This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
I want to talk about the sexual world we have today. And I want to talk about how vastly, immeasurably better it is than it used to be. Not that long ago, either. I want to point out some of the ways that, as painful and terrible as our sexual world can be, it is so much better than it has been… in ways that we sometimes take for granted.
When you’re fighting for social change — whether that’s for racial equality or sexual liberation, ecological consciousness or LGBT rights, free speech or feminism — it’s easy to get despondent. It’s easy to focus on how lousy things still are, how slow the going is, how much further we still have to go. So today, I want to take off the Cranky Pants, and put on the Incurable Optimist hat, and remind us all of how very far our sexual world has come in a remarkably short time.
I started thinking about this for two reasons. I was reading a recent “Savage Love” sex advice column, consisting of letters thanking Dan for specific, practical ways his advice has made people’s sex lives better. And I was watching “Mad Men,” the excellent TV series about life — including some of the more appalling aspects of sexual life — in and around a Madison Avenue ad agency in the early 1960s. Right around the time I was born.
And it started to strike me: Damn. Thing are so much better now for sex than they were when I was born. In so very many ways.
I want to talk about some of those ways.
When I was born, vibrators and other devices for female sexual pleasure were sold underground, with their true purpose disguised… if they were sold at all. Today, an astonishingly wide variety of vibrators and such are readily available to anyone with a computer and a credit card… giving millions of women easy access to orgasm at the touch of a finger.
When I was born, the very idea of female sexual pleasure, and the idea that women had as much right to sexual pleasure as men, was shocking and controversial. Today, the notion that women actually enjoy sex, and that we have a right to ask for the kinds of sex we enjoy, is generally understood and accepted. (At least, more so than it was 47 years ago. Even right wing Christian evangelicals are pushing the idea of sexually satisfying marriages… satisfying for both partners, not just men.)
When I was born, it was generally assumed that women in an office were there (a) for the sexual enjoyment of men, and (b) to catch husbands. Today, it is generally assumed that women in an office are there to get some work done.
When I was born, birth control was still illegal in about half of the States in the U.S…. and the birth control methods that were available were ineffective, dangerous, or both. Today, birth control is legal, widely available, available in a variety of forms, and much safer — thus enabling women to enjoy sex without the constant fear of unwanted pregnancy.
When I was born, kids and teenagers looking for information about sex mostly got it from their friends… who didn’t know any more about sex than they did. Today, kids and teenagers looking for information about sex can talk to San Francisco Sex Information, or Scarleteen, or any number of other sources of accurate, anonymous, non-judgmental sex information.
Hell, that’s true for adults, too, not just kids and teenagers. When I was born, the available sex information for adults was mostly Kinsey, a handful of bad marriage manuals… and their friends, who didn’t know any more about sex than they did. Now, accurate and detailed information about sex — from “How can I help my female partner reach orgasm?” to “What is a safe way to pierce my genitals?” — is readily available, simply by turning on a computer or picking up a phone.
When I was born, books about sex — fiction, non-fiction, photography, art — were considered shameful at best and illegal at worst, something you bought under the counter and hid under your bed. Today, they’re sold on Amazon.
When I was born, people were still being put into jails and mental institutions in the U.S. for being gay. Almost all gay people lived their gay lives in secret, in constant fear of discovery and ruin. Today, my female lover and I are legally married, and we live together openly, with all of our friends and families and colleagues knowing about it and not thinking it’s a particularly big deal.
When I was born, oral sex was widely considered dirty and perverted, even between married partners. Today, people are shamelessly writing to sex columnists asking for advice on spanking, bondage, anal sex, fisting, three- ways, casual sex, gay sex, rape fantasies, rimming, dressing up like stuffed animals, and everything else under the sun… and oral sex is generally seen as just part of the standard sexual package, so normal as to be almost boring. (Almost. I said almost.)
When I was born, it was legal in the United States for husbands to rape their wives. It wasn’t even considered rape. Today, it is considered rape — and it is against the law in all 50 states.
When I was born, divorce was shameful. Hell, it was still shameful a decade after I was born: when I was twelve and my parents got divorced, I tried to keep it a secret from my friends. Today, it’s understood that marriage doesn’t always work out, and that people shouldn’t be trapped in misery for the rest of their lives just because they changed over the years or made a bad decision when they were younger.
I could go on. And on. And on.
But I think you get my point.
I’m not going to pretend that it’s all chocolate and roses. None of these issues are where they should be. For years, teenagers across the country have been getting a dismal, grotesquely inaccurate form of sex education known as “abstinence only.” Abortion access is severely limited in many states; birth control is hard for lots of people to get, especially teenagers, and the choices, while better than they were 47 years ago, are still far from ideal. Women are still seen as sluts for assertively pursuing their sexual desires, and sex is still often seen — unconsciously, if not consciously — as being more for men than for women. Same- sex marriage is still illegal in most of the country, and not recognized by the Federal government even in states where it is legal… and even apart from the marriage issue, LGBT rights are very far from where they should be, with plenty of anti- queer bigotry still being practiced, and many LGBT people still feeling frightened or ashamed of coming out, and many LGBT people still getting beaten or killed for it. Our society still marginalizes people with unconventional sexual tastes. Sexual harassment in the workplace is still a problem. There’s a vast amount of sexual information readily available… but there’s a vast amount of sexual misinformation out there, too.
And much of the world outside the U.S. is in a dismal sexual state, with girls getting their clitorises cut off, and women being executed for adultery.
I’m not saying that our sexual world is perfect, or even that it’s great. (So please don’t all write in with outraged comments about how insensitive or naive I’m being.) I’m not saying that our sexual world is perfect or great. I’m saying that it’s better. It’s better than it was. And it’s better than it was because, for decades now, people have been working and writing and kicking up a stink.
So let’s keep doing that.
And let’s keep remembering that it works.