How to Have a Fun, Healthy Sex Life Free of Anxiety and Hang-Ups
Trailblazing sexuality researcher Virginia Johnson passed away last week at the age of 88. When she started her research, in the late 1950s, the topic of sexuality was largely taboo. Male psychotherapists were the leading experts on female sexuality, treating women as largely dysfunctional. A gnawing dissatisfaction with life after the postwar bubble, when, for the first time, women married younger and had more children than their mothers, was setting in among American women.
For talking openly about sex, Johnson was sharply criticized and even threatened. By the time she died, that world was turned on its head.
Today, "sex advice columnist" is a real job, held by more than one person. There are entire university departments dedicated to the study of sexuality. Politicians face scandals not just for cheating, but for receiving oral sex in the White House, paying prostitutes to indulge theiradult baby fetish, soliciting sex in airport bathrooms and sending pictures of their genitalia over social media. Religious leaders are increasingly held accountable for sexual abuse, and, in my personal favorite case of wild hypocrisy, caught using meth with male sex workers.
The internet has opened up a whole new world of sexual possibility, whether you're looking for sexual health information, frank discussion of sexuality, funny sex stories, pornography or an actual human being with whom to have intercourse (or do whatever else turns you on). Women's and men's lifestyle websites abound with detailed sex tips and new sexuality research. Even "asexuals" have their own thriving online communities.
Half a century after Johnson began her research, we're getting married and having children later, but not delaying intercourse – which generally means more partners and more experimentation than was typical in the 1950s. The usual moral scolds wring their hands about "hook-up culture" and "slutty" women ruining their chances at marriage, just as they did in the 50s when they worried about kids necking at the drive-in or smarty-pants women making themselves undesirable to men.
Society may always have people who are terrified by the diversity and enormous power of human sexuality, and will try to jam any expression of it into narrow, manageable confines. But the more freely we can share information generally, the more freely we share information (and images and videos and ideas) about sex – and the less power is concentrated in the hands of folks who want their own mold of sexual rigidity cast on everyone else.
Virginia Johnson was one catalyst for the increased normalization of sexual information-sharing. That's a good thing. But while it may seem as though we live in a sex-saturated world, our ideas about sex remain disturbingly limited, and those who live outside the perceived sexual norm are still too marginalized.
It's held as a general truism that sex is everywhere because "sex sells". But what we mean is, sexualized images of women's bodies sell other things. That transference of sex-the-act onto the female body – that idea that women physically embody sex itself – is bad for women, and it's bad for our sex lives. Especially when our sexualization of women and girls is coupled with a sex-shaming political culture.
Sex-the-act is a good, healthy and fun recreational activity. It offers nearly endless possibilities for experimentation and deviation; it can bring you closer to a partner, relieve stress, make you feel good, create a baby, heighten your sensations, and serve as a part of your spiritual or religious practice. And seeing other people as sexually appealing is surely a natural and positive thing: how else would any of us ever get laid otherwise, let alone perpetuate the human race?
But when one half of the population is cast as the holder and embodier of sex, while the other is the agent who views, desires and gets sex, you have a recipe for disordered relationships with sex and with one's own body. The sexualization of women and girls – not you personally seeing an individual woman as sexy or attractive, but widespread media and advertising imagery of women and girls as things to be looked at and conduits through which to sell or promote items – has devastating effects on real-life women and girls.
It also negatively influences men and boys. A study by an American Psychological Association taskforce found that sexualization of girls led to decreased cognitive and physical function, greater body dissatisfaction, increase anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, compromised physical health, diminished sexual health, stronger beliefs in gender stereotypes, and greater acceptance of teen dating violence. Girls are so inundated with cultural messages to be sexy for boys that they live in a state of sustained anxiety about their bodies. So, they see sexuality not as something fun and healthy, but as something they perform for the viewing pleasure of others.
Disturbingly, too many girls get that same message at school and from religious and political leaders: girls are the holders of sex, and boys are the takers. Conservatives in the US paint sex as dirty and sinful and reflective of a lack of self control … until you're married and trying to create a baby, and then, like magic, it's wonderful.
As a personal belief system, that's fine. But that belief system has been legislated into education in many states, with the additional lesson that boys and girls are fundamentally different in that boys want sex, while girls want love – and so it's up to girls to withhold sex in order to secure commitment. In that view, all relationships are heterosexual, and female sexuality is still a thing to be used in the service of something else.
For advertisers, the "something else" is selling goods. For social conservatives, the "something else" is securing marriage.
In a better reality, sexuality would be understood as a fundamental part of human existence, its good inherent and not dependent on how it can be leveraged. Why? Because pleasure is a good thing. We should all feel more of it when we can. And sex, for many people, is a source of a uniquely wonderful range of pleasurable feelings – physical, emotional and spiritual.
It's a simple concept, but in a society so disordered and divided when it comes to sex, it's a radical one. Sex should feel good. Maybe that means candles and a rose-petal-filled bathtub. Maybe it means restraints and role-play. Maybe it means feeling gorgeous when you live in a body that advertisers tell you is ugly or wrong. Maybe it means having sex with someone of the same gender. Maybe it means feeling great about not having sex at all.
Pleasure-centered sexuality means that sex doesn't have to come with self-loathing or anxiety; sex doesn't have to be performative or even "normal".
Getting there doesn't just require more discussion and imagery of sex. It requires a fuller, more diverse and more thoughtful way of imagining sex, and a recognition that better sex will only come with increased equality across the board. Sex isn't its own thing, totally divorced from the rest of our society and culture. A cursory look through mainstream internet porn sites makes clear that how we image sex when we're expressly seeking to titillate is like a magnifying glass for some of our ugliest social problems – misogyny, racism, fetishization, objectification, violence. We can recognize that and still feel unashamed that for many (most?) of us, at least some of those attempts at titillation work.
We're animals who like sex. We like pictures and videos of other people having sex. We like talking and thinking about sex. The particular aspects or practices we like (or don't) can feel inexplicable, but are at least partly informed and shaped by the culture we live in – which is misogynist, racist, fetishizing, objectifying, violent. And also increasingly liberal, egalitarian, accepting and diverse.
We'll have a less fraught sexual culture when we have less fraught gender relations. And we'll have less fraught gender relations when we quit positioning sex as oppositional, shameful and transactional.
Opening up the conversation is a good start, and Virginia Johnson is one of many who can take credit for that work. The task now is to continue talking and learning, to expand our understanding of the diversity of human sexual experience and to undo the toxic sexual messages we all receive. That would mean transforming our sexual culture into one where sex is simply good, and not a good to be traded or used.