Same-sex sexual behavior might have started out on an equal footing with different-sex sex.
Evolutionary scientists have been thinking about same-sex sexual behavior all wrong.
That’s the implication of a new study on same-sex behavior in animals. Instead of asking why animals engage in same-sex behavior (SSB), researchers should be asking, “Why not?” the authors said.
If they’re right, same-sex sex may not have evolved independently in different animals for adpative reasons. Instead, same-sex sex may have emerged very early in time and could persist simply because engaging in it doesn’t cost animals much, evolutionarily speaking.
“Usually, when evolutionary biologists see a trait that’s really widespread across evolutionary lineages, we at least consider the idea that the trait is ancestral and was preserved in all those lineages,” said Julia Monk, a doctoral candidate at Yale University, who co-authored the new research. “So why hadn’t people considered that hypothesis for SSB?”
In evolutionary science, same-sex sexual behavior has long been viewed as a conundrum: Why would animals spend time and energy doing something sexual that won’t pass along their genes to the next generation? And yet, same-sex sexual behavior has been observed in at least 1,500 species, ranging from lowly squash bugs to humans.
(To avoid anthropomorphizing, the researchers don’t use the terms “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “gay” or “straight” to refer to animal behavior.)
“We can’t assign sexuality to animals — we’re trying our best to learn about them by observing their behaviors,” Monk told Live Science. “And those behaviors shouldn’t be mapped onto human cultural and societal contexts.”
The assumption that there must be an evolutionary reason for all this same-sex sex has led researchers to search for possible benefits to same-sex behavior. For example, in humans, researchers have found that having a gay son or brother seems to be associated with a womanhaving more offspring in total. Other studies have posited that same-sex sexual behavior is a side effect ofother genes that have reproductive benefits.
In evolutionary biology, the ability of an animal to reproduce given its environment is called fitness. It’s entirely possible that in some species, same-sex sex could have fitness benefits, Monk and her colleagues wrote in their paper, published Nov. 18 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. But these evolutionary benefits may not be required for same-sex sexual behavior to exist.
Imagine, instead, that the earliest sexually reproducing animals simply tried to mate with any and all members of their species — regardless of sex. This might have been a logical pathway for evolution, because all the bells and whistles that distinguish males from females are energetically costly to evolve. So any effort expended on mating with the same sex would be compensated for by not spending energy evolving and maintaining distinctive secondary sex characteristics, like differing colors, scents and behaviors. Those sex-distinguishing traits may have all come later in the evolutionary chain, the authors argued.
In this formulation, same-sex and different-sex sexual behavior would have started out on an equal footing, early in animal evolution. This could explain why same-sex sex is so common throughout the animal kingdom: It didn’t evolve multiple times independently, but was instead part of the fabric of animal evolution from the start.
The new hypothesis undercuts old assumptions about same-sex behaviors, said Caitlin McDonough, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University and a study co-author. Much of the research done on these sexual behaviors assumes that same-sex sex is costly for animals and that different-sex sex is not costly, she said.
“You really need to go through those assumptions and test the costs and benefits of both behaviors in a system,” McDonough said.
If same-sex behaviors go back to the roots of animal evolution, the fact that these behaviors are so common today makes sense, Monk said.
“If you assume a trait like SSB is a new development and has high costs, it’s going to be really hard to understand how it could become more and more common from those low initial frequencies,” she said. “It would have to have really large fitness benefits, or be otherwise impervious to natural selection, for that outcome to be probable.
“On the other hand, if you assume a trait is ancestral and was originally common, and it has low costs, it’s much more likely that it would remain widespread to this day, even if it doesn’t seem to contribute much to fitness.”
One piece of evidence supporting this hypothesis is that some echinoderms, including sea stars and sea urchins, engage in same-sex sexual behavior. Echinoderms evolved early in the history of life, likely in the Precambrian period more than 541 million years ago.
But other evidence is slim, largely because scientists haven’t systematically studied same-sex sexual behavior in animals. Most observations have been accidental, and biologists have often viewed sex between two animals of the same sex as irrelevant or improper to note, Monk said. Sometimes, researchers automatically assume that same-sex behavior isn’t really about sex but instead is about dominance or bonding. And often, if two animals are observed having sex, they’re assumed to be male and female without any confirmatory evidence, McDonough said.
“The science that we do is really informed and influenced by cultural biases,” she said.
Thinking of same-sex sexual behavior as a standard part of the animal repertoire would change how researchers approach the study of the evolution of these behaviors. The next step, Monk said, would be to gather more data on the prevalence of same-sex behavior in animals. Then, researchers could compare species from across the tree of life to determine if all linages show same-sex behavior. If so, it would strengthen the argument that same-sex sexuality was part of life for the ancestors of all of today’s sexually reproducing animals.
It’s the second meeting of the Informed and In Charge program at Western High School, and today’s activity is called the “sexuality wall.”
The gist is pretty straightforward: At one end of the classroom is a big sheet of paper with “Sexuality?” written in blue marker. “Write down as many different terms regarding sexuality, regarding identity, regarding gender, as you may have heard,” the instructor, Sinai Torrejon, asks the class.
A mix of around 20 students from different grade levels — wearing tank tops and wide-legged pants, ripped jeans and hoodies, false eyelashes and no makeup — grab markers and get to work. They chat among themselves. “I wrote pan — pansexual,” one says. “Asexual means you don’t like nothing, you don’t have those feelings,” explains another.
The students seem calm and comfortable. Though they take the activity seriously, they’re also having fun with it: One of them uses several different markers to write “bisexual” and “lesbian” in letters that look three-dimensional, like they’re popping off the paper.
In fact, the whole classroom has a relaxed feel. The students sit on plastic chairs, not traditional desks. A table at the front holds prizes the teens can win in icebreaker games, like makeup brushes and stickers. One girl casually eats from a container of instant ramen. This is Southern California after all, where open-mindedness and chill are branded exports.
When they’re finished, Torrejon helps the students — all part of a dropout prevention program at Western called the Independent Learning Center — define the terms on the wall. LGBTQ+, she explains, “is a term that is trying to be inclusive of all the other identities and sexualities that there are.” Queer, she says, “can be used as a slur or as a derogatory term,” but now some in the LGBTQ+ community are “taking ownership of that word.”
Next, they move into a discussion of the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and sex.
“Can someone else tell you what your gender identity is?” Torrejon asks.
“No,” several students say.
“Is it okay to not be 100 percent sure yet?”
“Yes!” is the enthusiastic response from the class.
A bit later, Torrejon tells the class, “You are your own person. You are unique. You are perfect the way you are.”
Welcome to the future of sex education in America. California wants to lead the way.
But even in one of the bluest of blue states, where just about 32 percent of voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2016, programs like the one at Western are getting backlash. In 2016, the state passed a law requiring that schools offer LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed with lessons on gender identity and expression as well as materials on HIV prevention and healthy relationships. Last year, the state released draft guidelines aimed at helping schools put the law into practice, and since then, parents have been pushing back — with some even taking their kids out of public schools so they don’t receive the new sex ed.
The day before Torrejon gave her lesson about gender and sexuality, parents, advocates, and even students protested outside their legislators’ offices around the state, demanding a repeal of the law. One parent, Shanda Ellsworth-Lobatos, called it “a cognitive behavior modification program to sexualize and groom your children” at a protest not far from Western.
What’s happening in California is a version of a conflict that’s likely to ramp up around the country in coming years. What some parents and conservative groups call “indoctrination,” sex education advocates call changing the world: teaching students to respect each other’s identities and autonomy in ways they hope will lead to less sexual assault, harassment, and homophobia in society at large.
As Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at the nonprofit SIECUS (until recently known as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), told me: “We like to frame sex education as a vehicle for social change.”
The movement toward an education based on acceptance over abstinence
For many people in their 30s and older, the phrase “sex education” probably conjures up images of an awkward assembly in a high school gym, if it conjures up any images at all. Picture Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years, watching his gym teacher trying to draw a diagram of the female reproductive system, but instead scrawling something that looks like a cow.
In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic inspired states to get more serious about sex ed, and by the 1990s, most states required some form of HIV/AIDS education. But conservatives almost immediately pushed back, calling for sex education to focus on abstinence, and the messages students got about sex could be confusing — even in California.
As a high school student in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I remember getting a classroom visit from a man living with HIV who helped demystify the virus and talked about prevention. I also attended an assembly led by a woman who said that every time you have sex, it’s like putting a piece of tape on your arm and ripping it off, until the tape — which represents you — is covered in hair, disgusting and useless. This, I later learned, is a common abstinence-based lesson.
One big problem with abstinence-only, though, is there’s no evidence that it works. As Aaron E. Carroll reported at the New York Times in 2017, several studies have found no effect of such an approach on teen sexual activity. It also doesn’t teach students what they need to know about contraception and sexual health if they do decide to have sex.
That’s why sexual health advocates around the country have backed comprehensive sex education for years. Truly comprehensive sex ed should include information on abstinence, but also on sexually transmitted infections and contraception, Driver told me. Lessons should be inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities. And it’s not just about avoiding pregnancy and STIs — comprehensive sex ed, Driver said, should also include lessons on healthy relationships, consent, and decision-making, as well as analysis of cultural norms and values around sex and sexuality.
Sex education can be a “powerful vehicle to change societal norms,” Driver said (SIECUS recently made this concept part of its name, rebranding as SIECUS: Sex Ed For Social Change). For example, the rise of the Me Too movement has sparked “a lot of conversations about consent,” she said. But “very few people can articulate what consent looks like.”
By contrast, “what would a world look like if everyone had comprehensive sex education?” Driver asks. “How would the Me Too movement look very differently?”
California might be about to find out. The state has been on the forefront of the movement toward more comprehensive sex education for years. In 2003, the state passed a law requiring that HIV prevention be taught in public schools, and that all sex education materials “be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities.”
But critics said the law was too vague, and in 2016, the state implemented the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA), which requires that students get sex education that includes information on HIV and pregnancy prevention, healthy relationships, gender identity, and more — including abstinence — at least once in junior high and once in high school. All course materials must be medically accurate, and discussions of relationships must be inclusive of same-sex couples.
Since then, school districts around the state have been updating their curricula to comply with the law. For example, Anaheim Union High School District, which includes Western High School and about 16 other junior high and high schools, added lessons on human trafficking and gender identity expression to its high school health curriculum to comply with the law, said Patty Hatcher, a health curriculum specialist with the district.
In many districts, like Anaheim Union, California students get sex education from their health teachers. But some districts also bring in visiting teachers from groups like Planned Parenthood and Girls Inc., a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to fostering the health and education of girls. In many cases, the visitors supplement what the district is already doing. But when there’s no one trained on staff, the outside groups may provide all the sex education required by the state.
Over the course of about 12 class periods, the Girls Inc. program teaches students about menstruation, birth control, STI prevention, sexual harassment, consent, dating violence, and more. Classes are open to anyone who identifies as a girl, no questions asked, according to Jessica Hubbard, director of program services for the Orange County branch of Girls Inc. The organization doesn’t offer an equivalent program for boys, but at Western Independent Learning Center, where most classes are online, students of all genders may also take an online health class that includes sex education.
About 25 miles away in Irvine, also part of Orange County, the district adopted Teen Talk, a research-based curriculum for students of all genders that covers anatomy, STIs, pregnancy prevention, and body image, among other topics. It also includes one lesson specifically devoted to sexual orientation and gender identity, which “does a great job in dispelling myths and stereotypes” like the idea that being gay is a choice, Kelli Bourne, who is in her 14th year of teaching health science at Lakeside Middle School, told Vox. But it also uses language throughout that’s inclusive of all orientations and identities: “Teen Talk does not favor one type of relationship over another,” she said.
Overall, the goal of Teen Talk is to “drive home to kids that there is a range of values” when it comes to sex, Bourne said. And values — whether something is okay or not okay — are at the root of a lot of questions students ask in class, she said.
When it comes to sex and sexuality, Bourne explains to students, some people believe one thing, and others believe something else. Ultimately, “it’s up to you to decide what you believe,” she said, “with input from your parents and your family.”
Conservative pushback is mostly about LGBTQ inclusivity
About a month into the school year, around 20 people gather outside Assembly member Tom Daly’s office, about 10 miles from Western High School. These are the families in Orange County who feel that, despite what programs like Teen Talk say, they’re not getting enough input. They feel their kids are learning values at odds with their own.
At the latest of several “Sex Ed Sit Outs” to protest the law, parents hoist handmade signs with messages like “education not indoctrinate” and “no gender ID ideology.” Some have brought their kids, who play on the grassy median strip next to the sidewalk. A few older students take a more active role.
One first-year high schooler, for example, holds a cardboard sign reading, “AB 329 is a sexual grooming program.” He is here with his mom, but he tells me he also believes that the sex education law violates freedom of religion. “It’s either you’re a girl or you’re a boy,” he says. “That’s what I agree with.”
Meanwhile, many parents say CHYA violates their parental rights. “This law doesn’t respect our beliefs and rights as parents to teach our children how they should behave and live,” one mom, Ofelia Garcia, tells me.
“Even if I didn’t have any grandchildren or children, I would be doing this,” Garcia says. “As a daughter of God, this is to speak for my faith.”
Garcia says she’s against “the gender ideology” put forth by CHYA, and that she hopes the law will be revoked because “because otherwise our children are going to be against us.”
The fear that sex education will pull kids away from their parents is a common theme. So is a concern about lessons involving gender identity.
Shanda Ellsworth-Lobatos, for example, tells me she started homeschooling her son, a third-grader, after she found out his Anaheim elementary school was planning a Diversity Week but had not notified parents of content involving LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming people.
Students were going to read Jacob’s New Dress, a children’s book about a boy who wants to wear a dress to school, she said. “They had a whole series of things that they were going to do with the children but they were not going to disclose to the parents.”
Ellsworth-Lobatos also said teachers had been told “if a child is struggling with gender identity, not to notify the parents.” On the whole, she said, the school was “lack of transparency” and “parent alienation.”
The Anaheim Elementary School District (separate from Anaheim Union, which includes only junior high and high schools), however, says alienating children from their parents is the opposite of what it intends. “Clear communication with our families is paramount,” Elsa Covarrubias, the district’s director of communications, told me. She said it was absolutely not district policy to keep parents in the dark about children’s gender identity. “We are in contact with parents regarding anything that impacts their children,” she said.
Girls Inc. says it encourages students to talk to their parents about what they learn, and the group hosts evening events where parents can be more informed about the program. Also, CHYA requires that sex education in California encourage each student “to communicate with his or her parents, guardians, and other trusted adults about human sexuality.” And the law allows parents to opt their children out of sex education if they choose.
But parent protests have continued, heating up last year with the release of a state document called the Health Education Framework. The framework isn’t law or a required curriculum — instead, it is intended as guidance to help school districts develop curricula in line with CHYA. But parents soon began protesting My Princess Boy, a picture book about a boy who wears dresses and a tiara, and S.E.X: The All You Need to Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties, a book by the founder of the popular sexual health information site Scarleteen. Parents said the material was too explicit, and objected to teaching younger children about gender identity.
In May, the state removed six books, including My Princess Boy and S.E.X., from the framework, a final version of which is slated to be released early next year. But some parents were unsatisfied, and with the start of a new school year, protests began again.
However, Orange County is changing — the county went for Hillary Clinton in 2016; in 2018, Democrats flipped four congressional seats there, turning the county entirely blue. But in some ways, Anaheim feels more like middle America than like Los Angeles, less than 30 miles to the northwest. Near Assembly member Daly’s office, a Hooter’s restaurant advertised “Military Mondays.” And as protesters against the sex ed program lined the sidewalk, more than a few passing drivers honked in approval.
Orange County has always a specific brand of conservatism, though: It’s not the type of place where overtly anti-LGBTQ messages are always spoken out loud. Residents are used to having to curb their language for surrounding progressives. And Republicans in California aren’t known for holding particularly socially conservative views — residents sometimes use the term “California conservative” to refer to someone who’s liberal on social issues but favors low taxes and small government.
All that is to say that some of the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric espoused by Republicans around the country — like former Virginia attorney general and recent Trump appointee Ken Cuccinelli, who has said that acts of homosexual sex are “against nature and are harmful to society” — are less common here. Aggressiveness is not the norm.
For example, most of the parents on the sidewalk on this September day say their opposition to CHYA is not about homophobia or transphobia, but about their desire to choose what their kids learn. “It’s not about hate or disliking or anything like that,” Ellsworth-Lobatos says. “It’s about my parental rights and what I want to teach my child.”
Then again, there is a minority that imparts a more direct message. At a forum on CHYA held by the Anaheim Republican Assembly the night before the protest, Arthur Schaper, an activist with the “pro-family” group MassResistance, referred to the law as the “California Unhealthy Perversion Act.”
“There has to be a culture shift in this state,” he told the crowd of a few dozen at a German restaurant not far from Daly’s office. “Being gay is not okay. Yes, I just said that. If I can’t say that in Anaheim, we’ve got a problem.”
The benefits of comprehensive sex education are well-documented
What proponents of laws like CHYA have on their side is research and numbers. In California, a large majority of parents have historically supported comprehensive sex education — 89 percent, according to one 2006 survey. Nationally, most parents also support comprehensive sex education.
According to one 2017 study, more than 93 percent of American parents think it’s important to teach sex education in middle school and high school. Meanwhile, 92 percent of Democratic parents and 75 percent of Republican parents said high school sex education should include discussion of sexual orientation.
Unlike the abstinence-only approach, education like the kind students at Western and Lakeside get is also supported by research. Comprehensive sex education programs have been shown to reduce sexually transmitted infections and increase use of contraception — as well as reducing sexual activity, the goal of abstinence-only programs, Carroll reports at the Times.
And the benefits go beyond those typical markers of sexual health. “We know that comprehensive sex ed can help people develop healthier relationships” as well as helping them have “honest conversations with their parents about values,” Driver said.
There’s also evidence that sex education can help reduce sexual assault. One 2018 study found that students who received sex ed that included discussion of how to say no to unwanted sex were significantly less likely to experience penetrative sexual assault once they got to college. Abstinence-only sex education did not have the same effect.
While anti-sexual harassment advocates often emphasize teaching people not to commit harassment and assault, rather than teaching people to avoid it, there’s evidence that education can help in this way too. A 2015 study found that a middle-school program that taught communication and emotion management reduced instances of sexual harassment and homophobic name-calling at school.
Sex ed can also help to dismantle gender stereotypes. “With comprehensive sex ed, young people are able to reject or unlearn the harmful stereotype that depicts boys as constantly working to ‘score’ by having sex with girls and, conversely, depicts girls as non-sexual beings who are responsible for managing the behaviors of boys,” SIECUS communications manager Zach Eisenstein told me in an email. Some abstinence-only programs, he said, reinforce these stereotypes by comparing girls to Crock Pots (because they supposedly take a long time to “heat up”) and boys to microwaves (which heat up quickly).
When students learn that there are a variety of gender identities and expressions, they “are better suited to identify, question, and reject feeding into harmful gender stereotypes from the start,” Eisenstein said.
After the students at Western wrote terms on the sexuality wall, the class moved on to a discussion of the idea that girls like dolls and boys like action figures, or that girls should be pretty and boys should be strong.
“That language really does have an effect on us,” Torrejon told the class. “We absorb that and we internalize that, and then as we get older we kind of put those stereotypes on other people.”
Inclusive sex education can be especially protective for LGBTQ young people, Driver said. Research shows that when a school has an LGBTQ-inclusive sex education program in place, LGBTQ students are less likely to experience depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and bullying, she added.
Such education has benefits for all students, Driver said, including those who don’t identify as LGBTQ. “Students learn to value other people’s perspectives,” she explained. “They learn to value and have empathy for people who are different from them.”
For proponents of inclusive sex ed, this is the goal: for students to learn not just to protect themselves from STIs and unintended pregnancy, but to treat each other — and themselves — with care and respect. And if they get education like this now, the thinking goes, maybe when these kids become parents, they will be more accepting of their children’s identities and help them make informed choices. Homophobic views like those expressed by Schaper will be less common in the future.
While most parents are in favor of comprehensive sex ed, change is slow.
Despite the research supporting it, and the parents who want it, comprehensive sex ed still isn’t the norm in many places around the country. In part, that’s because education in America isn’t federally controlled. Even with a more supportive president than Trump, the White House only has so much influence over what goes on at the state and local levels. And at those levels, there are enough parents opposed to sex education — and enough conservative groups to back them up — to block a lot of attempts at change.
In other words, implementing comprehensive sex ed remains an uphill battle, but one a growing number of states feel is worth fighting.
Then again, if California has taken years to fully implement its 2016 law, change elsewhere in the nation is likely to move even more slowly. For example, when an Arizona school district considered implementing a comprehensive sex education curriculum called Rights, Respect, Responsibility in 2018, the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel sent the district a cease and desist letter. The group said the school district was in violation of an Arizona law banning HIV/AIDS education that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle.” The state repealed that law earlier this year, but such restrictions are still on the books in several states.
Because schools tend to be locally controlled, “there’s so much variation among what young people will receive” not just from state to state but from district to district, Driver said. In California, for example, while Anaheim has been on board with CHYA from the beginning, other nearby Orange County School districts delayed implementation, according to EdSource. And while Girls Inc. used to teach sex education across the county, districts started dropping the program when protests against CHYA started heating up. Now Anaheim is the only one left.
For opponents of CHYA and of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education more generally, these delays are a good thing. Education about sexual orientation and gender identity “should be done in the privacy of your home,” Ellsworth-Lobatos said.
But supporters of inclusive sex education say they’re not teaching kids ideology. They’re just respecting who their students are: nonbinary, male, female, gay, straight, asexual, or any of a variety of the above and beyond.
Sometimes sex education is a two-way street. During the class I visited at Western, students taught Torrejon the meanings of several terms, including “demi girl” and “demi boy,” which refer to people who are nonbinary but with some identification with the female or male gender. People who identify that way “use she/they pronouns or he/they pronouns,” a student explained to the class.
Torrejon says she sees the impact of the Girls Inc. program on the students she teaches: “They’re just so much more confident and comfortable within themselves” after the program, she said.
Like Bourne’s class, the program includes an anonymous question box, but students sometimes leave positive feedback instead. “Just hearing how appreciative they are for being able to learn all this, when they know the stigma on it otherwise, is the best feeling ever,” Torrejon said.
After the September class, I asked a few students what they’d learned. “I learned different types of sexualities and different pronouns,” one told me. “I didn’t really know that there [were] that many.”
Another student, a 17-year-old senior, told me he’d done a lot of online research about gender and sexuality in previous years because for a time, “I wanted to be male.” Today, he uses he/him pronouns but says, “I don’t label myself right now.”
Talking about sex and gender identity always makes him nervous, he told me. After class, he was still “a little bit” nervous, he said — “but a lot less.”
My first foray into BDSM left me covered in bruises and smiling like a moron. I had been in recovery for opioid addiction for 18 months. It was okay. I felt stable. I also felt unbelievably bored. Dealing with my problems in healthy ways was a major joykill. Partying had been a pretty big time killer for me, and without it, life felt a little too smooth jazz. Kink quickly transformed those instrumentals, spinning them into a welcome chaos of pain and pleasure.
There was hair-pulling and roughhousing and ropes tugging and restricting me in all the best ways. My brain lit up, sending danger signals to my body. Adrenaline pulsed. For me, it was exactly the right amount of scary. For the first time in ages, I felt alive.
I was glad to not be strung out on pills, but I was also scared that I had burned out my joy receptors in some irreparable way. Life was a vast grey expanse of whatever. I was a freshly single sober adult living in New Orleans, the drunkest city on earth. It felt like not getting fucked up was really fucking up my life. Life felt serious and hard and I needed a jolt of excitement to remind me why my life was worth getting sober for. I found it in kink.
I purposefully dated others who’d gone through recovery and were sober, but that was unbearably awkward. Sober folks can be really neurotic. I know, because I’m one of them. When you stop blunting all your emotions with substances, you really start noticing how often you’re anxious. And there’s no pink wine to take the edge off of dating and having sex with a new person. I was fine with kisses and make-outs, but when things got hot, I would start to shut down.
Once my clothes came off, I would get locked in to a self-conscious mind loop. Honestly, I had had sober sex so rarely in my life at that point that it seemed like it might be impossible. How was I supposed to get naked with strangers without liquid- or pill-fueled courage? I was pretty sure that my sober life was going to be a sexless and joyless purgatory.
When I first started seeing a sober person who was into kink, I was kind of scared. Like actually frightened of injury. I’d never had particularly kinky sex before. My neurosis looped, full-force, in relentless questions. Was he violent? What if I let him tie me up and he really hurt me? Do people really use whips and chains? What if I didn’t like it? What if I didn’t know how to do BDSM right? But, like I said, I was bored, curious and I liked him, so I went for it.
You have to learn both to speak your needs verbally and also to read your partner’s body language. Its subtlety demands sobriety.
Most of the things that I did with that partner wouldn’t seem that kinky to someone into fetish, but it was all new to me. My partner loved rope and showed me enough to whet my thirst for knowledge. I fell in love with Shibari, Japanese rope bondage. It’s methodical and beautiful. Ropes are tied, checked, re-tied. You must be careful not to compress nerve bundles. Because there is some risk of injury, rope play requires deep communication skills. You have to learn both to speak your needs verbally and also to read your partner’s body language. Its subtlety demands sobriety.
But Shibari is only one modality among many styles of rope play. And rope play is only one practice in the giant world of BDSM. And BDSM is only a subset of kink. What I’m saying, is that there’s a whole sexual world out there that I didn’t know about.
It’s not just me; this is a bona fide trope. Folks in the recovery community are forever extolling the virtues of kink. “BDSM is a way that I can get all the chemicals in my brain revving. It’s somewhat risky but it’s surrounded on all sides by boundaries and negotiations,” Keener, a kinky sober person in NYC told The Fix.
BDSM gave me a way to channel my sexual anxiety into a power negotiation with another person that, in turn, reshapes some of my anxiety into excitement. Sex went from being stressful to being a dopamine rush, which is how it’s supposed to be. Addiction acclimated my brain to higher levels of risk and relief than the average non-addicted person. I didn’t want the actual risk that goes along with using, but I didn’t want to hate my life either. Finding kink showed me a world that was shiny black leather instead of existential grey.
For many of us, sex ed doesn’t end in high school. It’s not unusual to have to do some serious work decades after the first mention of the birds and the bees––often to try to repair the harm that was done back then.
That’s the focus of a recent study, published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education, which asked nearly 200 women to share the types of messages they’d received about sex and sexuality when they were growing up. And the vast majority of them had only negative experiences to report.
Think of all the crappy messages you’ve received about sex and your body over the years, and you’ll relate: you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, having sex during your period is disgusting, masturbation is shameful. Those messages may come from direct conversations with parents, educators, or religious leaders, or they may come from the mass media, such as Facebook, YouTube, or chat rooms.
Wherever they stem from, their impact can be long-lasting. It’s not too much of a leap to connect negative messages about sex to difficulty reaching orgasm, body image issues, a lifeless libido, and less satisfying sex in general.
For the study, participants were asked to share memorable messages they received about reproductive and/or sexual health, and their responses prove just how crucial those early messages about sex are.
One participant said they “…wish that I wouldn’t have been taught about sex as if it were a bad thing, from my school.” Another revealed that her first encounter with shame around sex came when she had chlamydia in her early 20s, and the reaction of a family member made her feel “ashamed and disgusted.”
Several participants shared negative experiences connected to strong religious-based abstinence messaging around sex. “‘Don’t have sex. If you have sex, you’re going to get pregnant and we’re going to kick you out.’ This was my sex talk from my parents,” said one. “This stuck with me for years and still does.”
But the sole aim of the study wasn’t to remind women of just how much negativity they absorbed about sex. Study authors also share different ways to combat any unfavorable lingering feelings. When the women were asked what helps them develop more positive attitudes to their sex lives, here are the four main takeaways.
Having open dialogues about sex
Many participants said the “main catalyst” for a more positive attitude toward their own sexuality was having honest conversations with friends and family, as well as hearing more discussions about sex in society in general. One participant said she had “lost some of the shame associated with menstruation and sexual health” as a result of “growing older, educating myself, and falling into fairly liberal, well-educated friendship circles.”
Getting more (and better) sex ed
Many interviewees said their perceptions of sex, health, and their bodies improved thanks to further education about sex, menstruation, fertility, and reproductive health. “This education was often initiated by the individual and included conducting independent research, asking questions of friends, family, and medical practitioners, and reading further into topics on websites, blogs, and in books,” the researchers write.
Becoming body positive
A big part of sexual empowerment for the study participants came from working on developing body comfort and acceptance and autonomy. “This paradigm shift toward empowerment often stemmed from participants educating themselves about their bodily functions,” the researchers write.
“My perspective about menstruation and reproductive health has changed over time,” said one participant. “I now see them as amazing biological functions that are a testament to how impressive the human body is, thanks to friends who have empowered me to embrace my own fertility.”
Ditching gender stereotypes
The women in the study felt more positively about their bodies, sexual health, and sex in general when they questioned traditional beliefs about womanhood and femininity, as well as challenged stereotypical gender roles.
It’s undeniable that young women need positive messages about reproductive and sexual health as part of their upbringing. Perhaps a good starting point would be for every parent, educator and religious institution to get a copy of this study.
Research presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality annual conference last week found that bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships who are out to their parents have lower rates of sexual satisfaction than if they aren’t out.
The study also found that rates of sexual satisfaction and romantic satisfaction were actually higher for the partners of bisexual people who feel “more negative towards their identity.”
Researchers suggest that this sexual and romantic dissatisfaction comes from the fear of bi-erasure — or the “unique form of minority stress related to the erasure of their identity” as a bisexual person.
The myth that bisexual people don’t exist might seem absurd, but is more commonly accepted than you may think. And when bisexual people engage in relationships with people of different genders, that myth can contribute to the erasure of their identity entirely.
For example, a bisexual woman dating a man might face a common form of “minority stress” called bi-erasure — or the fear that someone’s identity as a bisexual person might be ignored and they might be thought of as straight — just because she is in a relationship with a man.
While bi-erasure can have a variety of negative social impacts on bisexual people, including exclusion from LGBTQ spaces, isolation, and a feeling of invalidation, researchers found that it can have a tangible impact on their sex life as well.
New findings presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality annual conference last week found that for bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships, rates of sexual satisfaction were actually lower if they were out to their family, friends, and partners. However, the study also found that partners of bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships reported higher levels of sexual and romantic satisfaction when their partners were out.
Researchers tie these results to the internal conflict bi-erasure creates for bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships.
Bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships who were out to their families had lower rates of sexual satisfaction than those who weren’t
The study surveyed 142 mixed-gender couples, each composed of one bisexual person and one person who does not identify as bisexual. The couples on average had been together for 5 years, were 30-years-old at the time of the survey, and were primarily white.
Participants answered a series of questions about overall levels of sexual and romantic satisfaction with their partners. The results showed that factors such as whether bisexual participants felt their identities were recognized, whether bisexual partners were out to their families and friends, and how they felt about their own identity all had a strong impact on the level of sexual and romantic satisfaction of both partners.
Bisexual participants who felt that their identities were not seen reported lower rates of sexual satisfaction. Those who were out to their families also reported lower rates of sexual and romantic satisfaction.
Researcher Laura Vowels said the link between participants being out to family members and lower rates of sexual satisfaction could possibly be attributed to family members being unaccepting of participants’ identity as bisexual, which in turn leads to sexual and romantic dissatisfaction.
The study showed surprising results about the level of sexual and romantic satisfaction for non-bisexual participants
While bisexual participants across the board reported lower rates of sexual satisfaction when they were out to their families and felt that their identity was not seen, Vowels was surprised at the findings about their non-bisexual partners.
“If the bisexual partner felt more negative towards their identity, then their partner experienced higher levels of sexual satisfaction,” Vowels said.
Vowel said this might be connected to non-bisexual partners feeling insecure about their partners leaving them due to the stereotype that bisexual people are promiscuous and always looking for another relationship.
While the study is relatively small, the conclusions illustrate the tangible impacts that biphobia may have on the lives of bisexual people and their partners.
People can get constricted by narrow definitions of what constitutes a relationship, including expectations that they must be monogamous, must be between men and women, must be marriage-oriented, must involve five days a week spent glued at the hip, must involve a certain amount of sex, and many other rules. But in reality, relationships aren’t one-size-fits-all.
This reality leads some people to prefer being in relationships without labels. But that might not exactly be a solution to the problem of suffocating norms.
What is a relationship without labels?
When people talk about labels in a relationship, they’re usually referring to terms like “dating,” “in a relationship,” “boyfriend and girlfriend,” and the like. (Here’s a full guide to the most commonly used ones.) A relationship without labels is any arrangement between two people who are choosing not to adopt any such terms to describe their relationship. A relationship without labels can be exclusive or not exclusive, and it can fall anywhere between very casual and strictly sexual to totally emotionally invested and committed.
“Relationship labels are not good or bad; what works for some may not work for others,” sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, tells mbg. “While labels can be helpful, they are not necessary to co-create a satisfying relationship. Sometimes the pressure to live up to a certain set of behaviors keeps people from relationship labels. Labels come with expectations, and if both parties are struggling to negotiate those expectations, forgoing or delaying the label might be the right move.”
Labels may be associated with expectations that a particular couple isn’t interested in, Francis says, such that taking on those words might create unnecessary pressures. For example, the words “boyfriend and girlfriend” might carry a lot of weight and assumptions about the nature of that relationship for some people. While some people might love the implied closeness or coziness of those words, others might not really vibe with the implied emotional investment. Some women might not resonate with the “girlfriend” label because it may carry assumptions about their emotional investment in the relationship or make them feel like they need to act a certain way toward the other person.
Others might also treat the two people differently depending on the label they give, Francis points out: “The social response to a label may not reflect what your relationship is and may discourage folks from wanting to label their relationship at all. For example, maybe your families may relate to you being partners in a way that doesn’t make you feel comfortable.”
A relationship without labels vs. a relationship without commitment.
Do not conflate these two things, says relationship therapist Shena Tubbs, MMFT, LPC, CSAT-C. People often confuse labeling a relationship with making it more serious, committed, or monogamous. But having words to describe your relationship is simply about clarity, not commitment.
“Some people may choose not to label their relationship because they’re afraid of being tied down too quickly or in a place where they feel trapped,” Tubbs explains to mbg. “However, one should understand that you maintain full autonomy of yourself in every relationship you’re in, and you are the one who is responsible for communicating what you need, what you want, and what you don’t want. So if you feel you’re at a place where you cannot (or don’t want) to date one person exclusively, that should be communicated to your partner so that [they] can make a decision about whether that works for them.”
Having a label is not the same as having commitment. Labeling your relationship does not necessarily mean you’re in a committed relationship, nor does saying you “don’t do labels” absolve you from having a conversation about commitment. If you don’t want to be in an exclusive or committed relationship, you still need to have a conversation to define the relationship. (You can just settle on a label or set of terms that works for you, such as consensual nonmonogamy, casual dating, or friends with benefits.)
Is labeling your relationship a good idea?
Yes, according to Tubbs. As far as she’s concerned, the lack of clarity causes more harm than good.
“Labels should be put on the relationship from the beginning,” Tubbs tells mbg. “Are we just friends? Are we friends who do a little bit more on the side? Are we dating exclusively or non-exclusively? Are we boyfriend/girlfriend? It is so important to be clear from the beginning to avoid any heartbreak, feelings of being used or misled, and to protect the nature of the relationship as you both probably came together because you really liked each other.”
Words do matter. Although Francis recognizes why some couples may not want to adopt a specific label loaded with baggage (and that forgoing the label can be the right move for some), she does say it’s important for couples to be able to get on the same page about what they’re doing together. “When people ‘label’ a relationship, essentially they are defining their connection and agreeing on how they will refer to their connection and each other. Labels are helpful heuristics (mental shortcuts) for describing or communicating about a relationship,” she explains. “They give us shorthand to describe the significance of our bond and an opportunity to have constructive and clarifying relationship conversations.”
Importantly, however, both therapists clarify that labels are not about putting ourselves into boxes and not a substitute for having an actual conversation about what each person wants. Francis adds, “Labeling a relationship can be unhelpful when we don’t take the time to define labels clearly within a relationship or use them to pressure others into dynamics they do not want to be in (e.g., ‘a good boyfriend would ______’ or ‘if you want to be my ______ you need to _____’).”
Whether or not you’re feeling a label for your relationship, it’s important to make sure you and the person you’re with see eye to eye about what you’re doing and to make sure that the relationship is healthy, fun, and fulfilling for both parties.
Most women grow up with some pretty negative messages about their bodies and sexuality, and even though many of us are able to shake off a lot of that shame and stigma as we get older and move through the world, those early messages we got have some lasting effects that follow us through adulthood.
OK, so what actually combats all the underlying negative feelings women have around sex?
That was the big question at the center of a new study published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education. The team of researchers—including behavioral scientist Angela Cooke-Jackson, Ph.D., MPH; interpersonal communication researcher Valerie Rubinsky, Ph.D.; and health researcher Jacqueline N. Gunning—surveyed nearly 200 women about the types of messages they received about their bodies and their sexuality growing up. The vast majority of them grew up with negative messages about sex: that they shouldn’t have sex until they’re married, that they’ve got something “pure” they’ll “lose” when they start having sex, and that people will judge them if they do.
But when asked what helped them develop healthy, positive feelings about their sex lives, there were four main factors that stood out:
1. Hearing more open conversations about sex
Open dialogue with friends and family about sex, in addition to growing societal conversations about sexuality, was the “main catalyst” for women’s shift to a more positive view of their sexuality. Indeed, past research has shown that open conversations between kids and their parents about sex tend to make kids wait longer to have their first sexual experience and practice safer sex when they do. Other research has shown talking to friends about sex increases women’s sexual self-esteem and ability to ask for what they want in bed.
2. Getting more and better sex ed
Literally just getting more information about sex—from friends, the internet, books, or really anywhere—made women feel more positively about it. “Many participants cited further education on the topics of sex, reproductive health, fertility, and menstruation as the catalyst for their improved perceptions of body, self, and health,” the researchers write. “This education was often initiated by the individual and included conducting independent research, asking questions of friends, family, and medical practitioners, and reading further into topics on websites, blogs, and in books.”
3. Getting comfortable with your body
How you feel about your body is deeply tied to how stressed out or how comfortable you feel about sex. Fortunately, the researchers observed that as people developed more bodily acceptance and autonomy, they started to have more positive feelings about it. When you know your body well and feel like you’re in tune with it, you start to love it more. “This paradigm shift towards empowerment often stemmed from participants educating themselves about their bodily functions,” the researchers write, adding, “Emerging from this theme were many notes of menstrual symptom management as a catalyst for improved views of reproductive health. Once women learned to manage symptoms of their reproductive health and menstruation, they felt a sense of control over and ownership of their bodies.”
4. Ditching gender stereotypes
Past studies have shown women have better sex when they have more feminist beliefs, and a similar trend appeared in this research: As women evolved their definitions of womanhood and femininity and ditched traditional gender roles, they felt more positively about their bodies, sexual health, and sexuality in general. “[There’s] a direct correlation between sexual knowledge and sexual agency, with the development of feminist ideologies contributing to young women seeking sexual knowledge and subsequent sexual assertiveness,” the researchers explain. “It is evident that young women place value on informative, accepting or positive messages, body literacy, and sexual autonomy in their transition to adulthood.”
If you’re looking to develop a healthier relationship with your sexuality—and start having better sex—these are four solid places to start.
If you’ve never been in a non-monogamous relationship or aren’t close to someone who is, chances are the words “open relationship” or “polyamory” conjure up the same images of people who have sex with multiple partners.
In reality, consensually non-monogamous relationships can take on many different forms, and some don’t even involve sex. The three main types are polyamory, open relationships, and swinging.
“All of these variations of consensual non-monogamy are valid,” Amy Moors, a researcher at Chapman University who studies consensual non-monogamy, told Insider.
They’re also not all the same, even though they’re often mixed up or used interchangeably. Knowing the difference is important to help destigamtize the arrangements, which some people may assume just involve sleeping around when they’re really about making choices that that enhance people’s sexual and romantic lives.
The differences are especially important to understand if you’re considering such an arrangement yourself. After all, how awkward would it be if you think you’re getting no-strings-attached sex but the other party wants an emotional relationship only?
Here’s what sets polyamory, open relationships, and swinging apart.
Polyamory involves having multiple romantic relationships
Since consensual non-monogamy defies the idea that one type of relationship works best for everyone, these terms may hold different meaning to different people. Generally speaking though, people in polyamorous relationships have multiple romantic partners they date and their connection goes beyond the physical. Quite literally, polyamory means “multiple loves.”
Actress Bella Thorne, for example, shared that she previously dated YouTube star Tana Mongeau and rapper Mod Sun at the same time.
According to Moors, polyamorous people could have a primary partner they live with or have kids with, as well as other secondary partners with whom they share an emotional connection, go on dates, and have sex.
Other polyamorous people might not have a primary partner though and try to more equally share the time they spend with their two, three, or however many partners they have.
In other cases, polyamory could mean a person and their two or more partners all date each other, but that isn’t always the case.
Open relationships tend to be more about sexual relationships
When it comes to open relationships, people in them tend to explore sex with others outside of their relationship but reserve emotional and romantic connections for their primary partner.
“Open relationships are more likely to have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule,” than polyamorous relationships, Terri Conley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who focuses on sexual behavior and socialization, told Refinery29.
Other times, swinging looks like swapping spouses with another couple for a sexual experience outside of your primary relationship.
Moors said these arrangements can be referred to as “monogamish” because “while the couple may be having threesomes, they really still like that title of monogamy.”
All of these arrangements are fine ways to explore consensual non-monogamy, so long as they involve constant and honest communication among all of the people involved in the arrangement, Moors said.
Whether monogamous, monogamish, or non-monogamous, “people can have very healthy and fulfilling relationships and it’s likely a byproduct of the fact that they’ve agreed on the terms of their relationship and what’s making them happy, whether it’s to remain exclusive or non-exclusive,” Moors said.
I went to a public high school, but my school took an abstinence-only approach to sex ed. In fact, it was pretty similar to the sex ed scene in Mean Girls — it was taught by the football coach, we were warned that having sex would pretty much ruin our lives, and we all learned absolutely nothing. In fact, the Mean Girls sex ed class was better than the one I took, because at least the Mean Girls coach gave out condoms — mine never mentioned any form of birth control.
Instead, I learned about sex from friends, the internet, and books — and books were by far the most accurate source of knowledge on that list. I’m one of the legions of fans who credit the American Girl book The Care and Keeping Of Youfor teaching us all about puberty — not just periods, but also pubic hair, pimples, and B.O.
Now that I’m an adult woman and a professional sex & relationships writer, I still read books to learn more about sex. So I put together this list, including some of my favorites, some of my colleagues’ recommendations, and some suggestions from my Twitter followers that I’ve already added to my to-read list.
Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, PhD
This bestselling book explores the whys and hows of women’s sexuality — asserting that there’s no one “normal,” and it’s useless to compare your own experience to others.
Faking It: The Lies Women Tell about Sex — And the Truths They Reveal by Lux Alptraum
In Faking It, Lux Alptraum challenges the idea that faking an orgasm is a bad thing. Instead, she explores how often, when, and why women lie about sex. Read an excerpt on Refinery29.
Queer Sex: A Trans and Non-Binary Guide to Intimacy, Pleasure, & Relationships by Juno Roche
In Queer Sex, trans activist and writer Juno Roche combines her own story with interviews with other trans and non-binary individuals, creating a narrative that offers both insight and practical advice. Read an excerpt on Refinery29 UK.
Mating In Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
In Mating In Captivity, renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel explores erotic desire, explaining why it’s so hard to maintain it in a long-term, monogamous relationship — and what to do to keep it alive.
The Ethical Slut, Third Edition: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton
This guide to ethical non-monogamy remains a go-to for people interested in polyamory, two decades after it was first published.
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown
Writer and activist adrienne maree brown introduces the concept of “pleasure activism,” arguing that, as she puts it, “pleasure is a measure of freedom.”
The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina: Separating the Myth from the Medicine by Jen Gunter, MD
Dr. Jen Gunter, who’s become known as “Internet’s OB/GYN” thanks to her viral Goop criticisms, gives us a guide to vaginal health, including yeast infections, painful sex, and “the myth of the G-spot.”
Girl Sex 101 by Allison Moon
This sex ed book features illustrations, instructions, and sex tips from over a dozen sex experts. Moon and Diamond take a trans- and genderqueer-inclusive approach to their suggestions, showing that there are many ways to have incredible sex.
Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free by Wednesday Martin, PhD
Dr. Wednesday Martin challenges myths about women’s supposedly relationship-focused nature, arguing that in fact, women may struggle more than men with sexual exclusivity. Read an excerpt on Refinery29.
Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All by Jaclyn Friedman
In Unscrewed, Jaclyn Friedman examines the state of sexual power in the United States, looking at how politics, religion, education, and other factors play into our sex lives.
Meredith, 27, was diagnosed with cancer twice in her twenties (first cervical cancer and then breast cancer). She explains how it impacted her relationship and sex life, and how it changed the way she feels about intimacy.<
There’s never a good time to be diagnosed with cancer, but it really felt like the bombshell hit me at the worst possible moment. In December 2016, I was about to start training for my dream career, had just moved house and was excited about the future, when a routine smear test revealed I had cervical cancer. It was a total shock as I’d had no symptoms. The world spun on its axis.
Before that day, I was the same as many twenty something women: I loved going to the gym, dressing up for nights out with friends and going to football matches with my boyfriend Gareth, a man whose zest for life drew me in from the moment we met at a student event in a pub.
When Gareth and I first got together our relationship was long distance. Which meant that whenever we met, we’d be so excited to see one another that sex happened naturally – being physical was fun, easy and a glue that bonded us. But all that changed once I began my treatment.
Before that day, I was the same as many twenty something women: I loved going to the gym, dressing up for nights out with friends and going to football matches with my boyfriend Gareth, a man whose zest for life drew me in from the moment we met at a student event in a pub.
When Gareth and I first got together our relationship was long distance. Which meant that whenever we met, we’d be so excited to see one another that sex happened naturally – being physical was fun, easy and a glue that bonded us. But all that changed once I began my treatment.
Sex slipped further down the list of my priorities, especially during chemotherapy. After one session I was so unwell, I pushed Gareth away when he tried to comfort me. My rejecting him was difficult for us both to understand, but drugs affect your moods and thoughts, and I’d gone into crisis mode. All my energy went on trying to survive.
Our sex life, which had kept us so close in the past, had changed irreversibly. I know Gareth found it frustrating at times and we both worried our relationship might not survive, but all we could do was acknowledge the situation was awful and push through anyway, hoping we’d be happier on the other side.
When you know the medical professionals you interact with are trying to save your life, asking for advice about what you can and can’t do in the bedroom feels trivial (although whenever I did ask, they were helpful – one for example, prescribed me a moisturiser to help deal with vaginal dryness, a chemo side effect).
Slowly, we learnt new ways to be intimate with one another, like talking truly openly about how we’re feeling and about how my body has changed. We attended talks about sex and relationships through Breast Cancer Care and Jo’s Trust, which helped, especially realising others were in a similar boat. Practical things like taking it slow, longer foreplay and using lots of lube help too. I’ve also cleared out all of my old bras and replaced them with new sets – my old underwear had negative associations, so this was another small way of me reclaiming back part of my confidence.
I’ve now been given the all clear and am back to work pretty much full-time, bar the odd day off for a check-up appointment. Some mornings, I look in the mirror and find the scar on my breast empowering, on others it gets me down – although Gareth tells me I look amazing regardless. Communication is key in any relationship, but my experience has really hammered that home. I’ve learned that intimacy isn’t just about sex but about the emotional connection between two people.
Just reading the title of this article is likely to bring many parents out in an uncomfortable sweat.
Having the sex chat with your smalls is totally filed under the awkward convos parents dread, but being able to talk openly and honestly about the subject has multiple benefits.
Recent research has revealed that children who feel able to talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay having sex until they are older, as well as making healthy and sensible choices like using contraception.
Couple that with the fact that many parents could well be underestimating the extent of children’s exposure to sex and porn online, with recent stats revealing children as young as seven are viewing porn online because of the lack of age checks, and it becomes clear that having the sex chat could be more important than ever.
Knowing you should tackle the subject is one thing, knowing how to do it is quite another.
But there are ways to open up the discussion with minimal blushes and embarrassment on behalf of all parties.
When should I talk to my children about sex?
While there is no correct age to talk to children about sex, according to the NHS, it’s never too early to start talking about it. “If your child is asking questions about sex, they’re ready for truthful answers,” the site explains.
The site goes on to explain that “talking to children about sex won’t make them go out and do it. Evidence shows that children whose parents talk about sex openly start having sex at a later stage and are more likely to use contraception.”
Which has to be a good thing.
Plus, the earlier you do it the less chance they will already have picked up, often incorrect, information from their playground pals, which could warp or distort their views on the subject in the future.
How to talk to your children about sex
Check your reaction
Your reaction to children asking questions or being curious about sex or gender has a huge impact on the child and the messages they internalise about sex.
“Children pick up on verbal and non-verbal behaviour,” explains Sarah Calvert a Psychotherapist, Psychosexual and Relationship Therapist.
“If they feel a parent/carer is negative about sex, they can develop a negative attitude; conversely if the parent/carer is positive, they are more likely to develop a positive relationship to sex and their own sexuality.
“That’s why it’s so important for parents to think about where they are with this subject, and what they may be unconsciously communicating to their children.”
Try to be sex positive
Calvert says good sex education encourages positive attitudes towards sex and sexuality, enabling children to grow up to lead confident and happy sex lives.
“It’s important to be positive about sex and speak about the pleasures that a healthy and happy sex life (with one’s self or with another) brings,” she explains.
“We should feel confident to empower their sexual exploration and development rather than cloud it in a cloak of shame. It’s also important to ensure our children have information that empowers them and enables them to keep them safe, teaching them about boundaries and consent.”
Do some prep
Give yourself time to think and explore your own attitudes and beliefs about this subject before speaking to children.
“Everyone has their own views on sex that have been formed to a large extent by messages they have received, many of these from childhood,” explains Calvert.
“It’s crucial that parents are aware of their own filter, and question why it exists. For example, we’ve all received messages about gender and how girls or boys should behave. How have these messages impacted and informed who we have become?
“The same goes for sex and sexuality. We need to be aware of the lens that we view these subjects through before discussing them with children.”
Pansexual, skoliosexual, asexualbiromantic. How young queer people are identifying their sexual and romantic orientations is expanding—as is the language they use to do it.
More than 1 in 5 LGBTQ youth use words other than lesbian, gay, and bisexual to describe their sexualities, according to a new report based on findings from The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. When given the opportunity to describe their sexual orientation, the youth surveyed provided more than 100 different terms, such as abrosexual, graysexual, omnisexual, and many more.
While many youth (78%) are still using traditional labels like gay, lesbian, and bisexual, another 21% are exploring new words to describe—in increasingly nuanced ways—not only their sexual orientation but also their attractions and identities as well.
Young queer people are redefining sexuality and attraction in their own terms, and are leading the way in how we talk about them.
Why words matter
Finding a word to describe your sexual identity can be a moment of liberation. It can be the difference between feeling broken and alienated to achieving self-understanding and acceptance. And when specifically describing one’s sexuality to others, labels can help create a community among those who identify similarly and facilitate understanding among those who identify differently.
Whether you’re within the queer community or not, we all have a sexual orientation, or “one’s natural preference in sexual partners”—including if that preference is to not have any sexual partners, as is true of many in the asexual community.
Sexual orientation is a highly individual and personal experience, and you alone have the right to define your sexual orientation in a way that makes the most sense for you. Sexual orientation is also a complex intersection made up of different forms of identity, behavior, and attraction.
Gender identity may influence your sexual orientation, but it’s important to remember that sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing. A person has a sexual orientation, and they have a gender identity, and just because you know one doesn’t mean you automatically know the other.
But in discovering your gender, you may redefine your sexual orientation in new ways. This experience can be true for transgender people, who may undergo changes in their sexual orientation after their transition—or who may change their labels, such as a woman who adjusts her label from straight to lesbian to describe her attraction to other women after transitioning.
Our identities cannot be put into one single box; all of us contain many different types of social identities that inform who we are. This is, in part, why Dr. Sari van Anders, a feminist neuroendocrinologist, proposed the Sexual Configurations Theory to define sexual identity as a configuration of such factors as: age and generation; race and ethnicity; class background and socioeconomic status; ability and access; and religion and values. Anders’s theory takes into account how our many identities factor into our sexual identity, and recognizes that our sexual identities can be fluid too.
Sexual behavior also influences how we discover and define our sexual orientation. But, who you’re currently dating or partnered with, or who you’ve had sex with before, does not dictate your sexual orientation. Nor does it fully define who you are and who you can be.
Someone may have sexual experiences with a certain gender without adopting any label for their sexuality. Someone may have had a traumatic sexual experience, such as sexual assault, with a gender that has no bearing on how they self-identify. A person may have attractions they’ve never acted on for various reasons. An asexual person may have engaged in sexual activity without experiencing sexual attraction. Sexual and asexual behavior all inform one’s sexual orientation but do not define it.
We most often think of attraction purely in sexual or physical terms, but it also includes emotional, romantic, sensual, and aesthetic attraction, among other forms. For example, a sapiosexual (based on the Latin sapiens, “wise”) is a person who finds intelligence to be a sexually attractive quality in others.
Attraction also includes the absence of attraction, such as being asexual or aromantic, describing a person who doesn’t experience romantic attraction. (The prefix a- means “without, not.”) Unlike celibacy, which is a choice to abstain from sexual activity, asexuality and aromanticism are sexual and romantic orientations, respectively.
Why is there a new language of love and attraction?
Sapiosexual and aromantic highlight ways in which people, especially LGBTQ youth, are using newer words to express the nuances of sexual and romantic attractions—and the distinctions between them. Many assume a person’s sexual orientation dictates their romantic orientation, or “one’s preference in romantic partners.” But romantic and sexual attraction are separate, and sometimes different, forms of attraction.
While many people are both sexually and romantically attracted to the same gender or genders, others may have different sexual and romantic desires. Someone who identifies, for instance, as panromantichomosexual may be sexually attracted to the same gender (homosexual), but romantically attracted to people of any (or regardless of) gender (panromantic, with pan– meaning “all.”)
Asexuality is not a monolith but a spectrum, and includes asexuality but also demisexuality (characterized by only experiencing sexual attraction after making a strong emotional connection with a specific person) and gray-asexuality (characterized by experiencing only some or occasional feelings of sexual desire). And, quoisexual refers to a person who doesn’t relate to or understand experiences or concepts of sexual attraction and orientation. Quoi (French for “what”) is based on the French expression je ne sais quoi, meaning “I don’t know (what).”
While asexual people experience little to no sexual attraction, they, of course, still have emotional needs and form relationships (which are often platonic in nature). And, as seen in a word like panromantic, the asexual community is helping to contribute a variety of terms that express different types of romantic attractions. Just like all people, an asexual person can be heteroromantic, “romantically attracted to people of the opposite sex” (hetero-, “different, other”) or homoromantic, “attracted to people of the same sex” (homo– “same”). They may also be biromantic, “romantically attracted to two or more genders.”
As more people identify as trans or nonbinary, words like androsexual (andro-, “male”) and gynesexual (gyne-, “female”) describe sexual attraction to gender expressions or anatomy, regardless of how a person identifies their gender. Someone who identifies as androsexual is attracted to masculinity or male anatomy. Someone who identifies as gynesexual is attracted to femininity or female anatomy.
Androsexual and gynesexual do not define the gender of the person being labeled the way the words lesbian (a female homosexual) or gay (a homosexual person, especially a male) do. These terms can be easier for gender-fluid people to use. Sexual orientation can be fluid, too, as describes the experience of an abrosexual person, whose sexuality could be fluid, for example, between bisexuality and homosexuality.
Certain genders and body parts may play a large role in many people’s sexual orientations, but others may be specifically attracted to people with nonbinary genders. The word skoliosexual is defined as an attraction to people who identify with a nonbinary gender. Skolio– is based on a Greek root meaning “bent” or “curved”; negative associations with these words have compelled some to use the term ceterosexual instead, with cetero– based on (et) cetera, cetera meaning “the rest.”
Defining relationship types
Some young people are beginning to clarify not just their sexual orientation, but also their preferred relationship type. For example, a person who identifies as pansexual nonamorous is sexually attracted to all genders (or regardless of) gender (pansexual) and does not seek any form of committed relationship (nonamorous).
The importance of clarifying the relationship type that you prefer can help dispel common misconceptions that the genders you are attracted to dictate the number of partners you desire, such as the myth that all bisexuals are polyamorous.
In the write-in portion of the The Trevor Project’s survey, youth used nuanced language to explain the complexity of their sexual orientations and desired relationship type, such as one youth who replied “I’m a [grayromantic] polyamoroushomosexual.” This young person identified their romantic attraction (grayromantic, or “occasionally experiencing romantic attraction”), sexual attraction (homosexual), and the number of partners they prefer (polyamorous, “involving multiple consensual romantic or sexual partners”). Grayromanticpolyamoroushomosexual paints a far more specific picture than just gay does.
One may also prefer solo sex and romance, such as those who identify as autosexual or autoromantic (auto-, “self”). A person may desire many sexual partners of any gender, but zero romantic relationships, which can be identified as non-monogamous aromantic pansexual.
You don’t have to be queer to use more specific terms to describe the number of partners you prefer or the relationship type you desire. An individual whose identity more closely conforms to current societal norms, such as a straight, cisgender, married woman, could also describe her sexuality in more specific terms, such as a monogamousheteroromanticheterosexual woman. This means she desires one partner of the opposite gender, to whom she is both sexually and romantically attracted.
Despite the proliferation of labels, there are still many who choose not to identify. Of the 52% of Generation Z that doesn’t identify as specifically straight, many eschew labels altogether.
For many whose identities are fluid, living without a label can be more liberating than adopting one. For others who are questioning or exploring their sexuality, going without a label is more comfortable than committing to one that doesn’t quite fit.
Unique labels—including the lack thereof—allow us to speak to the differences in our lived experiences. We do not all experience the world in exactly the same way, and we should feel free to describe our individuality using the words that do that best.
You are the expert of your experience, and know better than anyone else how you feel, what you value, and what you need. You deserve to use as many or as few words as you want when describing your unique understanding of your sexuality.
And it’s OK to use different labels depending on the situation, too. If a person is concerned for their safety, they may choose to disclose very little or nothing about their identity. Or, if someone is speaking to a person unfamiliar with the LGBTQ community, it may be easier for them to use labels such as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Sexual and romantic relationships are a huge part of our lives. These relationships are often the most important ones we have, building the foundations of our families and support systems. New words are an exciting way to help you discover, understand, and express your sexual orientation and attraction—and new words help give us the freedom and power to define ourselves.
In her 18 years as a sex therapist in Orange County, California, Stephanie Buehler has come to recognize a certain tense, fraught dynamic in couples when a female partner has vulvodynia. The chronic-pain condition affects female genitalia, sometimes manifesting itself in generalized pain throughout the vulva and sometimes in localized pain that can be provoked through vaginal penetration. Either way, vulvodynia can make sex extremely painful.
Often, “these couples have stopped having any kind of physical contact. Usually they’ve stopped being affectionate,” Buehler told me. Particularly in mixed-sex couples, she’s found that “sometimes it’s because the woman is afraid that if there’s any physical contact, he’s going to get aroused and she’s going to have to say, ‘I’m not interested.’ Or it’s because he doesn’t want to burden her with his needs.” Not every couple whose love life has been affected by vulvodynia fits that description, Buehler noted: “Sex is not the be-all, end-all for every couple.” But many, she’s found, are frustrated by the loss of a way to communicate their love to each other. Sometimes a partner, especially a male partner, feels rejected, believing the female partner is exaggerating the pain she feels during sex as a way to brush him off. Sometimes the female partner feels guilt or frustration because she feels she isn’t able to fulfill her role in the sexual partnership. Some couples feel mutually resentful of their partner’s apparent failure to meet or understand their needs.
For more than a century, pain during penetrative sex was murkily understood and often presumed to be a physical manifestation of women’s dislike of or anxiety toward sex. Today, as Buehler puts it, it’s less common for people to have to visit 10 different doctors to finally get a diagnosis, but it’s still likely they’d have to see three. The Mayo Clinic explicitly states that doctors still don’t know what causes the condition, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls it a “diagnosis of exclusion.”
Still, researchers and physicians have made significant strides in understanding and effectively treating what’s now recognized as a real and common physical condition. In the process, they’ve helped many couples find hope in a situation that not so long ago felt hopeless.
Vulvodynia can affect more than just a person’s sex life (using tampons, getting pelvic exams, riding bicycles, and even wearing tight-fitting pants can cause pain), and anychronic condition can take its toll on a marriage or relationship. But not many chronic-pain conditions affect relationships in quite as direct and obvious a way as vulvodynia does.
When Buehler meets one of these couples, she first works with them on integrating some forms of affection back into their lives—kissing hello and goodbye at the start and end of the workday, sitting together on the couch, holding hands as they walk to their car. She works with them on how to talk about their feelings toward sex, separating their feelings about sex from their feelings about each other, and she works with them on how to engage sexually in ways that don’t involve penetration. Buehler also puts women in touch with pelvic-floor physical therapists or physicians who can treat the parts of the vulva that experience burning or stabbing sensations through massage, biofeedback therapy, injection of Botox, or surgery. (Frequently, she said, a male partner’s suspicion that his wife or girlfriend is exaggerating her pain level dissolves once he’s observed a physical-therapy session or two.)
After physical therapy, counseling, treatment, or some combination thereof, Buehler said many of the couples she works with are able to enjoy pain-free sex; all at the very least learn new strategies for how to manage the pain and/or maintain intimacy. Many couples leave “feeling like, Wow, we got through something together, and we’ve grown closer because of it,” Buehler said.
Female pain during sex has a long history of being misclassified, misunderstood, and blamed on the women themselves. As Maya Dusenbery writes in Doing Harm, a book about sexism in medicine, vulvar pain was first described in medical texts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a sort of recurring but mysterious phenomenon, a pain with no known cause.
Throughout much of the 20th century, however, the burning or stabbing sensation many women reported was considered “more of a marital problem than a medical one,” as Dusenbery puts it. Vulvar pain, which often shows up in tandem with vaginismus (a condition involving spasms of the pelvic-floor muscles that can make it painful or impossible to have intercourse), was frequently believed to be a physical manifestation of unhappiness in a relationship, and thus methods for treatment included things like hypnosis, couples therapy, and numbing ointments—the last of which often made sex possible, though not necessarily enjoyable.
But even in the 1970s and 1980s, after feminist activism had more firmly embedded female sexual pleasure into the conversation about sexual health, vulvar pain—now beginning to be called vulvodynia—was still widely considered to be linked to psychiatric or psychological problems. “Inexplicable pain in a woman’s genital area that often interfered with sex? The symbolism proved too tempting to resist, and pseudo-Freudian theories ran rampant,” Dusenbery writes. As a result, many women who suffered from pain provoked by sex and other genital touching were told that they were simply frigid or uptight, or that they just needed to relax.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that researchers came to recognize vulvodynia as a chronic-pain condition rather than a sexual dysfunction—and that was largely thanks to the efforts of a group of women living with vulvodynia who lobbied for more research funding. Phyllis Mate co-founded the National Vulvodynia Association in 1994, and today she serves as the president of its board. Within a few years of the NVA’s founding, she told me, the organization had successfully lobbied the National Institutes of Health to hold a conference on vulvodynia. “That did a lot to legitimize the disorder,” she said. “If you were a doctor, it was like, If the NIH is interested in it, it must be real.” In the years since, and especially in the 2010s, she added, public awareness and medical understanding of vulvodynia have improved significantly.
The new attention to vulvodynia also revealed just how common the condition is. Research conducted in the mid-2010s suggested that some 8 percentof women were currently experiencing vulvodynia symptoms; a 2012 study found that an additional 17 percent of women reported having symptoms in the past. One 2007 study found that a quarter of women with chronic vulvar pain reported an “adverse effect on their lifestyle,” while 45 percent reported adverse effects on their sex lives.
Of course, heightened awareness doesn’t mean universal awareness. A 2014 study found that more than half of women who reported experiencing chronic vulvodynia symptoms had sought care, but received no diagnosis. As Dusenbery points out in Doing Harm, research conducted in the mid-2000s found that one-third of women with vulvodynia considered the most unhelpful care they had received to be from doctors who had explained that their physical pain was “psychological” or “all in their head.”
When Haylie Swenson, a 33-year-old writer and educator who wrote earlier this year for the blog Cup of Jo about her experience with vulvodynia, got married 10 years ago, she had never had penetrative intercourse, but because she’d experienced vulvar pain in other situations, she worried she’d never be able to have sex without pain. Swenson’s fears were confirmed on her honeymoon in Paris, and upon returning home, she started calling doctors.
The first, she recalled, told her to “use lube, make sure you’re warmed up, and have a glass of wine.” Which was terrible advice, Swenson added, and not just because Swenson was a Mormon at the time and didn’t drink. The problem wasn’t the amount of lube or foreplay, she insisted; the doctor wasn’t listening. “I felt gaslit,” she told me.
Eventually, Swenson managed to get a diagnosis, but the next two years—the first two years of her marriage—were punctuated by doctors offering new treatments and those treatments failing to solve the problem, and by Swenson’s hopes rising and crashing accordingly.
In July 2018, Allison Behringer told the story of her own experience with vulvodynia on the first episode of Bodies, the documentary podcast on medical mysteries that she hosts. In the episode, titled “Sex Hurts,” Behringer tells a story that begins when she was 24: She met a man, fell in love, and enjoyed a loving, rewarding sex life with him until one day, on vacation (also in Paris), she experienced a mysterious sharp pain during sex. The relationship intensified, but so did the pain, and as Behringer searched for a remedy, her partner became more and more frustrated by her inability to have penetrative sex with him.
In the end, with treatment and physical therapy, Behringer’s pain subsided. But soon afterward, the relationship dissolved. Behringer and her ex had started to fight about a lot of things, even after the sex got better. But “in the inevitable post-relationship ‘what went wrong’ analysis that we all torture ourselves with,” she said in the episode, “I’ve wondered so many times how things would have turned out if it weren’t for the pain.”
In the year and a half since “Sex Hurts” was released, Behringer said she has been contacted by “somewhere between 50 and 100” women—via email, Facebook message, and LinkedIn—who got in touch to tell her their own strikingly similar stories. Not only do their long, discouraging searches for care sound a lot like Behringer’s, but so do their stories of relationships that suffered or crumbled entirely as a result. “A lot of people are like, ‘My partner was really unsupportive. My partner sounds like he was just like your partner,’” she told me in an interview.
Despite the strides researchers have made in recent years toward understanding vulvodynia, living with it can still be a profoundly isolating experience. It can be like having all the frustrating everyday complications of any other chronic condition plus the added hardship of being shut off from one important and primal way to feel close to a partner. (Of course, other kinds of sexual expression are in many cases still possible, but penetration is often considered an important or primary objective of heterosexual sex.)
Recent research has found, however, that how partners respond can greatly affect the relationship quality of couples affected by vulvodynia. For instance, researchers have found that “facilitative” behaviors from male partners (things like showing affection and encouraging other kinds of sexual behaviors) lead to better sexual and relationship satisfaction than “solicitous” behaviors (like suggesting a halt to all sexual activity) or angry behaviors. Many studies have linked localized (or “provoked”)vulvodynia to decreased sexual satisfaction, but not necessarily to decreased relationship quality, and other research has suggested that even the intensity of the pain women report can be affected by partner responses.
Swenson, who describes herself in her blog post as “the higher-desire spouse” in her marriage, said she and her husband found other ways to enjoy sexual pleasure that didn’t involve penetration. “I think it’s sort of damaging, the way that people hold up penile intercourse as, like, the be-all, end-all,” she told me. Still, the limitation of their sex life, she said—the knowledge that “we didn’t have this one thing”—was frustrating. “It made me feel sad,” she said, “and it sucks when sex makes you sad.”
While Swenson’s husband shared her sadness and frustration, she remembers feeling alone in her search for a remedy: “It was my body, my vagina, that I had to take to all these strangers,” she said. “It was my story that I had to tell over and over. It was my struggle to be believed and be taken seriously.”
Swenson eventually underwent surgery for her vulvodynia. (In cases like Swenson’s, where other treatments have failed, doctors often recommend removing the painful tissue.) After a two-month recovery and an all-clear from her doctor, she and her husband had penetrative sex for the first time. It didn’t hurt, Swenson told me, and afterward, she cried.
“When intercourse got easier, everything got a little easier,” she said. Still, “it took a long time to untangle those knots,” she added. “It was just this fraught, tangled thing, representing so many emotions. Anger, and regret, and this sort of feminist rage I had toward the medical-industrial complex that didn’t care—all of that got tangled up in my sex life.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of vulvodynia that the flurry of recent research has revealed is its prevalence: It’s newly apparent that thousands of women, along with their partners, have quietly faced agonizing challenges like Swenson’s and Behringer’s. But while the outlook for these couples a generation ago would likely have been bleak, today help, and hope, are possible.
There’s no denying that our interest in slow sex, or mindful sex, is on the rise. From sexy audio stories to carefully curated ‘pleasure packages’, there’s a whole new world of thoughtful, creative approaches to sex out there – and for many brands, female pleasure is finally being made the focus.
Slow sex. What do the words mean to you? If it’s dimming the lights, blasting Marvin Gaye and taking the pace of your bedroom activities down a notch, then in this case, you haven’t quite hit the spot.
That’s because, while all of those things could well feature in a session of slower sex, in this instance ‘slow’ refers to mindfulness, not speed.
In the last two decades, our mile-a-minute, tech-driven lives have sent us in search of ‘slow food’ (lovingly prepared seasonal ingredients), ‘slow travel’ (offbeat, eco-friendly journeys) and ‘slow journalism’ (deep-dive features that go beyond the breaking news cycle).
How does mindfulness translate to our sex lives, though? Slow sex sounds a bit, well, dull. How do we define the vastness of sex – swift and unhurried, wild and comforting, awkward and joyous – in a ‘slow’ or ‘mindful’ context?
Writer, sex educator and ambassador for sexual wellbeing brand Tenga, Alix Fox, describes mindful sex as follows: “Mindful sex is about being truly in the moment during an erotic experience. It involves being utterly present and focused, and paying attention to all the sensations and emotions flowing through you, without judging yourself for whatever you happen to feel.”
In a world where we devote more time to our screens than our sex lives, mindful sex may seem laughably impractical, but Fox explains that there are multiple benefits.
“Having mindful sex – indeed, practicing mindfulness full stop – can be challenging if you’ve got a lot on your plate, or you’re knackered or anxious. Yet mindful sexual sessions can help us to feel more rested, relaxed, calm and contented. It may sound hippy dippy, but mindful sex is certainly worth putting your mind to.”
“It’s hard, especially for women, to really know what we want from sex. To separate what we want to do, from what is expected of us”
While mindful sex is moving into becoming a trend in 2019, it certainly isn’t a new thing. Tantric sex, or tantra, which centres on heightening the senses through mindfulness and connection, is an ancient practice that appears in Hinduism and Buddhism. Fast forward to the 00s and a string of books on tantric or slow sex appeared, published by the likes of couples therapist Diana Richardson, whose 2018 TED Talk on mindful sex has so far racked up almost half a million views.
We’re not only talking about the sensations of the act itself, though. Mindful sex encompasses anything that enhances our sex lives – from apps and websites to books – and that’s where a new wave of brands comes in.
United by a thoughtful and creative approach to sex, their focus is on female pleasure. Perry’s guide to bringing feminism into the bedroom is a great instructional tool for women who want to make more mindful choices about sex. Reliably smart, frank and relatable, it covers everything from masturbation to monogamy, pubes to sending nudes, and is crammed with her playful illustrations.
“I like the idea of more conscious sex,” says Perry. “I think it’s hard, especially for women, to really know what we want from sex. To separate what we want to do, from what is expected of us during sex.”
On the rise of ‘slow sex’, she says: “Not everyone wants to have romantic fireside tantric encounters, some people want to be fingered hard and fast on the back of a bus, and both of those fantasies can be done equally consciously, and full of feminism.”
The rise of audio porn or audio erotica, too, reveals a growing interest in slower, more immersive forms of stimulation. Gina Gutierrez, co-founder of Dipsea, the sexy short story app for women, sees a connection between the numbers of women working in sextech and the slow sex movement.
“While we don’t necessarily think about it as ‘slow sex’, we’re proud to be part of a movement that’s re-imagining sex as mind-first vs. body-first,” she says, adding that the wider societal change is likely down to, “a growing curiosity around, and interest in, serving women in all the ways they uniquely experience sexuality.”
Crafting fantasies through scene-setting and tension-building, Dipsea’s stories can be adjusted according to sexual orientation and explicitness, and listened to solo or with a partner. Based on research that, especially for women, tapping into sexual feelings has a lot to do with mood and context, Dipsea creates scenarios that listeners can envision as they like. As one subscriber puts it, “It leaves room for my own imagination to fill in the blanks”.
Gen de Rohan Willner and Sinead O’Hare, co-founders of The Sway – a subscription service that sends bi-monthly ‘pleasure packages’ full of thoughtful prompts and products discreetly to your door – believe “we are seeing a huge shift in sexual wellbeing as a whole being valued alongside physical health and mental wellbeing, which is fantastic.”
“Women are being more vocal than ever, demanding equality in all aspects of their lives””
The Sway was born out of that very change in perception. “Sex often took the backseat in our busy lives,” says de Rohan Willner. “Between the yoga, facials and green juices we were purchasing to ‘look after ourselves’, neither of us were lifting a finger to keep our sex lives alive and kicking. That little shift in our minds that sex is also something that needs ‘looking after’ is where The Sway started.”
Education and curation are important to the brand. Unlike other subscription services, each box is themed around a new ‘area’ of pleasure. This promotes exploration and communication while introducing subscribers to new products they may not have otherwise discovered.
Like Gutierrez, de Rohan Willner believes mindful sex is part of a wider zeitgeist in which “women are being more vocal than ever, demanding equality in all aspects of their lives”.
Interestingly, The Sway’s most popular products don’t involve vibration. Instead, orgasm enhancer balms and good old-fashioned lube are forever popular. The founders note that there’s also “a rising interest in massage products – the perfect example of a product that helps spice things up while slowing things down”.
The lack of ‘buzz’ may tie into what Alix Fox coins ‘The NoZap Movement’, referring to women who periodically give up vibrating sex toys, feeling they have become over-reliant on intense stimulation, which can make it harder to appreciate the comparatively delicate sensations of human touch. Similarly, some men may “give up porn and masturbation for a set period of time in an effort to ‘reset’ their mental outlook and physical sensitivity”.
The Self Pleasure Report, produced in May this year, revealed that 64% of Brits used masturbation as a form of self-care, with 52% saying it improved their wellbeing. British respondents ranked masturbation as more pleasurable and more stress-relieving than wellness activities like taking a bath or listening to music.
What does all this mean? Cheeringly, we’re thinking and talking about sex in broader, more explorative and progressive ways. Female entrepreneurs aren’t waiting for sextech to catch up to their needs. Ancient taboos about masturbation are beginning to be dismantled. We’re being kinder to our bodies.
Once we forget the idea of mindful sex as a specific kind of candlelit tantric experience, and instead see it as a much-needed shot of thought and imagination for our sex lives, it becomes a whole lot more accessible and, well, sexy.
Could we see people giving up sex toys altogether in favour of mindful sex and tantric practices? As with anything, it’s all about balance. We wouldn’t live on ‘slow food’ alone – sometimes we want a sugary snack – and our sexual appetites are just as diverse. You might want to dip into audio porn one day, and be gratified in an entirely different way the next.
So, while slow sex is on the rise, it remains part of a vast and colourful array of sexual pleasures – and that’s altogether more stimulating.
Having great sex is not a privilege for the few. Everyone should feel able to have pleasurable and intimate sex in the way they want – whether that’s with someone you are in a long-term relationship with, or if it’s with someone you’ve just met or hooked up with.
But let’s be honest, talking about your sexual desires may feel like something that’s hard to do. For many gay men who’ve lived alongside the HIV epidemic for decades, the double challenge of negotiating safety and pleasure has left us feeling like we need to choose one or the other.
We want to tell you that this shouldn’t be the case. New ways to feel empowered about your health (HIV testing, being ‘undetectable’, PrEP) have radically altered relationships and the sexual dynamics between men. But even with these new strategies it can still be hard to prioritise sexual desires and ask for what you want in bed.
In our new video, we give you some practical tips on how to ask for what you want in bed. You can also listen to Alex Garner, Senior Health Innovation Strategist at Hornet, and Alex Liu filmmaker, writer and sex expert of @Asexplanation, chat about all thing sex, shame and communicating everything you want to do in bed, in our new video for Talking HIV