Wednesday, October 31, 2012

how to improve your sex life and save America

I was at a Halloween party on Saturday, sitting between two men whose entire bodies (including their heads) were covered in green spandex, when I reached this conclusion: all of us, in the company of our friends, families, lovers and co-workers, ought to spend much more time talking about sex.

I propose that talking about sex will help us to feel less shame, have better sex, and even weaken the influence of politics (and worse, politicians) on our personal lives.

Here’s how it works.

Waste less of your life feeling ashamed.

We feel ashamed when we think that we are doing or feeling something uniquely awful. You can’t feel ashamed of doing something that everybody you know and love is also doing. At least, in theory you can’t, but in practice you do: everyone you know and love picks their nose, poops, does not look like an airbrushed supermodel when naked, and has all kinds of dirty, dark, and deviant sexual desires. Just. Like. You.

Keeping the shameful stuff to ourselves keeps us isolated from each other. We are so afraid of each other’s judgment that we clam up, and forfeit the possibility of connection. The irony is that connection is the only thing that can alleviate our shame - when we realize that we are not uniquely dirty-minded, just plain old run-of-the-mill dirty-minded, the shame begins to evaporate. Of course, it may not be the case that your best friend shares your fantasy about being tied up. But guess what: there is only one way to find out.

Personally, I am sick of shame. I’ve spent enough time with it to recognize the depth of its uselessness. If you could also do with a little less shame, follow these simple instructions: 

  1. Invite some friends over. 
  2. Make a pot of tea. 
  3. Pose this question: "What turns you on?"

Have better sex.

One thing I’ve often found perplexing is why competent, intelligent, fully-grown members of society so often turn into simpering weenies when things get sexual. They lose the ability to ask for things they want, and to say NO to things they don’t want. As anyone who has ever hung out with a toddler knows, these are not advanced skills – every one of us mastered them completely by the age of 2.

So what gives? It seems to me that our vast reserves of shame cloud our judgment and thicken our tongues. Whatever the reason, the fact is that most of us suck at communication when we’re turned on. Luckily there’s a really easy and reliable way to get better at things: practice.

Start talking about sex before you get into bed with somebody. Like, WAY before. At the party, on the date, in mixed company. Right after “what do you do?” and “where are you from?”, ask “what turns you on?” 

If you’re honest with yourself and the ones you covet, here’s what I predict: you may have fewer sex partners (having filtered out the incompatible and easily-offended ones right off the bat), but you’ll have much better sex. Your sex partners will know what you like before they have the chance to try all the things you don’t like. You’ll know what they like, too, so you can spend less time worrying about your performance. Even better: the more you practice talking about sex, the better you'll be at it; so when your desires inevitably change and develop, you’ll be more likely to get those satisfied, too.

And here’s the revolutionary part: when you talk about sex, the people around you will also have better sex. Talking about sex is contagious (that’s why I wasn’t allowed to hang out with my Christian homeschooler friends after I was about 13). It jumps from host to host, devouring their shame, connecting them to each other, and making their sex lives hotter. It’s a miracle drug. If I could make it into a pill I’d be a billionaire.

Kick politicians out of your sex life 

(unless you're having sex with one).

Part of the reason politicians and voters support stupid, counterproductive, dangerous legislation about sex is because they are under the influence of sexual shame. Remember how being open about sex and sexuality brings people closer together? It also weakens people’s opposition to no-brainer civil rights issues like marriage equality. In short: shame makes us stupid.

Sexual shame gives politicians and voters the selective-blindness required to support policies that are bad for them and their families. Shame allows closeted gay politicians to endorse anti-gay legislation. Shame allows parents of gay kids to keep mum about their support for marriage equality. Shame allows otherwise rational people to suggest that abstinence-only education is a good idea. Shame allows people with uteri (or daughters) to support a Presidential candidate who wants to de-fund planned parenthood and overturn Roe v. Wade - a lethal combination for women, regardless of your religious or moral position on those issues (HELLO SCIENCE: making abortion illegal does not mean that fewer women get abortions, it means that more of them die in the process.)

All of this is not to mention that oral sex is currently illegal in eighteen states.

In short, sexual shame is what a lot of people are smoking when they vote against there own interests. And what have we learned is the sobering antidote to sexual shame, friends? Or at least the morning-after, hangover-easing french toast and OJ? Talking about sex.

So turn to your neighbor, open your mouth, and say something sexy. For the good of humanity.


  1. One of my good friends used to have a lively series of yes/no questions. She used the results of the questions to sort people into teams:

    a) Right after cunnilingus, is it OK for the giver to kiss the receiver?
    b) Right after a blowjob, is it OK for the giver to kiss the receiver?
    c) Right after a blowjob where the giver has semen in her mouth, is it OK for the giver to pass some of it to the receiver with a kiss?

    It was a great ice breaker.

    1. Haha...that's funny...but these are the sorts of questions I've never had trouble talking about. For me, it's much more personal for me to admit much more basic stuff about who and what I am attracted to, and I've had much more shame/guilt associated with these than with my more explicit desires or fantasies.

      I do think though that in some contexts, talking about these questions can make it easier to talk about other stuff, just because they're so taboo in most mainstream settings that once you get people talking about them, anything seems easier to talk about.

  2. I like this a lot even while I wonder how many people who hear "what turns you on?" will take it as a direct proposition for sex rather than just a topic of discussion. So I'd like to underscore the plural nature of your instruction to "invite some friends over". In a group setting there is less likelihood any one person will feel singled out and targeted for seduction.

    I also think people have to be able to opt-out of this conversation for any reason without being shamed for their shame either. I don't give a fuck about propriety, but it's the most internalized and least accessible form of culturally ossified shame. People will say "I'm not ashamed but this is a conversation I only want to have with my lovers because propriety dictates it is a private matter and should remain that way for the good of society".

    I'm reading "The Anatomy of Disgust" by William Ian Miller. The interplay between the moral value of purity and reactions to its violations are quite interesting. When our sense of purity is offended we feel disgust. When others express their disgust at us for violating their sense of purity, we can feel shame. I think to fully understand shame we have to understand the purity/disgust dynamic too.

    I'd also like to point to Charlie Glickman's writings on the adaptive value of shame.

  3. I really like most of this post, my only quibble being that your last section about politics seems slightly over-simplified. (I think people support candidates for many reasons, sometimes in spite of their views on sexuality, case in point, Log Cabin Republicans).

    I think one of the most sinister thing about sexual shame in our society is the way it can influence people indirectly and unconsciously, even if people's conscious beliefs about sex and sexuality are to be more open. I find the concept of consent useful here. Nearly all of us would consent to social norms in which it is considered bad to harm other people--and these norms might cause people to feel shame or guilt if they harmed others. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But the problem with sex is that people don't consent to the norms about sex. People feel bad about stuff they don't want to feel bad about. I've heard a lot of people talk about this, and I've struggled with it myself. People want to talk openly about something, but struggle to do so...or people think something is morally fine, but still feel weird about it.

    I've never had trouble talking about the mechanics of sex, especially when I'm close to someone, but for me, the stuff that I associate with a lot of shame and guilt is feelings of attraction. What do I find attractive, what do I not? It sounds idiotic but I've felt guilty at times both for finding things attractive and for not finding things attractive.

    I think this is because our society explicitly sends messages that people are creepy or morally reprehensible because of who or what they are attracted to. To give you an example of how invasive it can get, I once had a pastor of a church I was attending stalk my Facebook and criticize me for having dinner with college students who attended the church. She said that she was concerned that I was paying too much attention to younger girls. Yes, I like younger girls. They're over 18, they're adults, and we're having dinner, in a group. It's none of your business, get over it.

    Of course, it's easy for me to say that but I would still struggle with feeling creepy.

    I can't even imagine what it would be like to be LGBT. For every invasive, meddling comment I've gotten like that, I bet most LGBT people get a lot more, especially if they, like me, want to be actively involved in organized religion.

    Another example is how I tend to hang out with people who value modesty. But I still really like checking out legs. I especially like it when girls wear short shorts. And I'd feel really guilty about this. Some of this came from some vague idea that I "should" be attracted to more modest women, because a lot of my friends seemed to value modesty so highly. But I think most of this guilt came from left-wing sources...I am pretty strongly feminist, and associate with a lot of feminists. And in some feminist sources there are these ideologies that suggest that any sort of focus on the female body by men is automatically objectifying. I even encountered some "feminist" literature that made analogies between men looking at women, and sexual assault. Sounds ridiculous, right?

    But that sort of negative message influenced my unconscious, I think in large part because I care hugely about respecting women as people, and because I care hugely about ending sexual assault, and I would feel guilty about feeling attracted to women's bodies.

    So I was getting it from the left and from the right, politically. Until recently, I didn't have a forum in which to sort out these issues, nor did I have a coherent value system which could help me sort it out either. So I'm glad you're writing about this sort of stuff. I think it's important to write about!

  4. Wow, it's so nice to read these thoughtful, insightful responses.