In the interest of management, I’ve closed the discussion below the “Dear Dwight” post – not because the discussion should stop but because it’s about to be pushed off the front page and the thread has gotten rather long and quite frankly I’m feeling pretty lazy.
Each of us bringsÂ a set of assumptions, experiences, ideas, and values to both discussions and experiences of sexuality – which are as often as not unspoken.Â For instance, many people are taught that men and women are radically and irreconcilably different.Â That women want emotion men want sex; girls are often taught “boys only want one thing” and they must have a whole set of strategies they can employ to resist, boys that they must woo girls in the hopes of exciting their passion.Â Boys are taught they have to wheedle, connive and conspire to make girls kiss them and to have sex they have to go even further and be even more skilled.Â Both boys and girls are set at odds with one another.
These values find expression in more subtle ways.Â For instance, the idea that women’s sexual needs and abilities are different than men’s.Â I think emphasizing such distinctions serves to alienate men from women and vice versa.
The tendency to see the genders as irreconcilably different seems to me to feed a great deal into male sexual anxiety.Â Boys learn that girls are “alien” and “other” and they can’t develop comfortable friendships with them.Â The same goes for girls – taught that boys only want one thing, they don’t let their guard down and they feel tension.Â The outcomes becomes the sort of tongue-tied awkwardness compouned by desire that has no healthy outlet.Â Rather than seeing one another as allies and partners in a dance, they see one another as opponents at cross purposes.Â They come to see each other not as persons but as objects, as potential threats, as someone who must be fooled or tricked, not someone with whom one can communicate honestly and openly.Â In the greatest of ironies, once one gets married, all that is supposed to change but a lifetime of habits doesn’t change like that.
Dwight for instance wrote:Â Â Â
Women have a much greater capacity for prolonged sexual activity than men; women are capable of having many more orgasms than men are; womenâ€™s arousal takes many times longer to achieve than menâ€™s; men are more likely to be affected by and are more strongly affected by psychological sexual factors than women are; the elements necessary to achieve complete arousal are different in men than in women; women have more and different erogenous zones than men
This list is all about seeing the differences between men and women as huge and dramatically significant.Â The statement about the capacity for prolonged lovemaking assumes sexuality is all about intercourse leading to orgasm; as a general rule men reach orgasm faster than women so it’s true enough, but if sexual activity is not limited to intercourse then there’s no difference between men’s and women’s capacity or desire for lengthy and enjoyable lovemaking.Â The inverse is true as well – a great many women enjoy a matinee on their lunch hour.Â Â The idea that it takes manyÂ times longer for women to achieve orgasm is in the broadest sense true but arousal is as much a psychological phenomenon as a physical one; both men and women fantasize and imagine and both can be turned on entirely by their thoughts.Â The notion that women have more and different erogenous zones than men is a matter of putting the emphasis in the wrong place; just because women’s nipples are more sensitive than men’s doesn’t mean that men’s nipples are not erogenous.Â Â Our largest sex organ is our skin, our most powerful is the brain.Â I once read (I think it was in Sex on the Brain that the differences between two males is as or two females is as large as the difference between the genders.Â
I think seeing such distinctions is counterproductive because it supposes a very narrow view of sexuality.Â I prefer a more expansive view – one that sees sexual behaviors as occurring along continuum of intimacy.
In Our Whole Lives, we teach a series of classes on intimacy – essentially asking where on the range of intimate behaviors are you comfortable with a particular person.Â So a couple might choose to engage in sexual behaviors such lying together in bed, or engaging in a make out session, orÂ mutual massage without penetration, while another couple might choose to engage in intercourse.Â Among graduates of abstinence only education programs, it’s a common practice to engage in oral sex, mutual masturbation, and sometimes anal sex and argue that because there was no penile-vaginal intercourse, the participants are still virgins.Â But it seems an argument that is difficult to make with a straight face unless you define sex as narrowly as possible – penile-vaginal intercourse.Â But are two people who have engaged in mutual oral sexÂ really virgins in any meaningful way?
Seeing sexual behaviors along a continuum of intimacy allows us to see the the behaviors in which we engage as reflective of the nature of our emotional relationship.Â As we grow more emotionally intimate with someone, we can choose to engage in more physically intimate acts.Â In the intimacy workshops, we talk about different behaviors -things such as watching a movie together, changing clothes in front of one another, skinny dipping, kissing, massage, and so forth.Â We might be comfortable changing clothes in front of a good friend but not a recent acquaintance.Â Intimacy, like sexual behaviors, is negotiated and dependent on the relationship in which it occurs.Â
Interestingly, Dwight recounted what I think is a veyr common experience among people who have been rasied to believe they must be virgins on their wedding night:
I have personally experienced the detrimental effects of two consenting adults going farther than we should have. And it was not strictly religious. It created emotional problems and divides that we had not anticipated, as well as jealousy and disappointment when I moved on to my current fiance . . . Regrettably, too many Mormons are constrained and controlled by a sense of guilt. I have chosen reasonable responsibility. In the above error, I felt little guilt for my actions after I had committed to not repeat them. I did, however, feel responsibility and sadness for the pain it caused my fiance.
Among the most common experiences faced by people who are raised to believe they must be virgins on their wedding night is the experience of engaging in a more intimate sexual behavior than they had originally intended.Â I believe that experience is a common one for persons raised to believe in a sacred silence about sexuality.Â That sacred silence creates a space in which people aren’t given permission to have sexual conversations without sensation, shame and taboo.Â That silence doesn’t teach persons how to negotiate sexual intimacy.Â It encourages a double standard in which women and girls are led to believe it’s wrong for them to want sex.Â It creates conflict between the genders and within persons.Â So when faced with a situation, people aren’t prepared to make decisions.
By contrast, from my own experience with graduates of AYS (Our Whole Lives‘ predecessor program), those persons were the most likely to be prepared before they arrived at a situation – in some sense, they found themselves in bed with someone already knowing what they were comfortable doing and having the skills and comfort level to talk about it.Â In good sexuality education classes, people of both genders are able to interact in a safe place, to ask and have their questions answered, to see up close that boys and girls really aren’t all that different.Â
In recent years, emerging research has shown that feminist couples actually have better, more rewarding sex lives and healthier relationships than do their more peers who adopt traditionalist gender roles.