News & Politics

The Radical Notion of Sex for Pleasure

My best sex hasn't been for love or power, but for pure, exquisite pleasure. So when the Surgeon General admits that "beyond procreation, sex is for pleasure," it isn't radical to me ... but it is to right-wing moralists.
He walks up behind me as I stand on a wall overlooking the orange-shimmering sea. He places one hand flat above my pelvis, the other gently on the small of my back, slips a finger up my belly button and moves my energy until I silently scream. Later, we wine and dine, talk and laugh. On a balcony, we explore each other's bodies, lit by a thunderstorm. Touching and tasting. Slowly, starting and finishing with the face. Lips brushing, sucking the mouth, sides of the nose, hard between the eyes, tracing the eyelids. Entering the other with an urgency to consume, to be consumed, throughout the night, morning, and still wanting more.

When my mind pushes the replay button, I see that all my best sex has been for pleasure. Not sex for power or longing or need or hope. Not to be loved or wanted or desired. Not in exchange for commitment, security or promises. Not to meet expectations. But sex for pleasure. Raw, sweet, sad. Fun, powerful, intimate. Transcendent. Tender. Mind-blowing. Exquisite, loving pleasure.

This week the U.S. Surgeon General came out with a "Call to Action" for sexual health and responsible sexual behavior. Dr. David Satcher did what no other U.S. political appointee has had the courage, will or capacity to do before -- lay out scientific steps to address the sociosexual ills ravaging America. The very topics of the unprecedented report -- HIV and AIDS, teenage pregnancy, abortion, adolescent promiscuity, incest, violence against sexual minorities -- might make some uncomfortable. But perhaps most controversial is Dr. Satcher's acknowledgement that "beyond procreation, sex is for pleasure."

Radical? Sure, considering America's restrictive political fury surrounding sex and morality. Past Surgeons General have faced backlash when addressing sex. Reagan's Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, endured conservatives' wrath when calling for AIDS education in public schools. Clinton's Dr. Joycelyn Elders was instantly slammed for suggesting that maybe kids should be taught that masturbation is natural and normal.

As I sit writing in a Paris sidewalk café (yeah, pretty original), I watch young lovers walk by arm in arm, lost in each other's gaze, and wonder when teen sex became so taboo in America. And when did Republicans became the party to dictate what consenting adults do in private? How did my country become so enamored with the cult of virginity, electing a president who didn't save himself for marriage, but advances millions of taxpayer dollars to tell other people -- younger, poorer -- to do just that?

Moreover, how in such an "evolved" country does federal legislation officially sanction sex in marriage as the standard for human sexuality? What authority!

My last sexuality conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, intimate and intense, mostly explored the pain, chaos and politics of sexuality. Not unlike the public discourse in the States. But now I'm attending the 15th World Congress on Sexology, the first to be sponsored by the World Health Organization, involving more than 2000 participants and 80 countries. Here the overriding theme is pleasure.

"At this conference, we will focus on the future of sexology in the third millennium," says Dr. Eli Coleman, president of the co-sponsoring World Association of Sexology and special advisor to the Surgeon General's report. "Sexology is growing and vibrant. Sexual health is now recognized as essential for basic health of an individual, couple and society. Sexual rights are recognized as basic and universal human rights." He concludes with, "Sex has many multi-faceted purposes. However, one of the most important purposes is pleasure."

Fine for France, but I don't see the "sex for pleasure" theme selling so hot in the USA -- not unless tied to a product, of course. Definitely not for young people, those of the same sex, the elderly, or non-procreating unmarried lovers, period. Several sexual healthcare and education colleagues tell me about retirement home administrators all in a fuss about keeping little old men out of little old ladies' rooms, especially in Florida. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is fighting felony cases of pleasure in Massachusetts, one involving a woman and an "object of self-abuse," another over consenting adults and S & M. The Medical Institute for Sexual Health, based in Texas, spends all its research and PR efforts to detail the death and danger of unmarried sex.

I've written about various sexual controversies, but no column has warranted such ugly feedback as the one about a purely pleasurable topic -- masturbation. In another column about gay and lesbian rights and the inequity of sodomy laws, I remarked that my husband and I practice sodomy regularly (defined as anything other than non-procreative sex). That inspired a self-proclaimed Christian to email his condolences, questioning my womanhood and vaginal elasticity.

I have, and will continue to talk about the political and media contradictions surrounding teen sex, homosexuals, the transgendered, polyamorists, porn consumers or you-name-the-sexual-deviant. Because although for now I happen to enjoy simplicity and connection with hubby over gadgets, right-wing advocacy for married sex as the only sanctioned sex ultimately zaps the pleasure from such entitlement of expression. Could it be Dr. Satcher's report will begin to challenge that?

Lara Riscol is writing "Ten Sex Myths That Screw America," a book she began while completing a master's degree in contemporary issues and public policy at the University of Denver. Write to her at [email protected]
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