With just three quick words, we’ve got a question already of enormous magnitude.
And like lots of questions of enormous magnitude, almost everyone has a “well, duh” answer to it. It’s an interesting phenomenon that the bigger the scale of issues, questions, or ideas, the more “obvious” and “common sense” the solutions we all carry around seem to be. At least to us.
Sure. It is those things. But that’s not really what I mean. While we could list endless examples of what folks believe constitutes sex, it doesn’t begin to bore down to the core of why it matters so much or why we have such extreme thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about what it really is and who is allowed to do it. Truly, to examine the nature of what sex is, it depends not on what the definition of sex is, but rather—to borrow a phrase— on “what the meaning of the word is is.“
What do we mean when we talk about “sex?”
The father of that quotation and his thoughts about sex aside, what we mean when we talk about how we define sex presently refers not to specific examples of sexual engagement, or event horizons past which an activity IS sex and before which it IS not. Rather we tend to define what sex is—or perhaps rather what it means to us—based on our beliefs and experiences. And we do this in a way that is singular to this activity itself; we don’t invest this kind of emotional, spiritual, and indeed even existential energy in outlining what eating is or means, or what sleeping is or means, or how and why we defecate.
Sex somehow is tethered to our god(s), our social power, and even to our animal fight for survival in ways that eating, sleeping, and defecting are not. It is something we learn to be a defining characteristic of our very existence.
What if this grand and overblown conception, though, was fundamentally flawed from the outset? What if sex is merely on par with eating and sleeping and shitting, rather than some shame-worthy act meant only ever to be alluded to in polite society?
The base truth is that we are animals. Humans are animals. We are imbued with a degree of consciousness and/or sentience which we believe is singular to our particular type of animal (an idea we can’t really be certain of in the absence of shared language with whales, dolphins, and apes). But, while we have a brain capable of self awareness, and introspection, our machinery—the physical bodies which carry our brains and “selves” around—remains animal. With all the biological requirements of being animal.
In light of that, what if we defined what sex means, based on what it really is, rather than magic beliefs with which we’ve been gifted, governed, and sometimes abused, about what it meant to the originators of those beliefs?
Everyone knows what sex is. Why bring this up at all?
We talk a LOT about sex on this blog. In lots of forms and in lots of scenarios where social mores would dictate people shouldn’t be having sex. We read comics and stories about cross generational male sex, incestuous male sexual encounters, and joyful unashamed sex, both solo and partnered. Defining the foundation of the activity itself properly can help us examine and discuss these stories, works of art, and scenarios with a more reasonable common ground.
Sharing a bedrock understanding of what sex is can allow us to contextualize “unacceptable” or “morally wrong” sex in a new way. The fantasy incest comics and stories of Handjobs Magazine become less objectively problematic when we combine the notion that they are just that—fantasy—with the idea that sex itself is morally neutral. From this vantage point, we can begin to discuss the things we find arousing or upsetting about these works, without being bogged down with morality that doesn’t really apply in the first place.
Beyond establishing an intellectual foundation though, people bring with them a lot of troubling ideas and feelings about sex. These can be informed by their parents, education, culture, religion, or choice of pornography. Offering thoughtful counter-ideas and a space to unpack them more fully, can help rattle some of the troubling ones loose (hopefully for good). Replacing bad ideas with better ones is a part of growing and learning. Shifting one’s perception away from the inherited idea that sex is bad, can allow someone to correctly view their own sex parts, desires, and pleasure as normal and healthy. The benefit of someone reducing or eliminating sexual shame ripples outward into every facet of that person’s life.
Sex = communication
At its core, sex is communication. The physical act of stimulation and copulation is a mechanism for communicating genetic material from one animal body to another. In an ideal circumstance, the result is a union of genetic material to form the basis of a new animal body with the traits of each contributor.
Ta da! That’s it! That’s what it does. For birds, bees, and educated fleas. And for humans. It’s almost exactly in line with our physical needs to drink water and eat food to replenish the chemicals that build and repair our machinery, or to sleep to allow our brains and bodies to heal and restore energy reserves for the day ahead, or to defecate to remove unused or harmful materials previously ingested.
Over the course of our development, however, and across a world of different cultures, histories, and peoples, it has fractaled outward to mean extensively more than the sum of its parts. And this is where the seeds of harmful ideologies around sex take root and flower.
Interestingly the through-line of sex as communication remains. There are any number of scenarios where sex serves to communicate. For example, in spheres were language is lacking, or to convey our love or care for a friend, partner, or spouse, or to demonstrate an understanding of a perceived social status, perhaps in submitting to a top or Dom. Even to the extremely negative communication of perceived or real control over another via force, rape, or coercion.
In each and every sexual engagement we are communicating with our bodies something that we usually can’t communicate another way (DNA, power, or complex emotional experience, for example). Through this communication we have the potential for connection that transcends what we can accomplish effectively with language. But we also have the potential for harm when we imbue the act of communication itself with moral (or even divine) weight. The reality is that communication is morally neutral. Like eating and sleeping, it is part of our machinery, no matter what one believes the origin of that machinery to be. Communication is free from judgement or quality. It is not good or bad, it merely IS.
Naturally, if sex is communication, and communication is morally neutral, then it follows sex is also free from moral weight. Like communication, it just IS.
Our rules and roles are crafted specifically to govern us
The rules around the meaning and permissibility of different types of human sexual engagement are merely shells people in positions of power have constructed around the act itself. And, in the case of our current Victorian-based, Western understandings of sex, they are informed by an ideology that is relatively fresh when compared with the total duration of the human animal on Earth. Fresher still are our quaint notions about what it means for men to have sex with other men, and that masturbation is unmasculine or in any way detrimental to our health.
To imagine that sex is of particular interest to our god(s), that it carries any type of moral weight whatsoever, or impacts our ability to govern justly, is merely that: an act of imagining. Whichever creation story one subscribes to, sex is still the obvious core of how we make more people, and an activity without which we’d vanish from the planet entirely.
The bald truth, outside of the man-made shell of permissibility, is that sex is a natural, biological phenomenon, like sleeping and peeing. And that we live in a time when we are free—more free than we have ever been—to step outside our shelled understanding of what it means, and pursue it in whatever form we like, as long as we aren’t causing active harm to others.
My personal pursuit, and the one I believe most practical and valuable to the people with whom I engage, is of a peer-based, athletic and joyful expression of acknowledgement and witnessing. These are the things I strive to communicate sexually (and verbally where that’s appropriate). That I am here, and that I see you! We are here together.
I work out constantly in order to maintain a body that is physically desirable according to convention, as well as physically able to communicate pleasure and presence. And also so that I can feel proud and invested in my appearance clothed, naked, or vulnerably aroused. Feelings of shame or embarrassment quickly cloud communication and make it harder to be understood.
The power of showing others that they are not merely acceptable but are in fact capable of stimulating arousal and joy in others—that they are SEEN and desirable—is the root of my work as a companion. It is also the root of how I engage with sex friends, partners, and with myself. Mindfully using my body’s natural biological communication faculties to demonstrate that I am present and that my response to what I am witnessing is acceptance, arousal, and pleasure, is, I believe, one of the higher ideals of sex as communication. It serves not only to gratify my selfish inner sense of lust and desire (and my innate biological urge to share DNA), but also offer others a mirror of their capacity as sexual communicators. To show them that what they believe about the meaning of sex might be too narrow or entirely too small to contain a capacity they didn’t think they had.
We are all sexual communicators. We all have this power.
What could we do in the absence of premade roles and rules about who can do what?
If you have spent all or some of your life believing that certain types of sexual engagement are “good” or “bad” or can be associated with subjective and vague ideas like “right” or “wrong,” I encourage you spend some time kicking those ideas around in your head; honestly examining their origin and whether they truly belong to you, or have been inherited like so much old furniture which never suited your house or life.
Sometimes that’s all it takes to shake loose acquired misconceptions, triggering a realization that you’ve simply been boxing up the idea of what sex IS in a way that doesn’t fit or jibe with reality. Sometimes it takes a lot more. I won’t say this examination is simple or even attainable for everyone.
But what you uncover about yourself will always be worth the work. You are already freer than you know.
It’s worth stating, in closing, that nothing I’ve said here is designed to diminish the pain or trauma of sexual abuse, assault, or coercion. Simply declaring the act as morally neutral does not alleviate social or even personal understandings of shame and hurt. Nor does it prevent people from weaponizing sex or communicating exclusively negative things through sex.
Trauma and pain are real and legitimate. But the shame and stigma of sex that can inform or inflame them are constructs, independent from the reality of what sex is. By beginning to view them as such, we can start to strip away these constructs and look at what the act really is: free from moral gravity in the same way as eating or dreaming. And something we need to surivive.