I was recently approached by a student who saw me speak this summer. He was responding to my posting of some amazing comics on sex and consent that I had posted on Facebook, and he asked me if I’d be willing to share my take on sex. He expressed that he comes from a community that seems to only tell the story that sex should be saved for marriage, and he wanted to know another perspective. After writing out my response, I realized that many of my readers (particularly my younger readers) might like to hear my take on sex.
I was raised in a Catholic household and Catholic community where it was preached that sex (in any form) should not exist outside of Marriage and that anything relating to sex outside of Marriage should be treated with shame.
I take a very different tact. Sex is one of the most beautiful, complex, and vital aspects of human existence (and I suspect that those that preach abstinence until marriage only would agree with me). As such, we should experience as much of it as possible so long as we are responsible.
In my opinion and experience, sex is best experienced within a committed relationship where two people have agreed to be exclusive with one another and to explore their sexualities together. This doesn’t have to be within marriage. However, in my opinion, relationships should not exist solely to provide a means for sex. Relationships should be a beautiful tapestry, of which sex is one piece. And within that relationship, sex should only exist with an incredible amount of communication. The communication should be about when people are ready for different stages of sex, what people like and dislike in sex, and at the core of all this communication should be Consent. Our society talks about and does consent VERY poorly (which is why we have such a high rate of sexual violence). That is what the cartoon I posted was getting at. I very much respect my friend who runs The Consensual Project, which I encourage you to check out. I have learned the most about myself and about sex when I have committed myself to a partner and where we have communicated extensively as we explored each other and our sexuality together.
Sex, though, doesn’t always (and perhaps shouldn’t always) exist in a relationship. Masturbation, for instance, is one aspect of sex that people should experience and not be ashamed of. It is natural, and it helps you to understand your body and your likes and dislikes. That being said, porn and masturbation are often linked, and in my opinion, porn tends to be a very destructive thing. Unfortunately, porn is usually created by men for men, and as such, tends to be really sexist and gives men unhealthy understandings of sex and relationships. I really like the approach of MakeLoveNotPorn. They help people to understand that porn is not sex that we should replicate in our relationships (at least not necessarily). That being said, don’t be ashamed if you have used or do use porn. There is even Feminist Porn out there, though it can be tough to find. It is natural to want to explore porn. Just remember that it is not often a healthy depiction of sex or relationships.
Also, sex can and often does exist outside of committed relationships. I would be lying if I said that I have only explored sexuality in a committed relationship. Sex outside of committed relationships can be a great way to connect with another person on a unique level, it can be fun, and it can be another great way to come to know oneself and one’s like and dislikes. There are risks in sex outside of committed relationships (like there are risks to sex inside of committed relationships). That is why sex, both in and outside of committed relationships, should be approached with a mind to safety. It should be safe with regards to the use of birth control and Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention, but it should also be safe with regards to consent. I cannot stress enough how much consent needs to be a part of sex, particularly as people are first getting to know each other and don’t know what the other person is as comfortable with or what they like or dislike.
Growing up Catholic, I also had drilled into me that sex should only occur between a man and a woman. However, I understand sexual attraction much the same way that researcher Alfred Kinsey understands sexual attraction: It is a scale. Some people (though few) are only attracted to one gender. Most people, though, are attracted to many genders. This is okay! This is natural (there are over 500 species in which homosexuality is found)! If part of your sexual exploration means exploration with people of different genders, that is great and nothing to be ashamed of (so long, again, as it is safe).
Lastly, I think that people should wait to experience sex for as long as possible and as they feel comfortable. That’s why if people wait for marriage, that is totally great, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. Sex, for better or for worse, comes with a lot of adult responsibilities (potential for babies and STIs and the connection between sex and one’s very complicated human emotions), and as such, people should try to experience sex once they know they are ready for those responsibilities. Also, the first time someone has sex, it is best (again) when experienced in a committed, loving relationship.
I’m not the be all end all, though, so I encourage my readers to add to, disagree with, or offer their own perspectives on sex in the comments below so that the young man who approached me can benefit from our common wisdom!!