The Resistance: Why Writing About Sex Matters

BlogHer Original Post

At a dinner recently with some tech entrepreneurs and media darlings, I was subjected to the usual questions in regard to my writing.

“You write about sex?” someone asked me.

Before I could respond, a friend of mine who blogs about technology events for a local weekly piped up: “AV is going to do great things one day.”

There it was: the often-unsaid but very real idea that somehow, writing about sex is not as important as writing about anything else.

CAN'T STOP LOOKING

In 2003, the author Catherynne M. Valente reviewed an old blog of mine:

Reading Anaiis for the first time is rather like the scene in The Graduate when Mrs. Robinson strips her clothes off and stands naked as Eve in front of the camera. We cut back and forth between her body and Dustin Hoffman's horrified and flustered expression while she leans against the wall, totally calm.

And the body isn't perfect, it's heavy-hipped, small-breasted and a little lumpy, as though it's been used way too many times. It's a 70s porn star after she's resorted to flipping pancakes down at the local IHOP. But it is beautiful. And just the shock of seeing that woman expose herself to you is entirely exciting and delicious because it's so wrong. You just can't stop looking.

In a sense, we've come a long way. Sexuality, once locked up and hidden from view, is once again able to flow freely across the blogosphere in a beautiful return to the tradition of storytelling. But it would be inaccurate to say that this indicates that social perceptions of sexuality have changed much—after all, how many people writing about their sexual experiences are doing so under their real names?

The truth is that we are living in a strange duality—an open culture which politically seems to encourage and support sexual self-expression, and a “don't ask, don't tell” society where people do still judge those who share about their bodies, their desires and their sexual choices.

It makes me think of something the philosopher Alexandre Koyré once said:

I have been saying that modern science broke down the barriers that separated the heavens from the earth, and that it unified and united the universe. And that is true. But, as I have said, too, it did this by substituting the world of quality and sense perception, the world in which we live, and love, and die, with another world—the world of quantity, or reified geometry, a world in which, though there is a place for everything, there is no place for man... True, these worlds are everyday—and even more and more—connected by praxis. Yet they are divided by an abyss. Two worlds: this means two truths. Or no truth at all.

THE GHETTO

In her book Naked On The Internet, Audacia Ray touches on how repressive social views have largely divorced the sex blog from the rest of the blogosphere:

Sex blogs occupy a very definite Internet ghetto, and despite the fact that women who maintain these blogs put a lot of care into their posts beyond just pictures, goofy quizzes and links without commentary, it’s fairly common that they get scoffed at and seen as a lesser form of blog, especially by other bloggers who do not blog about sex.

The ghettoizing of the sex blog is something of a two-pronged problem: writing and thinking about sexuality is seen as an easy way to get attention and not at all a noble pursuit, and most of the people who blog in detail about sexuality and their personal lives are women. These two elements are intertwined in a way that serves to devalue women’s writing even if it is not always directly about sex, while creating an instant funnel for negative comments towards any woman who ventures to the dark side of writing about sex.

Sex writing, even when it’s about women’s personal experiences, is viewed as a cheap trick to get more hits, links and controversy. And while this is a valid trick—or criticism, as the case may be—the suggestion that women blogging about sex are inherently cheap and unworthy of attention beyond gawking is shortsighted and sexist.

The reaction to sex blogging is rooted in a lack of understanding as to why people would want to blog about their sex life. Many people believe sex should be private and analyze why bloggers would bring that out in (sometimes semianonymous) public. It’s also related to the commonly held belief that sex is not just that important on a societal level.

But it is important. It's important because sex is a human reality.

SEX ED

The battle of whether abstinence-only education is more effective than sex ed is a fierce one. While it's true that the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease is to completely abstain from sex, the argument that abstinence-only education can lead to ignorance is also valid.

This summer, researches from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their analysis of national data spanning five years between 2002 and 2007. Their findings were shocking—birth rates among teens were on the rise following a steady decline between 1991 and 2005, with an estimated 16,000 pregnancies happening among girls between 10 and 14 in 2004. One third of the teens surveyed had never learned about the different available methods of birth control before the age of 18.

Between 2003 and 2004, about one-quarter of girls between 15 and 19, and 45 percent of women between 20 and 24 had a human papillomavirus infection. In 2006, one million young people were reported to have chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis. That same year, most new diagnoses of HIV were among men and women between 20 and 24.

Ignorance is a terrible disease. But I am not here to argue about sexual education in state schools—the main reason I am sexually healthy today has more to do with the open communication I enjoyed with my friends and mentors in regard to sex.

Stories instruct. The difference between an academic text and a story is that a story engages you on another level. Much like the argument that branding strategists are making today about how much more effective it is for the public to hear about a product from a source they trust than it is to bombard them with advertisements, anecdotes about sex have more power than any PSA.

I didn't learn the difference between bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia and a yeast infection in school. I learned it after many conversations with friends, and quite a bit of hand-holding at doctor's offices that these situations involved. Text book facts can be forgotten. A story that touches you, on the other hand, and all its details—details that are not sanitized to make them more palatable—stays with you much longer. Anecdotes are not afraid to be horrifying, heart-breaking, flawed and human.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but while picture of an STD in a text book is gruesome, it's removed from you and your reality. It doesn't engage you in the same way that the story of someone who lived or is living its complications does. And that makes all the difference.

Another educational aspect of sharing about sex that is often left out is that it doesn't limit itself to safety. It deals with technique, with pleasure and with the nature of desire, things which are equally important to health and well-being.

An article in The New York Times in January entitled “What Do Women Want?” brought to my attention how far we still have to go in terms of understanding female desire. The title references a question posed by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud a century ago. In a century, we have made great technological and political leaps.

But we still don't really understand desire—especially female desire.

HUSH LITTLE BABY

My mother has always said that schools should implement pleasure education alongside sexual education. It's a clever quip, but one rooted in her own experience, which was not as liberated as her current views suggest.

She grew up in a time during which the pages of anatomy and physiology textbooks relating to sex were stapled together. Sex was not something to be discussed—in the classroom or among friends. It wasn't until long after many of her friends had been married that the subject was breached. She was horrified when she related the conversation to me: so many of her friends were not sure whether they had ever orgasmed.

Not discussing sex turns us into islands, tasked with learning about safety, prevention, navigating our desires and understanding our bodies alone.

We now live in the age of Google, WebMD, and Twitter, which enable us to do better research and connect with experts in the fields of sexuality. Despite these tools, the flow of our sharing about sex is limited.

OUT AND PROUD

“I do think there's a lot to be said for being 'out.' Put a bold, Nicolas Sarkozy-style public face on your indiscretions,” the science fiction author Bruce Sterling told The Austin Chronicle in March. “If you quiver all over, thinking you should privately hide in the back of the bus – 'I'm private and invisible here, no one should know I exist' – that just strengthens the hands of bossy people who want to keep you hidden in the back of the bus. Nobody outs Rosa Parks.”

His quote summarized the main argument of a a piece by Marc Savlov, which speculated that, given our affinity for the many available social networks on the web, we as a culture are moving away from a world where the main concern is privacy, and toward one where transparency is the norm.

While I do not necessarily agree that we are currently hurtling toward a reality where openness is not only accepted by encouraged, I feel that writing about my experiences, starting these discussions about sex, participating in the debates of others in regard to sex, and encouraging people to share their own experiences is a step in that direction.

A baby step, yes, but an important step nonetheless.

GREAT THING

Those of us who write about sex are putting ourselves out there—not because we think it's safe to do so, not because we think it's acceptable to do so, but because we know that it isn't safe or acceptable. This isn't about link-baiting or shock value, it's about resistance.

Whether we're discussing last night's romp, delineating how to give a killer blowjob, chronicling the battle we're fighting over our bodies and bedrooms, or ruminating about the nature of our desires, we're taking a stance. We've come this far and we're not going to stop, much less take a step backward.

By telling our stories, we liberate others to do the same. That is the nature of the story. Our voices, in this space, grant permission to others to accept their sexuality, to explore their bodies, to reflect on their own desires and share in their experience. Together, our baby steps carve a direction from isolated ignorance to open discussion, community and learning.

We won't be silenced. We accept what that means—being taken less seriously than other writers, being fodder at dinner parties, being looked at strangely in the workplace, being exposed to a higher incidence of ridicule, scorn, cyber-stalking and its meatspace equivalent, among other things. We accept this because that's what it takes to take a stance.

And this is a great thing.

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