This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
In my last Blowfish column, I linked you to Scarleteen, the sex information website for teenagers. When I was at the site, I found this letter, “We waited for marriage… but it wasn’t worth the wait”. It completely broke my heart, and I had to write about it.
The gist, for those who don’t have the patience to link: The couple in question (not teenagers, late twenties in fact) had decided for religious reasons to abstain from intercourse until after they got married. The woman had a high libido, and had been very excited about being able to have sex whenever — and wherever, and however — they wanted.
But the marriage was a big disappointment sexually. Their sex life was less frequent by far than the woman wanted… and more seriously, it was intensely unsatisfying. Their sexual encounters lacked passion, spontaneity, and fun, and were depressingly brief. Hubby eventually admitted that he just isn’t that sexual a person… to which wifey, the person writing the letter, was responding, not unreasonably, “You couldn’t have told me that before we got married?”
It broke my heart. Especially since their religious beliefs, and religious community, will probably make them feel pressured into sticking with the marriage, even if they both decide it’s an unsalvageable failure.
There are so many directions I could go with this. I could talk about the ridiculous over-emphasis our society places on marriage: the absurdly high expectations we place on it, the idealistic glow we place around it, the assumption that it will magically transform everything, including and especially sex. (And that’s speaking as someone who is herself married — ritually, if not legally — and who does think that her marriage has changed both the relationship and the sex for the better.)
And of course, I could get on my atheist high horse, and talk about the fucked-up effect religion so often has on sexual happiness. That would certainly be a fruitful direction. Of all the dreadful sources of sexual misinformation and general bad sex advice in the world, religion has to take the cake — because it can’t be argued with. It isn’t based on evidence, it’s based on scripture and religious authority and personal faith… and it’s therefore singularly resistant to change, to adaptation in response to evidence or data. About sex, or anything else.
But I want to go in a different direction here.
I want to express my gratitude for the fact that I — and most of us — don’t live in that world anymore.
I want to express my gratitude that in my world, having sex with someone, lots of times, before you settle down with them for the long haul, is generally considered, not only normal and acceptable, but sensible, obvious, and even self-evident.
I want to express my gratitude that in my world, premarital sex, never-marital sex, multiple sexual relationships, living together before marriage, living together without ever getting married, and so on, are all commonplace and generally accepted in much of the country, and indeed much of the world.
I want to express my gratitude that in my world, masturbation and oral sex are generally considered normal, mainstream, not even all that interesting… and things like anal sex, spanking, and bondage are generally seen as mildly kinky thrills at most, somewhat outre but really not all that wild compared to all the other freaky stuff people are up to.
I want to express my gratitude that in my world, gay sex is no longer a crime anywhere in my country… and gay relationships have a fair amount of social and legal recognition in large parts of the country and the world.
Even divorce. Unhappy as it is, I’m grateful for divorce. I’m grateful that unhappy marriages that don’t work for anybody can be ended, without bringing ruin and disgrace to the couple and their family. I want to express my gratitude that in my world, it was relatively easy, and almost entirely unstigmatized, for me to get out of a marriage to a guy who was decent but a disastrous choice for me… so I could spend some time getting my shit together before I settled down with a partner who it actually made sense for me to settle down with.
It’s easy to take all this for granted. It’s easy to forget how different things were in my parents generation… and how radically different they were in my grandparents’.
It’s not like things are perfect now. Trust me, I get that. We have, among other things, a world with a glut of sexual imagery and a relative dearth of sexual information. We have a world in which there’s a lot of pressure to be an amazing sexual performer… at an increasingly young age. We have a world in which the mere mention of the word “penis” can be effectively used in the movies to generate enormous laffs. We have a world that’s still fairly uncomfortable with sex, and that often doesn’t know how to deal with it.
What’s more, we have a world where even these basic sexual freedoms and privileges are limited to very specific people and regions. Large numbers of people and extensive regions, but still very specific. We have a world where, in large parts of it, gay people are still being put in prison, and women are still being executed for adultery.
And of course, we have a world filled with plenty of people who are working like crazy to turn back the clock to the good old days… the days of sexual ignorance and secrecy and shame.
But things are better now. A lot better. We’re beginning, I think, to see sex as a normal part of a happy life… and to see sexual experimentation, with different partners and different kinds of sex, as a natural and sensible way to figure out who you are and what you like and whether you and your honey are compatible.
And I’m never reminded of that more vividly than when I hear about people who still live, for all intents and purposes, in the old world, the world of my parents and grandparents… and who are being made miserable by it.