Sex is a Gift: Creepy or Explanatory?

Many times when people who are not of the fundamentalist persuasion hear the phrase “sex is a gift that you give your partner” we shudder. We cringe. It sounds objectifying and just kind of weird. It’s often code for the idea that you owe your partner your body, and that your body must be undamaged, or only for them. There are good reasons to dislike that phrase, especially in contexts that are promoting virginity and purity culture.

I recently used the wording of sex as a gift in a blog post at Skepchick, and some people found that unacceptable or wrong. I’d like to explore here why we should or should not view sex as a gift. What are the implications of that? How is it helpful? What does it clarify?

So first, what is a gift? “A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.” By “thing” we often mean non-physical things. You can give someone the gift of time, kindness, an event, an enjoyable experience…there are all kinds of things we gift on each other. Generally when you’re in a relationship with someone, you give them gifts because you like and enjoy them and you want them to be happy. You give them things you think would enhance their life, their pleasure, or their well-being. Sometimes gifts come with strings attached, but hopefully if you have a good relationship with someone or if you’re a kind person, you give your gift out of the desire to make someone else happy.

Now how does that fit into sex? Generally we have sex with someone as an experience of mutual pleasure and an expression of affection and/or love (or at least if we have a positive relationship to consent we do). Generally it’s not a good idea to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex. But if you aren’t that interested in sex, is it moral for you to “gift” sex to your partner: take your time, your energy, your body, and give those things to the other person for a time in order to show affection and make them happier? It seems to me that this falls directly under the definition of a gift as traditionally understood, and that we often do things like this with other experiences that we don’t wholly enjoy. I’ve done things like take my guy to a baseball game even though I despise baseball, or try foods that scare me, because it makes my partner happy. I doubt anyone would say that my partner had done anything wrong by accepting those gifts, and I certainly didn’t think I had. I enjoyed making my partner happy.

What is it about sex that means we cannot or should not gift it in the same way we might a different experience that we don’t enjoy? One element of “sex as a gift” that many people seem to find upsetting is the idea that you can have unenthusiastic sex without it being rapey or creepy. This is understandable. Because sex is so intimate and involves your body so intimately, and because many people feel uncomfortable saying no, sex without enthusiasm can often feel unethical. In addition, when people try to signal their nonconsent through being unenthusiastic, it is often ignored. Enthusiasm is an important signal to consent, however there are other ways to express your consent (like with your words).

However if we go into unenthusiastic sex with our eyes open, it doesn’t have to be unethical. If one partner decides for themselves that they want to have sex with an enthusiastic partner, communicates that to their partner, and they then proceed, I don’t see how that is unethical. And the best word to describe that situation is, to me, gift. One person is choosing to give something without asking for something in return. I will say that this type of situation is incredibly rare, and one must exercise extreme caution not to pressure or coerce one’s partner into consenting to sex despite their lack of enthusiasm. And as the partner consenting without enthusiasm, it’s important to take care of yourself: you have to pay extremely close attention to whether you’re feeling used, unwanted, hurt, or uncomfortable and take that into account when granting your consent. But consenting without enthusiasm, giving a gift of a good time to your partner does not seem to me per se to be unethical.

There is however another element to sex as a gift that is troubling, and that’s the idea that sex as a gift involves giving your body as a gift. This is somewhat objectifying. Your body is more than just a thing for your partner to use. It’s you. Can you really give yourself as a gift for someone else to enjoy? I do see this as a potential problem with viewing sex as a gift rather than an experience shared together. However I will say that we do often use the phrasing “giving the gift of time” or “giving the gift of company”. There are other times and places that we view being present and reciprocating something as a gift, and a wholly acceptable and good one. I think that including your body complicates things, but again, we might imagine someone giving their partner a massage as a gift.

Overall I think this language is complicated. It may work for some people and some situations and it can be incredibly harmful in others. When we do use it, I think it’s important to specify that we’re not giving our bodies to each other, but that we’re giving someone our time and energy and joy because we love them and want them to be happy, and because we don’t see it as harming ourselves. A gift given that harms the giver (and I don’t mean involves some small sacrifice I mean truly harms) is a bad gift. A gift is not the same thing as turning oneself into a martyr or a sacrifice. And particularly if you want your relationship to continue to function in the long run, gifts should not come at the expense of your physical or mental well-being. Just like any other gift you give in a relationship, you can’t break the bank.

So perhaps the language of “gifts” does make sense, particularly in relationships where people have differing sex drives and need to have a conversation about consent that includes meeting everybody’s needs without harming everybody. When it’s surrounding things like virginity and purity? Probably not appropriate.

I’m Coming Out As Sex Negative

When I first came across this article explaining why the author is a sex negative feminist and how the reactions to that are oftentimes ridiculous, I found myself with the sort of feeling that someone who realizes they’re gay for the first time might have (perhaps I’m exaggerating a tad. I don’t want to steal that experience from anyone). But I did feel like I had finally found an understanding of the way I approached and felt about sex and a word for it and a reason why I had always felt out of synch with the people around me and their attitudes towards sex. It was a little bit like coming home: I wasn’t dirty or bad for having some negative thoughts about sex. I wasn’t a prude. There may actually be legitimate reasons to criticize sex from a feminist perspective!

 

You see I’ve always considered myself a sex positive feminist. What else would I be? I don’t think that people should be ashamed for having sex, and I myself have felt so negative around sex for so long that it only made sense to me that I should try to encourage attitudes that would make sex more positive and enjoyable for everyone around me. Sex is a good thing, everyone knows that! Consent is great. Not shaming people is great. Obvious. Self-explanatory.

 

Until I read this article. And I realized that maybe some of the reasons that I felt negatively about sex weren’t just that I’d had bad experiences with consent, but that the very nature of sexuality in a patriarchal culture is one that is political. There is a good reason that I had felt like sex was always a battlefield and that I was barely getting out alive and that’s because in many ways it is. The author does a better job of explaining why sex negativity is a worthwhile position than I can, as I’m just getting introduced to the term, but there is something I want to respond to in her article. She asks why it’s considered taboo or prudish to label oneself sex negative, or why sex positivity has become ubiquitous with mainstream feminism. I suspect I have a few answers.

 

The first and biggest answer is that sex has been used to shame and control people for a very, very long time. Not enjoying sex (especially as a woman) has been the status quo…pretty much always. Of course it feels like a radical act to suggest that women should enjoy sex, and it feels liberating and wonderful. When someone says they’re sex negative, people automatically jump to the idea that people should feel ashamed, people should not enjoy themselves, or people should not strive for positive and open sexual experiences. Because of all the shit in the past of sex, people are terrified of going back. Understandably. Sex positivity feels like the strongest barrier against shitty sex.

 

Unfortunately what this doesn’t take into account is the fact that even if you’re enjoying sex, there might still be negative aspects to it (such as continuation of patriarchal power structures). We can give people choices and still ask them to make responsible choices or hold them to higher standards. This response to sex negativity misses that sex negativity is TRYING to make sex better for everyone and trying to make society as a whole better for everyone by criticizing the things that make it fraught with patriarchal meaning.

 

And hand in hand with this fear of going back to the shame that we used to feel is the fact that when you have good sex you want EVERYONE to have good sex. Let’s use a different example. Let’s say you’ve been eating shitty Hershey’s chocolate all your life. You kinda know it’s shitty and that it comes from bad labor practices and then you finally get some nice free trade chocolate and it’s delicious and you feel AMAZING. You start telling your friends about this new chocolate. You start promoting your new chocolate. YOU LOVE THIS CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S DELICIOUS AND TASTES AWESOME AND WHO DOESN’T WANT CHOCOLATE? It’s a fact of human nature that when something makes you happy you don’t really like other people criticizing it. Have you seen Steven Moffat fans when someone tells them he’s sexist? Point in case.

 

So anyway, you’re going around loving this chocolate and stuffing it in the face of everyone who mentions they might want chocolate and then someone comes up to you and says they don’t like chocolate because it made them puke once. Also even if it’s fair trade it might still be part of a bad labor market. Maybe they should give some of the money for that expensive chocolate to charity instead. And also chocolate is maybe more of a sometimes food.

 

This is not the best parallel in the world, but I think you all see where I’m going. Telling someone they should reexamine their sex life when they think their sex life is awesome and fun really feels like raining on their parade. You don’t really want to hear about it because you’re too excited and you don’t know why someone would want to criticize you for sharing joy. Even if the criticism is for the best possible reasons and completely valid, it still can feel really invalidating. Particularly when you’re enjoying something and someone else comes along and asks you to consider WHY you are enjoying it and whether or not your desires are really your own, it can feel as if they’re questioning your experiences and telling you that your enjoyment isn’t valid or real.

 

In addition, sex negativity questions an arena that many people think of as essential to human nature. I have heard many people say that everyone is sexual or that everyone should embrace their sexuality or they will not be happy. Sex negativity questions these assumptions, which are closely held for many people. It says that there might be people who are completely capable of getting turned on who choose not to because they don’t enjoy it. This is mind blasting for people who enjoy sex. Seriously. Many people cannot fathom the idea of someone who is asexual or even anti-sex. It’s like suggesting that someone might be anti-food. Because sex is so integral to personal identity, people who like it have a hard time understanding those who don’t (also vice versa, but liking sex is much more the default in our society). Questioning whether sex is a necessary part of human life is a really deep and personal philosophical question. It’s scary. Many people don’t want to get into it, and they feel as if their choice to be sexual is being attacked or shamed when others try to bring up other options.

 

And finally, many people don’t want to think of themselves as constrained by society or of their choices as shaped by society. People want to imagine themselves as autonomous, with free will. They want to think that their desires and preferences are their own. In many ways, that’s true, but desires and preferences don’t appear out of thin air. You may have some natural predilictions (no matter how hard I try I will never enjoy black coffee), but many of your preferences are shaped by the messages around you. That’s hard to hear. It feels like it takes something away from you. And perhaps it does, but in the end it gives you back the power to begin actively deciding what you want to do with the desires that you may not have chosen.

 

Overall, the immediate impression of sex negativity is that it wants to take away something really fun, take away your self-identity, and take away your choices. Many people have an immediate disgust reaction to this. I think we’d all be better served if we looked past the label and understood how sex negativity wants to give you back these things at the deepest level. It is not satisfied with simply saying that if something feels good you can do it. It wants to go a step further and give you more tools to explore and identify how you can make your choices positive not only for yourself, but for others in society and for future generations. Mind. Blasting.