Unlearning Sex Negativity

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a long time. So today for Smutathon seems like as good a time as any!

A white rose. For a post on unlearning sex negativity.

I need to start by admitting something that doesn’t make me look good. When I was younger, I engaged in a lot of slut-shaming. I held a very, very strong belief that people should only have sex in the context of Capital L Love. I kinda low-key considered myself better than other girls because of the small number of people I’d had sex with and the fact that I insisted on a strong emotional bond before I would consider it.

To be clear, I am NOT demisexual. Obviously some people are and this is a completely legitimate sexual identity. However, I experience sexual attraction and desire outside of emotionally committed relationships. Definitely not demi. I just… had some very strange moral ideas about sexuality. I would, in my late teens and early twenties, quite often find myself wanting to have sex with someone but insisting I couldn’t because it would be *wrong* because we weren’t In Love. Even when I became polyamorous, I was one of those insufferable “it’s not about SEX! It’s about LOVE!!!!!!” people.

And now? Well, I’m a swinger! I love casual sex! I’ve had threesomes and foursomes and orgies. I’ve been to countless sex parties and facilitated a few. The number of people I’ve slept with is probably still not particularly impressive to some, but I stopped counting at thirty which is way above the national average.

So… what the fuck happened?

The short answer is that I learned. The longer answer is that I took the time to step back and consider my position – really consider it – and couldn’t find any morally defensible reason for continuing to hold it. I also realised that I could be a whole lot happier if I actually allowed myself to have what my heart and body wanted, rather than holding on to some strange morality that didn’t actually stand up under scrutiny.

I have a fairly clear idea of where my ideas about sexuality came from. Though I wasn’t raised religious, I was brought up in an environment where long-term monogamy was held up as the Right Way and sexual promiscuity was shamed. In addition, my first long term relationship was with an older guy who was very clear that he prized me for my Purity. Because I was a virgin when we met (I was fourteen!) he expected me to somehow stay all innocence, naivety about sex, and wide-eyed-inexperience forever. He slut-shamed me for liking some of the sex we had together (I was supposed to put out, but seem reluctant about it – make of that whatever you like!) In turn I slut-shamed myself and internalised the idea that I wasn’t supposed to enjoy sex and that being into it made me less appealing to the men I was having sex with.

To be clear, I don’t think my experience was anything particularly atypical. Girls in our culture are often brought up under the weight of massive sexual shame, in a society that still stigmatises and even pathologises female desire and sexuality. Girls are taught it’s their job to say no to boys, to resist any whiff of sexual activity… but then somehow know exactly how to “please their man” once they’re in a socially-sanctioned relationship. It’s fucked up.

No-one who is brought up in this kind of environment can escape without internalising some of it. It’s almost impossible. Some of us fare better than others, of course, but we’re all swimming in this toxic sex-negativity. To escape from it takes a real effort.

It took me years to unlearn some of these toxic beliefs about sex, and to be honest that work is still not entirely done. I still occasionally have to catch myself when I find myself playing down my eagerness for sex or being tempted to lie when someone asks me how many people I’ve had sex with.

But the actual unlearning was a process. First, it required consciously acknowledging that actually, being promiscuous and engaging in casual sex was something I would enjoy. Then learning how not to judge myself, or others, for these types of behaviours. And that took a lot of reading, a lot of critical thought, a lot of listening and talking to others and questioning questioning questioning my beliefs at every step of the way.

I still vividly remember the first time I had sex with someone I didn’t love. It felt as though an enormous weight had lifted off my shoulders. I’d kinda wanted to bang that particular person, a good friend with whom a romantic relationship wouldn’t have worked, for a long time. But I’d always denied my interest and said no because I had this weird moral conviction that it would be somehow wrong and say something bad about me as a person if I engaged in Sex Without Love.

Sex with love attached is great. And sex without love attached can also be great. Sex, in the context of a consensual exchange between adults, is fucking awesome.

If you want to only have sex with the one person you’re married to for your entire life, I support that. If you want to have gangbangs with thirty strangers every weekend, I also support that. When we free ourselves from arbitrary sexual morality, we can look at the things that really matter (consent, agency, risk-aware practices, pleasure) and stop judging ourselves and each other so harshly for the consensual sex we engage in.

This post is part of Smutathon 2019. Please donate if you can and help us raise lots of money to support abortion access!

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