I was recording a podcast last week (shoutout Hypotheticast!) and we got into one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard regarding sex: if you could change something about the way society perceives or approaches sex, what would it be?
If you want to hear my first thoughts, check out the Hypotheticast in a few weeks and listen to me talk about things! But because the ‘cast is supposed to be quick, fun type things, I had more thoughts and I wanted to share them here.
There are a few nice, obvious answers to this: virginity as a construct, the idea that sex has to be just two people or PIV sex, the idea that sex is something you can take from another person…but boy oh boy do I have a lot of thoughts about the ways that queer, kinky, polyamorous, and asexual communities can really expand our definitions of sex and I want to get all the way into it here.
The many problems with the concept of virginity have been discussed ad nauseum on other parts of the internet, but I do think that the pervasiveness of “virginity” points towards a larger attitude about sex that I truly hate. This attitude is summed up by the statement “sex is a threshold”. I touch on this in the podcast, but I want to get into more depth here, because I think that this attitude, that sex is a line and when you pass it everything changes, extends into almost every realm of sex.
It’s easy to see what I’m talking about when we look at virginity: there’s before you have sex and after you have sex. Supposedly (especially for women) this is a huge change in your life that makes you into a totally different person, or changes your worth or purity, or marks a big moment in your life. But the idea that sex changes everything extends far beyond that.
As I mention in the podcast there is something called the relationship escalator, so called because you can only go one direction. Sex is a huge part of this; once you have sex with someone, many people believe that it changes the relationship forever. You can never go back to NOT having sex without it being a big damn deal (a breakup or something similar).
In fact we’re so obsessed with how sex changes a relationship that we have whole stand up routines about when you should have sex for the first time (is it three dates? first date??), we make snap judgments about people who have sex on the first date, there are tons of tropes about men who will disappear once they get sex, and entire segments of our population are convinced that if you have sex before marriage then you have sinned. Many people who don’t think that are even willing to concede that you should be very very careful about who you have sex with, because having sex will create a deep, emotional bond or make the relationship inherently more serious. Wowsers, apparently one activity completely changes relationships in a way that no other activity does.
In addition to the way that we see sex within any individual relationship, we also see it as a bar that determines which of our relationships are important and which are not. Sex supposedly makes a relationship more important. Relationships in which we have sex are seen as more serious, and are supposed to take more of your time and attention than relationships that don’t include sex. It’s a threshold that determines whether a relationship is real or not.
Sex is seen as a threshold and once you’ve passed it you can’t go back.
Tied into this is the idea that romance and sex are inextricably linked, and in some cases even the same thing. When we’re talking about attraction, many people think that there’s just one type and that it encompasses both sexual and romantic attraction. In reality those are two different things. One is the desire to have sex with someone. The other is those happy warm butterfly feelings you get when you just want to be around someone. But for many people this threshold view of sex includes the idea that romance needs sex, and that until it includes sex it’s not real or legitimate. It also implies that if you have a romantic relationship with someone you WANT sex with someone, and your relationship will be aiming towards sex.
Unfortunately, none of this is really how human beings actually work.
Sometimes we have sex with someone and then realize hey, this doesn’t work for me, and want to go back to being friends. Some people are asexual and have fulfilled romantic relationships that don’t include sex. For some people, the most important relationship in their life is entirely platonic and will never include sex: it might be a friend. And in fact there are other elements of a relationship that will often determine how important it is than whether you’re having sex. Sure, for some people sex is a sign of commitment, but it’s a pretty limited view of humans to assume that all of us connect with each other in exactly the same way. I for example become far more committed if I have long conversations with someone than if I have sex with them. Some people even manage to have sex with multiple people without it becoming a big concern about who is their One (polyamory is real y’all).
People have all different reactions to having sex. For some people it can change relationships in a big way. But for other people it really doesn’t, and putting this hyper focus on sex in relationships rather than letting people figure out for themselves what really makes relationships for them can give people tons of hang ups. It means that sex becomes a huge, scary thing and we become VERY concerned about who is having sex with whom when really it’s nobody’s business. It also limits the ways that we can organize our relationships. People have the ability to have so many different types of relationships, but when we make sex a marker like this, we tell people that there is one type of relationship that should be the most important. In my experience, when society says that there is one way to live your life that is acceptable or “normal”, a lot of people who don’t naturally work that way end up screwed over.
We also have lots of weird ideas about how much sex people should be having. We assume that everyone wants sex, or that everyone SHOULD want sex (if you don’t then there’s probably something wrong with you, you’re sick or traumatized or repressed), but at the same time we seem to believe that the more partners you have, the less important each one is. There’s a lot to unpack there. First, not everyone has the same physical relationship with sex. Some people have low libidos, some people have high libidos. Some people have been raped or traumatized by sex and feel pretty uncomfortable with it. Some people orgasm a lot and others don’t. Not everyone wants sex, and the divide is not along gender lines as many people think. Asexual people are real, and they don’t feel sexual attraction at all. Some of them are sex repulsed, or simply not interested in sex. Many people assume that sex is always better than no sex: sex is inherently good. That’s just not true. Sex can be a negative or neutral experience for all sorts of reasons.
The other major problem with statements about how much sex we should be having and with how many different people is the idea that if you do something with more people, it becomes less meaningful. I have news for you friends: I could pet every cat in the world, and it would not make my cuddles with my sweet, dear, departed Sid Vicious any less precious. Giving your time and attention to someone isn’t diminished because you also care about other people. In some ways this harkens back to the threshold view of sex: you’re supposed to have one relationship of the sex/romantic type, and it is the most important one. If you move two relationships up to that point, then neither one is the most important. Neither is getting its due. But literally all of that is bullshit. There is no reason that sex is the one type of romantic that needs to be exclusive. There’s no reason that of all the things in the world, sex is the only one that gets worse if you share (no friends, that’s chicken pox). And let’s be honest, there is something weird and arbitrary about saying that everyone loves fucking but you should only love fucking one person or it’s BAD AND WRONG.
Basically if I could change one thing about how society perceives sex, I would make it less important. Sure, sex is cool. But we create this whole mythos around it. It becomes so intensely important to us: we make moral judgments about it, we want to know who’s having sex with whom, we worry we’re not having enough sex or about sex addiction. It’s just one activity that people can do together out of hundreds of thousands of possibilities. Let’s just all calm down. It doesn’t matter that much.