It is a curious thing to tell the person I am dating on any given week that I write about sex. This opens the door for all kinds of assumptions, but most of my work is concerned with sexual ethics and moral construction. Even saying this, my dates surely hear me saying things that sound incongruent. Talking to others in the sex field, almost every conversation ends with a sometimes frustrated, sometimes blissful sigh and an agreement that there are many ways to talk about sex.
Finding myself once again in one of those conversations, I started to write down some of those "many ways," making a few notes with them.
- Biological: Sexuality activity seen in terms of mating behavior and physiological response. Functionality is of primary concern with considerable attention given to genetics, chemical balances, etc.
- Communal: Similar to sociological in that it is concerned with cultural, but more focused to local and immediate context (i.e. friends, immediate peer group, etc.) Sex is about securing social bonds and relational stabilization.
- Economic: Sex is a series of exchanges by which we achieve goals, valuation, or a degree of power; marriage and prostitution are both "transactions" by which we feel valued and are valuing our partner(s).
- Ethical: Considers sex in terms of ethical norms on what is "right/wrong" and why.
- Familial: Even more focused than the "communal" lens, the familial is primarily about what we learned from family and friends while growing up; relates to what is "permissible" among those who are closes to us.
- Gendered: Sex is about finding meaning in gender roles (ex: "feeling/ making our partner feel like a man/woman," negotiation of initiator/responder, etc.)
- Historical: Discussions of sex in this lens tend to focus on mating behavior over time (i.e. evolutionary biology) and comparisons between today and some previous point.
- Individual: Fulfillment of individual wants; self-fulfilling desires are the primary motivator of all sexual activity and expression.
- Moral: Considers sex in terms of personal conviction on what is "right/wrong" and why.
- Personal: Individual experience(s) and context; personal trauma; most sensitive lens in that it is the most difficult to communicate and resides firmly in the mind and emotions of the individual, consciously or otherwise. Different from "individual."
- Physical: The most "practical" lens, in that is looks only at the physicality of sex; positions; intentional body awareness; sexual expression over the life cycle, etc.
- Psychological: How sexual identity and desires affect the individual; includes discussion of gender identity and what role, if any, our desires have on us.
- Relational: Sexual understanding between ourselves and partner(s).
- Sociological: Role and effect of sexual expression in broad cultures (ex: "European" or "California") not to be confused with communal which is local.
- Theological: Considers the role of religious identity and spiritual context; not specifically any particular religion as this is a broad spectrum of what we think, feel, and believe our faith tradition promotes or denies; considers sex alongside deeply held convictions and existential concerns (i.e. the "moral" or "ethical" lens) within a religious framework.
These lenses are not comprehensive, but are certainly a strong start to understanding what is meant when we discuss sex. When friends or colleagues ask me my thoughts on the topic, I find that it is helpful to locate which lens they are using first. To try and talk about the physicality of sex with someone when they are instead discussing it abstractly makes for a strange conversation indeed! This is, however, what happens so frequently when we discuss sex and sexuality -- we find that we are coming from entirely different perspectives and feeling a measure of unsettlement.
As with anything of interest, our attention will shift over time. The physical lens of high school sex-ed class (or teenage masturbatory exploration) leads into a personal awareness and later a relational understanding. Bawdy humor at a dinner party will be misunderstood, leading us to explain no, no, I was just joking! from which we will become more sensitive to personal experience. Knowing that our thoughts and attentions will change over time, indeed that we are often using multiple lenses -- such as when we discussing the interaction of biological, psychological and physical response -- can help us understand where we are coming from ourselves, and articulate what we really mean with one another. Indeed, as much as we talk about sex, it is still a confusing topic. Every measure of understanding between one another could very well make for better relationships and a more stimulating sexual experience.