Sex is Constructed—By You

What is sex? There are as many answers as there are people.

Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton’s famous testimony about “sexual relations” made “what is sex” a daily topic of conversation (look it up, kids, under Monica Lewinsky and some-blow-jobs-require-you-to-shut-your-mouth).

Couples who see me for therapy have been arguing the question longer than that, and of course the internet has made the question even more complicated. Virtual Reality will be the next frontier for the question. If a pair of goggles and some software can give you a deeply personal experience of having sex with Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain, what is sex?

Philosophically, there actually is no “sex.” There’s “my experience of sex,” “your experience of sex,” and maybe, depending on your point of view, “our experience of sex” (a bit of pot definitely supports that last point of view). As our lives unfold, of course, the meaning and experience of sex changes, so what’s even more accurate is “my experience of sex today” and “your experience of sex today.”

Actually, this is all quite practical, as I discussed with 200 therapists in Austin, Texas last week. Sponsored by Southwest Sexual Health Alliance (SSHA), I spoke for the afternoon on Sexual Intelligence. I discussed how everyone, consciously or unconsciously, answers the following questions:

* What is sex?
* What is sexy?
* Where do I fit in?
* What is my history?

Everyone gets to answer these questions for themselves. Culture, of course, shapes our answers: religion, the media, science, politics, standards of beauty, etc.. So does our family, our friends, and that boy in third grade.

If a woman with small breasts decides small breasts are unattractive, that will shape her sexual experiences forever. If a man decides that losing his erection the first time he has intercourse means he’s a terrible lover, that will shape his sexual experiences forever. If a couple decide that masturbating together is “real sex,” that will give them options other couples don’t have, especially as they age.

The much-beloved sex researcher John Gagnon died last week.

The New York Times says he “shifted the ground in sex research by proposing that sexual behavior could better be understood by looking at social forces rather than biology or psychology.” If you don’t yet have gray hair, it may be hard to appreciate what a revolutionary approach that was back in the 1960s and 1970s. Except for anthropology, most social science back then was rather mechanistic, putting people in categories more than understanding their subjective experience.

John was a prime influence in me becoming a sociologist. When my Midwest graduate school discouraged me from specializing in his approach, I left and went to study in California. John soon became a prime influence in me specializing in sexuality. He later became a treasured friend.

John, along with his colleague Bill Simon, explored how society shapes the very categories with which we think about sexuality. As a therapist today, I show people the dynamics of how they define themselves sexually. If the results of that self-definition are hurtful (“I orgasm the wrong way,” “My fantasies are weird,” “Men always disappoint me,” “No one with my background can ever enjoy sex again,” “I’m no good at sex,” “Of course sex hurts sometimes”), I invite people to change their definitions of themselves and of sex. When they do, the results are glorious.

Some people like spanking, others don’t. Some people like their nipples licked, others don’t. Are these things sex? If you want them to be, sure. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that if you like them, you give yourself permission to do and to enjoy them. And that if you don’t, you don’t.

“Sex,” the Italian saying goes, “is the poor man’s opera.” Everyone can write their own unique aria, and everyone’s voice is perfectly adequate. We just have to go and sing without worrying about anything else.

For a body-centered look at this topic, see this.

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