I want to talk about sex.
I would argue that people don’t talk enough about sex.
You may roll your eyes at that statement, thinking that we, as a society, do nothing but talk about sex. It’s everywhere, on TV, in ads, in magazines, on the internet. Especially on the internet.
But in those instances, sex is viewed as a perfect and pre-made thing.
Salt-N-Pepa still think you should talk about sex.
I recently read a great op-ed by Mark O’Connell about anal sex, entitled “About Fucking Time: Flushing Out the Shitty Side of Bottoming.” In it he talks about how men who have sex with men tend not to talk about anal sex, or rather, everything that is necessary for having an experience that is comfortable for everyone involved.
And while you may have rolled your eyes earlier, I imagine you’re possibly crinkling your nose now.
O’Connell’s essay was posted on a gay porn site called Night Charm. (That site is NFSW, but you can read the original post on his personal blog here.) O’Connell brings up the concept of how gay men can “rely too heavily upon entertainment and fantasy, like the scant media devoted to gay male sex which unrealistically insinuates that we’re all Spontaneous Bottoms – that is, we can easily drop trou, whenever, wherever, and open up for some good clean fun.”
And it’s true. Watching sex on the screen (whether it be film, television or computer) is watching an antiseptic recreation that is edited within an inch of its coital life. And it could be argued that it is even more common within pornography. This is not to say that pornography is inherently bad, or exploitative or misrepresentative. It may not be pornography’s role to be a teacher, since it is often, by definition, a form of fantasy. Can we legitimately expect fantasies to be teachers in real-life situations?
I recently had a conversation with a friend who wants to be a better bottom. But in his past relationship, his ex expected him to be a spontaneous bottom after watching hours of highly edited pornography where he just sees the entry point happening: and whomp! There it is! Inside the butt.
My poor friend soon found himself not wanting to have sex with his partner, even though he very much wanted to please his partner, and be pleased at the same time.
How did this happen? Because he and his partner didn’t have the tools to talk about how to get ready for this type of sex. Or if they did, they may not feel comfortable in doing so, which is even more unfortunate. And this is where the problem lies: talking about sex is important.
No, it’s not easy. Having discussions around sex and sexual health are important things that queer individuals, no matter their gender (or the gender(s) that they are attracted to) often have a hard time doing.
Imagine if our sex lives were automobiles. For those of us who do drive, we know that it takes time to learn how to drive. But how can you drive if you don’t know how to take proper care of your car, both inside and out? You can know how to put the key in the ignition, but if your car won’t turn over, how do you fix it? You can’t just ram the key in hoping all of a sudden it will turn over and be ready to go. If you get a ding or a scratch, what do you do then? Does your car have less value all of a sudden? No. It doesn’t.
Another conversation I recently had on this same topic was with someone who works in sexual health. I have been sexually active since I was a teenager. I grew up and came out during the AIDS crisis of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and even worked as a peer counsellor during my early 20s. As a journalist in my 30s, I read stories and do research about sexual health, and yet, I thought I knew enough about sexual practices to feel good about it. But after talking to him for an hour, I soon realized I didn’t know enough. It was humbling. And to be honest, a bit scary. But I now knew more, and that overtook any anxiety I had. Because I knew what my options were, and which ones would work for me.
With a recent outbreak of syphilis amongst men who have sex with men in the Halifax region, it’s important to educate oneself. The message by healthcare practitioners is simple: “Get tested.” And that is an effective way to help manage the situation. And it is important. But taking care of sexual health is not like taking care of other forms of personal health. It does not end with testing and possible medication-based treatments.
In a story in The Atlantic, John-Manuel Androite discusses how sociocultural stigma amongst gay men can lead them to make choices and take chances that can affect their health.
Gregory M. Herek, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, and an internationally recognized authority on prejudice against lesbians and gay men, hate crimes and anti-gay violence, and AIDS-related stigma, said in an interview, “Certainly in the past, everybody was brought up with the attitude that homosexuality was wrong, a sickness, sin, that everybody who was gay or lesbian was a bad person. So being raised in that it’s almost inevitable that almost all people have accepted or believed it."
But not everyone accepts or believes it. In fact fewer than ever do, and they have much to teach. “What I think is amazing,” said Herek, “is how many people are doing fine and are mentally healthy, and leading whole and productive lives. How do they do that? Given all they’re up against, how do they come out of it? The answer is resilience. If they’ve overcome this internalized self-stigma, they have more resources for overcoming this psychological distress."
Androite goes on to discuss a study by Ron Stall in which a large majority of men who did deal with “multiple psychosocial health problems” did not engage in what were various forms of “high-risk”* activities.
Stall said, “We were able to show that guys who do the best job of resolving internalized homophobia [or self-stigma] are the least likely to have current victimization, substance abuse and compulsive [high-risk] sex."
He said such findings demonstrate that, to be truly effective, HIV
prevention and substance abuse interventions need to build on gay men’s
resilience, to be “strength-based,” rather than deficit-based. “We’re so
focused on risk factors to the point that we forget about resilience,”
he said. “It seems to me a smarter way to go would be to look at the
guys who are thriving in spite of the adversities, how they pulled that
off, see what the lessons learned are, and apply that to the
interventions we already use and have developed.
When we talk about sex, we need to know how to talk about it. Not just
in terms of orifices and possible STIs, but emotions. Sex can be a
highly emotionally charged act. Talking about the emotions
that happen during sex or lead to sex — including certain types of sex — can be one way of limiting negative consequences for those involved. Consequences that come from acts that many people simply want to have the autonomy to engage in.
And so I go back to butts, or rather butt sex. Or even any form of sex.
Discussions don’t happen when shame is involved, shame around our bodies and our own lack of knowledge. This is what removes choices, informed choices, from the lives of individuals.
It is no longer enough to just tell people to practise safer sex. Studies show this. People who work in sexual health fields know this. What is becoming evident is that it is important to give safe spaces for people to ask questions and find viable answers. Self-education leads to self-empowerment, which leads to stronger individuals and stronger communities. Communities of people who care and are strong. And who are resilient.
*Sidenote: I believe it is important that when discussing the choices that individuals make, notions of blame, stigma, shame or any form of negative connotations do NOT help in the discussion. A person’s choices are his or her own, and although they may have consequences, it is not for others to hold them accountable against their ideas or judgments. What is an acceptable risk or “high risk” to one individual may not be for another.