Sexual Optimism and a Changing World

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Optimist hat
Today, I am putting on my Incurable Optimist hat.

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.

Ditto abortion.

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.

Three kinds of asking for it
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.)

Ditto masturbation.

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.

Sexual Optimism and a Changing World
OrbitCon: The Orbit's online conference. Attend from anywhere.

13 thoughts on “Sexual Optimism and a Changing World

  1. 1

    “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.”
    There you go, blogging without pants again. Sheesh.

  2. 2

    In America today, sex is still intended for the enjoyment of males and not for enhancing the physical experience of females, or else the topic of birth control wouldn’t drive reactionary males to insane rage. And where are the female-oriented sex potency drug ads to balance male potency drug ads for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra? They don’t exist! Male drugs are going to be covered by the abomination of the health care “reform” bill coming out of the Senate, but don’t you even raise the prospect of birth control being covered by your insurance! Erections are God’s Will, not avoiding pregnancy if an erection is accommodated!
    Frankly, I think part of this disparity is due to women themselves. Look at all the calumny being loaded upon all of Tiger Woods’ women friends. Some knew he was married, some not; some were professional sex workers while most were amateurs. Yet they are damned about as much, if not more, by women for being available to Tiger as he is being damned by them for straying. It is as if sex isn’t supposed to be anything other than the dues a woman pays for the economic and social security being married. To do anything outside of attracting and keeping a mate, sex is the biggest taboo that a woman can perform! And our children are being affected by this attitude. A commenter on another blog mentioned that her own daughter was of the opinion that sex was bad and should never be done – and this at an age where getting her Barbie married to Ken is supposed to be a favorite play topic!
    To circle back for a conclusion, if women truly wanted sexual equality, then the items I listed above would attract much more protest from the distaff side of our society than they now do. I can only suggest that there is some perceived benefit for them to remain quiet about the inequality.

  3. 3

    @ ToppHogg – I guess it depends from where you look. I’m 46. Most of the people I’m *close to* are almost as open about sex as I am. Most of the people I *know* are NOT, but neither are they hung up like my first husband (who got mad at me for “always thinking about sex.” Yeah, he had issues; it was 20 years ago but his mind was 50 years older when it came to sex). The “ho-calling” has been driving me nuts, too, but I don’t expect mainstream media to be enlightened or enlightening. In conversation, I do protest the hypocritical slut/stud jokes or when someone ignorantly and casually demeans or devalues sex work/ers.
    People do protest over the inequalities – looking for those people is how I found Greta Christina, Susie Bright, Violet Blue, et al., all of whom are actively walking the talk (or should I saw walking the write? Writing what they walk? Sorry I’m NOT a writer, just a fan thereof!). I mean to say, their openness about their lives and work ARE the demonstration, their activism and protest against inequality. That’s how I see it anyways.
    (apologies if this double-posts, got a “can’t post” msg & did a do-over)

  4. 4

    @ToppHogg I agree with a lot of what you are saying but I think you are wrong about why there aren’t female versions of viagra. It’s not because they aren’t trying or don’t care, it’s that they haven’t been able to develop it yet. If there truly was an effective drug that made women horny, there wouldn’t just be ads about it, there would be legislation to put it in our drinking water.

  5. 7

    And of course, in more conservative circles, it hasn’t improved much over the last 20 years. Growing up fundie, a woman enjoying sex was pretty much unheard of. And masturbation? Only if you wanted to go to hell! Yay for mainstream culture! The other side is simply miserable.

  6. 8

    @ToppHogg, while there aren’t any viable drugs for women that are akin to Viagra (Although researchers are working towards making them, I don’t think they’ve been invented yet), I have seen commercials airing prime time for sensitivity creams and gels aimed at increasing a woman’s sexual pleasure. Those creams and gels are not about sex as a stale, procreative act. I see those commercials as a huge step forward in recognizing and encouraging women’s sexual enjoyment and orgasms – for themselves, not to please a man.

  7. 9

    @ Elizabeth Black
    I note your input, but I don’t put topical things (which I happen to enjoy on occasion) in the same category as things like Viagra. That drug was created to enhance male performance (however poorly and dangerously). The fact that it works on some females was an accidental discovery (@ Blake Stacey).
    Based on how political conservatives continue to twist things so that they get their way, I doubt that any real research will be allowed to develop female sexual enhancement drugs, nor do I expect that any foreign imports will be allowed for the same reason.
    I don’t usually advocate allowing the market to decide, but in this case I do. I don’t hear much from women of the same age group as the Viagra men asking for “a better sexual experience”. Frankly, I’m curious as to why not. Anyone have any ideas?

  8. 10

    Actually, viagra was a bit of an accident. As I recall, folks had just discovered the vasodilating effect of nitric oxides and were trying to improve circulation through clogged coronary (heart) arteries. The effect on erectile tissue was quite serendipitous.
    Of course, as soon as the marketing department heard about it, they knew they had a best-seller and pushed it.
    The point is, it was not the result of a deliberate search for that effect. It really isn’t evidence for the amount of funding for sex-enhancing drug research.
    (There was, of course, an explosion in research after viagra showed the way, of which cialis is one result.)

  9. 11

    We don’t need a woman’s version of viagra or creams, etc, that are supposed to “cure” our “sexual dysfunction”…
    I’m going to have to take a page from the great master Betty Dodson on this one. 😉
    Most women experience a very hetero, formulaic, boring, narrow version of sex that’s often devoid of foreplay (I actually dislike the word foreplay, as the word “fore” implies that it’s an appetizer, not a legitimate expression of sexuality). The sex is limited to only a few positions, and lasts about 5 minutes. There may be little or no clitoral stimulation. It doesn’t please us. We don’t orgasm- we don’t come close to orgasming. And for this, we’re told that we suffer from sexual dysfunction. Instead, we need to experience greater variety in sex with plenty of mental and physical play, with a wider definition of what sex is instead of “you put the penis in the vagina”. We don’t have sexual dysfunctions. Unless we have a medical problem, we don’t need drugs- we need more naughtiness, play, and sensuality in sex.

  10. 12

    Oh, and we need to learn more about what healthy sexuality is. Experiment, read books and sex columnists, break down your faulty programming, watch healthy pornography. Greta has a good section in Ticky Tacky, or Why Most Mainstream Het Porn Bores the Pants On Me.

  11. 13

    Your work has inspired me to follow in your footsteps. I too, wish to etch out a living as a writer and a pro-sex activist. My goal is the sexual liberation of women. I also want to be a therapist.
    The double standard has been the bane of my existence. But there’s hope that writing and activism works and can and will bring an end to this, this being harassment and bullying of slutty women.

Comments are closed.