Which sexual practices are creepy or unacceptable and which ones are fine? There are multiple ways how to try to answer this question, and some criteria for “creepiness” make more sense than others.
“Do I like this sexual practice and would I want to engage in it?” is the wrong question. “Does this sexual practice cause harm for any other people or animals?” is a much better question to ask. As long as people don’t cause harm for anybody else, they ought to be free to do with their genitals whatever they want, and how I personally feel about their actions is irrelevant.
There are plenty of things I personally dislike, some of them actually pretty mainstream. For example, I dislike facials (ejaculating on another person’s face). I also hate rudeness. If in a porn movie one actor displays contempt towards their partner or uses any rude words (like calling their partner “bitch” or “slut”), then I perceive that as off-putting. If you like this person, why are you rude towards them? If you dislike this person, why are you having sex with them in the first place? Alternatively, I dislike using words like “daddy,” “babe” or “baby” in any sexual context even in English (in my native language equivalent words have different connotations and would involve pedophilia and incest, thus they bug me even in English). That’s just how my brain works. And it’s OK if other people have different preferences.
A few days ago, in the comment section of Pharyngula, there was a discussion about whether it is acceptable to masturbate during a voice/phone call with somebody who doesn’t know what you are doing.
One of the comment exchanges were:
I suppose you all would argue that if someone masturbated while talking on the phone to someone that would be unacceptable.
Umm, yes? WTF? Are you serious? This is so textbook creepy behavior, it’s practically a cliché. If you had three seconds of screen time to establish that a character was creepy, that’s what you’d show.
After reading that comment, I could only stare at my computer screen and wonder how such attitudes are supposed to make any sense at all. A person, usually a woman, walks on the street and minds her own business when some random dude approaches and touches her butt. That’s creepy. A person arrives at work and the first thing she hears is some coworker making rude and sexually charged comments about her appearance. That’s creepy. We live in a sexist society in which sexual harassment and creepy behaviors are daily occurrences for many people (mostly women). But no, instead of prioritizing cases where there’s actual harm to the victim, it turns out that “textbook creepy behavior” ought to be something as harmless as masturbating during a phone conversation.
Why is some behavior supposed to be “creepy” when in itself it is harmless? Personally, I see nothing problematic with masturbating during a phone conversation as long as (1) you make no inappropriate sounds that could alert the other person about what you are doing; (2) you can maintain an appropriate amount of attention to the ongoing conversation; (3) there is no video.
Of course, masturbation during voice calls can easily escalate towards something that I would label as creepy and no longer acceptable. For example, if the person accidentally (or intentionally) turns on the video, or if they start making inappropriate noises that the one listening to them really didn’t want to hear. And frankly, if the person who masturbates gets too distracted and stops paying attention to the conversation, then that’s a bit rude. But I don’t think that masturbating during a phone call is inherently wrong, and I can come up with theoretical conditions under which I wouldn’t mind it.
My attitude towards sex is that as long as you don’t cause harm for other people, you should be free to do whatever you want. For me whether something is acceptable does not depend on some subjective sense of “gross” or “disgusting” or “creepy,” but on the existence of harm. When I talk with another person on the phone, as long as I don’t know that they are jerking off, I really couldn’t care less. I would get uncomfortable and judge them as creeps only if the other person went a step further and started doing some extra actions that actually cause discomfort/harm for me such as making inappropriate noises. And I really wouldn’t want to get the video. But as long as I don’t know what somebody else is doing while talking with me on the phone, their actions are none of my business.
For me something qualifies as “abuse” only when there’s a victim who got harmed. If a person gets caught masturbating, then the person who caught them experiences emotional discomfort, gets harmed, and can be considered a victim. Then we have a case of abuse happening. But if the person who masturbated never gets caught, then nobody knows about their behavior, nobody gets inconvenienced or harmed in any way whatsoever, so there is no harm, no abuse.
At least I don’t care what other people do with their genitals as long as I don’t even know about their behaviors and don’t get inconvenienced or harmed in any way. Also, I wouldn’t care if somebody masturbated while fantasizing about me as long as afterwards they don’t act inappropriately while interacting with me in real life (they don’t tell me about how they fantasized about me, they don’t sexually harass me, they aren’t a jerk towards me).
Obsessing about other people’s sex lives in situations where they cause no harm for anybody else is what I call creepy. And we live in a society, which seriously polices other people’s sex lives (rules like “no masturbation,” “no sex before marriage,” “no gay/lesbian sex,” “no anal sex,” “no kinky stuff,” “no BDSM,” “no fetishes,” “no sex toys”). I abhor such policing, hence I try to never judge other people’s sex lives and abstain from criticizing them as long as they don’t harm others. Even if some practice is something I would never want to do, even if it feels disgusting for me personally, I still have no right to criticize other people who like some stuff as long as they cause no harm for anybody.
We as a society have a long history of policing other people’s sex lives. This history still haunts us. Conservative and religious people are especially zealous and obsessive about what other people do with their genitals. In some places sex toys are still illegal. Many countries still punish consenting adults who agreed to exchange sex services for money. Countless organizations are devoted to condemning porn or anal sex or gay sex or masturbation or whatever it is they dislike. But conservative or religious people aren’t the only ones who ought to learn that policing somebody else’s sex life is a bad idea.
Kink-shaming (mocking, criticizing, or disparaging a person for having a kink, fantasy, or fetish) still remains common and not reserved to the devoutly religious. It’s also irrational—if a person who is sexually attracted to women likes big boobs, they are considered normal (because we have a society that sexualizes big boobs); meanwhile, if a person who is sexually attracted to women likes their feet, then they are a sick and deviant pervert (merely because their preferences are statistically less frequent). How comes? How is that even supposed to make sense?
Why do people even criticize those with statistically less frequent preferences? As long as they don’t cause harm for anybody, there really is no problem. And if two or more consenting adults can agree upon something they all enjoy, it shouldn’t matter if their actions seem unusual for some non-involved third party.
And it’s not just general populace that engage in kink-shaming. Let’s look at Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a publication by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and their stance on paraphilias. (Paraphilia, previously known as sexual perversion and sexual deviation, is defined as the experience of intense sexual arousal to atypical objects, situations, fantasies, behaviors, or individuals.)
The DSM-5 acknowledges that many dozens of paraphilias exist, but only has specific listings for eight that are forensically important and relatively common. These are voyeuristic disorder, exhibitionistic disorder, frotteuristic disorder, sexual masochism disorder, sexual sadism disorder, pedophilic disorder, fetishistic disorder, and transvestic disorder.
From this list only pedophilia and frotteurism (interest in rubbing, usually one’s pelvic area or erect penis, against a non-consenting person for sexual pleasure) are inherently problematic, because engaging in these behaviors results in abusing another person.
The rest are harmless and shouldn’t be considered disorders in the first place. Exhibitionists and voyeurs can find each other online and consensually observe/show off to their hearts content. Sadists and masochists can engage in consensual BDSM play. As for “fetishistic disorder” and “transvestic disorder,” labeling those as “disorders” simply makes zero sense.
I guess “transvestic disorder” is my favorite from this list, because it blatantly exposes the inherent bigotry of those doctors who came up with this list. In a non-sexist society every person would be free to wear whatever clothes they like, and nobody would bat an eyelid whenever a person who was assigned a certain sex at birth decided to wear different clothes for any reason. And if wearing certain clothes makes a person feel sexy and contributes to feeling sexual arousal, that’s perfectly fine. When cis women wear sexy women’s lingerie in order to feel sexy themselves and arouse their straight male partners, that’s somehow fine. Why was it supposed to be bad for an AMAB person to do the exact same thing?
And fetishes, those are just fun, so what’s the fuss all about. Personally, I have a fetish for long-haired men. This doesn’t mean that I will get rude and disrespectful towards some men based on their hair length. Nor will I ever jump on some non-consenting guy whose long and beautiful hair I really like. It merely means that I enjoy stroking my partner’s hair and twisting it between my fingers (and most people don’t dislike having their hair touched).
Of course, somebody who has statistically rare sexual interests can potentially be abusive and harm others, but so can the straight dude who likes big boobs.
Remember when homosexuality was labeled as a mental illness in DSM? Things have improved a bit, but there’s still a long way to go. DSM needs some serious overhaul. Granted, I should mention that, for example, the diagnostic criteria for transvestic disorder do require that:
The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Still, a guy who likes women’s clothes can experience distress and impaired functioning not because there’s something wrong with him, but because we live in a bigoted society that stigmatizes, condemns, and labels as mental disorders various perfectly harmless and fun kinks. And DSM contributes to creating such a bigoted culture by, gasp, literally stating that there’s something wrong with perceiving cross-dressing as erotic. DSM should stop labeling as “disorders” everything that is statistically uncommon and doesn’t fit some religious zealot’s idea of “normalcy.”
Besides, literally anything can cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” in a bigoted society that stigmatizes said trait. For example, in a racist society having been born with a brown skin could cause “significant distress or impairment.” This wouldn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the person who has darker skin, it would mean that there’s something wrong with the bigoted society they live in.
People really should learn to be less judgmental and stop policing each other’s sex lives. Or other’s lives in general. If some person enjoys some statistically unusual behavior that doesn’t cause harm for others, then there’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t pathologize or stigmatize these behaviors, don’t label them as “abnormal.”
Transvestic disorder is dressing in the clothes of the other gender to become sexually aroused. (Personally, I do not think that it should be considered a disorder, it’s just a fun kink that some people find enjoyable.)
Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth. Most trans people wear clothes of the gender they weren’t assigned at birth, but doing so doesn’t cause any sexual arousal for them.
Cross-dressing is the act of wearing items of clothing not commonly associated with one’s sex. The term cross-dressing refers to an action or a behavior, without attributing or implying any specific causes or motives for that behavior. There can be various reasons for cross-dressing, for example, a cis person could cross-dress for a Halloween party for the sake of fun even though they are cis and do not have an erotic interest in cross-dressing. Or a woman can cross-dress, because male clothes actually have pockets and are designed to be comfortable and practical. Reasons can vary.