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The stigmatisation of sex in our society

32 mins read

WARNING: This piece of writing is not for the faint of heart. For the purposes of the article there will be no shying away from sex-related terms. Delicacy is very much going out the window for the next few hundred words.

If the words rim job, blowie, anal, penetration, cum, clit or anything like this offend you in any way, then this really isn’t for you. Maybe go read some more traditional Victorian literature – that never mentions someone getting “a good seeing to”.

From the title of this article, you may quickly jump to thinking this is going to be an in depth sociological analysis of present-day mating rituals. It won’t be.

In some ways, yes, this article will be looking at how sex is still seen as a taboo subject and will delve into what effect this has on us as a population.

However, this is in no way going to be an analysis or academic study of the subject (for two reasons, mainly: the first, this is not my style of writing and I don’t enjoy it; secondly because this university semester has just ended and I can’t deal with any more bloody referencing for a good few months).

I mainly used this title, that sounds like a dissertation topic, as a way of getting smarter people to click – this was going to be called Sexy Sexy Sex Things, but you can see how this wouldn’t draw in the mass of people I wanted this article to reach.

A week or so ago, I watched a TED talk by Dr. Zhana Vrangalova under the title “Is Casual Sex Bad for You?” and it sent my mind swirling with attitudes I had never considered before.

I proceeded to spend the next week thinking a lot about how sex is regarded, and stigmatised, within the public eye.

Coming to university for the first time in September, I do admit to seeing a notable shift in the more lax attitude around sex and the discussions surrounding it.

However it still seemed as though there was a focus on sex being discussed only in monogamous terms, usually never being overly kinky (which I will go on to look into a little later).

And whenever outside these parameters, there was an aspect of hushed voices or shaming involved in the sexual story telling (I do not shy away from the fact that up until the last year or so I was very much someone involved in this shaming of sexual acts when not within these ‘middle class acceptable circumstances’ (MCAC); which I am now rather ashamed of).

I will explain what I mean when I say MCAC. I do not mean that only middle class people are allowed to have sex, or anything like that. Instead I refer to the middle-class values that define what is okay, when it comes to sex, and what is not.

These values that are currently so prevalent dictate that sex is only acceptable to do (never discuss) when it is between two opposite-sex adults, in a long term monogamous relationship, in a bed with no toys or additional equipment involved “…thank you very much” (to those who got the reference, well done).

This simply isn’t realistic.

In no way am I saying that there is anything wrong with this type of sexual encounter.

Good for them for doing the sexy things, live in the moment and all that.

And I do feel that progress has been made in the last decade with certain films and TV shows that allow sex to be more discussed without a huge stigma attached to it.

But even in these media forms, it only passes as acceptable to discuss and orgasm from someone, or a “great time” when it is within these MCAC.

Yes it is being discussed but only this small section of  ‘le sex’ is being discussed.

The problem is that this group is such a slim fraction of the type of sex taking place in the world and by never talking about the other more adventurous sexual activities we are alienating those who partake in them, and so creating this taboo.

I will first look at monogamy when it comes to sex.

When you have sex with the same person and people know about it, no one really bats an eyelid, this is because it is what is expected from monogamous couples.

No one really minds, this is unless you go out to the woods and do 69 on a damp log while both dressed as trees (which I will get to when I talk about Kinks, I know you’re very much looking forward to that, cheeky!).

However, when this is strayed from, people don’t like to hear about it too much.

Say you are the kind of person who is turned on by one-night stands, you find nothing sexier than finding a complete stranger on a hook-up app, heading over to theirs and without knowing their real name or anything about them, having them go down on you till cum in their hair, then leaving (maybe after another few rounds, if you’ve got the stamina).

Obviously there are risks to this kind of life, but as long as you are in sound mind and safety (ranging from the emotional safety of not letting this hurt you or leave you with regrets, to sexual safety by using protection when necessary and checking your partner(s)’s sexual history) is very much in your mind when deciding to do this, then what is wrong with this.

From a gay guy’s point of view, the app Grindr is very much an example of this taboo.

There is a sweeping public opinion that using this kind of app to meet up with and bang guys is a dirty “slutty” thing to be doing.

Having sex with complete strangers (and sometimes several at once or several in one day/night out) is still very much regarded as a negative life decision – normally resulting in a bit of teasing, sometimes your friends being concerned about your wellbeing or simply people staying away from you because they think you are a bad person for doing so (the first and third being examples of what sexual shaming is.)

As long as there is no impact on others from your sexual actions (e.g. cheating, leaving a friend in a dangerous situation alone) there seems to be no reason that this is actually having a negative impact on one’s life.

If pleasure is being had by all participants, who are we to say they are in the wrong.

This idea generally applies to almost all situations of “casual sex”.

Casual sex being sex that takes place outside a relationship and the participants have no intention of entering into a romantic coupling. This can be things like friends-with-benefits, sexual flings, fuck-buddies, hooking up with an ex, etc.

As long as everyone looks after each other and their emotions, the sexual pleasure is a undoubtedly a good thing.

In the TED talk previously referenced, the speaker discusses a website called The Casual Sex Project which aims to get people talking about casual sex in a more open way, and so beginning to break down this culture of shaming.

Since watching this talk, I have spent a great deal of time on the site reading (probably hundreds by now) sexual experience stories about people having casual sex. (Which if I’m going to walk the walk, as I’ve been talking the talk; I am really turned on by, not ashamed to admit this. Homosexual erotica is something I am really into).

In this jungle of sexual exploration, I came across a story by an anonymous contributor from London who was posting about a hook-up he had a few hours previously.

The way the site works is that it asks the contributor several questions about their experience; for example, how it began, what happen during the hook-up, the worst part and the best, etc.

With this specific guy, something that kept cropping up in his lengthy description of events was the feeling of disgust at himself. He stressed several times how even before the hook-up he felt both physically and metaphorically dirty for simply using the app Grindr.

He went on to say that the kind of experience was almost ritualistic, he would download the app, hook-up with strangers maybe 3 or 4 times then feel so ashamed that he would delete the app and hate himself for several weeks before repeating this cycle.

This attitude really struck me as prominent when I read this guy’s bio and realised he was a graduate student from university. Despite his full higher education, he still entirely believed that his actions were in some way wrong and “dirty”.

He later compared the oral sex he had had in this specific sexual encounter to that which he had had in a long-term relationship. However in his description of the long term relationship sex, there was never any expression of shame or guilt around the encounter.

His guilt around the sexual act was centred around the fact that it was with a stranger.

This story really highlighted the public opinion that sex is seen only as acceptable to do and talk about when it is with someone you know and care deeply about.

I have began to notice that the idea of love and sex are very much viewed as two things that go together but can’t help thinking why this is.

Why is it that we, as society, look down upon those having frequent sex when there is no emotional attachment to the person/people, and the only prominent emotion present is the horniness driving the whole encounter.

If people want sex, let’s let them have it  – with who and in what way they please.

I wanted to learn more about sex outside of traditional monogamous so asked a friend of mine, Tamara Catherine Paulsen, who is polyamorous, about her experiences being someone who has multiple sexual and romantic partners at once.

Here what she had to say about living polyamorous in our society today:

“Polyamory is the act of having multiple loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. There are two common misconceptions I would like to debunk here and now about polyamory.

1) Polyamory is just agreeing to cheat.

Many people come up to me and wonder why I even bother having a relationship if I’m just cheating on my partner anyway.

I am often asked if I am just afraid of commitment and this is a way to have my cake and eat it too. The thing is, no one sees all the work and effort that happens behind the scenes to make sure everyone is happy.

I have spent very long nights having conversations with my partners about how we all feel and processing different emotions as they arise.

It isn’t cheating because we aren’t breaking anyone’s trust, we are being completely honest about how we feel and what we are doing, and taking other partner’s feelings into account.

There seems to be this myth that polyamorous people don’t experience jealousy or insecurities, but in fact a lot of us still have moments of doubt and struggle.

Many people prefer to have rules within their relationship to feel more comfortable i.e. flatmates are off limits, mutual friends are off limits, we need to talk about liking someone before we go ahead with it, etc.

I would argue that commitment doesn’t necessarily imply exclusivity. Commitment to me, and to others in the poly community, has to do with being a team and working together and listening to each other.

Many times in traditional monogamous relationships people are expected to know what their partners will feel comfortable with (or not) without actually having conversations about it.

I recently had a stall in the atrium and encouraged people to place different things (i.e. kiss someone, like someone’s picture on instagram, sleep with someone…etc) on a scale from “Everything is cool” to “We are breaking up”, and the differences in answers changed a lot person to person.

Having conversations about boundaries and making sure everyone is happy within a relationship is a key factor in poly and one that not many think about.”

Before coming to uni, I had very set ideas about open relationships. These completely lined up with this idea that it just allows people who are in relationships an excuse to hook up with randos; I feel like this is a very common opinion had in society right now.

This idea of sex existing outside our perameters deemed to be acceptable is one which I feel is quite often rejected by people like parents.

Tamara goes on:

2) Polyamory is something you grow out of.

No mom, this isn’t a phase.

It isn’t because I’m young and crazy and want to have sex with everyone.

I have heard so many people tell me that once I actually want to settle down and have kids (because as a woman this is what I will eventually strive for in life) I will repent of my foolish lust-filled ways and become monogamous.

While I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, I’m pretty sure my thoughts on love and relationships won’t change that much.

I am in a polyamory group on facebook with over 22k people in it, many with kids and houses and mortgages and – you know – adult lives.

But what about the kids? I hear you cry.

First of all, the idea that because you have more partners you will be having all the sex all the time is (sadly) not a reality, especially if you have kids.

Secondly, having a group of people love and take care of your children with you only seems to have benefits: you always have a babysitter, your children always have someone to talk to, and there is always someone to go to those horribly boring PTA meetings.

Sadly, this is a real issue in many poly families, as they can lose custody of their children for being “immoral” simply because they aren’t monogamous.

Discrimination towards poly people is a big problem, especially because of the lack of exposure to these types of relationships.

I know several people personally who are poly but still in the closet for fear of being labelled a ‘slut’ and it is so sad to me that in the 21st century there is still a fear of expressing love.

Another way our society manages to make sex an embarrassment as opposed to a thing to be celebrated is the attitude towards kinkiness.

People will not be downright appalled if you tell a story of you and a partner having sex in a bed (maybe they won’t be loving the sex talk, but it won’t be an outrageous surprise that a couple is doing the sex things).

That is to be expected as discussed earlier.

But the moment there is a mention of a toy, or extra people, or it moves from outside a bedroom or even a house people tend to lose their minds.

For some reason, things like dildos, vibrators, bloody vibrating cock rings (as they’re getting darn creative now with what they make able to vibrate) are items to be hidden away.

We never discuss them and by no means do we ever show anyone else them.

For most young boys, it is no secret to anyone that masturbation is taking place.

But, for women, masturbation is not a thing to be shouting about.

And why? Because by the values instilled in us from previous generations, it means that girls must stay pure and masturbation is a corruption on this.

Discussing this idea with a close friend, she told a story of a girl who was bullied all through high school because the news came out that she had started masturbating.

Think how bad this would have been if someone had come across a dildo or vibrator at a sleepover at this girl’s house.

Despite the fact that there was no toys involved in this particular instance, there was still a sense of shaming involved in a woman pleasuring herself and exploring her body and her sexuality.

Now moving back to sex involving two or more people.

When stories are head of toys being involved in sex, it is like a plague. It spreads round and suddenly this person is known for this since event and choice they made in their lives.

Dildo Dave and strap-on Sarah become the talk of the town and it is not something they go around high-fiving about.

It is something they wish people would just forget about; this stems entirely from the strong sense of guilt brought on from the public’s attitude toward experimental sex.

This is common on for so many types of experimenting; threesomes, orgies, BDSM, same-sex (for normally striaght people), outdoor, and the list goes on and on.

Taking BDSM as a specific example, what is about this kind of sex that has so many people on edge to talk about.

From the more mild forms of this like being tied down and/or blindfolded during sex, to the more extreme side that has you strapped to a metal cross, naked with someone in a full leather gimp suit whipping you till your skin throbs red; as long as everyone involved keeps themselves safe and there a clear boundaries (safewords, signals, etc) who the hell are we as a population to make them feel like this is some criminal act of sadists or those involved in a cult.

The idea of extreme dominance or submissiveness does sometimes freak people out and it is simply not for them.

However for others this is the biggest turn on there is and putting yourself in these situations that emulate danger is the best way of them to receive the maximum amount of pleasure.

This then applies across sexual activities as a hole (sex pun! I had to get one in somewhere).

People tend to alienate, whether deliberate or not, sex when it does not fit into the ‘normal’ standards that we have all become familiar with due to representation in the media and general social attitudes.

There should only be an emphasis on enforcing one particular aspect of sexual encounters and that is consent.

Consent is, and should always be, the most central focus during sex.

If you want it. If all involved want it. Play ball(s).

Otherwise, no.

Go home and find a way of giving yourself “dem feels” yourself.

This is the only thing that should be heavily stress as inappropriate when discussing sex.

Teens should not be brought up being afraid of sex and afraid of asking questions about it for when the time comes. Teens should be encouraged to get more involved in the conversation; with stress being put on this simply idea of “readiness”.

If a teen turns 16 (legal) and wants to try a three way with someone of the same sex, and someone of the opposite, them let them. It is all about finding out who they are, sexually as a person.

We must simply teach them to never pressure another, definitely not to use force, respect boundaries and only do what they want to do.

Also stress should be put on the laws in place to keep them safe; surrounding animals, minors and the more online side of sex that can very easily be turned into pornography without knowledge or consent.

None of this slut shaming bullshit (for both men and woman) that treats sexual experience as personal baggage and a negative personality trait.

We as a society need to find a happy middle ground where we aren’t rewarding promiscuity or encouraging premature consent but also where we aren’t making today’s youth feel guilty for simply exploring their own bodies and sexuality.

Sex, once had, is a thing to be celebrated and treated as educational as opposed to criminalising.

END NOTE: I would like to add that getting to this point in my own attitude towards sex has been a long hidden process. I would like to put a lot of that down to both the internet and resources available there as well as some revolutionary television being made by Channel 4 in the last few years (with such programmes as Dogging Tales, The Great British Sex Survey, Tofu, etc.) that in no way shied away from the topic like other more mainstream broadcasters.

But would encourage anyone who have made it this far in the article to look into online resources and watching some of Channel 4’s documentaries that explore sex further within human nature.

I invite everyone who has read this far to push our of their comfort zone and take the Channel 4 quiz ‘How Kinky Are You?’.

To make you all feel marginally more comfortable doing this, I have included my profile analysis after doing the test myself:

Screenshot 2016-05-14 18.17.39
Photo Screenshot from Channel 4 (All4)

And generally, I invite to all to explore the web and try learn more about yourself and maybe find out something new that stimulates your lovely genitals.

Also I apologise for the repetitive nature of my argument throughout this article, I realise I put a lot of stress on the same point of “everyone does things their way, middle classes stop it being talked about, let’s push to change this”.

However,  I do hope that this article does make it to an audience that hadn’t considered this point of view and maybe this has had them questioning some of their own values.

The final thing I would like to say is that I appreciate that this look into sex has very much focussed on a male perspective on sex and has used a lot of guy and guy examples.

This is purely as I do not wish to talk for other people and this is the only knowledge I have.

But this article is all about starting this conversation and getting the sex ball rolling, so please email me ( your stories/opinions/fantasies surrounding sex. And I will add them onto this article either anonymously or citing you as a contributor, depending on preference.

Thank you to all those who squelched through this article and made it to the end, I hope you all feel a little bit more liberated now to go tell your besto over coffee that you find having someone lick custard out your belly button to be massively hot (I made that example up, you get the idea though).

by Stuart Graham

Note: A very special thank you to Tamara for her contribution to this piece.

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