, they would immediately see through me, identify me as someone who wasn't "doing it" (whatever "it" might be -- sex, feminism, sex positivity) right.
The irony, of course, is that people now think the same thing about me. That because I write about sex, I must be particularly sexual. That I must be enamored by my own sauciness. To which my internal response is: "No. You don't get me at all."
I'm not the only one. Around this time last year, I was interviewing Clarisse Thorn, a BDSM blogger and author of The S&M Feminist, for my own book, The Sex Myth. We were talking about an article she had written for The Good Men Project, about the difference between performing pleasure and actually experiencing it, and I expressed surprise that in her younger years, she too had struggled with feels of sexual inadequacy. She was a sex writer, after all. And one who wrote about kink, at that.
But this was a common misconception, she told me. Clarisse didn't get into BDSM because she was, as she put it, "hypersexual or a sex goddess." She got into it -- and started writing about it -- because it helped her to work through those feelings of inadequacy, and because in those early days especially, it was the only type of sex that felt authentic to her. Where vanilla sex meant playing the role of the "Sex Crazy Nympho Dream Girl," she felt able to react naturally to her BDSM partners without performing.
And there you have it -- the secret truth about sex writers. Most of us don't write about sex because we are more sexual than other people, or because we are enamored with our own sauciness. Most of us write about it because sex has been a source of discomfort for us. Because writing is the way that we work through the problem, and the means through which we (hope to) decrease the shame and discomfort that so many others feel when it comes to sex.
That is to say, we are just like (almost) everyone else.
For me -- as you will have probably gathered if you follow my work -- my source of shame and discomfort is the fear that I am not sexual enough (or more accurately, sufficiently "sexy" in a performative kind of way). But we live in a society with a veritable phone book of ways to make people feel ashamed of their sexuality.
Some people are shamed for being too sexual, or at least being perceived that way (I've been on the receiving end of that side of the shaming equation, too). Others are made to feel ashamed for having experienced sexual assault or abuse. Some are ashamed of the size and shape of their genitals, while others feel shame because they can't orgasm, or because instead of feeling pleasure during sex, they feel a searing pain. Some people are embarrassed because they have an STI, because they are kinky, because they are attracted to what society tells them are the "wrong" people, or because society has told them that their own bodies could not possibly ever be attractive.
One reason this sense of sexual shame is so common is because as ubiquitous as sex appears to be on the surface of our culture, it is also shrouded in an air of mystery. Most people don't really talk about sex. And we especially don't talk about those aspects of our sex lives that make us feel uncomfortable or uncool.
It's also because we live in a society in which sex is intimately tied to our sense of personal value. What we do with our bodies when it comes sex is treated as a window into our desirability, the state of our intimate relationships, how much other people want to be around us, and our success as functioning human beings. This means that any decisions we make when it comes to sex are loaded with a heavy weight -- as the American anthropologist Gayle Rubin puts it, "small differences in value or behavior are experienced as cosmic threats."
The consequence is that when we feel different in some aspect of our sexuality, it's usually not a value-free proposition. Instead, our difference is experienced as a symptom of lack -- and as something we are experiencing alone. Too often, we feel like we are the only ones not marching to the beat of the same sexual drum.
For me, it was the realization that I was not alone in feeling this lack that led me to want to write about sex. It came as a revelation and a relief to me: the realization that I wasn't the only one failing to live out the script that had been written out for me, that so many others were going through the same thing, in one thousand different ways. And if these people were "different" and they were okay, that meant that I might be okay, too.
Last weekend, I went to CatalystCon, a sex-positive conference in Washington, D.C. Like my old self perhaps, the one I described at the beginning of this post, I walked in expecting that many of the people there would be self-consciously sexually confident; that they would if not "see through me," then at least see me as someone who didn't belong.
But that wasn't the case -- at least, not in the way that I had imagined. Most people at CatalystCon were sexually confident in the sense that they were unafraid to engage in honest, shame-free conversations about sex. For them, as for me, sex is just a "thing." That people do. Or don't do. Which is no more dirty or salacious than anything else humans do or don't do. Some of the people I met wore their sexuality on their sleeves, either personally or professionally, but it wasn't a demand or an expression of "cool" so much as, as the Buzzfeed generation puts it, "you do you."
More than anything, what I walked away with was a profound sense of community and belonging; with this magnificent assortment of people who engaged with sex critically, intelligently, and with a sense of openness, non-judgement, and possibility.
Perhaps the most powerful session I attended at the conference was one on cultivating resilience to sexual shame, in which three sex-positive writers and sex educators shared their own experiences with shame and stigma, and the healing and connection they had found through sharing their points of shame with their communities. Listening to them speak, I felt those same feelings of revelation and relief that I had felt when I had the first conversations that inspired me to write The Sex Myth. And I realized that no matter what the particulars of our own sexual histories and experiences, that's what all of us who identify as sex positive are fighting for: for the freedom of others to follow their own sexual paths without feeling the same shame that we did. To find commonality in our differences.
And of all the responses I've heard from advance readers of The Sex Myth so far, that has been one of the most heartening and fulfilling: the sense of camaraderie and solidarity with the individuals whose stories are shared within its pages, even when their stories are different from our own.
When it comes to sex, too many of us carrying around a weight of shame, stigma and secrecy. But we are stronger when we carry that weight together.
A version of this post originally appeared on RachelHills.tumblr.com.
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