Monday, August 31, 2015

Having Sex: The Case for Embracing a Wider View

I sometimes wonder where in the world some of us got the notion that the term, “having sex” describes only one single act – that of penis-in-vagina penetration. Taken from this narrow and reductive view, a term that ought to embrace a rich and wide-ranging diversity of pleasurable sexual behaviors has been shrunken and winnowed down in ways that minimize, even exclude, a panoply of exquisitely delicious acts to instead valorize one, single, supposedly ultimate, activity.

Moreover, it’s really rather sad that many of us never even contemplate how limiting, narrow and obfuscating this kind of thinking really is. But it's a very common notion, one that points to a larger social issue that seems to be at the soul of our considerable backwardness concerning exactly what’s meant by the term “having sex.” And as one might expect, our apparent unwillingness to expand our working definition of the term has created some rather unfortunate misconceptions, not the least of which is the erroneous notion that other pleasurable, empowering sexual activities somehow fall short of qualifying as actually "having sex."

Let me explain by way of an enlightening example: Not all that long ago, a certain US President emphatically denied that he had ever had sex with “that woman,” referring to a young intern working in the White House at the time. Of course, whether actual penis in vagina penetration took place, none of us knows for sure, and clearly, it wasn’t then, nor is it now, anybody else’s business - including mine. 

But the point is that when President Bill Clinton made his emphatic, level-eyed, hand-to-God sort of declaration, most people had a tacit understanding of exactly what he meant because, in no uncertain terms, he was making himself quite clear. Whatever else had gone on, he wanted, needed, us to believe that he had never inserted his penis into Monica Lewinsky’s vagina. Period. Finis. End of story.

Again, whatever truly transpired between them was their business, not ours. Talk of cigars under desks and stains on a blue dress notwithstanding, as far as I'm concerned, his private behaviors in the "people’s house" had zero impact on his enormous capability in the overall exemplary execution of his job. 

However… the notion that penile insertion in someone’s vagina constitutes the only activity that qualifies as “having sex” was as ridiculous in that context as it is in any other. What about all the other sexual behaviors that unerringly rock our socks off? And in the case of women, what about all the other heart-racing stuff that brings us to orgasm way more predictably and ecstatically than penis-in-vagina penetration ever could? 

I suppose, at bedrock, the question is this: How did we become so narrow in our view of “having sex” that we denigrate, downplay and relegate to mere foreplay behaviors like clitoral stimulation that are so satisfying to women, in and of themselves?

As is my penchant, let me play the erstwhile gadfly here and suggest that, like much that forms the context for human behaviors, a bulk of this misframing comes to us via antiquated Judeo-Christian doctrine arguing that no sexual behaviors actually “count” unless they can, in and of themselves, result in the production of offspring. Of course, I suppose this requirement may have seemed like a reasonable bit of wisdom at the dawn of these religions, at a time when early religious organizers wanted to insure that their new belief systems, competing for a foothold in the midst of so-called “paganism,” would have enough people to insure that their neophyte belief-systems thrived.  Back then, with the goal of increasing their numbers as the dubious rationale, it’s easy to see how activities like masturbation – what they termed the wasteful, wanton sinful spilling of one’s seed on the ground – were demonized by early purveyors of religions like Christianity. Back then, the clamoring for more warm bodies was so great that the Gospel according to Mark (12:18) instructs childless women who are widowed to have intercourse with all their dead husbands’ brothers until they conceive male children in their dead husbands’ name. Of course, one suspects that inheritance concerns were operational here as well. 

Then as now, adherence to some exclusionary notion that nothing outside of intercourse constitutes really “having sex” reaps troubling rewards. In doing so, we invoke a male-centered, narrow kind of hierarchy that situates other pleasurable, erotic activity as somehow “lesser than” - even when such activity proves way more satisfying, especially for women. In fact, while lots of women enjoy the fullness that can come with the sensation of vaginal penetration, for the largest majority of women, the clitoris is where it’s at. Metaphorically light years away from a penetrating penis, empowered, feminist definitions of  “having sex” should reflect the embodied reality that the vast majority of women, regardless of age, find their best, most mind-exploding, breath-defying orgasms via clitoral stimulation – by hand, mouth, sex toy, or whatever else seems appropriate to do the job.

What’s more, there's this: In clinging to the primacy of penile penetration, we’re also buying into the notion - discursively, at least - that while penetration may be sexual nirvana for males, it somehow doesn't matter very much that this particular brand of “having sex,” simply doesn't honor the way that women’s bodies are made. This matters quite a lot, especially if we subscribe to the premise that women's sexual pleasure - including how we achieve it - is equally as important and valid as men's. 

No wonder, then, that Freud, in his inimitably misguided and phallocentric way, argued so vociferously that orgasms produced through clitoral stimulation were "infantile," childlike, not "mature" (can you believe it?) leading great numbers of women, their partners and medical folk alike to wrongly assume that there were – are – some other better, more grown-up kinds of orgasms, secretly, mysteriously, vaginally sequestered, wherein the length of a man’s penis forging into a shadowy vaginal netherworld, might take full credit for it. 

Even now, I often speak with men, and sadly, women as well, who erroneously believe that there’s something seriously "wrong" with women who don’t orgasm as a result of penetration, due in large part to this male-model definition of “having sex.” 

In fact, nothing whatsoever is wrong with these women, of course. Rather, the fault – if there is one – lies in our narrow view of what it means to be “having sex.”

Indeed, other issues loom large on the landscape here as well. In a context that situates “having sex” as meaning only vaginal penetration, there’s way too much room for perpetrators of forced intimacy to minimize the wrongness of their out-of-bounds behavior, as in “I only fondled her breast. That’s not having sex. I only slid my fingers between his butt cheeks. That’s not having sex. I only forced oral contact. That’s not having sex.”
Need I go on?

Finally, truth be told, there’s a near infinite constellation of behaviors that constitute “having sex,” - behaviors that leave us empowered, that nurture the body and spirit. Behaviors that bring us pleasure and enhance our connective oneness through the laying on of hands, or through a bit of delicious escapism, and sometimes, depending wholly upon what delights us in the darkness, an exquisite tidy morsel of pleasure tinged with pain, as in BDSM, often sans penetration.

In contrast to such myriad diversity breathing life in the human condition, our narrow definition of “having sex” impoverishes the sense of self; withers our sexual agency. 

On the other hand, broadening our definition to embrace the universe of ways by which our sexualized bodies experience their joy allows way more consenting adults to inhabit that space -  the differently abled, the old and infirm, people who happen to be partnered, as well as folks who aren't - whether by chance or by choice. 

And in the end, that’s pretty much just as it should be, enabling all of us to wrap our arms around our sexual agency to the fullest – now, tomorrow, and in the unseen times ahead, on our own evolving, ever empowered terms. 

No small matter.

photo credit: <a href="">SexFlame</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="">CampusParty 2010-17-2</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a> photo credit: <a href="">Jo Louise</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="">Photographer; Alba Gesti. Model; Draïgona Vampire. Designer; Random Corsets. Make up; SophieCat. Crown; Crystal Dreams Alice.</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

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