When It’s More than Two

Any time someone talks about threesome sex, or a media article about group sex appears, we can predict as sure as night follows day that the reactions will include all sorts of horror stories. “I did this, and it destroyed my relationship!” is a common theme among folks who will confess to trying their hand at non-monogamous sex. “When I saw my partner with someone else, I flipped out and felt jealous!” is another. It’s been my observation that stories of positive threesome experiences, when compared with threesome horror stories, are pretty thin on the ground.

I suppose one take-away lesson from that is “don’t read the comments.” And I’m not saying that’s a bad lesson; any time I read the comments on just about any Internet story or news article or (God help me) YouTube video, I weep for humanity.

But it’s got me to wondering, why do the bad stories outweigh the good? Is it because having a threesome really is that dangerous, that fraught with emotional turmoil?

Maybe, but I think there’s another possible explanation as well. I think that it’s easier to talk without consequence about the threesome that went wrong than the threesome that went well, because the story fo the threesome that went wrong reaffirms cultural norms. We’re steeped in a society that sees monogamous sex as the only sanctioned sort of sexual activity. Tales of threesomes that were happy, wildly successful, uplifting experiences fly in the face of that cultural trope, while stories of threesomes that led to disaster and heartache affirm it. The person who explores group sex, has a bad experience, and returns chastened to the monogamous fold is validating the cultural expectations about sex and relationships.

It is rare indeed for folks who have monogamous sex that ends in disaster to say “See? Don’t have monogamous sex! It only leads to tears!” Instead, the blame the particulars of that relationship–the people involved weren’t right for each other, it was a bad match, other things happened. When threesome sex goes wrong, though, it’s always the threesome itself, not the particular mix of people or the specific choices they made, that’s at fault.

So it seems to me that in many cases, the “threesomes are a disaster!” voices outweigh the “Threesomes can be awesome!” voices simply because it is more socially acceptable to talk about the threesome that went bad than to talk about the threesome that didn’t.

I personally have had many successful, enjoyable threesomes (and foursomes, and occasionally moresomes). I lost my virginity in a threesome; my best friend was dating a woman I had a crush on, and rather than that being a source of tension or animosity between us, we all three worked out a relationship that was mutually beneficial. To this day, I remain quite a fan of the erotic possibilities of more than two.

What do you think? I’d like to hear your stores of successful group sex, that didn’t go the way that society says these things must go. What made it successful to you? How did it benefit you? Would you do it again? What positive things did you take away from it? You can register here for an anonymous account to reply with, if you like; there’s no need to use your real name.

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Shame & Sex

http://youtu.be/8n5O9tz30So

I saw this video today posted on Facebook and I really liked it, so I wanted to share it. But I also had something to say about it and my comment ended up being longer and more rambly than a FB comment should be (IMO), so I decided to make my own post about it.

In the video, Alyssa posits that the reason why people shame others for sex is because they’re afraid that, if we give those people permission to do those things they like, then those people will try to do those things with us, and if we don’t like those things that’s a scary thought.

I don’t disagree with her. I just think she was … incomplete.

I think that at least one reason, if not a main reason, why people shame others for sex is less about fear of those others, and more about fear of ourselves.

I think that a lot of people believe that the way to control scary things is by boxing them up and putting them away in the attic, never to see the light of day (I know a lot of rationalists who think this is the way to deal with emotions). I think that a lot of people believe that, by exploring something scary, they may find the scariest thing of all, and that is that there is no end; that once you start down that road, not only can you never go back, but you can’t ever stop either; that you necessarily must keep exploring and exploring and exploring until you HAVE TO explore previously-thought hard limits like bestiality and child molestation and rape and murder because, once you throw out the rules preventing you from doing things, what’s to stop you from doing anything?

Except that people in general don’t typically refrain from doing things because they are told not to. They typically refrain from doing things because they have an internal sense that they shouldn’t do them. This is a very complex sense, though, which can be (and is) influenced by the culture around us, and not everyone has the exact same sense of right and wrong. In a lot of ways, we really do need some kind of external set of guidelines telling us how to get along with each other.

But in a lot of ways, that set of guidelines is born out of our collective internal sense in the first place.

Although sex does create and encourage a lot of the same chemical reactions in our brains as drugs do, contrary to pop-psych, sex is not the same as addictive drugs. People can, and do, stop wherever they want to. But the ones who are the most successful at stopping where they choose to stop are the ones who allow themselves to explore and who live by Francis Bacon’s statement (whether they know of it or not) that “your true self can be known only by systematic experimentation, and controlled only by being known.”

The more we know of ourselves, the better control we have over ourselves, and we can only know ourselves by experimentation and self-exploration. Ironically, those of us who explore the most fearlessly are the ones who tend to exhibit better control, while the ones who are most desperate for control are the ones who lack it because they don’t tend to explore themselves.

People who know themselves, and therefore have control of themselves, don’t get caught with “luggage boys” after enacting legislation against gay rights. People who know themselves, and therefore have control of themselves, don’t get put under arrest for the very law they created against gay sex with strangers in public restrooms. People who know themselves, and therefore have control of themselves, don’t tend to get caught using tax dollars to pay for prostitutes out of the same funds that put them in office on an anti-prostitution ticket.  People who know themselves, and therefore have control of themselves, can consciously and deliberately arrange their lives to enjoy those desires they have in a manner that includes “safe, sane, and consensual”.

So I think Alyssa here didn’t address all, or even the most prominent reasons for shaming others. I think one of those reasons is that people fear themselves. She makes the distinction between shame (something that people to do you by telling you that you’re a bad person) and guilt (something that you do to yourself by feeling bad for a harmful act). I think that a lot of people feel the need to shame others because they feel guilty themselves – they feel afraid of the unknown and/or guilty for things they’ve done or want to do because other people have shamed them.

I think shame is a self-perpetuating cycle. We shame others because we have internalized the shame that other people have made us and others to feel. If we grow up in a society that says gay sex is bad, then we jump on that bandwagon and shame people for gay sex to avoid being shamed, thereby promoting that message to the next person who has to also jump on the bandwagon and shame people for gay sex, because to not do so would be to draw shame upon them.

And I think the reason why a lot of people shame others is because they are afraid of themselves, and of what they do not know about themselves. When someone tells me that they wouldn’t explore some avenue of kink because “how would you ever stop?”, that frightens me. That tells me that they don’t have any internal sense that lets them see the difference between spanking a lover because he likes it and murdering someone. That tells me that they don’t have any internal sense to show them the line between enjoying a sensation and self-harm. And since many of these people are the ones most vocal and most adamant about instilling external rules to help us all behave, this frightens me to no end because these people with no control are in charge.

I am not afraid of myself or my desires. I know what I am capable of, I know what I like, and I know how to stop. I am afraid of other people – afraid they will want to do those things to me, and by those things, I mean lock me up and prevent me from being myself because they are afraid of themselves. If anyone should be ashamed, it’s them.

But I like the overall message of this video & I think you should watch it.

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Food for Thought: The GOP’s Bizarre War on Sex

From Salon.com comes this article about the US Republican Party’s all-out assault on sexual freedom:

Rick Santorum, who has compared gay sex to bestiality, outdid himself in an interview that resurfaced this week in which he suggested that states should have a right to outlaw birth control since contraceptives are “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” The other Rick, former Texas Gov. Perry, has been an outspoken opponent of gays in the military and the “sin” of homosexuality. Recent dropout Michele Bachmann seemed a messenger from a previous era, what with her belief that homosexuality is “personal enslavement” and her pledge to ban pornography.

[…]

All of this raises the question: Why are the GOP’s leading candidates becoming more sexually conservative as the rest of America heads in the opposite direction? How are the remaining prudes so good at filibustering the rest of us?

In a lot of ways, this is probably the natural result of the fact that the Republican Party has actively and aggressively courted the Evangelical Christian vote for the past several decades. Evangelical Christians may hold a number of different ideas about religion and governance, but one thing they generally tend to agree on is that sex is something which is acceptable only if it is tightly regulated, and only a very narrow range of behaviors is morally acceptable.

That puts the party at odds with the majority of citizens, though, who don’t subscribe to the same narrow views about sex and sexuality. The end result, incongruously, is a political party which has long claimed to stand for smaller government and less regulation calling for increased, massively invasive regulation of the most private of all activities.

One of the points that the article touches on is something I think deserves to be expanded on a bit more.

Klein argues that “the normal pushing and shoving, pluralistic conflict-driven politics doesn’t work when it comes to sexuality” because few people are willing to speak up in defense of their private sexual practices. “If the government says, ‘We’re gonna ban hot dogs,’ everybody stands up and says, ‘Hey, I eat hot dogs, don’t do that!’”

With sex, however – whether it’s reproductive rights, censorship of porn or prohibitive zoning laws for adult businesses – things are different.

It’s true that people who have sex lives outside the narrow range approved of by the Republican candidates, or who support the right of individuals to make sexual choices free of government intrusion, are rarely willing to stand up and counter the rhetoric of government regulation of sex.

I can see a couple of reasons why that might be. The first is that many people who favor the right of the individual to make sexual choices free from government involvement also see sex as a private affair, not really suitable for public discourse.

Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it becomes self-defeating when the enemies of sexual freedom see sex as a matter of regulatory policy, and have no trouble expressing their views in public. If people who see sex as private are unwilling to have a public discourse about it, that leaves only the voices of the people who want to regulate it.

The second is shame. Even folks who see sex as a positive, healthy thing that can be expressed in many ways between consenting adults still may experience lingering shame when talking about it. The culture of shame that surrounds sex in the US is something that a lot of folks from other pluralistic countries might find hard to understand. We are a nation that is deeply schizophrenic about sex; on the one hand, we treat it as a subject of loathing and shame, and we’re unwilling to talk openly and honestly about it or teach even basic sexual anatomy to our children, yet on the other hand our media is awash in sexual imagery. The result is a push-you-pull-me attitude toward sex; we’re fascinated by it but also ashamed to talk honestly about it, even in the face of political candidates calling for extreme government regulation of it.

One of the purposes of this site is to help address that culture of shame. I personally believe very strongly that it is absolutely imperative for those of us who support individual choice about sexuality to stand up and say so wherever it is possible, and I call on others to do likewise when they can. If there is to be any voice in the national debate opposing the call for government intrusion into our sex lives, it has to come from us.

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The Problem with “Sex Addiction”

The Telegraph’s Web site recently ran an article by Dr. David Ley with the provocative title Why There’s No Such Thing as Sex Addiction:

[T]here’s no standard definition of sex addiction. It hasn’t been recognised as a bona fide disease by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the medical profession’s bible when it comes to mental health, so, instead, there are a dozen or so competing definitions and no two psychotherapists who apply the concept in the same way. A diagnosis is based on a therapist’s own idea of what constitutes an excessive amount of sex. But the mistake all these “experts” make is to try to apply the characteristics of drug and alcohol addiction to sex, claiming too much sex works like a drug, causing cravings, withdrawals, tolerance (the need for increasingly powerful “hits”) and a downward spiral in which sex “takes over their life”.

There are many embedded moral concepts in these definitions, all of which suggest that sex is dangerous, shouldn’t be “enjoyed too much” and that something that creates imbalance in a person’s life is inherently unhealthy.

When I first started hearing about the notion of “sex addiction,” it struck me very strongly as a way of pathologizing any kind of sex that was not perceived as “normal.” The term was invented by a guy named Patrick Carnes, who wrote a book () and then went on to make a very lucrative career from “treating” sexual “addiction”. He has developed a sexual addiction screening test which consists of 52 yes or no questions, with even a single “yes” answer sufficient for a possible diagnosis of addiction. Among the questions:

11. Do you feel that your sexual behavior is not normal?
16. Are any of your sexual activities against the law?
18. Do you hide some of your sexual behaviors from others?
44. Have you maintained multiple romantic or sexual relationships at the same time?
46. Have you regularly engaged in sadomasochistic behavior?

The problems with these questions, and others like them, is that they really have nothing to do with whether or not sexual behavior is an “addiction;” instead, they start with the assumption that there is a “normal” set of sexual behaviors, that set of “normal” behaviors aligns with conservative social norms, and that anything outside this range of “normal” behaviors must be destructive.

Nearly all people can answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, at least in the United States. Many states outlaw oral sex, anal sex, and/or use of sex toys. Few of us talk about all of our sexual activities with everyone we meet. Polyamory and BDSM are both sexual activities which are quite popular and which have never been shown, when practiced between consenting adults, to be indicative of any sexual dysfunction.

These problems highlight one of the biggest issues around the notion of sex “addiction”–the pathologizing of any sexual activity that is not perceived as normal. When one reads Carnes’ questionnaire, it soon becomes obvious that it is a reworking of conservative religious morality with a veneer of psychological legitimacy tacked on.


Now, to be fair, Patrick Carnes may have invented the term “sexual addiction,” but that doesn’t mean that others who subscribe to his ideas agree with his definition. It’s by no means my assertion that everyone in the sex addiction industry assumes that having oral sex in Florida (where it is illegal) or tying up your partner with silk scarves automatically makes you a sex addict.

But that’s another of the many problems with the notion of sex addiction; there’s no rigorous diagnostic criteria. Ultimately, sex addiction is diagnosed by therapists who seem to apply a principle of “I know it when I see it.”

Part of that comes from sloppiness in language. In the popular vernacular, the word “addiction” is generally believed to mean “something you can’t stop yourself from doing.” But “addiction” actually has a very specific medical definition, and it’s difficult to argue that sex rises to that definition. More properly, something one can’t stop from doing is termed a “compulsion.”


I’m not trying to argue that there are no people who have destructive sexual habits or practices. Nor am I saying that there’s no such thing as people who sexual dysfunctions are both uncontrollable and harmful to others. What I am saying is that calling such things “addictions” is misleading and harmful.

The word “addiction” carries an emotional charge. We all have associations with it; alcoholics who beat their families in a drunken rage, heroin addicts dying in inner-city streets. And these emotional associations, flawed as they are, help shape our emotional response to the idea of “sex addiction.” Calling destructive, uncontrollable sexual behaviors “sex compulsions” simply doesn’t carry that emotional charge.

It’s not just a semantic quibble, though. The word “addiction” also carries assumptions about how to deal with it. If you have a drug or alcohol addiction, you can go into a rehab treatment program where you go through a process of detoxification and then receive counseling and support such as a 12-step program, right? And since sex can be an addiction just like drugs can be an addiction,it makes sense that the same treatment process for drug addiction must also work for sex addiction, right?

This assumption has fueled a multimillion-dollar industry in treating presumed sex addiction, and in the process given a number of celebrities who like having sex behind their partners’ backs a socially accepted excuse for their behavior, but it has never been shown to my knowledge that the same approaches that deal with drug dependency actually work on behavioral compulsions. Nor is there any real reason to believe that they would; factors such as physiological dependence simply don’t exist with behavioral compulsions.


The range of human sexual expression is wide. People make conventional and unconventional choices about sex, just as they do about money, work, hobbies, and everything else. Some of those choices are destructive or ill-conceived, just as they are with money and so on.

What concerns me is the notion that destructive choices about sex being assumed to be the result of some sort of nebulously-defined “addiction” (rather than, say, poor communication, or faulty assumptions about sex, or a conflict between a person’s sexual identity and his or her religious values or upbringing, or a simple unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of sexual decisions, or any of a thousand other things), and the eagerness on the part of some therapists and “experts” to say that any sexual practice that’s not in keeping with conservative religious ideals must be a sign of a pathology.

Are there people who genuinely struggle with sexual compulsions that cause them harm and that they can not control? You bet there are. I do not see, however, how pathologizing large swaths of the American public, or treating supposed sexual addiction the same way one might treat a heroin addiction, or offering the notion of sex addiction as a get-out-of-responsibility-free card whenever a star celebrity is caught in an embarrassing sexual situation, helps these people or anyone else.

Except perhaps the folks who sell books and offer expensive treatment programs for an addiction that’s never even been defined and has no accepted diagnostic criteria in the first place.

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Food for Thought: “Why, Yes, I Am an Islamophobe”

From the Web site Altmuslimah comes this story by a lesbian woman struggling to live within a conservative Muslim society:

Even if I were not a lesbian I would find it difficult to make myself “available” to men because that is exactly what I have been expected to do since childhood. I was no stranger to men but could never see them as potential spouses or life partners. From a young age, unbeknownst to my parents, both family and non-family members sexually molested me repeatedly. When I failed to grow into the feminine man-loving woman society wanted me to be attempts were made to “fix” me through corrective non-consensual sex. Attempts were also made to force me to marry.

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Slut Shaming and Why it’s Wrong

This is a great introduction to the topic of slut shaming by an articulate young woman! Give the video a watch.

Video contains mature language and may not be work safe.

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Food for Thought: “In Defense of Casual Sex”

From Psychology Today comes an article called In Defense of Casual Sex, which has this to say:

The truth is, long-term relationships or marriage do not guarantee a satisfying emotional life or sexual intimacy. Everyone knows someone stuck in a barren marriage, whose members have lost their autonomy and in which sex has disappeared. Brandon’s assertion that people do not belong together forever is correct, but too many of us fear facing that truth or consider alternatives to that permanence.

There are times when casual sex actually deepens one’s self-knowledge. With intelligence and clarity of purpose, casual sex is more than instant gratification. By openly exploring our fantasies and true desires with different partners in a way that may not possible in a committed relationship, we can transcend our inhibitions. With each new encounter we can discover buried parts of ourselves and in time experience the totality of who we are. We can even experience profound, revelatory moments that unravel our past and show us things we never knew about ourselves. We can satisfy unmet needs by embracing those aspects of our sexuality that are deeply meaningful and we can choose to let go of those that no longer have importance.

Many of the comments to this article are about what you’d expect given a society that condemns casual sex. A number of them comment on how it is still possible to have satisfying sex in a marriage, if you’re lucky enough.

I’ve always found the notion that having a long-term relationship that involves good sex is a matter of “luck” to be a bit strange. Here’s my reply:


I was married for eighteen years, and right up until the end we were still having awesome, mind-blowing, incredible sex…

…but luck had absolutely nothing to do with it.

When sex gets boring or monotonous in a relationship it is not because “that’s just what happens if you don’t get it lucky.” It’s because the people involved have chosen to allow it to.

They might not have even been aware that it was a choice, but make no mistake about it–it was. People have the sex lives they choose to have.

There are many reasons why people choose to have lousy sex lives. The most common reason is that they simply won’t talk about sex in a mature, honest, direct fashion. It might be because they are ashamed of sex, or too shamed to talk about their sexual fantasies; it might be because they are frightened that their partners will think they are “too weird” or “too slutty” if they talk about sex; it might be because talking about sex feels awkward and they would rather have lousy sex than do something that feels a little awkward; it might be because they want to find “just the right time” to talk about sex, and that magical time never comes…but at the end of the day, they choose not to talk openly about it, so they don’t have good sex.

People also make choices to believe ideas such as “if my partner really loved me, ho/she would just know what I wanted.” Or “If we do anything that’s ‘weird,’ that means we’re bad people.” Or people choose to value conformity with some kind of idea about what sex “should” be over good sex. Again, these are all choices.

Good sex is NEVER about being “lucky.” It is ALWAYS about choices.

I have had sex in long-term relationships. I have had casual sex. Casual sex can be good or bad, and relationship sex can be good or bad. Good sex doesn’t depend on the kind of relationship; it depends on the honesty, communication skill, and openness of the people involved.

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Food for thought: Modesty

“I think the pressure on women to expose themselves for the sake of titillating men is wrong, sexist and unfair. “Girls Gone Wild” is exploitative. Victoria’s Secret uses photoshop to mutilate models’ bodies and capitalize on the insecurities of young women, telling them that they need to look like an impossible ideal. Being against the modesty doctrine does not make me in favor of any of these things. That said, the choice between being “sexy” and being “modest” is an artificial one, designed to distract you from the fact that either way, you’re being objectified. If you accept that the purpose of your dress is either to attract men or to hide from them, you’ve accepted that your dress is not about you. It’s about the abstract male observer. “Sexy” is not the opposite of the modesty doctrine; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

Read the rest here. EDIT: The original essay has moved. You can read it here.

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Sexual Double Standards and Complicity

Quite some time ago, I had a strange dream. In this dream I’d met and made friends with a woman. Don’t recall her clearly–long black hair, big brown eyes, that’s all that stuck.

Anyway, in the dream, shortly after we became friends, a group of researchers pulled me aside and explained to me that she wasn’t actually a woman at all. She was a synthetic construct–body engineered and grown in a vat, brain a gigantic supercomputer kept in a huge facility elsewhere in town and remotely operating the body. She was not aware of any of this; she was actually an experiment in artificial intelligence, socialization, and the development of self, carefully monitored over the past thirty years. The place where she lived–a gorgeous penthouse suite, indoor pool and all–was closely monitored ’round the clock, and all her interactions with the outside world were carefully regulated. She was encouraged to keep a private diary, which she believed was secret but which was actually published monthly in a trade journal about AI and machine consciousness.

They took me up to the control room and let me read some of the back issues of the journal. One of her diary entries was particularly strange; she’d somehow got her hands on a book of basic anatomy, and was utterly perplexed that the book showed things that she didn’t have. Specifically, the book showed reproductive and sex organs, and she had nothing of the sort–no sexual organs whatsoever between her legs. No labia, no vagina, nothing. The researchers, somewhat shamefacedly, said they had been too embarrassed to put them in the design when they were growing the body.


I woke up really, really pissed off, with nothing to attach the pissed-off-ness to. It took some introspection to figure out what the pissed-off-ness was connected with; this bizarre and nearly universal sexual shame that we as a species seem to attach to female sexuality.

I’m not talking about the schizophrenic Puritanical sexual asshattery that we in the US attach to sex in general. I’m talking about a hatred of sexual expression in women that’s so virulent that entire societies will surgically mutilate women to prevent them from enjoying the act of sex.

And make no mistake about it–the impulse to label sexually promiscuous men as “studs” and sexually promiscuous women as “whores” is no different in kind; it is the exact same impulse, merely taken to a different but equally illogical conclusion, that drives folks to get out the scalpels.

And it’s everywhere. It’s not just a handful of societies. It’s not just a few places. It’s everywhere. The ancient Israelites had all kinds of weird religious rules about touching women when they were ‘unclean,’ that speaks to a level of institutionalized abhorrence and fear of basic reproductive biology that’s mind-boggling. In Hindu societies, a woman who committed adultery was publicly executed after first having her sex organs cut off with a knife–and the real kicker is that for this purpose, “adultery” could be defined as “talking with a man and touching his clothing.”

This is a level of fucked-up-ness I can’t quite wrap my head around. Seems like everyone’s just scared silly of women’s sexuality. Seriously, WTF?


The part that really blows my mind, though, and the part I really don’t get, is the extent to which women themselves buy into this kind of thing. One thing that consistently mazes me on online forums that have anything to do with discussions of sex or sexuality–any time a woman talks about how much she likes sex, or about enjoying any kind of non-traditional sexual arrangements, especially things like polyamory or (God forbid) casual sex, there will be a handful of guys who’ll say things like “slut!”–but they have to stand in line behind all the women who’re screaming it, too.

And I really want to grab some of these women and shake them and say “WTF is wrong with you? Don’t you understand that by slinging around words like “slut” and “whore,” you’re participating in your own sexual disenfranchisement? What are you thinking?”

And I’m not even talking about the fun use of the word “slut,” as in the “My, aren’t YOU a naughty little vixen? I have just the thing for a naughty slut like you!” that some of my sweeties so enjoy hearing.

So, naturally, I woke up my girlfriend to talk about it.


Enlightening conversation, it was.

She is of the opinion that, popular opinion to the contrary, women are if anything fare more competitive and far more hierarchical than men are. Take a group of three female friends in a bar, she says. Each of them knows precisely what her place in the hierarchy is. If they spot a group of three men across the bar, they’ve already decided which one gets who before the first words are even exchanged. Should one of the men approach the “wrong” woman, her friends will smoothly step in and cock-block him, and order is restored. With, naturally, the men none the wiser.

It starts in grade school, she says–a formalized, competitive hierarchy of popularity and subtle social status, with rigorous standards about which women are eligible to compete for which men. It continues through high school and college, and even carries out into the adult world–often, she says, women wear makeup and jewelry not for the direct benefit of men, but rather to signal to other women their status and intentions in the competition.

And it’s a ruthless competition, with a high cost for those who refuse to buy in.

The cost of not buying in? The women who don’t compete in this way, or who pursue men deemed above their status or outside their league? These are the women labeled “slut” and “tramp”–not by men, but by other women.

Color me astonished; none of this had ever occurred to me.

The internalization of sexual disempowerment becomes, in a strange and twisted way, a tool for creating stability and ranking worth. I think it’s time we reconsidered setting up hierarchies that way.

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Sexual Values, Moral Myopia

“Quand la morale triomphe, il se passe des choses tres vilaines.” (When morals triumph, many very evil things happen.)
–Remy de Gourmont

The extent to which people confuse sexuality with morality never ceases to amaze me.

It shouldn’t be amazing, really. I’ve been participating in various fora related to sex and sexuality for my entire adult life, after all; that’s plenty of opportunity to come into contact with all sorts of attitudes about sex, including attitudes that I find, frankly, to be bizarre in the extreme.

Yet every so often, I still encounter some set of ideas that boggles me.

On another forum I read, I encountered a woman who believes that all sexual activity involving more than exactly one lifetime partner is inherently Bad And Wrong. Nothing new there; it’s just the ordinary, dreadfully boring sort of pedestrian sex-negativity we run into all over the place. Hard to turn on the TV or shake a stick in American society without smacking into this sort of mundane sex-negative attitude.

But she took that ordinary, dry little kernel of sex negativity and from it built a monument to sexual hostility that would make the architect of the Taj Mahal weep and gnash his teeth in artistic impotence. So convinced was she of this premise that she asserted, with a straight face, that it is utterly impossible for a celibate person to commit an immoral act.

And when confronted with serial killer David Birnie (who was quite proud of his vow of celibacy), or with the case of the Rev. John Skehan (a Catholic priest who ended up in legal trouble not for the run-of-the-mill sorts of sex scandals that often bedevil an empowered but celibate priestly caste, but rather for the more earthly sin of embezzlement), she reasoned that since they were bad people, they must not have been celibate at all, but instead must have been lying about their celibacy.

And that’s not even the good part.


Moral myopia is nothing new, of course. It’s the mainstay of many of the boringly predictable scandals that periodically rock American society. Charles Keating, the anti-porn moral crusader who produced anti-sex films and served on Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, spent his entire life as a crusader for public virtue before embezzling $1.2 billion from Lincoln Savings and Loan, singlehandedly triggering the collapse of the entire S&L industry. This same story repeats itself regularly: anti-sex crusader believes sex to be the beginning and end of all morality, commits immoral acts without even blushing because he can’t see beyond sex when thinking about his own ethics.

But in the conversation in that other forum, we veer wildly from this dull and predictable tale into all sorts of breathtaking new ways to twist up sex and morality. The good part goes beyond your typical religious loathing of sex and your traditional, homespun moral double-standards, and into radical new territory that speaks directly to the Platonic ideal of a very pernicious human mental failing whose shadows can be seen in everything from Creationism to the mindless pseudoscience of “Doctor” Masaru Emoto, who claims that water molecules can do things like respond to human emotion and read written Japanese.

The Platonic ideal, which has ensnared so many people throughout human history, is the notion that humanity is the grandest of all of nature’s accomplishments, and that all the forces of nature and all the divinity we can imagine revolves around our place as the center of the universe.


A couple of weekends ago, when my friend Jan was visiting, we went to the Georgia Aquarium, which bills itself as the world’s largest.

I like aquariums. I particularly like the exotic, deep-sea life forms you find in environments like undersea thermal vents–these weird, bizarre organisms that live their lives in totally isolated ecosystems entirely disconnected from ours.

I snapped this picture of a lionfish while I was there. Lionfish are predatory fish with venomous spines and, which is most relevant to this post, a complete disregard for the affairs of man. They’re not edible, nor are they useful to us in any way; like the weird things living by volcanic vents, they’re removed from the sphere of human existence, except insofar as the fact that they’re an invasive species sometimes means they’re a pest.

Which is often the way it goes with nature.

You might think that deep-sea aquatic life has little to do with sex-negative attitudes about morality, but hang on, I’m getting to that.

When asked why she believes that sexual morality is the beginning and end of all morality, the person on this other forum replied that she’d had this epiphany while thinking about sexually transmitted diseases. Why, she wondered, do such diseases exist? What is their purpose?

Her conclusion, naturally enough, was that they exist for the purpose of telling human beings when they are doing something morally wrong. STDs, she reasoned1, must be nature’s way of telling us how to live. All other diseases, according to her, can not be avoided; they are inevitable. But not diseases transmitted sexually! Those, she said, could be avoided just by not having sex; therefore, they must serve some purpose, a purpose different from other diseases.


To be fair–and it is very hard to be fair in the face of such lunacy–she’s not alone in this particular failure of thinking. A recent Boston University study shows that people seem predisposed to believe in purpose–to subscribe to “promiscuous teleology,” the false idea that things exist for a purpose. Young children might believe that rocks have rough edges so that animals can scratch their backs, while their older, better-educated, wiser siblings might believe that the sun produces light so that plants can make energy.

So she’s not alone in looking for purpose;she’s following in the erroneous footsteps of many misguided people before her.

Still, it’s hard to know where to start with this nonsense.

First, thee’s the notion that people who contract certain diseases do so because they choose to, and they could just as easily choose not to by changing their sexual behavior. We are as a culture conditioned to believe that certain categories of diseases are ‘dirty’ and the people who have them do so because of their bad behavior; anything that finds new hosts through sexual contact tends to get stuck into a different mental category than other diseases, at least for most folks.

Think about how differently you respond emotionally to the thought of having chlamydia than to the thought of having strep throat, for example. Both are bacterial infections, potentially dangerous if left untreated but usually easily cured by antibiotics. But we don’t think of folks with strep throat as being “dirty,” and we don’t have the same moral repugnance to it that we do to chlamydia.

And what about HIV? Most of us would say that AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, but in reality there is no such thing as a disease that is only transmitted through sex. When I was on the radio promoting Onyx, one of the people who called in was HIV positive. The result of a sinful, morally bankrupt lifestyle? Not quite. He became infected when he witnessed a serious traffic accident and rushed to help save the life of a woman who’d been thrown through the windshield. In the process, he came into contact with her blood, and you can guess the rest.

Of course, a different choice on his part would have prevented it from happening…but would it have been the moral choice?

That’s one of the things I find most odious about these perceptions of STDs–the insidious idea that those folks who have them somehow did something to deserve them.


I bring up chlamydia in specific because the the chlamydia organisms (technically, chlamydia is a genus of several related bacterial species) are among the most wide-spread of parasitic bacterial species, and are capable of infecting a wider variety of hosts than any other single known genus of bacteria. Chlamydia can infect humans, cats, rodents, parrots, lizards, guinea pigs, horses, cattle, seagulls, sheep, dogs, rabbits, ducks–you name it.

It’s also a remarkably promiscuous organism, leaping easily from species to species. Humans have become infected by handling infected animals, by inhaling the bacteria from animals with respiratory chlamydia infections, and by contact with the droppings of infected animals.

Young animals, such as kittens and puppies (and, it should be pointed out, humans) are particularly prone to chlamydia infections, often through their eyes or mouth, because their immune systems are not completely developed. This poses a challenge to the notion that STDs are nature’s moral guideposts; is nature trying to tell us not to play with kittens?

The idea that “nature” is some kind of sentient thing that strives to do things to the benefit or detriment of human beings is a mental aberration I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend. The notion that nature has any capacity whatsoever to make decisions or to act with purpose seems to me to be a particularly specific form of superstition born of one part wishful thinking, one part anti-intellectualism, and one part desire to believe in some sort of Higher Purpose; we talk about the “balance of nature” as if there actually was such a thing, and we revere nature as the source of all things good (and, by extension, our own enterprises as the source of all things bad) while forgetting that nature gave us rabies, lightning strikes, giant venomous spiders2, and gangrene.


There’s a sneaky thing about human beings, though. We are not animals who reason; we are animals who rationalize. More often than not, we decide things based entirely on irrational feelings, then bring our big monkey brains to play to justify the decisions we have already made. Oh, we like to think we make decisions for reasons that make sense, but mostly that’s not true. The reasons we give for doing what we do and believing what we believe come after, not before. And so skilled are we at doing this, half the time we don’t even know it.

Psychologists know that when someone believes some damn fool thing, it’s usually a garbled, twisted-up expression of some hidden emotional state. So I don’t put a lot of stock, really, in the lessons of nature as the real reason why folks believe such weirdly over-the-top things about sexual morality.

The attitude that all of morality is reflected only in the people one has sex with and the positions in which one does the deed is, I think, also a garbled expression of some deeper emotional state. I’ve talked to folks who hate and fear sex because it presses against their insecurities (“If my partner values sex highly, and I fall short in that department, then my partner might leave me!”), because it feels threatening (sex is, after all, a very powerful thing, and evokes very powerful feelings; anything powerful can be threatening); because we’re taught to fear for our lives in the face of it (abstinence-only sex education in a nutshell: if you FUCK you will DIE!!!); because it can be intoxicating (“If I feel free to have sex when and where I want, I will soon lose control of my life, and sacrifice everything for sex!”)…it’s a mess, no mistake.

Now, don’t get me wrong; sex and morality really are intimately tied up together. A great deal of someone’s moral values are revealed by the way he treats his lovers, no question about it. It seems obvious to me that a lover who has had a thousand sexual partners and treated all of them well is far better a person than the lover who’s had only one sexual partner but treated that person poorly. Seems obvious, right?


Of course, in the end, it doesn’t really matter why folks do the things they do in the bedroom. People have all kinds of reasons for making all kinds of sexual decisions, and that’s their own prerogative; for the most part, I don’t care who the vast majority of the world chooses to fuck or not to fuck, and care even less for the reasons why they do it or don’t do it. I’m content to concern myself with such things only within my own monkeysphere and let it go at that.

If other folks want to believe that a kindly Mother Nature, or an invisible man in the sky, or UFO aliens think they shouldn’t be doing the nasty, that’s actually fine with me. A bit silly, I might think, but no matter.

I do wish they’d extend the same courtesy to me, though.

What I’d like to propose, to the people who for whatever reason believe that sex is Bad And Wrong, is a simple and I think equitable arrangement: I won’t come into your bedroom and make you fuck, and you won’t come into my bedroom and make me not.

I think adoption of this simple principle would probably do much to change almost every aspect of society, culture, and ethical philosophy. Since all these things as they stand now are without fault, I fear this must argue against my proposal.

1 For some value of the word “reason.”
2 If you’re afraid of spiders, you really, really don’t want to click that link.

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