Friday, 10 August 2012
Why is it damaging to define 'sex' in reproductive terms?
Posted by Valentina
Content warning: coerced sexuality. Originally published in a less structured form here.
In the UK, it has generally been mandatory for sex education classes in state schools to include information on anatomy, puberty, hormonal control of fertility, and the biological aspects of sexual reproduction: namely, penile-vaginal intercourse. (Source: FPA) Information on other forms of sex, on safer sex, on relationships and queer identities and consent and negotiation - all of that is optional. Outside of the school curriculum, 'sex' everywhere seems to be defined primarily in terms of penile-vaginal penetration (I'll just call it 'intercourse' here.) It is called 'real sex', 'full sex' or something else meaning 'the pinnacle of sexual experience.' It is fourth base, it is the only way to really lose one's virginity. This definition is heteronormative, phallocentric, and harmful to most of the population. Why?
It is othering. It makes heterosexual intercourse the norm, and everything else a deviation from that. Just as (say) queer people are othered in relation to het folks, it makes all other kinds of sex less 'real', less 'good', just... lesser. There is so much more to sexual experience, and focusing on intercourse erases and others many non-heterosexual, non-cis, non-vanilla and otherwise non-normative identities.
It is cissexist. There isn't space for non-cis identities in a reproduction-focused, intercourse-based view of sexuality, nor indeed in the anatomy and puberty conversations in school sex education: many trans folks don't view or use their genitals in the same ways that cis folks do, and sadly even adult sex education is severely lacking in trans-inclusive information. As in many other spheres, non-binary gendered folks are completely ignored.
It erases the sexualities of many queer people. If intercourse isn't an option because the genitals involved are too similar, all the other fabulous sex we're having isn't actually real, right? It's also created some interesting trends in how queer sexualities are viewed culturally:
- For men who have sex with men, anal intercourse seems to have become a new pinnacle of sexual experience: the idea that it is necessary for sex creates undue pressure. Receiving anal sex is stigmatised for heterosexuals as a 'gay' thing, and most homophobia seems to be rooted in the hatred of sodomy between men, evidenced in many homophobes being more accepting of queer women (also, we're hot, right?)
- Women who have sex with women are often asked how on earth we manage to have sex without there being a penis involved, which is very telling: though the PIV definition of intercourse involves a vagina, it mysteriously disappears when the penis does too - it's almost as though vaginas are culturally imagined more as penile receptacles than as autonomous sexual organs! Strap-on sex is thought to be a weak imitation of PIV intercourse, rather than a unique dynamic all of its own - just as het identities are centralised outside of the bedroom, with the assumptions that butches are imitating men or that femmes are straight.
It’s also interesting to note that the sex ed curriculum is based on reproduction, rather than on pleasure: talking about different kinds of pleasure isn't a priority. A trend we see in classifications of films and porn, and in the recent 'extreme porn' trials, is that non-normative sexualities are seen as more 'adult', and non-normative kinds of sex as seen as more dirty. Fisting, strap-ons, kinky scenes - they're 'obscene', and they also tend to be kinds of sex that queers have more. So: queer sex is extreme, it's 'niche' in porn (and in the case of transgender people, their very bodies are an 'extreme, niche' porn subcategory all of their own) - it continues to be marginalised even in more adult, sexual spaces.
Even for people who do choose to perform the kind of theoretically-reproductive sex that’s taught in schools, usually cis folks who sleep with people of the ‘opposite’ gender, this norm can be damaging. What makes an intercourse-focused view harmful to them?
- It sets up the idea of 'foreplay' - what on earth is foreplay? A concept that exists in relation to intercourse, to refer to everything before 'the main event' - all of which no longer counts as 'sex'.
- It creates the notion of virginity: if real sex is intercourse, anything that isn't intercourse isn't sex, right? Aside from marginalising queers (and, among queers, setting up offensive concepts such as 'gold star lesbian'), many young people are having sexual interactions that they never refer to, or treat as, sex, which can be a disaster for communication and for STI statistics. In the States, teenagers who have sworn virginity pledges are more likely to engage in oral sex and anal intercourse - and I wonder how many of the women saving their vaginas for marriage were pressured into anal intercourse by their similarly pure partners? It's not as though anal is especially easy to do pleasurably when you're 16, a self-defined virgin and have never masturbated or talked about turn-ons with a partner.
- It is genital-focused. Many people only start to consider exploring non-genital sex acts if their genital use is impaired, and some who acquire a physical impairment will think their sex lives to be over, forever because they've never heard of or tried out other forms of sex. Many of these never do have sex again, while others learn to have fabulous sex with nerve endings in other places while being seen by society as sexless.
- It can be more trouble than it is worth. For many disabled people, intercourse may not be an option because of mobility issues - it can be a complicated, physically challenging act - but fingers, tongues and toys serve just fine. For some survivors, intercourse can be a trigger whilst non-intercourse forms of sex feel great.
- Much kinky sex, which often doesn't involve genitals or orgasms, is also othered, marginalised and not seen as 'real' sex, and more's the pity.
In addition, intercourse models are performative, and make the genitals involved the main event:
- For these men, sex becomes all about the penis, and all about intercourse: they must easily become erect, last a long time, orgasm from intercourse and from penile stimulation alone, to be considered 'good' at sex. This sidelines men whose penises don't behave this way (er, all of them), and marginalises other forms of sexual stimulation (such as nipple stimulation and anal penetration: both seen as less 'manly', and more 'gay', already.)
- For these women, the vagina is the main organ involved in intercourse-based sex - clitoral stimulation is an extra. It's fairly well recognised in the UK that most women need clitoral stimulation to have orgasms, but there still seems to be pressure on women to have orgasms from intercourse alone regardless: if she's only turned on enough, or really in love, or the angle is just right... sidelining the clitoris doesn't help.
In summary, a view of sex as primarily meaning intercourse is heteronormative and phallocentric. It erases and others the experiences of many het men, many het women, all queer people, large numbers of disabled people of all genders and sexualities, and most kinksters. It doesn't really benefit anyone except for the consumerist complex that sets up sex as a performance and us as lacking so that it can sell us solutions: for example, to come faster, or more slowly, depending on our equipment. Many queers are used to thinking outside the box, but I'd like to see flexibility and imagination in sexual interactions available to everyone, which is one reason it's so important to me to write accessibly for het and cis people. I'd like to teach people that sex can be a huge menu from which we can pick and choose as we like, and indeed that isn't compulsory to engage with at all.