Society Makes You Feel Guilty For Having Sex AND For Not Having Sex

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One of the workshops I had the joy of attending at Creating Change was one called Beyond Binaries: Identity and Sexuality, facilitated by the FABULOUS Robyn Ochs, professional bisexual. (If you aren’t familiar with her or her work, then you need to fix that now!)

The main thrust (pun intended, as you’ll see) of the workshop was the way sexuality is so fluid and that the notion that we’re all just gay or straight (or even gay, straight, or bi) is a complete myth. Despite being bright and early Saturday morning, there were a ton of energetic young people there, and it was really great to see them having these conversations about how sexuality changes over time. In particular, it was striking to see the way so many aim for ambiguity, recognizing what they like but not necessarily conforming their identity to match.

I should point out that this phenomenon was evident throughout the conference. More and more people are really moving towards identifying as “queer,” as if to say I’m queer and that’s all you need to know. I kind of wish I’d gone to some of the sexual liberation workshops so I could know more! [Note: I did the following year!]

At any rate, in Robyn’s workshop we did an anonymous survey of how people define their identities, attractions, and behavior over time. After looking at identities and attractions through different lenses, we then juxtaposed those identities with actual behaviors. The results were interesting, because they didn’t always match. Some people reported engaging in sexual behavior that did not reflect their same- or opposite-sex attractions. And in some cases, there was no reported sexual behavior.

It was at this point that Robyn made the poignant point that is the title of this post:

True or false? Society makes you feel guilty for having sex. TRUE.
True or false? Society makes you feel guilty for not having sex. TRUE.

It really is true. All sexual behavior is judged. You either get chided for going for it or for not going for it. There isn’t really a “win-win.”

I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this point than just that, but I still find it amazingly compelling. Just being aware of this point I think lets us think much more openly about sex.

So many of our choices and our “standards” are influenced by the world around us. Just about every single religion has had something to say about the morality of sex, most likely because we’re all sexual beings and it’s a deeply influential method of control. When you really step back and think about it, there really can be no moral question for safe, consensual sex. Yet, we tend to be profoundly self-conscious about our sexual behavior and reputation.

There are some considerations that are important beyond consent. Obviously, sexual contact always include health risks. Trust is also fundamentally important to maintaining the consent and safety of the interaction. And if you value monogamy like I do, it’s important to honor commitments and sexual exclusivity. Lastly, we can’t ignore that for many people, sexual behavior always has an emotional component. Aspects of commitment, dependency, love, and power can affect people well beyond the physical sexual pleasure they experience.

But, if you can account for all of those factors (and I’d personally recommend that you do), is there any good reason to be inhibited as sexual beings? I would say no. This is why I was torn when I was writing that monogamy post a few weeks ago, because even though I value monogamy both sexually and emotionally, I completely understand how and why open couples make their openness work.

Sex is a great thing. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to be sexual beings. I think everyone has the right to explore their sexuality in any way they wish (that honors the values I just discussed). Hell, if we all liked the same things, life would be pretty damn boring! I’ll admit here that I have at least one fetish and that I’m also kink-curious, and honestly, I feel like it takes some courage to put that out there publicly. But really, why should it? Why should I feel embarrassed to say so? Sure, there are probably some of you out there who don’t want to think about Zack Ford as a sexual being, but get over it. You’re a sexual being too, you know.

I think life would be a lot less stressful if society didn’t make us feel so self-conscious about sex. I do think discretion is important, and sexual harassment is a very real and serious concern in our culture. But I don’t think it has to be either-or. I think we can get to a place where we don’t have to be afraid/guilty/ashamed of our sex lives without constantly making overt sexual advancements to every single person we meet. Just as “gay” does not solely define me, I can come out of the closet as “sexual” without letting sexuality control my life.

Why should sex be judged? The young people in Robyn’s session made it very clear that the last thing they want is to be boxed in. Not only do they not want their identities bound by binaries, so too do they want the opportunity to explore their sexuality beyond the “shoulds” and “should nots” that society overwhelms us with.

I feel bad for the people who have been conditioned to be ashamed of sex, one way or another. We only get one chance to explore this thing called humanity, and there seems to be no reason to make the most of it. Thanks, Robyn, and others, for helping me better understand this in my life.

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There are 8 Comments to "Society Makes You Feel Guilty For Having Sex AND For Not Having Sex"

  • Ash says:

    Something that I have pondered is that for some, sexuality is more something they DO, while for others sexuality is more about IDENTITY. There is a big difference between “I am a sexual person” and “I regularly enjoy having sex.” This causes all kinds of confusion, because two people might both think of themselves as being sexually healthy people, but that doesn’t mean that both want to actually engage in sex (with them or anyone else) to a similar degree. From my perspective, neither is good or bad, but one might think the other is a hypocritical prude while the other might think the first is just a slut. So, judgment can and does occur even between people who have positive views on sexuality.

  • ZackFord says:

    This is a great point!

    I think the challenge is that regardless of how we think of ourselves or what we know we like, there is also the choice and preference about how and when we act ON those orientations and preferences.

    To respond to one of your points, a person might consider themselves sexually healthy by not having sex, but I think it’s important to explore why they don’t.

    Obviously, tons of factors can affect what behaviors a person participates in (and with whom). When we are rejected by another person, that can be personally disappointing, but I don’t think it constitutes “judgment” in the same way.

    I think a lot of cultural pressures keep some people from having sex and force others into having too much. We can be convinced (or convince ourselves) of many things, but I think a lot of these choices merely reflect societal pressure and values, which is unfortunate.

  • ZackFord says:

    I just want to add that I think context is important, and one of the most dominant messages in society is “abstinence-only.” If my post or comments seem skewed towards having sex vs. not having sex, I’m just trying to compensate for the way that society makes sex so taboo.

  • The Nerd says:

    Thanks for writing about this.  I’m glad to have learned about Robyn Ochs.  🙂  I too enjoy using the word “queer”, but in a world where people still think that bisexuals don’t really exist, I am not too quick to abandon that word either.

  • Jenny says:

    I am one of the people who was raised to believe that sex is wrong outside of marriage – only, I think my family and religion-at-the-time went overboard, and I suspect I will never stop feeling guilty, ashamed, and embarrassed about having sex with my boyfriend of nearly 2 years. We first had sex after being together for about a year. I’m now 22 and he was my first.
     
    I have been conditioned to think of sex as a game of domination and control. Men sleep with you and then won’t marry you. They’ll break up with you, prattle on and tell everyone in the world your dirty laundry, and they’ll be lauded for being the alpha male. The rest of the world will chuckle at me, the dirty slut left in his wake. I’m an atheist now, but I can’t get over the indoctrination.
     
    It often feels like withholding sex (not that it happens too often..) is my only way to regain any kind of feeling of control over the situation. I feel dirty and unclean and wish I could take back everything that happened between the two of us – even if I know logically that there’s nothing wrong with having sex with somebody I love. I don’t know if I will ever be able to go through with sex without this intense and horrible shame and guilt.

  • ZackFord says:

    Jenny, I’m so sorry that your conditioning has deprived you of the opportunity to fully enjoy sex. I, too, have struggled in that way, unsure if I can ever appreciate sex just for sex’s sake. I find myself forcing myself to try explore my sexuality even though it’s the last thing I want to do.

    Thank you for sharing your very personal struggle! I think the only thing we can do is to keep trying. Only we can convince ourselves how to enjoy the pleasures of our own bodies, and I think we owe ourselves that effort!

  • Glen says:

    I was just wanted to say how much I appreciated this post. I found it honest and refreshing. And I LOVE the idea behind the title. Not to quibble with Robyn–no, hang on, you know I am the quibbler-in-chief, so yes, to quibble with Robyn!–society does make us feel good about having a very limited kind of sex: vanilla, heterosexual, reproductive, loving, romantic, married, 2-3 times a week etc. The problem is just that this range is so narrow that almost every person on earth has a sex life (or lack of one) that doesn’t fall within it. So we all end up feeling bad about ourselves as sexual beings. But the game has been rigged against us from the beginning.

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