“So are you just a big slut?”
This summer, I got a Tinder account. It was good entertainment, particularly when I came up with a quick screening test for conversations with “matches.” Inevitably they would ask what I was doing in Providence, and sometimes I would truthfully respond, “I’m working at a non-profit called The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health.”
To the credit of the Tinder users of Providence and the surrounding area, not everyone responded with something crude or suggestive. Some people were perfectly respectful; maybe they were flustered, maybe they were enlightened. But inevitably, there were those who asked if that meant I was looking to experiment, or that I could “teach” them, or offered some other proposition, at which point they had failed my test, and I would stop responding to them.
Sure, that’s Tinder, and I knew I would get responses like those, but my Tinder experience is just a light example of a more complicated, common phenomenon. When I dressed as a condom fairy for Halloween, which involved (among other awesome things) a skirt made out of condoms, friendly strangers at the falafel cart told me half-jokingly that I looked like I was out looking for sex (I told them I was really just looking for mozzarella sticks). An online commenter on a previous column admonished me, writing, “the university is not here to teach you how to stimulate your clitoris.” Even friends have made assumptions and comments about my sexuality purely based on the work I believe in and the unapologetic volume and frequency at which I express that. They range from fairly benign but unfounded assumptions about my sexual behaviors and/or skills to comments that reveal more troubling ideas. A male friend recently joked that after all the dildo Snapchats I sent this summer, I deserve to be sent unsolicited “dick pics.” And these are just my stories; others have many more, and they get more sinister.
Among other assumptions, many people perceive that sexuality professionals are up for anything, looking to experiment, or have personally engaged in the topics and behaviors they know about and teach about as part of their work. Inevitably, some of you read my story about Tinder, shook your heads, and thought, “Well, why did you have to tell them that?” Implied in this is the reality that I should, and do, know what’s going to happen when I share this information. But why shouldn’t I be able to tell people about the important work I’m doing? Tinder is a funny example. At a bar in downtown Providence, when a stranger asked about my job, the mental scramble for a “safe” answer was less hilarious.
I use my experience as a frame because it is what I know best, but I have heard these stories again and again from professionals in the field of sexuality. I can expect strangers not to take me seriously and to casually share their offensive opinions on my career and their perceptions of my lifestyle. I may be derided or looked down upon by other activists, educators, and clinicians in related fields. I will be sexually harassed by strangers who think I am “asking for it.” I will not be ostracized or shamed by my endlessly supportive family and home community, but many sexuality professionals are. I will lose straight male friends when jealous partners worry that I will somehow steal them away. I will receive threats of rape, abuse, and murder for speaking out about the things I believe in. And if you think any of that sounds unlikely, know that I am pulling exclusively from real stories and experiences of professionals in the field.
The assumptions I’m talking about, and the effects they produce, are not just assumptions. They are silencing strategies. People attempt to silence sexuality professionals because they are scared of this topic and this work. The strategies vary with identity; I am labeled a slut because I am a woman, while men who do this work are commonly labeled predators. It manifests still differently within the experiences of sexuality professionals of various marginalized identities—people of color, people with disabilities, queer folk, trans folk—particularly because (as I will expand upon below) sex has been tied in with every type of oppression and hatred.
These ideas and effects are amplified for those who do hands-on sexuality work and/or sex work: sex therapists and educators who use touch as part of their work, pornographers and porn actors, prostitutes, strippers, etc.: essentially, the people to whom we have been taught we can say and do whatever we want. We have been taught that people who have sex, talk about sex, are open about sex—especially when pleasure is involved—do not have the same rights as everyone else. We have been taught to be terrified of sexuality, and that is why this work is so, so important.
Someone recently asked me why I care about sexual education and advocacy, particularly in relation to pleasure. Why do I care, as people now ask me from time to time with varying degrees of judgment, if people know about lube, pleasure-focused sex, pelvic pain, ethical porn, dirty talk, or whatever else? I believe it is hugely important to talk about sex, including pleasure, because it is one of the most fundamental parts of our society and we pretend that it isn’t. I will not say it is one of the most basic parts of humanity, because that is untrue and excludes the existence and experience of those who do not engage in sexual activity. But it is entwined in our culture in a million unavoidable ways, and the taboos around it are oppressive and dangerous.
I believe in this work because in the arena of sex and sexuality, we have yet to unravel the tightly woven fabric of every form of systemic and institutional oppression in our society. Because older people and people with disabilities are denied their sexuality and their sexual needs; because asexual people are erased from the narrative of liberation; because people who fall under the entire LGBTQIA+ umbrella are told, with varying levels of hatred and violence, that they do not exist; because sexual violence in all its forms happens at a higher rate to populations that experience various matrices of identity-based oppression; and because our tired narratives of the ways sex happens, and the ways assault happens, have betrayed every single person in our society.
This work is also important because everyone has a right to access consensual sexual pleasure if they want to; because sexual communication is considered embarrassing rather than essential; because people still consider virginity a concept worth teaching; because many sex ed classes teach reproduction, not sex; because people are still debating G-spot versus clitoral orgasms; because male survivors of sexual violence go to victim assistance centers and are told, “We do not help perpetrators here”; because perpetrators of sexual violence, if they are convicted at all, are put through a broken criminal justice system which offers them no meaningful treatment or avenue to change; because the criminalization of sex work is a safety risk for sex workers and for society; because little kids are taught that their genitals are dirty; because young vagina owners are told that sex is painful and scary; because when sex is painful, many doctors can’t or won’t offer useful information or assistance; because people still think that what someone was wearing is relevant to their experience of sexual assault; and because—to address the introductory question to this column—even though I refuse to shut up about sex, my personal life is none of your damn business.