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What a leather convention can teach everyone about sex and consent

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I don’t think I’d ever realized just how “vanilla” I was, and how little I understood about all of the ways you can engage in fun, healthy, consensual, adventurous sex.

“Hotel is closed for private event” read the signs affixed to the front of the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill last weekend. A steady stream of people, mostly men, many in leather harnesses, some in collars and on leashes, and some simply in jeans and sweaters, walked in and out in an almost continuous stream.

Mid-Atlantic Leather (MAL), now in its 48th year, is a three-day long celebration of the leather community, a subculture that celebrates various sexual kinks, many centered around leather and toys. Bears, daddies, pups and others identifying with various subsets roam the Hyatt Regency, participating in conference-like demonstrations about suspension (BDSM where you’re bound and hung) and electro (BDSM involving electric shocks), buying handcrafted leather goods and sex toys, and, of course, partying. (Actual sex was not part of the convention but no doubt took place in private.) It’s a predominantly LGBTQ centric space, although look closely enough and you’re sure to find people on every part of the gender and sexuality spectrum.

My first MAL was in the winter of 2016. I’d just gone through a breakup and my friend had suggested that perhaps it would be good for me to explore life beyond my comfort zone. “Just get ready,” he’d said, “it may be more than your little vanilla heart can handle.” And he wasn’t entirely wrong. It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle it, but I don’t think I’d ever realized just how “vanilla” I was, and how little I understood about all of the ways you can engage in fun, healthy, consensual, adventurous sex.

That first year I met Adam, a dentist in town from Texas just for MAL. “You look like you could use a drink,” he said back in a hotel room he was sharing with a friend of mine.

“Do I look that out of place?” I asked. I’d put on a leather jacket to try to blend in.

“Not out of place,” he said, “just kind of shocked.”

And shocked I was. Not necessarily at anything that was going on at the hotel that night, but more so at the fact that for the better part of my life I’d allowed myself to believe that this kind of sexual openness was only available to a certain kind of person.

“Where I grew up, there wasn’t really anything like this,” said Anthony, a 30-year-old living in Arlington, Va., who grew up in Portsmouth. (The sources for this story preferred that only first names be used, for privacy reasons). “There was no kink culture, and I really wanted to explore it. Everyone here was super welcoming, and that’s why I keep coming back.”

This was a common sentiment. “It’s a different part of the gay family,” said Garret, 28, who lives in Washington. “We all have different interests … and if nobody else respects that, come to MAL because they do here.”

Respect, as it turns out, is a dominating theme throughout the course of the weekend. You might expect that when many attendees are walking around in only a jockstrap and a harness, but it is pleasantly surprising to see how strictly they adhere to that principle. In the era of #MeToo, when more and more queer folks are being vocal about the role consent plays in queer spaces, perhaps the leather and kink communities have something to teach the general public about active and enthusiastic consent.

Ask for permission before petting. Hold out your hand and let the pup come to you first. If the pup doesn’t, or turns or growls, let them be as they may not want to or have permission. This is rule No. 5 as listed on the board outside the 10th anniversary mosh at the MAL Puppy Park, a yearly tradition in which individuals who participate in pup play — a BDSM role-play wherein one participant acts as the “pup” and one as the handler — have an opportunity to interact with other pups. Other rules include: Nudity is not permitted in public spaces, genitals cannot be exposed and DO NOT pull on a pup’s tail or collar. It can cause injury and is disrespectful. Change some of the verbiage and perhaps these would be appropriate guidelines to post at the Academy Awards.

“It’s where I met my current roommate,” said Allyn, a 31-year-old originally from Wisconsin who now lives in Washington, of his first MAL experience. “It was exhilarating. I’d never seen anything like it. It make me feel brave and nervous at the same time.” He didn’t speak to his would-be roommate the first night they met, however. “I mean, I had a ball gag in at the time,” he recounted.

Zack, 23, from Baltimore, also used the world “exhilarating” when describing his first MAL experience. “I got chills coming down the escalator into the lobby of the hotel,” he said. “It’s the closest thing to Folsom I’ve ever been too,” a reference to the San Francisco street fair that’s the world’s largest leather celebration.

Everyone I spoke to talked about descending that escalator on the evening of the opening party. It is truly a complete sensory experience. The sight, sound and smell of wall-to-wall leather and latex on every kind of body, not just seen but celebrated and appreciated.

While I was talking to Garret about the weekend, someone he appeared to know approached him, whispered something in his ear and, after he nodded yes, lifted Garret’s arm and began to sniff his armpit. Garret continued to answer my questions without pause. “There may be something over here that’s not your thing, but then you’ll look over there and see something going on that you’re totally into,” he explained “Don’t be shy, don’t judge other people for something you don’t understand. And above all, come and have a good time. No one is here to be spectacled. It can be a learning and cultural experience.” The sniffer had moved on to his other armpit by the time he finished talking.

Although I have yet to be brave enough to buy and wear a harness to MAL myself, each year I attend I move closer toward that goal. At the very least, the event has highlighted for me the fact that there is an exciting world beyond the “vanilla” one I’d relegated myself to — and has given me a better understanding of the queer community as a whole. At one point, in the leather market, a man who had recently undergone top surgery was trying on a new harness next to a group of folks signing to one another, while feet away a $1,400 bejeweled pup hood was on sale. Only at MAL.

Complete Article HERE!

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A history of sexual depictions in art

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‘Sex has been evoked in ways that simultaneously challenge, repress and embrace its notions’

Even though the existence of humankind is dependent on sex, it has always been a taboo topic of discussion.

The entire history of art, from ancient to contemporary, has portrayed sex in very overt ways, bringing the subject of sex into the institution of art museums. Because of the lack of recorded history about sex, these frank depictions of sexuality in art visually uncover the way sexuality was viewed over time. These works of art can help us understand attitudes towards sex as they were transformed and shifted geographically through time.

Studying erotic art exposes the open attitude ancient Romans had towards sex. Statues, frescoes and household decorative items from ancient Rome prove that sex was an integral part of their everyday lives and that they were not afraid to show it.

The Secret Museum in Naples exhibits ancient Roman works of people having sex, phallic statues and beastiality, which is sexual relations between a human and an animal. Although the ancient Romans were seemingly comfortable with sex, the museum is called The Secret Museum because King Naples I of Naples deemed the works inappropriate and demanded they be locked away. Art’s attempts to comfortably illustrate sex have been historically shunned and disapproved because it is considered taboo.

Mesopotamian art (c. 4500-539 BCE), like ancient Roman art, portrayed sex openly. Observing these works reveals the sex customs in the culture as well. For example, it was a custom for every woman to perform a specific type of prostitution at least once in their life. This ritual was for women to sit outside the Temple of Ishtar and have sex with a man who chooses them. Mesopotamian plaques frankly evoke people having sex as well as this ritual of prostitution.

Western culture is particularly known to disapprove of open sexuality. But, Western artists rebelled against this notion, especially with the introduction of Modernism. Prior to what we call Modern art (1860s-1970s), was the Renaissance in Europe. Renaissance art is typically more discrete with depictions of sex and sexuality. Because it is inspired by classical antiquity, nudity is common among the works. This portrayal of nudity is not shunned because it depicts religious figures and figures of the past.

As a response to urbanization and industrialization, Modern art took a major turn from classical antiquity, which created a shift in subject matter. This introduced illustrations of what were contemporary figures rather than ancient ones. Suddenly, sex and nudity were deemed inappropriate and tasteless. Modern artists have intentions of being radical, disregarding this response to their work.

Modern artists in Europe explored how the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the time period commodified sex and alienated figures of the modern. Egon Schiele frankly depicts sex to address this condition of modernism in his work “Two Women Embracing” (1915). The drawing portrays two women being sexually intimate in front of a blank background.

Although the figures are embracing, the perspective and the background make them appear as if they are floating in a space of loneliness and alienation. This melancholy feeling of isolation that stems from modernization is a condition that Modern artists repeatedly evoked. Schiele expresses this feeling through a depiction of sex to elicit that even in the highest forms of intimacy, feelings of loneliness exist.

“Two Women Embracing” and the rest of Schiele’s works were extremely radical for the time. In fact, Schiele was forced to spend time in jail as a pornographer. His frank representations of sexuality were so incredibly radical because of his depictions of modern subjects and lesbianism. Schiele revolutionarily instigated a discussion about sex and sexuality in the Western world where it had been neglected and shunned.

Following Modern art is what we call Contemporary art, which was produced from the late 20th century to the 21st century today. Performance art was a medium introduced with Contemporary art. The medium aimed to create a bodily encounter between the artist and the viewer. Many performance artists took advantage of the live relationship between artist and viewer to bring sex into their workplace.

A lot of performance art would be considered abject art — art that works to introduce the bodily functions that are silenced and taboo into the museum. When a viewer encounters an abject work of art, they are forced to think about their own body and what they repress everyday. Abject artists oftentimes work with the concept of sex in an attempt to dismantle its history as something forbidden and address issues about sex and sexuality.

Vito Acconci’s abject work titled “Seedbed” (1972) encounters the viewer in a shocking and vulnerable way. It was a performance piece in which Acconci said sexual comments to the audience members walking past a little wooden square in the corner of a museum. During the performance, he hid under a ramp so the viewers could hear his vulgar comments out of a speaker yet they could not see him. Under the ramp, Acconci was masturbating to those who encountered the wooden square. By making the repressed sexual act of masturbation a public performance, Acconci attempted to break stigmas about sex while simultaneously addressing issues of sexual objectification.

The Contemporary artist Carolee Schneemann evoked sex through performance art as well. In her 1964 performance “Meat Joy,” men and women wrestled sexually with meat in an orgy encounter. She provoked the viewer to look at sex in a profoundly unusual way. Through this seemingly odd performance, Schneemann confronted the audience with this overt sexuality in an attempt to reject the notion that sex should be repressed.

Throughout the history of art, sex has been evoked in ways that simultaneously challenge, repress and embrace its notions. From ancient art to contemporary, artists have continuously worked to make sex a comfortable topic that should be embraced and addressed openly.

Complete Article HERE!

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A new prescription for tackling sexual violence

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How some advocates are looking to dismantle rape culture using public health strategies.

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When Tahir Duckett talks about consent with elementary and middle school boys, he often talks about video games first.

“If I just hop on your Xbox without your consent, what’s your response?” Duckett says he asks the boys. Almost always, the young boys he’s talking to say they’d fight him.

“They recognize something about their consent has been violated,” he says, speaking with ThinkProgress. “We ask them to interrogate how it feels to have your consent violated. Is that anger? Are you hurt? Are you betrayed?”

And usually, that’s exactly how the boys say they feel. The question, then, is why those answers often change when Duckett presents a romantic or sexual situation where someone doesn’t consent.

“A lot of times we’ll talk about it in those types of concepts, and then we’ll shift to maybe saying, ‘OK, you’re going out with someone, your partner for two months, and [they invite] you over to their house, right? And their parents are out of town, have they consented to anything?’” Duckett says. “That’s where you’ll start to get more pushback.”

When presented with this situation, Duckett says the boys sometimes start to say things like, “Well, she knows what she’s doing by going over to his house while his parents are out of town.”

“And then you can dig in, and…talk about what we were just talking about,” Duckett says. “What’s the assumption, can [you] still say no?”

Duckett is the founder and director of ReThink, a group that works with adolescent boys (and, in some cases, older men) to help them rethink cultural norms about toxic masculinity and rape culture. The group has been working in schools in the Washington, D.C. area, holding sessions in which the ReThink team spends several days with adolescent boys talking about rape myths, consent, and toxic masculinity.

In recent weeks, their work has begun to feel prophetic.

Last month, a wave of allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein opened the door for a subsequent avalanche of accusations against other powerful men, including James Toback, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), just to name a few. While a few have been punished or reprimanded, the majority have been able to escape any major consequences.

Additionally, a recent study done by researchers at Columbia University makes clear that the issue isn’t confined to rich and powerful titans of industry. The study found that 22 percent of students surveyed had experienced sexual assault since starting college, with particularly high rates for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, as well as for gender-nonconforming students and those who had difficulties paying for basic necessities.

In other words, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, backtracking after defending Conyers on Meet the Press Sunday, we’ve reached “a watershed moment on this issue.” It’s also prompting questions about what comes next, what avenues are available for justice, and how to cut rape culture’s long, toxic tentacles — which is exactly what ReThink is trying to do, starting at adolescence.

A public health approach

ReThink uses traditional public health strategies — data collection, treating high-risk individuals, changing behavioral norms — to address sexual violence with young boys, working to control the “disease” and change behaviors and beliefs of those who might catch it.

It’s a strategy that the authors of the Columbia study recommend, based on their findings.

“Our findings argue for the potential of a systems-based public health approach — one that recognizes the multiple interrelated factors that produce adverse outcomes, and perhaps particularly emphasizes gender and economic disparities and resulting power dynamics, widespread use of alcohol, attitudes about sexuality, and conversations about sex — to make inroads on an issue that stubbornly persists,” the authors write.

When ReThink visits schools, one public health-style tool they use is the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (IRMA). IRMA presents different situations and myths to students, such as, “If girl is raped while she is drunk, she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of hand”, or “A lot of times, girls who say they were raped agreed to have sex and then regret it.” Students are asked to rate the rape myths from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

“If you accept all these rape myths you’re more likely to commit an act of sexual violence,” Duckett says. “When we work with boys, after we do these exercises…[and] consent education, breaking down stereotypes, working on a wide range of healthy masculinity ideas…they reject these rape myths at much higher rates.”

This finding, Duckett says, is both discouraging and encouraging.

“We do pretests and posttests, and the pretests show the extent of the problem,” he says. “This is the kind of stuff that our culture has taught them… It’s everywhere, it’s in the TV that we watch, it’s in the music that we listen to.”

“To be completely honest we’ve failed a lot of these boys,” Duckett adds. “Very few even comprehensive sex ed programs have serious conversations about consent, what consent looks like and doesn’t look like, how to ask for it, how to listen for it, [and] how to look for it.”

ReThink’s mission, in public health terms, is primary prevention: trying to stop sexual violence. But, Duckett says, there’s still much more that needs to be done.

“I’ll tell you what,” he says, “I believe strongly, if we invested in sexual violence prevention as a public health issue — like we did with drunk driving campaigns, anti-smoking campaigns, teen pregnancy campaigns — if we put that type of money and emphasis into sexual violence prevention work, I strongly believe that we could cut our rates in half in a generation.”

The good news is that Duckett and ReThink aren’t alone in their efforts. Jessica Raven, the executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), is working to address sexual violence as a public health issue as well.

CASS has a partnership with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to run awareness campaigns about harassment and assault on public transit; it’s also working on the Safe Bar Collective, which is a program that trains bar staff to recognize sexual harassment and stop it before it turns into assault.

Raven tells ThinkProgress that it’s not enough to call out and take down powerful men in Hollywood. “We have all had these experiences where we witness incidents of harassment,” she says in an interview. “It’s our responsibility to call that out in our friend groups, in our families, in our neighbors.”

Raven says it’s crucial to implement more programs like CASS and ReThink, which work with men to unpack preconceived notions of rape culture and masculinity, as well as safe rehabilitative spaces for aggressors.

“There are really no services for these men to heal,” she says, explaining that it’s vital to “create an environment where they’re able to be open about the changes they’re going to make.”

It’s important to treat the problem like any other disease, Raven adds. “How are we going to address alcoholism without providing rehabilitative services to alcoholics?” she says.

The problem with prisons

While Raven believes in providing more rehabilitative spaces, those spaces shouldn’t be inside prison walls, she says.

Both Duckett and Raven have chosen to focus on public health strategies to address the epidemic of sexual violence rather than the criminal justice system for several important reasons.

“I think we have to be really, really, really careful about our kind of knee-jerk [conclusions]…when it comes to some of these particularly tertiary sort of prevention questions, like increased incarceration, tougher sentencing,” Duckett — a lawyer himself — explains. “There’s not much about our incarceration system that is feminist.”

Prisons, Duckett notes, are one of the major centers of sexual violence in the United States. According to the Bureau of Justice, about 80,000 people are sexually abused in correctional facilities in the United States every year.

The actual number is almost certainly higher than official tallies. Just as a significant majority of rapes and sexual assaults in the United States go unreported, it’s highly likely that the same is true in the prison system. Statistics do suggest that rates of rape and sexual assault are higher among male inmates than female inmates; the same is likely true among African American inmates, who statistically experience higher rates of sexual assault than Caucasian inmates.

“The prison system is and will forever be biased against black bodies and to the extent that we create tougher sentencing laws,” Duckett says, adding that people of color will ultimately be punished much more harshly than their white counterparts.

“Sending someone to prison as we understand it right now, I have a hard time thinking of that as an objectively feminist act,” Duckett argues. “It’s not to say that someone who causes trauma and pain shouldn’t face consequences, but just from a prevention standpoint, I don’t think that prison is the answer there.”

Raven is of the same mindset. “CASS has always had an anti-criminalization position. We don’t see the criminal legal system as a strategy,” she says.

“For starters, we recognize that the communities most affected by gendered and sexual violence are the communities most affected by police violence,” she continues, specifically mentioning women, people of color, gender minorities, and LGBTQ people among those communities. “Prison is punishment, but it’s not accountability, [and] there are no studies that show that prison is increasing safety. The public health approach actually tackles the problems at the root.”

Expanding legal avenues

As ReThink and CASS work toward furthering progress on a public health front, other advocates are looking to expand legal avenues for victims, including abolishing statutes of limitations and expanding affirmative consent laws.

“The abolition of the statute of limitations is a tool,” Jill Stanley, a former prosecutor and district attorney who now focuses on celebrities and the legal system, tells ThinkProgress.

As Stanley explains, “We understand that there are times you can’t recall [an incident]. When you are strong enough or when you have a clear picture of who your assaulter is, we can have evidence.” At that point, Stanley says, no matter how long it’s been since an assault took place, the victim should be able to go to law enforcement.

Stanley also points to the expansion of affirmative consent standards as a possible way of strengthening legal avenues for victims. At present, affirmative consent — a “yes means yes” standard rather than “no means no” standard — applies only to certain colleges and universities.

“[Affirmative consent standards] are very narrow,” Stanley says. “It only applies to state-funded colleges in New York and California.”

Some private universities — including each of the Ivy League schools other than Harvard — have adopted the standard, but so far, New York and California are the only states to have enacted laws mandating all state funded universities use the affirmative consent standard.

Stanley notes that the expansion of affirmative consent laws could be especially valuable because victims often don’t have the capacity to consent.

“The bigger issue in all of these laws is that we need capacity to say no,” she says.

While she believes such a standard could be helpful, Stanley doubts changes will come on a national legislative level. “The country is very slow,” she says.

One way she believes affirmative consent could become the standard? By putting it in employment contracts.

Here, California State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D), who co-authored California’s affirmative consent law, agrees.

“That might be a great thing,” Jackson tells ThinkProgress. Like Stanley, she has her doubts, but remains optimistic. “Could we get that passed? We could try!” she says.

Jackson also believes it could be beneficial to pass laws aimed at making educational initiatives — similar to ReThink’s curriculum — the standard for children, starting from a young age.

“What we really need is…education, whether it’s in the workplace or with our youngest children,” Jackson says. “Our culture has frequently rewarded men behaving badly…. We have to change it.”

Complete Article HERE!

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What it’s like to be a male sexual surrogate

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The Sessions looked at the work of sexual surrogates

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For most adults, sex is an activity that can bring joy, frustration, contentment or disappointment – the full range of human responses. But for a few people, the very thought of sexual contact with another human being causes such anxiety that they can never get close to the act.

For them, psychosexual therapy is usually a good choice. And in a few cases, this can involve a particular form of therapy: use of a sexual surrogate.

Sexual surrogates are trained and professional stand-in partners for men and women who have severe problems getting to an intimate/sexual relationship. Normally, the client will be undergoing counselling with a psychosexual therapist, and then, in parallel with that, will have ‘bodywork’ sessions with a surrogate partner.

Andy, 50, is a psychosexual therapist who also worked as a surrogate for a number of years. Clients tend to be aged from their mid-thirties to around fifty and most came to him through word of mouth. “Some people have never experienced sexual intimacy,” he explains. “I had one client who had never gone beyond kissing.” Others have experienced abuse and have negative connotations around sex or have physiological problems.

“I would usually do between six and ten monthly sessions of three hours each. The first sessions would be about getting comfortable being in a room with a man. So I will say, ‘So you’re in a room with a man, how does that feel for you?’ And perhaps it reminds them of being a teenager so we’ll talk about what that teenage part of them needs – to be more confident, say.”

Although the sessions would build towards penetrative sex, it would be a long way down the line. But some clients want to take things too quickly, he says. “If they want to rush into sexual intimacy or penetration then I’ll slow them down and ask them where that comes from. Most of them do need to slow down because they’re rushing into what they think is the goal of sex.”

After a few sessions, Andy would bring touch into the sessions. “I would ask them what sort of touch they would want to receive. And they might like to receive some sort of massage, fully clothed or partly unclothed. Sometimes we would sit opposite each other on the sofa and find out what happens in her system if one of us leans closer. Does she get excited? Does she want to run away? Does she want to reach out and have more contact?”

Once the client was comfortable with touching, nudity would be introduced. “I might do an undressing process where I would invite them to take off one piece of clothing and each time to name a limiting belief that stops them really enjoying and celebrating their body and allowing pleasure in it. ‘One thing that stops me is my belief that I’m unattractive and my bum’s too big.’ They would take off that piece of clothing and that belief. Then I would offer feedback about what I see, so, ‘Your breasts feel very sensual and feminine to me’.”

Sexual surrogacy has been operating in Britain for a few decades, introduced from America, where it was also the subject of the Oscar-nominated film The Sessions, based on the true story of partially paralysed polio survivor Mark O’Brien and Cheryl Cohen-Greene, the surrogate he worked with to overcome his problems.

While most surrogates are female working with male clients, there are a handful of male surrogates in Britain who work with female clients. Male surrogates tend to be mid-thirties and older.

For many men, being hired to act as an intimate partner for a woman they barely know would be a strange situation. So how did Andy feel during these sessions? “Sometimes it was quite challenging, sometimes engaging, sometimes arousing,” he recalls. “And client reactions were very varied too. Some would feel ashamed, sometimes emotional or physical discomfort. Or they would feel excitement and confidence. It was moment to moment – it’s like how you feel in a relationship, you feel many things.

“It’s an interesting line to walk. There are many clients that I have worked with who I really liked and I enjoyed the work with them both sexually and emotionally but I’m also aware that I’m not there to be in a relationship with them.”

He is glad he did the job but it did cause him difficulties, not least in relationships with his own partners, whom he always made aware of his work. “I supported many women through a very challenging and sometimes life-changing process,” he says. “But I found that ultimately it took too great a toll – energetically, physically and emotionally. I was putting myself in situations of intimacy with a client that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. And I found that draining. I would sometimes ask, ‘Why did I do that to myself?'”

Overall he believes they key to sexual surrogacy involves being realistic about what will come of it.

“I think surrogacy is to be entered into with as much self-awareness as the client can muster,” he says. “While it can point them in the right direction, it’s not the answer. Ultimately, they have to find confidence within themselves. It can be a step on that journey.”

Complete Article HERE!

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Why more and more women are identifying as bisexual

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By Megan Todd

This is the pro-LGBT rights image that saw an Italian woman suspended from Facebook after the social media site claimed it violated rules on 'nudity and pornography'

This is the pro-LGBT rights image that saw an Italian woman suspended from Facebook after the social media site claimed it violated rules on ‘nudity and pornography’

The Office of National Statistics has released its latest data on sexual identities in the UK, and some striking patterns jump out – especially when it comes to bisexuality.

The number of young people identifying as bisexual has apparently risen by 45% over the last three years. Women are more likely to identity as bisexual (0.8%) than lesbian (0.7%), whereas men are more likely to report as gay (1.6%) than bisexual (0.5%). That last finding chimes with other studies in the UK and the US – but why should this be?

Women’s sexuality has historically been policed, denied and demonised in very particular ways, and for a woman to be anything other than passively heterosexual has often been considered an outright perversion. Lesbians have historically been seen as a more dangerous breed, a direct challenge to patriarchal structures, perhaps explaining why women may be more likely to self-identify as bisexual. Some research into women’s sexuality has also suggested that women take a more fluid approach to their relationships than men.

But then there’s the more general matter of how much sexual labels still matter to people – and here, the ONS findings really start to get interesting.

Among young people aged between 16 and 24, 1.8% said they identified as bisexual – exceeding, for the first time, the 1.5% who identified as lesbian or gay. In total 3.3% of young people identified as LGB, a significantly higher proportion than the 1.7% of the general population who identified as such. (Just 0.6% of the over-65s did).

In a society that still tends to see the world in often false binaries – man/woman, gay/straight, white/black and so on – how can we explain such a difference?

A pessimistic view of why more young people are identifying as bisexual rather than as gay or lesbian might be that conservative, rigid and polarised understandings of what gender is still hold sway. This, in turn, might also have an impact on attitudes to sexuality, where an investment in a lesbian or gay identity may be more frowned upon than a bisexual one – which in many people’s minds still has a “friendly” relationship with heterosexuality.

And yet it’s clear that identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual carries less stigma for the younger age group than it does for their elders.

 

Older generations grew up in a time where any orientation besides heterosexuality was taboo, stigmatised and often criminalised. The lesbian and gay movements of the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by the US’s Civil Rights movement, were often staunchly radical; the concept of the political lesbian, for instance, was a very prominent and powerful one. At the same time, both heterosexual and lesbian and gay communities were also marked by misunderstandings and distrust of bisexuality (in a word, biphobia).

But in the UK at least, gay and lesbian identities have lost a good deal of the political charge they once carried. Once “peripheral”, these sexual categories are well on the way to being normalised and commercialised. Many in the community remember or identify with a more radical era of political lesbianism and gay activism, and many of them are dismayed that non-heterosexuals’ current political battles for equality and recognition are often focused on gaining entry to heterosexual institutions, especially marriage.

Bisexuals march at Pride in London.

Bisexuals march at Pride in London.

But that doesn’t mean people have become more rigid in the ways they think about themselves. So while many in society will be the victims of homophobic and biphobic hate crime, things have improved, at least in terms of state policies.

This, alongside the now extensive reservoir of queer thought on gender and sexual fluidity, and the increasing strength of trans movements, may explain why the younger generation are taking labels such as bisexual, lesbian and gay in greater numbers than their seniors. That celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Cara Delevigne and Anna Paquin have come out as bisexual in recent years can’t have hurt either.

Beyond labels?

The ONS survey raises empirical questions which are connected to those of identity. It specifically asked questions about sexual identity, rather than exploring the more complicated links between identity, behaviours and desires.

The category “bisexual” is also very internally diverse. Many would argue that there are many different types of bisexuality and other sexual identities which the ONS survey does not explore.

This much is made clear by the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle (NATSAL), which has taken place every ten years since 1990 and is perhaps the most detailed picture we have of what people do (or don’t do) in bed. It suggests that the number of people who report same-sex experience is much higher than the number of people who identify as gay or bisexual.

Laud Humphreys’ infamous 1970 book Tearoom Trade, a highly controversial ethnographic study of anonymous sex between men in public toilets, showed us that plenty of people who seek out and engage in same-sex sexual contact do not necessarily identify as exclusively gay or even bisexual – in fact, only a small minority of his respondents did.

However far we’ve come, there’s still a social stigma attached to being lesbian/gay/bisexual. That means the statistics we have will be an underestimate, and future surveys will need a much more complicated range of questions to give us a more accurate picture. If we ask the right ones, we might discover we live in a moment where people are exploring their sexualities without feeling the need to label them.

But are we headed towards a point where the hetero/homo binary will collapse, and where gender will play less of a role in sexual preference? Given the continued privilege that comes with a heterosexual identity and the powerful political and emotional history of gay and lesbian identities and movements, I don’t think so.

Still, it seems more people may be growing up with the assumption that sexuality is more complicated than we have previously acknowledged – and that this not need not be a problem.

Complete Article HERE!

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