This actually deserves several volumes. A whole library, even. Sex is this idea that permeates so many aspects of our life: The pursuit of it colors many interactions between people. The idea of it makes people excited or angry. There are laws about who gets to have it and how, and even laws about how to talk about it and to whom. But when the topic gets brought up, so few of us are on the same page about what we are even talking about.
In our cis-centric, heteronormative society there is the base acceptance that sex is when a penis goes inside a vagina. When I was a small child (6? 7?) I was given a book about how babies are made. Neither of my parents wanted to talk about sex, but at least they knew that even if they were uncomfortable talking about it with me I should probably get some guidance that they had pre-approved. I was the kind of kid who read everything I could, so a book was a good choice on their part. This book did talk about sex feeling good and that was WAY more interesting to me than the idea that sex could make a baby. But the entire thing was still framed as “when a man and a woman love each other very much they will want to get naked with each other and he will put his penis in her vagina.”
Now, I have been masturbating for as long as I can remember. The book described vaguely what an orgasm felt like and I recognized that feeling as one that I sometimes had when I touched my own vulva. But I was doing it to myself, so was that sex? Would it feel the same if someone else touched me there? Would a penis feel the same as my finger on my clit? I feel lucky that I was given this book in particular and that I could recognize myself in some of what was described. It wasn’t until high school when I had friends I talked about sex with that I discovered that not everyone with a vulva masturbated like I did, or that sometimes they didn’t masturbate at all. That brought up new questions for me such as: Is there a right way to be doing it? If I did have sex with another person, would they know how to touch me in a way that I liked? How does one decide who is good to have sex with?
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to find a good sex partner and then once I found that person, what was the least awkward way to get naked with them. (For whatever reason I was really hung up on how to be sexy while removing clothes and preparing to have sex.) I knew kids my age who were having oral sex and piv (penis in vagina) sex, so it didn’t feel like it was completely out of reach for me… but I didn’t really date and there was no one that I was IN LOVE with and the sketchy invite to suck a classmate’s cock under the bleachers was not enticing to me. I wanted romance, or at least desire.
Eventually I started having physical relations with a guy friend of mine who I was very close with and who actively pursued me. Our activities consisted of heavy making out, grinding on each other, and giving each other hand jobs and oral sex. We both were into the stuff we were doing and it felt really good! But there was no piv and we never got naked and I never considered him my boyfriend. So was what we were doing Real Sex? We used condoms, but not dental dams. The idea of wearing a latex glove for fingering wasn’t even on my radar and neither was lube. Even if we had had sex-ed at my high school (which we did not) would it have covered ways to more safely have non-piv sex?
And then there was my queerness. I had crushes on girls, but had no idea how to flirt with anyone and the idea of making the first move was terrifying. Even if I did get a girl to make out with me, how did I know how she wanted me to touch her, and where? I liked it when my guy friend put his fingers in me; would I be able to do that to someone with a vagina? At what point did “making out” turn into “sex?” And to add to the confusion, the erotica I found I was really into featured mostly gay dude sex. Since I had attractions in many different categories, how was I suppose to present myself and how would I know that the person I was pursuing was desirous of me? I wasn’t a lesbian, and I also wasn’t straight. This was the mid-90’s, and Ani DiFranco was pretty much my only touchstone for bisexual… but even that felt not quite right. (I wore flowy skirts and listened to Tori Amos.)
16 years old and I had questions about my gender, desire, the logistics of sex, the feelings around sex, and how to find people that would want to go on any or all of these journeys with me. I’m 35 now and am still working out these same things. I feel completely grateful to have had some really good formative experiences with sex. I also wonder if I could have avoided abusive relationships if I was raised to talk more freely about sex and relationship dynamics. How would my romantic entanglements benefited from me having a better relationship with my own body? How would my life have been different if I had the term “non-binary” when I was a teenager instead of thinking of myself as “not really a woman?”
It’s messy and it’s hard, but we have to make space to talk about it. Ignoring sex doesn’t make it go away. Avoiding the basics of how to build relationships and conversations about the different ways to have sex have played a big part in how dysfunctional and anti-social behaviors, especially when perpetrated by cis men, are considered normal and expected. Pretending that sex isn’t relevant to most people’s lives is participating in a deep societal denial that allows predators to take advantage of naivete.
Desire and sex come on the radar way before most of us are considered adults. We have to advocate for and seek out age-appropriate education around these topics. In the last decade there have been a bunch of books published for kids and teens around sex education. (Go visit your local library!) There are also scarleteen.com and teenvogue.com which are publishing some amazing articles around sex and relationships geared for teens, but also relevant to all. But even these are not enough. As adults we need to keep having the hard conversations. Think about what you like or don’t like about sex. Know that you are never too old to take a sex ed class– you might learn something new! We’re always evolving and and that is a good thing. We still might not all be on the same page when it comes to the ever-elusive topic of sex, but we can at least try.