21ST CENTURY SEXUALITY
By Cynthia Peters
Being active in the anti-war movement, supporting eviction blockades in my city, working with youth who are surviving oppressive schools and violence on the streets, I often wonder how I can justify taking the time to imagine what sex, family, gender, and care giving might be like in a better world. Isn't it frivolous fantasizing in the context of humanity hemorrhaging? Then I notice again the powerful pull these forces have on all of us, no matter what or how dire our circumstances. Being sexual, being intimate, being expressive and nurturing towards each other - these are both the urgent needs and enormously satisfying wants that are important parts of what make us human. We pursue our desires almost no matter what -- even in times of war, even in the most mind-numbing, soul-killing environments of degrading work, racial discrimination, gender oppression, homophobia, and the methodical destruction of the planet. We have a powerful drive to connect with others, to share, and to express ourselves, and in some ways, these desires define the core of our world. Thinking about how powerful these aspects of humanity are, I remember why I do the anti-war work and the eviction blockades. It's not just because I want to stop the illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq, for example. It's because I want the Iraqi people to be free of U.S. terrorism so that they can pursue their lives. It's not just because I want to stop another family from becoming homeless. It's because I want them to be home, where they will pursue the fine art of loving each other, being neighborly, and creating the great web of kinship that binds us to others and gives us a place in the universe. Yet consider how little we discuss the ways we pursue these goals now and the way we might pursue them in a better world. What are the systems and institutions that govern the ways we nurture each other, the avenues open to us for seeking intimacy, and the norms that govern the way we have sex? What values do they support? What behaviors and norms do they give rise to? How can we create new systems and institutions that sustain positive kinship networks - those ever-expanding circles of human community that play such a significant role in shaping us, instilling values, and literally helping us grow up? Progressives should pay attention to these questions for three reasons: 1. The kinship sphere currently includes norms and ways of relating that are oppressive to everyone, especially women and children. If we are committed to a society that values equity, diversity, justice, and solidarity, we must conceive of new norms and ways of relating in the family that will support these values. 2. Without a "reimagined" kinship sphere, it will be impossible to have a truly participatory, democratic society because most women and young people will not be able to be effective participants given the sometimes oppressive constraints of the kinship sphere. 3. The kinship sphere is a key site of intimacy, warmth, and fun. Not to mention sex. We'd be crazy not to talk about it. While parecon folks gather to fine-tune production and consumption patterns and the par polity folks debate the subtleties of nested councils, over here in the kinship sphere, we get the fireworks. So, please read on. Try imagining with me what it would be like to have a liberated and liberatory social space in which we could be in family, raise our children, express gender and sexuality, and experience intimacy and love. Imagine that you are joining a process that, if it works well, may never be exactly right for everyone but could be always evolving toward what is most right for most people. We are not looking for exact prescriptions of what should be. As people function in a better society, and continue to do so for generations, surely the family will evolve accordingly. Minds freed from oppressive work and oppressive culture will make much better choices about how to organize family. Let's look at one of the key activities that happen in the kinship sphere. People have sex and learn to express sexuality (though these activities are not limited to the family; they also happen in the community/culture/society, as well as in the economic sphere -- -e.g., the production of erotic literature, movies, sex toys, sex work, etc. Also, I don't mean to imply that sex and sexuality are 100% "learned" behaviors. They have roots in biology as well). Sex and Sexuality Sex and sexuality are fundamental to who we are. Although they are spheres of life where people have experienced enormous pain and victimization, they also have found many powerful and beautiful expressions. Unlike economic and political structures, which are harder to imagine, we could actually fairly easily access some decent ideas about sexuality just by looking around, seeing what we like, noticing our own desires, noticing what others like, and caring enough to imagine what it would take to cause these things to thrive in a way that felt fun, freeing, rewarding, and non-oppressive. The following subsections identify an attribute of healthy sexuality and then discuss what sort of society we would need to be able to give rise to and continually nurture such conditions. This is not meant to be exhaustive, obviously, for two reasons: (1) One would need multiple volumes to be thorough on this topic, and (2) I just don't think it could be done well anyway, without the participation of many folks, feedback, processing, and re-thinking---all of it evolving over time as we learn things we didn't know before. (1) Healthy sexuality is a powerful and necessary form of expression in which we act independently and inter-dependently, and which is fundamental for every human being. Sex and sexuality can be a means toward an end -- i.e., reproduction (at least as far as heterosexuals are concerned), but with technology being what it is, you don't need sex to fertilize an egg and you don't need to be a biological parent to make a family. So, while many people use sex at least in part as a way to make babies, it seems most useful to think of sex and sexuality as something we do for pleasure, to deepen our understanding of who we are, and to create intimacy. Just that right there practically makes it a radical undertaking. Sex is both a need and a want, and so it has something in common with other things we need and want -- like solidarity, diversity, equity, artistic expression, delicious food, engaging work. Sex doesn't enrich anyone; it doesn't impoverish anyone; it doesn't create ownership or disenfranchisement. Instead, it's a place you go to just be or to experiment with your being or to experiment with what it means to be close to another being. Often, it's a process more than an event, but maybe sometimes it is just an event. In any case, sex is where you claim your needs/wants either alone or in conjunction with others. In the process, you express some part of your deepest self -- not because you have to, but because you want to, and claiming that want is empowering and life-affirming. (2) Healthy sexuality is sometimes fluid and includes a wide spectrum of behaviors and feelings --from genital-oriented sex acts to other activities that are erotic, sensual, or sexual, such as dancing, singing, touching, and playing. If sex and sexuality are where we pursue pleasure, a sense of self, and a sense of belonging and connection to others, then we must put a lot of care into the forums where it is carried out and where it is learned. It is a precious part of ourselves and an integral part of being human, so it deserves utmost care and attention. Parents and families must get great quantities of support so they can pass on great quantities of the same to their children who will need it so they can be loved unconditionally, their bodies treasured and kept safe, their minds allowed to roam but also seek guidance, their desires affirmed, reflected on, and never shamed. Assuming parents are also sex partners, they'll keep their actual sex life private, but the sexual energy they emanate, which they surely will and which any kid with half the typical kid-radar will pick up on, should broadcast respect, care, and appropriate degrees of lust, too. Right? Why not? If parents are not sex partners, if they have sex with various partners or in some other configuration, they too will have to think about how to communicate to their children messages about this private part of their lives. Whatever the sex lives of the parents, children should get lots of physical love and attention that walks a very special line between pure abandonment and clear boundaries. How do we achieve all these tricky, challenging, nuanced goals? The only way I know is through experience, seeing how others do it, reflecting on how it was done to you, and learning from others. This kind of learning happens when communities and families make time to talk and share. Schools and community centers must offer engaging, empowering education around sex and sexuality. Understanding how the reproductive system works, along with the mechanics of birth control and sexual health are vital, but only small parts of sex education. Through mentoring, creative writing, artistic projects, kid-led support groups, kids should have the opportunity to explore sexuality. All along the way, kids should receive powerful messages that their bodies (and everyone else's) are precious, that sharing a sexual experience with someone should be respectful, mutual, safe, and fun. And there should always be older kids or peers or adults available for kids to talk to about whatever they want. By reorganizing work and reducing the degree to which care giving work is done privately in the home, society must do away with rigid gender roles and definitions of sexuality so that people are free to seek identity and intimacy in whatever way(s) they see fit. The culture must support art and music so that those channels are available to all for expression and reinforcement of diverse sexuality. Work cannot be so boring, alienating, or demeaning that it's impossible to feel desirable or desire after a long day. In fact, there shouldn't be long days of work. Maybe one of the principles around which work should be organized is: does it leave people enough time and energy to go home and have sex?
Finally, it should be understood and reinforced in various ways in the culture and society that a person's sexual identity might change over time---opening and closing the door on various practices or approaches. Or a person might take a lifelong "polyamorous" approach to sex and sexuality, holding onto many identities and forms of expression at one time. Or a person might be happily monogamous, and that all these choices can be affirming expressions of sexuality. As sex-positive commentator, Greta Christina, asks in her blog, "My Vision for a Sexual World," why not think of our taste in sex as something that might change over time similarly to our taste in music? The music metaphor is quite useful for talking about sex and sexuality. Christina continues:
We understand . . . that music is a basic human activity, maybe even a basic human need. We understand that music exists in all human societies, and has existed in human society for tens of thousands of years. We understand ... that music is a fundamental part of how our brains and our minds operate. We see music as an activity that is both necessary and joyful, a vital social bond, something that connects us to our history and projects us into our future. I'd like us to see sex the same way. I'd like us to see sex as something that we couldn't possibly get rid of, and wouldn't want to get rid of even if we could. I'd like us to recognize that sex is one of the most fundamental ways that our minds are wired, one of the chief lenses through which we view the world . . . and not only recognize this fact, but accept it, and even celebrate it. I'd like us to see sex as one of the great joys, inspirations, consolations, forms of communication, forms of connection, and just pure forms of entertainment that the human race has.
(3) Healthy sexuality is powerful, but it does not victimize. It is always safe, even if it sometimes causes pain. When I was in college, my politically correct lesbian friends used to joke about how they tried to have politically correct sex. They took turns, each getting five minutes "on top." But sex isn't like a political meeting, where everyone should have an equal opportunity to talk or a balanced job complex where everyone does similar amounts of empowering and disempowering work. It seems to me, sex is a place you go to work out deep, pleasurable, and even painful feelings about vulnerability, power, being in control and not. Maybe you're a lifelong "bottom" who's found a devoted "top" as a soul mate, and you discarded the stop-watches a long time ago. Maybe hovering along the line between pleasure and pain is exactly what turns you on the most, and you and your partner have communicated well about this and so sometimes you feel pain (exquisitely), but you are not a victim. No matter what kind of society we create someday, there will be emotional and physical hurts that we might look to resolve through sexuality. I have a friend who was in a terrible car crash when she was a young child. Her brother died and she experienced severe burns over much of her body. The emotional and physical pain from this experience figure prominently in her life. She told me once about getting her labia (or was it her clitoris?) pierced. I cringed. "Doesn't that hurt?" I asked. She didn't answer with a simple yes or no, but rather with some background on how she has a long, complicated relationship dealing with hurt and loss in her life, and with her body being worked on, and operated on, and treated in various ways. At that time in her life, she was using her sexuality, and specifically piercing her vulva, to work out that relationship to pain. I don't pretend to fully understand, but I support her choice of expression. In a book I read about Borneo, the writer describes how men implanted their penises with various hard barbs or sticks (or something!) in order to increase the sexual pleasure of their female partners during intercourse. Presumably, they checked in with the women about this, and the women did in fact agree that there was some benefit in it for them. The golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," does not apply when it comes to sex. What you would do unto others, they may have no desire to do unto you. And you can't make them. And that's okay. Sexuality should play itself out in wide open (emotional) spaces with very few prohibitions. If what someone does in her private life makes you uncomfortable, then don't do it yourself. However, it may be worthwhile to pause and pay attention to what makes us cringe. There may be something to learn from it, and we may have something to offer to each other. Being non-judgmental doesn't mean turning off your brain. If we care about others, we should be present for them. I could be available to listen to my friend as she works through her issues around pain. I could be what various people have referred to as a "fair witness" (see Patrick Carnes) -- someone who offers a reality check, a warm embrace, a willingness to bring a different perspective if she is seeking that. In a society that supported these types of informal exchanges, maybe even encouraged them using available communication channels---schools, the media, etc. -- maybe people would be less likely to replicate their hurts in sexual encounters. Or at least maybe they would have more true choice about it. (4) Healthy sexuality is learned in families and in societies and cultures that embrace diverse feelings and expressions, but also constantly reinforce the need to balance rights and responsibilities. No matter what kind of society we create someday, it may be that we are never completely rid of rape, sexual abuse, or coercion. Progressives should support a strong and fair judicial system that enforces legal protections, but the first line of defense against these crimes should be the existence of institutions -- e.g., the family, schools, the workplace, the civic communit -- that stress the mechanisms by which people both experience their rights but also take responsibility for the rights of others. In the family, in the community, on the job, and in the political sphere, people should continually have the opportunity to practice getting their wants/needs met, and making sure others are as well. So, if, for example, you have learned in the workplace that a guiding principle is that decisions should be made by people who are most affected by them, then you have some practice at this concept. It is a fair principle that is just as true in the bedroom as it is in the workplace. If you are off on some sexual adventure that involves only you, then you have 100% decision-making power. Go for it, as they say. However, if you are with a partner who will be affected by your desires, now you have to modulate your adventure, allowing it to be changed and affected, by the other person. The sex/music metaphor holds well here. If it's just you and your earphones, then you get to listen to whatever you want. If it's you and your friend jamming in the basement, you two get to work it out. If your band is playing in the streets at 2:00 am, there are other people you'll have to take into consideration. What if your teenager is blasting grossly misogynistic lyrics at full volume through his earphones? Is it really nobody's business but his own? Of course not. In our better world, someone is paying attention. In a better society, all the ways we practice solidarity, equity, and diversity in all the various spheres of life will provide the greatest disincentive to violent, coercive, or even just inappropriate behaviors when it comes to sex and sexuality. We will be schooled in how to act according to these principles, and we will bring that knowledge to our private relationships and our roles as mentors, "fair witnesses," parents, peers, and community members. (5) Healthy sexuality takes a certain amount of work (for lack of a better word). Let's call it intentionality. I think we live with a certain myth that sex and sexuality spring unbidden from deep biological urges (mostly) in men or are tied to romantic swoons (mostly) in women. Sure, sex has something to do with biology and sexual pleasure can be tied to love, but it's okay to be a little more intentional about it as well! Maybe that's why these myths persist---to save us from being intentional about our sexuality. It is so embarrassing, after all. It would be a lot easier to consign it to some murky part of ourselves that we can claim to have no control over. A friend of mine who was steeped in motherhood, full-time work, and the demands of home and community told me recently she had zero sexual drive. She missed it. I suggested she try reading some erotic literature to see if that might spark her interest. She looked shocked. I think she thought that if it didn't happen on its own accord, there was nothing she could do. But there's a lot we can do to fully embrace being sexual, and in a better society, this sort of renewal would be expected and supported. There would be a wide range of erotic literature, movies, and music. There would be support groups, how-to books, mentors, friends, and enough time to keep in touch with this important part of yourself. But when I say "wide range," surely there must be parameters. What if someone seeks sexual "renewal" in a way that others consider oppressive? This raises the question of pornography and the long and sickening history of male power being used to sexually subjugate and objectify women (and sometimes children), often violently. Perhaps participatory economics will partly deal with this. Women won't need to be sexual slaves to husbands for economic reasons; women won't need to earn a living as sex workers; women and their sexuality and everything about them will constantly be reinforced as autonomous and inviolate. Furthermore, men will be liberated from the need to use women's bodies as the battleground on which they prove their masculinity. But what if rape still exists? What if there is some drive (which our better society has not yet foiled) for men to see women as "other," which they might then seek to act on through sexual abuse and/or rape? It goes without saying that non-consensual sex of any kind would be illegal. But what about pornography or erotica that suggested non-consensual sex or showed images of it -- for the express purpose of turning people on? Obviously, there can and should be prohibitions against certain acts (such as non-consensual sex), but should there be prohibitions against fantasies, stories, and images? To answer these questions, we need open dialogue and society-wide problem solving. We need positive, sex-and-sexuality-affirming people to consider the sensible parameters in the sex trade. On Susie (the sexpert) Bright's website, she mentions viewing some pornography that left her unsure whether to cry or masturbate. Clearly, a whole society (even a "better" society) of people "being intentional" about sexuality will have to muck around in exactly such a gray area to figure out the parameters of sex-positive intentionality.