It’s not about the orgasms: on the importance of sex positivity

(Trigger warning: brief discussion of rape culture)

Occasionally, I run into people who ask me why I feel compelled to talk publicly about sex all the time. (Often, these people are my older relatives.) Partly, it’s that I’m a very open person. My close friends all know that there’s basically no such thing as “too much information” with me, and anyone I’ve talked to for more than ten minutes has probably heard some ridiculous story involving some kind of young person shenanigans. But my openness about sex goes way beyond my lack of personal boundaries. I talk about sex because I’m a huge fan of sex positivity as a force for social good.

Sex positivity, for me, is all about destigmatizing sex. It’s rooted in the belief that sex is something natural, and that however you’re choosing to be sexual (monogamous or not, regardless of your gender or your partner’s gender, with as many or as few people as you’d like) is perfectly fine. As long as what you’re doing is between consenting adults, you’re good. And if you’re asexual or choose to abstain from sex for personal, moral, religious or any other set of reasons, that’s perfectly fine too (as long as you don’t try to legislate compliance with your particular breed of morality).

A lot of people have talked a lot about the benefits of sex-positivity when you’re actually having sex with people. I’ve found in my own experience that feeling comfortable with your sexual desires leads to better communication and way more fun in bed. My friend has an awesome list of sex tips based on our experience together that reflect this idea pretty well if you’re not sold yet. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now, because the importance of sex positivity goes way beyond having good sex.

Being sex positive is a deeply political act with hugely important consequences. In a culture which stigmatizes sexual activity, female pleasure, non-heterosexual orientations, trans* people, bodies which don’t conform to beauty ideals or gender expectations and a whole host of other things, having mutually fulfilling sex with another person sometimes feels like a revolutionary act. In this context, sex positivity hasn’t just given me lots of good orgasms. It’s also the reason I’ve been able to have healthy, successful relationships, love and respect myself and my body, remain STI-free and help friends out in tricky situations. I don’t say this as a “Look at me, I’m doing everything so well!” I say it because I think it’s important to recognize what people are attacking when they try to make moral arguments about sex, and how much sex negativity spills over into mental and physical health.

By teaching that desire is normal and fine and that women can be sexual, sex positivity moves away from the conquest model of sex. Popular culture often promotes the idea that sex is a conquest—men are pursuing women, women are being coy and shy and demure. Women are expected to fend off male advances; men are expected to be aggressive and know that women often say no when they mean something else. Unsurprisingly, this cultural construct directly leads to sexual assault (and also ignores non-binary identities and non-heterosexual relationships). If men are taught that no doesn’t mean no, and if women are taught that they should give in to men, problems are going to ensue. This is something that the anti-sex crowd doesn’t like to acknowledge, but promoting the idea that sex=bad also contributes directly to rape culture. If all sex is bad or immoral, then non-consensual acts just become another form of immoral conduct. There are religious traditions where all sex outside of marriage is considered immoral—doesn’t matter if it was consensual or not.

Sex positivity, in contrast, promotes what I would call a communication model of sex. Because I was taught that my body and my desires were okay, I’ve always felt comfortable articulating what I want and need in sexual situations. When I had partners who wanted to go further than I did, I was able to bring it up with them. On the rare occasion that someone hasn’t respected my boundaries, I’ve been able to articulate that clearly and unambiguously, and it’s generally resulted in an immediate apology. When I wanted to be sexual with people, I felt confident enough in my own desires to talk about it with them (instead of adhering to Cosmo’s advice to just slap some handcuffs on your guy in bed without any conversation). When I’ve had partners propose things in bed that seemed weird to me, I knew enough to talk it outwith them instead of saying, “OMG WHAT YOU LIKE THAT GROSS!” Not surprisingly, my long-term relationships have benefitted from this communication. I’ve been able to enjoy good sex in an environment where I felt comfortable saying something if things weren’t working out.

This confidence also translates into physical health realm. Not being ashamed of sex means I haven’t been ashamed to seek out medical care when I need it. (I’ve also been privileged enough to have access to high-quality, affordable medical care for my whole life.) I’ve gotten comprehensive STI testing every year and felt comfortable seeking out medical care for things like yeast infections. I’ve asked questions about birth control and abortions, been able to choose methods of preventing pregnancy that were right for me, and checked in regularly with my gynecologist and sexual partners about those methods. The fact that I am able to do that is thanks to decades of fighting for reproductive healthcare. The fact that I feel comfortable doing it has a lot to do with the way I was raised to think about sex.

As a spillover benefit, the fact that I’m vocal about these issues means that friends seek me out for advice. I’ve given advice to friends dealing with everything from broken condoms to pain during intercourse. I’ve helped multiple people get emergency contraception when they needed it. And I know that I’ve been helped immensely by the presence of other sex positive people in my life. I’ve sought out advice from my friends for all kinds of things like this, and I’m better off and healthier for it.

I have a decent number of friends who are uncomfortable with sex—some of them think it’s something wrong, others just think it should be private and not openly discussed. And while I respect those opinions, I think a public conversation about sex is essential, especially as long as we live in a culture which stigmatizes the act itself and those who enjoy it. Talking openly about sex isn’t about bragging, and it isn’t about having amazing orgasms. It’s about health, both physical and mental. It’s about preventing unwanted pregnancies. It’s about promoting body positivity and fighting rape culture. It’s about declaring—unambiguously, clearly, proudly—that this is my body, and I’m going to enjoy all of the things it can do.

The power of stories

Campus is relatively deserted now, and watching all my senior friends walk across the stage at graduation has gotten me thinking about what I’ve learned here at Whitman over the past semester. This semester in particular, my classes and extracurriculars all interacted in a complimentary way. Weirdly, the big idea I’ve gotten out of this hasn’t been some academic theory or new conceptual framework for viewing the world. It’s a really simple thought—that the stories we tell are fundamentally important for understanding, constructing and changing society.

Right now, you’re thinking, Yeah Rachel, duh. I know, it’s not the most original thing in the world. But over the past four months, I’ve explored the idea of narrative and story from enough angles that I think there’s a deeper edge to my understanding.

I only had three real classes this semester—Political Ecology, Environmental Communication and The Nature Essay. Aside from school, most of my free time was spent writing for the Pioneer, telling stories about campus life. This combination created a lot of tension in my head, possibly due to the different expectations each of these classes came with:

Political Ecology: It’s easy to get seduced by good writing, so be careful of that and learn to deconstruct the author’s assumptions.

Nature Essay: We’re going to learn to seduce readers with our writing.

Environmental Communication: We’re going to analyze stories to see what they’re really saying and how we can use rhetorical practice to get our message across when talking about the environment.

The Pioneer: Write stories. Don’t be biased.

I definitely had a few nights where political ecology me got in the way of writing my nature essays, because I was freaking out about accurate representations of everything and the political implications of the words I was using. But all in all, that synthesis has been a really good thing. It’s such a healthy challenge to be critically interrogating language that perpetuates systematic oppression while also trying to write lyrically for a general audience—people who have never heard of things like hegemonic masculinity or gender dysphoria. It’s pushed me to become a far better writer, because I have to constantly think about the subtle implications of the way I’m portraying “reality.”

Stories, to be sure, can be insidious. When something is presented as fictional, it’s easy to not question the social norms it’s reinforcing. And when something is presented as “reality” or “objective journalism,” it’s easy to not look for the biases that shape everything anybody writes. News always involves choices—about which stories to print and not to print, about who to talk to, about how to present the issue in question. And it doesn’t take too many articles like the recent New York Times piecesexualizing and dehumanizing a trans woman who died in a fire to see the ways in which the stories we tell both reflect and shape our societal norms about how people should be treated.

With examples like that, it’s easy to get depressed about writing. But fundamentally, episodes like this reinforce the idea that there is power in the written word. For me, that’s a hopeful and inspiring place to be. I’ve seen this firsthand interacting with friends in the wake of my trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. You can argue facts and logic about immigration policy all day, and you’ll probably get people to agree with you. But it’s in the stories—the human, the personal, the stuff that hits close to home—where people actually listen. I’ve spouted immigration stats to friends who didn’t care much, and then seen their eyes open when I recount a story or show them the essay I wrote after that trip was over. People get it so much more quickly when there’s a narrative. Ditto with my articles about rape on the Whitman campus. I guarantee that the dialogue we’ve had on campus about sexual assault didn’t happen because of the statistics about how many reported sexual assaults occur every year. They happened because some incredible women were brave enough to share their stories with me, and those stories connected with people in a way that numbers can’t.

I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of being a writer. With the world so screwed up in so many ways, trying to make a living stringing words together seems silly and self-indulgent. And it is, to an extent. Writing won’t be enough to solve the world’s problems, and I don’t want it to be my whole life. But if I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that those stories aren’t meaningless. In the written word, there is both the power to define and shape reality, and the responsibility to do it fairly, accurately. In writing, I see the seeds of radicalism, of building something better. It’s not enough, but it’s definitely a place to start.

Building a border wall

My alarm on Monday went off at 3:40 a.m. After a cursory attempt to get dressed and put my contacts in, I walked out the door fifteen minutes later with a mug of green tea. My heart was racing as I walked to the library. Starting at four, a group began to assemble on the front steps. All told, there were about ten of us. We carried wooden pallets and metal stakes from cars, busted out the hammers and nails, and got to work. Our task was simple: to build a border wall.

After two hours of work, we’d driven stakes into the grass, put the pallets on top, and stapled cardboard to the whole thing. Our wall stretched from the library to the tennis courts, blocking off a funnel pathway for students walking to and from class.

We spray-painted the side facing the library with graffiti in a variety of languages—German, Arabic, Spanish, English—and made references to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Berlin Wall and the Israeli occupation.  This side was the “occupied” side of the border, the side that traditionally has graffiti on it.

I added my favorite piece of graffiti from the U.S.-Mexico border wall, though it’s since been painted over: Las parades vueltas de lado son puentes. Walls turned on their sides are bridges.

The other side was blank, except for a large proclamation: International Border. Please have documents ready.

It wasn’t a serious impediment to travel—people could easily go around the library or through the tennis courts—but it was big enough that people had to stop and look at it, think about how they could navigate around.

I won’t speak for the other members of the group, but I was motivated to participate in this project because of my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border over spring break. Spending a week in the Arizona borderlands made it abundantly clear to me just how much is broken about our immigration policies, their enforcement, and the very notion of a border in the first place.

The wait to get a legal visa for Mexican nationals is currently about twenty years if you already have a close relative living in the U.S., and the U.S. government has yet to recognize the drug-related violence in Mexico as a legitimate conflict, which means people threatened with death can’t apply to get asylum. U.S. policies, including free-trade agreements like NAFTA, the continued criminalization of drugs and the unwillingness to stop weapons from being smuggled into Mexico, account for many of the problems pushing people north—realities that our immigration laws largely refuse to consider.

Border fence from Arizona, near Nogales.

The U.S. enforces its immigration laws through a physical border in the Southwest, which pushes migrants into the desert, where many die of dehydration and other injuries in the attempt to cross into the United States. Still, to focus only on that physical border fence would be disingenuous. The U.S.-Mexico border has worked its way into communities across the country, and the line separating us from them is redrawn constantly in day-to-day interactions between citizens, migrants, law enforcement, government officials and the mixed-status families affected by immigration policy.

In short, U.S. border and immigration policies have combined to make movement a privilege, something accorded based on citizenship and skin color. As a U.S. citizen, I can enter 90 countries around the world with no visa, including virtually every Latin American nation. If I want to walk into Nogales for a day of shopping, I’m free to do so. Driving through the American Southwest, I can sail through Border Patrol checkpoints without having to show ID—my whiteness is enough to tell the uniformed men that I “belong” in this country.

Border Patrol checkpoint near Tucson, AZ

Perhaps most insidiously, these things are simply part of my life. Part of having these privileges is not having to think about them. When I flash my passport coming back to the U.S. from Mexico, I don’t have to consider that the blind luck of being born in the States has given me the ability to move freely from country to country. I don’t have to think about the fact that there are people moving through the desert around me who might die in the attempt to simply make it into my country, even without any guarantee of legal status in the future. My family will never be split by deportation, unable to reunite on either side of the border because it’s too risky.

For me, this is the value in building a border wall on campus. Whitman students as a group are largely privileged. Virtually all of us are U.S. citizens, and international students are generally here with documentation and visas. There are fewer than a dozen undocumented students on campus. For most of us, movement is not a privilege we have to think about. Most of us will never encounter a border that we are not legally allowed to cross. Most of us will never have to consider the possibility of being deported.

When we first put the wall up, students reacted to it. It made crossing the path impossible, so people were forced to interact with it. Some students were frustrated by the boundary. I overheard several comments such as, “I don’t get the point of this,” “This is ridiculous, it’s in a public space,” and “It’s not fair; they’re blocking the path.” A lot of people stopped to read the graffiti. But every single person, no matter their thoughts on the project, had to think about it. At the very least, they had to consider their own movement—how can I get around this wall?

I was tired after our 4a.m. construction call, so after breakfast with the construction team, I went back to sleep from 8 to 10:30. After my nap, I went back to look at the wall. Apparently, we’d frustrated some people enough that they felt compelled to knock down two pallets in the middle of the wall. It was a small gap, but it changed the wall completely. With the hole there, students no longer had to think about their movement. Some still stopped to look at the graffiti, but far more walked by talking with friends or texting.

If there’s one lesson I got out of this, it’s that reconceiving the ability to move as privilege is a challenge. I think it’s important for people to recognize the things they take for granted, and important to push people to think about what those things are. I had a ton of fun building the wall, and I hope that we were able to get at least a few Whitties thinking about all the borders in the world, visible and invisible, that have much more serious implications than just being a minute late to class.