Sex & Relationships

The Sex Lives of Others

Why do other people's sexual proclivities freak us out so much?
"Nobody in their right mind would want to do that. You'd have to be desperate/damaged/strung out on drugs to do that."

This argument gets used a lot by people who are against porn, prostitution, other kinds of sex work. And those of us who have actually been in sex work and not loathed it (or who know people who have) tend to counter simply by offering counter-examples: raising our hands, pointing to ourselves and each other, saying, "Me. Over here. Did sex work. Liked it (or didn't hate it). Not a basket case. Case closed."

But I think there's a core assumption underlying the argument, one that makes it hard to argue against merely by offering boring old evidence. And it's an assumption that doesn't just apply to sex work. It's an assumption that gets applied to all kinds of sexual variation ... and not with very happy results.

The assumption is this:

"Everyone must like -- and dislike -- the same sexual things I do."

"If other people do sexual things that I don't enjoy," the thinking goes, "they must not be enjoying it either. And there must be something dreadfully wrong with them for them to do sexual things that are so obviously not enjoyable. They must be troubled, crazy, under coercion."

(And let's not forget the parallel notion: If other people don't enjoy things that I do enjoy, there must be something wrong with them as well. They must be repressed, uptight, out of touch with their bodies. The sex-positive world can fall prey to these assumptions, too. I certainly have. "Everyone is basically bisexual, if they would just be honest with themselves" ... Loki in Heaven, was I ever really that young?)

I don't think this is always a conscious assumption. But I think it's a common one. And it's led to a lot of trouble: misunderstanding and conflict at best, outright hostility and oppression at worst. I think it's at the core of the "women don't really like anal sex/giving blowjobs/getting spanked/ whatever, and if they do it it's because they've been brainwashed by the patriarchy" argument that's so deeply enriched the lives of so many sex-loving women. And more seriously, I think it was a major factor behind decades of putting homosexuals in psychiatric wards. "I find the idea of sucking another man's cock repulsive ... therefore, any man who likes to suck another man's cock must have something horribly wrong with him."

It's a terrible argument. Stupid, illogical, harmful.

But I actually have more sympathy for it than you might imagine.

I think it's always hard to really, truly grasp that other people's tastes are different from your own. Especially when it comes to strong, emotional, visceral experiences. Myself, I am utterly baffled by the fact that anyone on this earth would voluntarily eat broccoli. The stuff tastes like concentrated essence of vileness to me, and the thought of people voluntarily putting it in their mouths makes me recoil.

Food, music, sex: all of these are powerful, visceral, intensely personal, even overwhelming experiences. And it's very hard to step back from them and have perspective on how other people might feel about them. Our own feelings about them can be so intense, so all-encompassing, that it makes perspective difficult, even counter-intuitive.

But when it comes to food and music, we have years of experience to teach us perspective. People talk about their musical and culinary tastes loudly, proudly, in great detail and at great length. You often can't get people to shut up about it. We're exposed to a wide variety of musical and culinary tastes almost every day of our lives.

So unless you're pathologically stubborn, you eventually learn perspective. You figure out that, as much as you may personally dislike broccoli or blue cheese, Wagner or Western Swing, people who eat it/listen to it are not mentally deranged. (Or the reverse: that as much as you may personally enjoy these delights, people who don't like them are not pathologically cut off from the one true source of pleasure and meaning.) People still do sometimes make personal judgments about others based on their tastes in food and music; but those judgments don't usually result in people being sent to the county jail or the loony bin.

But when it comes to sex, most of us don't get that kind of training. People don't come back to work on Mondays and chat about how they tried spanking over the weekend, they way they'll chat about how they tried a new Moroccan restaurant or went to see a German funk band their brother told them about. They don't go to parties and share a funny story about the new buttplug they just bought, the way they'll tell a funny story about trying to make a salmon souffle for their in-laws or the weird harpist who opened for Radiohead. (Well, they sometimes do at my parties ... but you know what I mean.) Most of us haven't been regaled with myriad and varied stories about exactly what kinds of sex other people like, and why exactly they like it.

It's better now than it once was, by a long shot. The amount of sexual information that's easily available today far surpasses anything I had when I was young. But most of us still don't get exposed to a widely varied range of sexual tastes ... not the way we get exposed to a barrage of different tastes in music and food, simply as part of everyday life.

And I think that casual barrage is exactly what we need to break through the intensely personal, intensely visceral nature of our sensual experience and give us perspective on it. It's what we need to teach us that other people really and truly feel differently about sex than we do.

What's more, it's what we need to teach us this, not just with one or two specific examples, but as a general principle. People will often get it about one particular sexual variation, without getting it about sexual variation in general. I mean, plenty of straight people genuinely understand that gay people actually do enjoy their gay sex ... but still have to start from scratch when it comes to SM or blowjobs or sex work.

Which brings me back to sex work, and the counter-examples, and the sex workers raising our hands all over the world and saying, "I'm actually pretty okay with this."

Because while offering "Don't tell me what I like! I do so like that!" counter-examples may not work in any particular argument over any particular sexual variation, I think that in the long run, it's exactly what we need to make these arguments eventually go away. I think if we want a world where people have perspective on their own sexual likes and dislikes, a world where we treat varied tastes in sex the way we treat varied tastes in music or food, we need to talk more about what we do and don't like in bed. We need to give each other counter-examples, and plenty of 'em. We need to give each other a world where the basic fact of sexual variation is commonplace, familiar ... and unsurprising.
Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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