How to Have a Fun, Healthy Sex Life Free of Anxiety and Hang-Ups
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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 their adult 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?