[Guest Post] “Everything I Know About Sex, I Learned from Dan Savage” by Ari Potter

Today’s post is a continuation of my sharing awesome pieces by new voices to sex writing! When I put out my call for pitches I was overwhelmed with the response and the extraordinary quality of so many of the ideas. What I loved about this piece by Ari Potter was her honesty around the trials and tribulations of getting past the problematic ideas around sex that come from a conservative upbringing, and the way she’s told it with a straightforward and humorous tone. Definitely a writer we need to see more of! 

Heads up: this post uses the p-word that is sometimes used to refer to sex workers. It is used in the context of quoting something that was said many years ago, and not in a derogatory way by either the author or myself.

Now, over to Ari…

Amy x

“Everything I Know About Sex, I Learned from Dan Savage” by Ari Potter

I am in bed with a recent partner. We are taking a pause to hydrate and I’m supposed to be thinking about how I want to be fucked: this DJ takes requests. Our conversation turns to sex and childhood and, with a delicious situational irony, it transpires that we have both shaken off prudish attitudes conferred by quasi-religious upbringings. My own were inherited from relatively liberal Bengali parents. It’s not that sex was wrong, per se, but the constraints under which it could be enjoyed were strictly limited: within marriage, to one person, of the opposite sex to you, for life.

Of course, they never sat me down to convey this diktat. Indeed, the sex talk that I got from my parents was clinical and secondhand. When watching a subtitled Les Miserables aged eight or nine, I asked my parents what a “prostitute” was. They told me to look it up, which led me to asking what this “sex” thing was that you could be paid for. Again, they delegated their responsibility to a book, and a Dorling Kindersley encyclopaedia with an illustrated cross section of two torsos missionarily-connected provided me with a scientifically functional but practically useless understanding.

Over the years, no more is said about the matter, but it becomes understood from their general reticence about me hanging out with boys that All Boys Want Is Sex and Sex Outside Of Marriage Is Very Bad. There’s more than a pinch of It’s Especially Bad For Girls! too, but they reassure me that’s not because they think that, but more because everyone else will.

Predictably, they learn through my adolescence that ‘you can read anything but you can’t do anything’ is a recipe for parental disaster. I have decided to ignore much of their advice on anything, considering everything from “don’t drink” to “get home by 4pm” under the same broad category of “too strict and reasonable to ignore”. So when the first peers start copping off with each other, I join them. Yet, unlike with the other rules that I have wholesale dismissed, the one about sex has some sticking power in my mind. Aged 15, it’s not that I think my parents are wrong, it’s that I think they don’t understand that it’s OK for me to sleep with my first boyfriend, because we’re in love and will one day marry. Obviously.

(Editor’s note – I laughed so hard at this because I had EXACTLY the same train of thought as Ari at nearly the same age. Spoiler: reader, I did not marry him.)

The gradual dismantling of these archaic views on sex were a demonstration of hypocritical insistence on conservatism – constantly making exceptions to exempt your own behaviour while trying to maintain an increasingly unsustainable dogma. When I sleep with my next boyfriend (I’m 17 or thereabouts now), it’s okay… as long as you’re in love. After that it becomes fine if you’re in a relationship. Which is amended to add the exception of ‘and on holiday’ (?!) and then finally disappears entirely by the time I’m 21 and in theory, a fully fledged adult. Oh, with the now hilarious exception of “I don’t let people go down on me because I’m holding something back for The One.” (Ingenious spin for “I don’t have the patience to let inexperienced partners practice on me!”)

My parents don’t realise how far they have own-goaled. By my mid twenties, armed with the view that safe, consensual sex that doesn’t harm anyone is to be celebrated and recently out of a long term relationship, I am keen to make up for lost time. What becomes clear to me is that my introspection doesn’t match my enthusiasm. While I want to explore my desires, the conservative hang ups from my past leave me too ashamed or bewildered to interrogate what I want. The result is a peculiar mix of willingness to try things that means I go along with others’ kinks without knowing my own.

It leads me to question how much I enjoy sexual experiences on a purely physical level. A public, group encounter with a masked man at a party was certainly anecdote-worthy, but was it hot? Being decorated in various constellations of latex and rope makes me smile to recall, but out of context feels faintly ridiculous. Pegging makes me feel as though I am able to confidently take a lead, but does it turn me on? More importantly: does it matter?

Dan Savage, on his sex podcast, describes a good lover as someone who’s GGG: good, giving and game. And, rightly, the model assumes reciprocity. Yet, I find that my conditioning around sex and shame leaves me unable to be frank with willing partners. I don’t want to only be a participant in someone else’s fantasies without indulging my own, but they are
buried and when one surfaces I second-guess how much it is mine.

‘So what do you want me to do?’ asks my bedfellow, again. Good question.

Ari Potter is a Bengali-British writer who’s particulary interested in gender, mental health and cultural identity. She’s previously appeared in gal-dem, Orlando and Litro. By day, she works for a health and social care charity, and, separately, has recently launched her own campaign on consent and sex education. Thanks to Ari for this brilliant guest post.

[Guest Post] “Liberating Myself from the Confines of Sex and Love Addiction” by Taylor Morley

This post is the second installment in my “new voices in sex writing” project. This was actually the first pitched piece that I read, and it went straight into the YES pile, on the grounds that it made me cry. Taylor’s story is extremely powerful and I think will resonate with lots of us who have had our perfectly normal and healthy sexuality and/or romantic life pathologised. I have long been in the “sex addiction is not a thing” camp, and if you want to learn more about this from an expert’s point of view, I suggest you check out Dr David Ley’s fantastic book, “The Myth of Sex Addiction.”

Now over to Taylor… 

“Liberating Myself from the Confines of Sex and Love Addiction”

“Maybe she abuses sex as a means to cope like her dad abused alcohol,” my psychology classmate said, as she tapped her leg against the barstool, waiting impatiently for her second beer.

“No,” the next one said, as she hung up with her boyfriend for the third time in 15 minutes. “It sounds like she has borderline tendencies. Like, she’s not actually borderline, she just has the borderline-like tendency to act out sexually and lose herself in each and every partner.”

My friend inhaled as if she was about to speak. Finally, an ally coming to my defense, I thought naively. “I think Taylor just picks the wrong men and she lets sex negatively impact her life. She’s definitely an addict.” Then, she changed the subject to talk about her last failed casual hookup.

I had been the subject of many armchair psychology sessions such as this one. In these scenarios, my body served as the blank screen onto which people projected their greatest sexual anxieties, judgments, and fears. I would often sit quietly, as I did that night, listening to people talk around me as they attempted to diagnose and explain me away. I suspect that it was easier for them to categorize me and squeeze me into neat little pathological boxes than to listen to my lived experience. If I were the only broken toy in need of repair, then no one else would have to engage in any self-examination.

At that point, I had been in recovery for over 3 years, after my therapist and psychiatrist had agreed on a diagnosis of sex and love addiction at age 21.

But I had been a part of this process, as well. The tricky thing about sex and love addiction is that you have the opportunity to diagnose yourself. You can even do it online with a vague questionnaire. In reality, this ludicrous practice opens up far too much space for people who have been shamed sexually to convince themselves that they are, in fact, damaged. When you are raised in a society that defines ‘healthy sex’ in such a narrow fashion – heterosexual, procreative, monogamous sex with cis bodies and few partners – there is far too much room for everyone else to fall into the cracks. Down I fell.

It hadn’t always been this way.

With no basis for self-love, body positivity, or confidence in my youth, I had somehow managed to build and sustain it on my own for a few beautiful years. As I look back on it now in adulthood, I realize how magical and unique that was. When I was 18, I wrote in my diary that sex was “exhilarating and life affirming.” I basked in my own glow. I noted the way my freckles curved around the right side of my back, and named my legs as my favorite body part. I wrote with excitement about my last sexual encounter, reveling in the limitless feeling of orgasm.

While my friends pined for monogamous relationships, I preferred casual dynamics that spoke to my need for exploration and freedom. But that kind of authenticity and self- assuredness had no place in a world that refused to see me as a sexually autonomous being, especially as a young woman. My wings would have to be clipped before I reached the sun.

In those same years before the diagnosis, I was harassed and stalked both on and offline, slut-shamed relentlessly by friends and classmates, sexually assaulted, and victimized by image-based abuse (also known as revenge porn) on more than one occasion. The last encounter with image-based abuse destroyed my budding career and all of my future ambitions when the photos were sent to current and former employers and coworkers.
These events sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing, which had been the goal all along. Once I had convinced myself that sex was negatively impacting my career and relationships, I surrendered to the label of sex and love addict.

I went through the 12 steps, making amends to friends and loved ones, apologizing for “acting out” and allowing my quest for sex to overrule my life.

I examined past traumas, attended women-only meetings as often as possible, and took the program seriously. But as the years drudged on, questions and doubts loomed in the back of my mind. Why were straight and bisexual women overrepresented in all of these recovery meetings? Why were men defined as sex addicts, while women were always identified as sex and love addicts? If the scientific community had never legitimized this addiction, why were we so convinced that these diagnoses were correct? How could doctors even diagnose someone with a condition that did not exist in the DSM? These questions were left unanswered in meeting rooms, and they were always met with pushback and anger, as if I had pulled the rug out from underneath us all.

The underlying, bare bones message from clinicians and fellow addicts were the same: “We see that you enjoy sex, but you don’t seem to feel an adequate level of remorse or self-disgust about it.” The brazenness and the confidence, the casual nature of my relationships – these were the attitudes and behaviors that needed to be fixed, or eliminated entirely. While other people in the program insisted that recovery would bring freedom from shame, I could not taste the independence. Instead, this so-called
‘recovery’ was a pillow held firmly over my face, suffocating me with shame. Every subsequent sexual experience was an exercise in self-flagellation. Whenever I looked at a man and felt a mere twinge of lust, or yearned for a casual encounter, I berated myself internally for falling back into toxic behaviors and ran off to a meeting with my head
hung low.

When society grows tired of policing women’s sexual activity, they teach us to police ourselves, and I was monitoring my own behavior so closely, no one else had to weigh in. It was a dull, colorless existence, and it only served to exacerbate the depression that was already simmering underneath.

If authenticity was my goal – and it was – I would have to liberate myself.

The first step was to exit the program and leave the sex and love addict identity behind. I sought out a sex therapist that had worked with other defectors from the program, and over the past few years, he has helped me re-learn how to have pleasurable, exhilarating, life-affirming sex without the existence of shame. It is a process that has yet to reach its
conclusion, but for the first time in over a decade, I have no interest in contorting myself to fit into a tiny box in order to be more palatable or acceptable to society. My healthy relationship with sex will not be explained away, or pathologized. You will just have to sit there quietly, and listen to my lived experience.

Taylor Morley is an activist, writer, and advocate who writes and speaks on topics ranging from sexual liberation, to anti-imperialism and human rights issues. She does marketing and development for non-profit organizations in Los Angeles, where she resides with her Dorothy Parker books and her vinyl collection.