Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing

This was originally posted over at Clarisse’s personal blog in 2009.

I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into some sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype. As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies is that it helps people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. When I developed my first sex education workshop, it was all about describing good communication strategies. I listed questions that all sex partners could benefit from asking each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?”

And I talked about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I took a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I told people that they could try filling out those checklists and giving them to their partners. (The amazing sex education site Scarleteen later implemented the same idea, in a much more comprehensive way than I had!) I suggested that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, or write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

(By the way, I still offer a much-improved version of that workshop on my list of events, lectures, and workshops, just in case you’re interested in bringing me in ….)

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the wonderful sex-positive anthology Yes Means Yes!:

[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.


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About Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
This entry was posted in Education, relationships, Sex, Sexual Assault and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing

  1. Ashley says:

    This is a fantastic post. I agree with a lot of what you said. I also feel fortunate to have been brought up with healthy ideas about sex. I learned a little bit here and there but I always knew where to turn to for the facts vs myths. It seems like a lot of young teens believe a lot of myths out there. Things like, “You can’t get pregnant on your period” and “You can’t get pregnant if he pulls out” are things that so many teens completely trust and rely on and that really concerns me. It also disturbs me how so many young people think that sex can be so easy and free to you want to make it that way. “Sex can be whatever you want it to be” Well, yes and no. It’s not always easy, for the reasons you listed.

  2. Mym says:

    This is an excellent post, and thank you for writing it. There are also some things that I wish I’d been told about; if I’d had a better introduction to trans* issues and terms and whatnot that would’ve helped a lot in finding myself, and I wish I’d gotten the message early on that not everyone is interested in sex and that’s okay, and not had to spend so much time and pain figuring it out for myself.

  3. Katie says:

    Just shared this on facebook. EXCELLENT, Clarisse! Thank you.

  4. Rachel says:

    Thank you for writing this! I had an extremely conservative sexual education. I was homeschooled during the years that I would have been required to take sex ed in the public schools, so I didn’t actually have any kind sex edu. It’s definitely been an interesting experience figuring it out as I go.

  5. LC says:

    I think we were raised at about the same time regarding sex education, Clarisse.

    I also think that none of those 5 were given me by formal sex education, although I was deeply lucky in that my first lover was a very good teacher, reinforcing the idea that sex could be casual, but wasn’t trivial. So many people, after building it up as the most important thing in the world, then finding out it isn’t, overcorrect.

    I would say that my New York City sex education from the 80s didn’t really have that emphasis on “it should be lighthearted and easy” from any of my formal sex ed. That seemed more from pop culture.

    I would love, LOVE, for desire to be more integrated into the sex education we give people. A nice exploration of the idea that desire does not equal consent, and that BOTH are important, would make me very happy.

  6. Andie says:

    This is a great article Clarisse.. So much of the debate over sex education seems to be on either end of the spectrum of ‘Sex is BAD’ or ‘Sex is AWESOME’ without a lot of discussion of the inbetweens.

    Different people place different value on sex, and what we really need is to stop putting values on the INDIVIDUALS who hold sex to different values. Does that make sense?

  7. Kyra says:

    This is lovely, thank you. Especially the communication bit—the concept of what questions to ask, what needs communicating about, are not often all that intuitive, and are not often taught.

    I’ve noticed that one bit of communication that matters to me is “how do you want to be comforted, if you’re nervous/distressed/hurting/otherwise in need of comfort,” or rather, “what do you find comforting?” Personally, I’m very specific about wanting people to back off and ask if I want to be held/cuddled, which I then generally do want, but if they try to do so without asking I perceive it as a boundary violation and get even more distressed.

    Another is “do you have any trouble defending boundaries ever,” which is a bit trickier in practice because someone could conceivably use that against you (the trick is to remember you told them and view a use of such a situation as a conscious bad-faith attempt at coercion), but if somebody’s boundaries are weaker or shorted out by some other emotional response, that’s important to know and avoid.

    Any others beyond what’s already been mentioned that anybody can think of?

  8. vanessa says:

    I teach Our Whole Lives and I am happy to say that we do an excellent job with 2, 3 and 4 and a pretty good job with 1 and 5!

  9. David says:

    I nominate you for the position of Surgeon General of the United States. This is simply amazing.

  10. Katie Casey says:

    I took the high school Our Whole Lives class, and it did indeed include some of those things – we talked about desire and how it works, how to communicate our wants/needs with partners, and that sex is something to be careful about even though it’s a good thing. (I also don’t think the words rainbow or happy happy joy were ever used, though BDSM never came up.)

  11. Sorry I take so long to approve comments folks. I’ll try to keep up.

  12. llama says:

    Interesting post. Twenty years to late for me though :(

  13. Bushfire says:

    I know I’ve just been trolling on another thread, but I promise to behave myself on this one. I’m curious about something. You said:

    And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

    I’m wondering about what you mean by ‘dark’. I think that’s a really ambiguous word with a lot of meanings and I’m not sure what you mean by it.

    I also pressured a guy into stuff he wasn’t ready for when I was a teenager, because I belived that all guys wanted it all the time. I really regret it now, and I really hate the messages I was absorbing back then about sex. I did get some fairly liberal sex education, but like yours, it wasn’t perfect.

  14. We’ve made some real progress, but we can’t talk honestly about sex. Many of the examples you cited I only learned through experiences of my own, some of which were positive and some of which were extremely negative.

  15. Lindsay says:

    I can’t relate to most of these, since I didn’t have “sex-positive” sex education … had very little sex education at all really, just learned a little about reproductive organs, puberty and what happens during menstruation. A little about STDs and how to prevent them, but nothing at all about sex itself.

    I guess my teachers assumed we all already knew what sex was? Or could find out on our own?

    (I do think your suggestions are good ones; I just think that, if I were going to list all the things I didn’t learn in sex education, I’d list a whole lot of other things that you probably *did* learn about in your sex education classes. The one exception to this is your point #5, about communicating with your partner – that would probably be *THE* first thing I would say I missed out on.)

    Nevertheless, I know that my knowledge of sex — especially of contraception and disease prevention — is much more than people in the abstinence-only classes are getting. So I feel lucky to have learned what I did.

  16. Bushfire:
    You said:

    And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

    I’m wondering about what you mean by ‘dark’.I think that’s a really ambiguous word with a lot of meanings and I’m not sure what you mean by it.

    Fair point. I think when I wrote this that when I talked about sex sometimes being “dark”, I meant that sometimes consensual sexuality can mean playing with some very complicated emotions — some negative — and that as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards, that’s okay.

  17. Bushfire says:

    Clarisse said:
    I think when I wrote this that when I talked about sex sometimes being “dark”, I meant that sometimes consensual sexuality can mean playing with some very complicated emotions — some negative — and that as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards, that’s okay.

    Question for everyone: what kind of negative emotions might you have during sex?

  18. Don’t miscast what I said. What I said was that sometimes consensual sexuality can involve intense negative emotions, and that it’s okay as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards. Immediately shifting the topic into “all negative emotions that might be experienced during sex” is a blatant derail.

  19. kb says:

    I took the high school Our Whole Lives class, and it did indeed include some of those things – we talked about desire and how it works, how to communicate our wants/needs with partners, and that sex is something to be careful about even though it’s a good thing. (I also don’t think the words rainbow or happy happy joy were ever used, though BDSM never came up.)

    My understanding from talking to someone learning to teach the course is that it’s in the adult course. Which I’m trying to decide if I’m okay with-on the one hand, yes, I do think that waiting for a bit more maturity before exploring that is probably a good plan-teenage belief that you’re invincible and the potential for serious injury is not a good combination. but like you say, that doesn’t mean teenagers and younger don’t have those desires-and believing you’re invincible isn’t limited to teenagers.
    I think discussions of polyamory are the same way-in the adult book, not before.

  20. kb says:

    the first bit should be a quote. If I could get the html to work.

  21. Bushfire says:

    Don’t miscast what I said. What I said was that sometimes consensual sexuality can involve intense negative emotions, and that it’s okay as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards. Immediately shifting the topic into “all negative emotions that might be experienced during sex” is a blatant derail.

    I wasn’t trying to derail. This was a point you brought up.

  22. jn says:

    As always, thank you Clarissee! I am always inspired and find peace in your words :)

  23. sb says:

    kb:
    My understanding from talking to someone learning to teach the course is that it’s in the adult course. Which I’m trying to decide if I’m okay with-on the one hand, yes, I do think that waiting for a bit more maturity before exploring that is probably a good plan-teenage belief that you’re invincible and the potential for serious injury is not a good combination.but like you say, that doesn’t mean teenagers and younger don’t have those desires-and believing you’re invincible isn’t limited to teenagers.
    I think discussions of polyamory are the same way-in the adult book, not before.

    Personally, as someone who had a similar experience to Clarisse with AYS, (not exactly the same — #2 was thoroughly addressed), I think something needs to be in the youth course. It’s generally presented in a hippy-dippy UU Sunday School class, where teenage idealistic veganism and a general abhorrence of anything “oppressive” is rampant. (Note: nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. But it makes figuring this stuff out tougher, since it can feel like this is some sort of childish reaction one should rise above, like anger and intolerance and fear of the Other — all those things that are intended as values to be cultivated in UU religious ed.)

    And it can take a while to be like …no, this is OK. Really, really, okay, as long as everyone involved is on the same page. Hurt and harm (or however you want to phrase it) aren’t the same thing.

  24. DouglasG says:

    Regarding: “and that as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards, that’s okay” –

    Could you be more specific about feeling good about it afterwards? I’ve had a couple of experiences after which I realized that my partner was really rather nasty, or that I’d have chosen not to have followed a particular path had I known where it went, but not to the point of regretting the attempt, even when I tried something that literally made me sick.

    And it interested me that in 1 and 2 you took a line about how sex could be X but didn’t have to be and wasn’t X for everyone, but you didn’t want to judge people for whom it was X – and then in 3 you made the declarative statement, “It requires attraction and desire,” without any counter. From my experience, the presence of both attraction and desire (or quite often either) has been far more of a luxury than a necessity. I’ve often gone through with something just to be polite, and, to be honest, while it was not often a grand experience, it was almost never bad.

  25. Kaz says:

    I am bitter about sex-positive sex ed like a bitter, bitter thing because I can draw a straight line from my sex-positive sex ed in my teens to my traumatising sexual encounter slash sexual assault (I still have problems with how to describe it) a few years later.

    The sex ed I experienced was very much the “sex is awesome! sex is fun!” sort you describe, I think (this was a Protestant area in Western and Northern Germany around 2000). It made no room for needing space and time to figure things out or being confused about the issue and needing to hold off on sex until one sorts oneself out. It also made no room for asexuality, being very much of the “everyone loves sex! loving sex is an integral part of being human!” school (cropping up an unfortunate amount of time in these sorts of circumstances), which is what led to me being confused and trying to figure things out in the first place. In fact, it was pretty bad on the queer front in general – of the “queer people are fine and dandy but no one in this class could possibly be one” sort. All of this paved the road for me to just freeze in confusion when someone started doing sexual things to me I didn’t want, because what my body was telling me was in total conflict with everything I’d been taught about sex. The consequences were not pretty.

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  27. Lindsay says:

    @Kaz – oh, that sucks! I’ve had similar experiences: my first sexual experience was one I did not want, with a person I did not want to be with, but I didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t know that I *COULD* say no, for no better reason than “I just don’t want to”. (I thought you had to be VERY, VERY MUCH not wanting to have sex, like, distressed at the thought of it, which I was not; I just didn’t want to. I didn’t feel traumatized, just bored and used and kind of grossed out.)

    What you say about what your body was telling you being in totaly conflict with everything you’d been taught about sex … I’ve experienced something like that, but I had blamed it on never having been taught anything about sex. Your comment made me realize that even people who are taught about sex, in a “sex is supposed to feel good” way, can have this experience.

    So I guess I’d add to my list — since it does not seem to be an automatic part of “sex-positive” sex education, as I had assumed it to be — telling kids that there are going to be things they won’t want to do, or aren’t ready to do at the same time as other people might be ready to do them, and that you don’t have to do anything sexual for any reason, ever.

  28. Bushfire, like Clarisse, I’m a BDSMer, and like Clarisse, more bottom than top. Much of my sexuality deals with issues of fear and pain. I’m married, and I’ve basically only played with my spouse for a while now, and there are things I want to do as a bottom that turn me on, but that also really scare me. And my spouse and I talk about those things, and we talk through the technical and safety aspects of them, and the emotions they raise, and why and in what ways they’re hot for us, and then sometimes we do those things. And when we do, I find a lot of things, but especially a powerful intimacy, in that shared experience. I’d call fear a negative emotion, but in context, it is a component of powerfully positive sexual experiences. Or, for another example, my spouse and I do a fair amount of orgasm control. I’m used to orgasm daily, but sometimes I get teased regularly, but without release, for a week or so. I find that very frustrating, and I’d call frustration a negative emotion, but it’s also a highly erotic experience and a bonding experience for me.

    Other folks may have different examples of negative emotions in the context of consensual partnered sexuality. Those are mine.

  29. Daisy Kenyon says:

    what is sexy or erotic about pain and being degraded?

  30. Bushfire says:

    Thanks, Thomas. I’ve had negative feelings too, but I wondered what other people’s were. I’ve felt frustrated sometimes when I was on antidepressants and I just couldn’t climax, even though I used to easily before the meds. That’s the only negative feelings I can think of right now.

    @Kaz It’s too bad that the sex ed you recieved didn’t leave room for less than enthusiastic responses. I agree with Clarisse (and others) that good sex ed needs to address a variety of responses, good and bad.

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  34. My sex ed experiences were at a Catholic school and just as right wing and shame-centered and lie-fueled as can be, to the point where the attitudes I picked up there completely overshadowed my parents’ reasonable attempts to teach me decent attitudes. It took a long time to get over that ick factor, but when I grew up and moved to a pleasantly liberal enclave, I got over those issues. So I can’t blame sex-ed, but my friends are pretty much all super sex-positive, generally kinky, frequently poly, as are artists I follow and movements and fun times I participate in. Nerds and hippies are both like that, and when you combine things, well.

    And while it doesn’t make me uncomfortable and hasn’t harmed me in any significant way, I think that’s why it took me so long to realize I’m just asexual. I figured at first that I was getting over repression and junk, and I threw myself into relationships that bored me and were deeply unpleasant for the poor souls I wound up with. It did take a good while to be comfortable with the knowledge that sex would never strike me as a sort of messy inconvenience that I had no interest in getting my head around. (Luckily I’m aromantic too and am free of the awkward pains of trying to build relationships without sex. Emotional partners on that level are also, well, a messy inconvenience I have no interest in getting my head around.)

    My favorite club had a fetish night a few months ago. I very nearly went in PJs, slippers, and a robe, but I decided not to risk making people feel like I was the sex-negative one. I have a pin that says NO HUGS that I keep around to point to when my friends are all cuddly and junk. I don’t mind sex and I’m all for everyone’s gratification, but I do get pretty tired of living in hypersexual happy liberal land sometimes.

  35. I enjoyed your blog very much. I found fascinating the fact that even people who receive sex-positive educations from loving and open parents and are sexually well informed both in school and church, can still find parts of their education lacking. But then I guess no one receives the guidance needed to fully comprehend his/her sexuality in the first eighteen years of life. And would we even want that? It seems that one of the greatest thrills of sexuality is its secrecy and seductiveness, inviting us to peel back layer after layer, mining our desires in never-ending waves over the course of a lifetime. Those of us lucky enough to have had sex-positive backgrounds reach adulthood with the foundation in place and the tools in hand to begin that joyful pursuit, unfettered.

    By contrast, I’ve worked with many men and women who, having suffered sexual abuse and sexual wounding, find it difficult to move beyond an agenda of sexual healing to one of sexual growth. Often the desire is there, but crippling baggage stands in the way.

    You said your mother told you at 12 that it would be totally okay if you were gay—go Mom!—but that you wish you’d been given a broader menu of sexual options. I didn’t name the different categories either for my kids, but I did encourage them beginning when they were 12 to “someday have lots of sexual experiences—different kinds, with members of the opposite sex as well as your own—to figure out what you like and gives you satisfaction.” (As you say, “Desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”) I wanted my kids to know that whatever lifestyles they might choose, they’d have my enthusiastic support.

    As I write my blog, kidsandsexblog.com, I will continue to reflect on the pieces you found missing and address them as they arise in order to better guide parents. I also appreciate the link to Katherine Gates’ Fetish Map. I hadn’t seen that before and agree that for some young people it could be quite helpful.

    Thanks for providing an interesting perspective and for advancing this important work.

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