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Sex Today: Ask & Tell (The TEDx Talk)

November 14, 2011

Every time I speak, I start with a solid idea of what I intend to say. Then it comes time to speak, and the energy of the crowd, the rhythm of the day, takes over. Invariably I say things that I didn’t quite mean to, and don’t say things that I did mean to.

And that’s when I return to my preferred method of speaking, which is actually typing, in the privacy of my own home, where I don’t get nervous. (I get so nervous, no matter how much or how little I prepare.)

With that said, here’s what I MEANT to say in my TEDx talk. It is shockingly close to what I actually said, just with a few more details and statistics, and better sentence structure. Complete with the photos that were on my slides, (and my slides were nothing but photos. I hate it when people put their entire talk on slides!)

Ask & Tell

Now that we have finally put Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell behind us, I had to wonder what the opposite of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is. Easy, it’s “Ask and Tell!”

In this new era, it’s time to take a look at a spectrum of human sexuality that goes beyond gay and straight.  Now that we’ve accepted that it really doesn’t matter if the person fighting in the foxhole next us is having gay sex, it’s time to ask if it matters that the neighbor in the house next to us is getting tied up and spanked in a little-girl dress at night.

The answer is “no.” How consensual adults have sex has no impact on your life, unless you are one of the consensual adults that is having sex with them.

Beyond that, sexual freedom has as much to do with society as it does with individual freedom of expression. It is our responsibility to make sure that people do not feel marginalized and shamed for their sexuality. It is one thing to say that, in theory, people have the right to express their sexuality as they wish. It is an entirely different thing for us to truly create an open space in which people do not fear loss as a result of being honest about their sexuality.

What Is Sex?

Graphic depictions of creative sex on a temple in India.

But first we have to understand what sex is. Fortunately, that’s really simple. Sex is a consensual act between adults. I’ve made this point repeatedly in the discussion of rape, and how it needs to be seen as a violent crime and not a sex crime, because sex is, by definition, consensual. That clarifying point is just as important when we talk about sexual shame, because we have to understand that we are shaming people for something that is a consensual act between adults. We do not have the right to do that.

So, sex is a consensual act between adults, and that’s all it is. Look at this temple in India, made 1,000 years ago. It’s not monogamous, and it’s probably not heterosexual. As long as human civilization has been recording its activities, it has included art and architecture with depictions of sex that we would call “kinky” today. But it’s just sex. And it’s totally natural.

So why do we have so much shame around it?

Guilt vs. Shame

Photo By: Arha Detruit

Before we look at shame, I think it’s important to separate shame and guilt. Though they often arrive hand in hand, it’s important to look at their origins and their functions.

Guilt is an internal voice that says, “I did something bad.” Generally speaking, it is the natural result of doing something that you know will hurt someone else. “I told a lie, I did something bad.” It is one mechanism of self-regulation that we use to control our own behavior.

Shame comes from an external voice that says, “you are something bad.” So, in an individual, it doesn’t say, “I told a lie, I did something bad,” it says, “I am gay, I am something bad.” Shame is one mechanism of control over others, we use it to make other people into what we want them to be.

That is debilitating to people. It literally takes away their freedom.

In the case of our sexuality, shame removes your autonomous control over your own sexuality. It is a form of coercion. It is the only way that we can coerce people into sexual behavior that they don’t really consent to without it being called rape.

From that perspective, I want to point out to you that anyone who wants to take away your autonomous control over your own sexuality does not have your best interest at heart. Whether it is your preacher, your teacher or your lover.

With that said, what does shame do to people? Why does it even matter?

The Power Of Shame

Photo By: Angelo Gonzales

You can turn on the TV and see stories about gay teens killing themselves rather than live with shame and ridicule to know that sexual shame hurts people. But there is actually a good body of research that shows the impact of sexual shame and marginalization on the gay population. Unfortunately, there is far less research – none of substance that I could find – on the direct impact of shame and marginalization on straight people. But we’ll work with what we’ve got.

Research has shown that gay youth between 21- 25 who feel marginalized because of their sexuality are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide.

One study looking at the 16 states that enacted constitutional amendments to ban gay-marriage in 2004 & 2005 showed that depression in the GLBT community increased from 23 – 31%, generalized anxiety rose from 3 – 9% and alcohol abuse went from 22 – 31%.

So, does shame hurt? Yes. At least it hurts gay people, which is great news for everyone else. Except that it turns out that gay people are just people, so it’s safe to assume that feeling sexually marginalized hurts everyone else too.

Everyone’s Doing It

Photo By: Rachel Kramer Bussel

Okay, so what is everyone else doing?   A look at all the data out there suggests that about 8% of the population is homosexual. A major international study done in 2005 suggests that 20% of the population engages in “kinky” sex; that is sex that involves multiple partners at the same time, toys, bondage, spanking, porn and other things that people would like us to think are not “normal.”

So, we have let 8% of the population out of the closet, but left 20% of the population in the closet by suggesting that the way they have sex is weird in some way. Of course, the closet may be where they keep all the toys and other fun stuff, so maybe that’s okay?

I happen to think that 20% statistic is really low. There’s no way that just 20% of the population is driving the enormous industry that is sex-related entertainment in the US. And when you’re looking at an issue this important, size does matter.

Consumers spend about $13 Billion a year watching porn. 12% of the sites on the Internet are porn and 24% of all search engine requests are for porn.  (And lest you think that’s just a bunch of skeevy men, 1/3 of all porn viewers are reported to be women, though I am convinced that number is low.)

Amusingly, Utah has the highest rate of porn downloads and the highest rate of strict religious followers. To me, I think that probably shows that although you can try to shame the kink out of someone, they will find a way to get their needs met, one way or another.

Remember the guilt vs. shame thing earlier? This is where they connect. When a person is told that their fundamental desires are wrong, and therefore they are bad, but find a way to get their needs met, they are likely to feel guilt. That cocktail of guilt and shame very likely leads to the depression and anxiety that popped up in research in the gay population. Get it?

Anyway, moving on. You thought that was a lot of money spent on porn? Last year, in the midst of the worst economy we’ve seen since The Great Depression, we spent $15 Billion on sex-toys.

We are a kinky people!   We are spending a lot of time and money looking for more interesting sex lives!

What Are People Doing?

Photo By: NO H8 Campaign

What kind of interesting sex are we looking for and having? Lots!

My boyfriend and I were trying to find a way to illustrate the depth and breadth of the human sexual activity without just showing you a lot of pictures that might be scary. Even to me. (No matter how open-minded you are, you’re only comfortable with what you’re comfortable with, and I’m not going to push that for you!)  So we went to the LustLab, which is the Stranger’s online personals section that is focused on people looking for interesting sexual hook-ups. On that site alone, there were 90 kinks listed that you could try and find partners for.

They range from asphyxiation to Water Sports – and water sports isn’t water, it’s pee, in case you didn’t know – and everything in between; bondage, group sex, knife play, you name it. And that’s just LustLab, in Seattle, a notoriously uptight city. There are other sites like FetLife and Bondage.com that are much kinkier.

These sites wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a market to support them. If there weren’t a lot of people looking for this stuff. So if the only thing you hear  is this, then hear this:  whatever you are into, it’s normal. It’s natural. It’s okay. There are lots of other people just like you.

Why Does This Matter?

Photo: Klara Kopff

And that’s part of the problem. Sexual shame doesn’t just hurt the one person who is feeling it, it hurts everyone with whom they build a life. It can destroy marriages, careers and even communities.

When supposedly straight and conservative politicians are trying to pick up young men in airport bathrooms, it’s not just a problem for them. It is a problem for the woman he married who thought she is in a fulfilling marriage with a man whose needs she was meeting. It’s a problem for the people who worked with him who suddenly saw their own careers in jeopardy. It’s a problem for all of us who witness the scandal and are told that the problem is that he’s gay rather than that he’s a liar.

All of which could have been avoided if, somewhere back in time, he hadn’t been taught to be ashamed of his sexuality and live a life of lies pretending to be something else.

So it’s not just the “kinky” 20% and the gay 8% and the bi-sexual 11%, it is every single person that has a relationship of any kind with any of those people. It is the spouses, partners, associates, children and community members of those people. If we’re all 6-degrees separated from Kevin Bacon, we’re probably 1-degree separated from someone who has, or wants to have, sex in a way that is really different than us. Trust me, someone you know is gay, bi or kinky – or all of the above.

In looking for statistics and examples of how shame hurts people, I ran across a statistic that just broke my heart. Trans people – people who were born with sexual organs that do not match their own sexual identity and choose to live in a way that many people see as different from their born sexual role – have three times more Urinary Tract Infections than the general population. Why? Because they are often afraid to use public restrooms because of the ridicule and possible abuse they may face. So they hold it in, and get a lot of Urinary Tract Infections.

We, as a society, literally make them physically ill from sexual shame. That’s disgusting.

I also ran across a great study in which Milton Diamond looked for a correlation between porn consumption and sex-based crimes like rape. It was a fairly huge study, and not only did he not find a causal relationship, he actually found an inverse correlation. The cities in which the porn consumption was the highest had the lowest rates of sex crimes. But that’s not all, he discovered an even more surprising correlation, causing him to make the following declarative statement, “What does correlate highly with sex offense is a strict, repressive religious upbringing.”  Utah.

Why Do We Do It?

Photo By: Arha Detruit

If shame is so bad for us as individuals and as a society, why do we continue to do it? If you leave the church out of it, which I’m trying to do, then no one really knows why we put shame on others for their consensual adult sexuality.

But I have a strong hunch. I think that our sexuality is so intimate, deep and personal that we want to – and should – protect it. I suspect that we think that if we tell “those people” that they can do those “scary” things, we may be telling them that they can do them to us. No matter how open-minded we are, we are still only turned on and turned off by the things that turn us on and off, and that is deeply individual. It is human to not want to be perpetually presented with things that scare us.

Yes Means No!

Photo By: Tristan Morgan

Well, I have good news for you. It actually works the opposite way. When we give people back the autonomous control over their sexuality, we give ourselves that same right. And it’s not just the right to decide what you do want, but also what you don’t want. And when we get comfortable with the idea that people simply like what they like, we don’t take other people’s sexuality personally, even when it’s not something that we take part in. More than that, when we get comfortable with this and can talk about it, we develop an emotional and verbal vocabulary that allows us to not only have boundaries, but respect them.

Those boundaries keep us both safe and fulfilled. They are how we get the things we want, and don’t get the things we don’t.

More than that, that is how we, once and for all, eliminate sexual shame. Even better, that’s how we start having the rocking great sex that we all deserve!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Scott permalink
    November 15, 2011 6:17 pm

    Love it.

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