Sex and shame
- Published: 21 November 2009
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If a sex educator can be made to feel shame at the hands of a healthcare professional, it leaves those who don't have such a thick skin feeling incredibly good enough, writes Sarah Sloane.
As with anyone who does what I do, it’s both occasionally and inevitably that I get The Question:
So...why do you do what you do?
And sometimes that’s an easy question to field: I do it because it’s fun, because I get a charge out of meeting other people, because I love being helpful.
I am a sex educator, after all. I get to play with toys (and sometimes with really, really, really hot people). I get to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk about how it feels to have my hand inside someone’s butt. (Tell me how many jobs boast that kind of perk.) Hell, I talk about sex so much that it’s second nature—it’s almost as easy as eating and breathing, but far more stimulating.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so easy to define it. Because when I look around, I don’t see that my work—and the work of other sex educators—is actually getting anything accomplished. It’s like we’re trying to encourage a bunch of salmon to swim upstream—over Niagara Falls. In winter, no less.
Recently, I experienced one of the singularly most shaming experiences of my sex-positive life, at the hands of a paid healthcare professional. Now, I’ve learned over the past ten or fifteen years that I have to advocate for my own health care more vigorously than I’d ever anticipated, but even the years I’ve spent educating myself and others didn’t prepare me for the reaction I got to the statement, “I’m not monogamous.”
“You’re playing with fire”, the clinician told me. “You shouldn’t be having sex with more than one person”.
I could hear the shame and the blame, dripping from her voice and see the judgment in her eyes. After years of advocating for relationships that are consensual and that work for all involved, it still hit me square between the eyes—and yes, for a bit there, I felt ashamed of myself. Not in the “I’ve done something bad” way, but in the “I am something bad” way.
No matter how much those of us who color outside of the lines counsel ourselves and each other, we all harbor a little of that shame inside, and admitting it takes balls (sparkly ones—like disco balls, maybe). A little voice that pops up each time we have a relationship that falters; a negative thought that rounds the bend right after a sexual failure. The feeling that we still need to hide things—not just big things, like the fact that we love someone of the same gender, but little things, like whether we actually admit to owning a sex toy.
Sex, for most of us, was something that we were brought up to feel negative or guilty about; whether it was touching ourselves, or asking questions that “shouldn’t be asked”, or feeling unsure about our early experiences of sexuality and not being able to talk to anyone—sex was to be kept behind closed doors, and never talked about.
That moment in the clinician’s office, the shame of not fitting in overwhelmed me. The shame of knowing that I would never be able to be the nice, conservative, under-sexed housewife that I once tried to be; the guilt over the relationships that ended because I couldn’t meet up to the standards that were implied, by society if not explicitly by my partner. And that feeling of shame and guilt?
Well, that just pissed me off.
I came home, ranting to anyone who would listen about how awful it was that this woman who didn’t even know me felt justified in commenting on my sex life because it was not healthy. I was furious that she said what she did. I was offended that she would have said it to me; after all, I have worked very hard for my sexual freedom, thankyouverymuch.
And in the middle of all of this—I was grateful that it was me that she said that to, because at least I have enough self-awareness to know who I am, and I know what the facts about my real risks are. I have a community of sexuality and gender activists who affirm the rightness of my life, a life made by conscious choice. I got offended, yes, but I’m a big girl—I can take it.
What about the people that can’t take it, that don’t know that it’s okay to be themselves? What about the people who still wonder if it’s bad that they want to try anal sex, or that they get into tying their partners up? How about people who love, and want to be involved with, multiple partners? Or the people that are afraid of what the reaction will be if someone finds out that their “best friend” of the same gender is really their lover?
My job—my joy—is talking to people about sex without the shame and guilt that they’re used to. I talk about cunts, pussies, cooters, and snatches; I talk about front holes and back holes; I talk about cocks and dicks and wee-wees. I talk about how good it feels to play with our parts, and how much better it is when we tell our partners how we like them played with.
I talk about how awesome it is that our bodies can bring us such varied sensations from such varied toys—our hands, a vibe, a flogger, a needle—and how any of those things that turns us on is a good thing. I talk about how there is an unlimited number of ways that relationships can work, and how if we find one that works for us and for our partner(s), and it makes the trust and intimacy so much stronger, we can embrace it and feel good that we’re doing what’s right for everyone involved.
That’s why I do this.
I really do believe that everyone has a right to the relationships that bring joy to their lives, to the sex life that feels right for them, to the expressions of their own gender and sexuality that feel authentic. And because I know that, for the most part, society’s unspoken expectations haven’t caught up to the words that we speak about sexual freedom.
And because the more people that are out there, reminding people that a joyful sex life is their birthright, the less often any of us has to be ashamed about what we do—whether it’s fucking our partners behind closed doors, or simply living our lives the way we want to.
Sarah Sloane is a queer polyamorous sadomasochist from the Washington DC metro area. She is a BDSM / Polyamory / Sexuality educator who has been presenting for organizations and events throughout the US, Canada, and overseas for 9 years; she also works with individuals to learn skills and techniques to enhance their lives. This article first appeared in Sexis magazine, published by Eden Fantasys.