Sexual Perspective, Or, How Can You Eat That?

Please note: This piece discusses some aspects of my personal sex life — not in a lot of detail, but it may be a bit too much information for family members and others who don’t want to read about my sex life. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

“Nobody in their right mind would want to do that. You’d have to be desperate/ damaged/ strung out on drugs to do that.”

This argument gets used a lot by people who are against porn, prostitution, other kinds of sex work. And those of us who have actually been in sex work and not loathed it (or who know people who have) tend to counter simply by offering counter-examples: raising our hands, pointing to ourselves and each other, saying, “Me. Over here. Did sex work. Liked it (or didn’t hate it). Not a basket case. Case closed.”

But I think there’s a core assumption underlying the argument, one that makes it hard to argue against merely by offering boring old evidence. And it’s an assumption that doesn’t just apply to sex work. It’s an assumption that gets applied to all kinds of sexual variation… and not with very happy results.

The assumption is this:

“Everyone must like — and dislike — the same sexual things I do.”

“If other people do sexual things that I don’t enjoy,” the thinking goes, “they must not be enjoying it either. And there must be something dreadfully wrong with them for them to do sexual things that are so obviously not enjoyable. They must be troubled, crazy, under coercion.”

(And let’s not forget the parallel notion: If other people don’t enjoy things that I do enjoy, there must be something wrong with them as well. They must be repressed, uptight, out of touch with their bodies. The sex-positive world can fall prey to these assumptions, too. I certainly have. “Everyone is basically bisexual, if they would just be honest with themselves”… Loki in Heaven, was I ever really that young?)

I don’t think this is always a conscious assumption. But I think it’s a common one. And it’s led to a lot of trouble: misunderstanding and conflict at best, outright hostility and oppression at worst. I think it’s at the core of the “women don’t really like anal sex/ giving blowjobs/ getting spanked/ whatever, and if they do it it’s because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy” argument that’s so deeply enriched the lives of so many sex-loving women. And more seriously, I think it was a major factor behind decades of putting homosexuals in psychiatric wards. “I find the idea of sucking another man’s cock repulsive… therefore, any man who likes to suck another man’s cock must have something horribly wrong with him.”

It’s a terrible argument. Stupid, illogical, harmful.

But I actually have more sympathy for it than you might imagine.

I think it’s always hard to really, truly grasp that other people’s tastes are different from your own. Especially when it comes to strong, emotional, visceral experiences. Myself, I am utterly baffled by the fact that anyone on this earth would voluntarily eat broccoli. The stuff tastes like concentrated essence of vileness to me, and the thought of people voluntarily putting it in their mouths makes me recoil.

Food, music, sex: all of these are powerful, visceral, intensely personal, even overwhelming experiences. And it’s very hard to step back from them and have perspective on how other people might feel about them. Our own feelings about them can be so intense, so all-encompassing, that it makes perspective difficult, even counter-intuitive.

But when it comes to food and music, we have years of experience to teach us perspective. People talk about their musical and culinary tastes loudly, proudly, in great detail and at great length. You often can’t get people to shut up about it. We’re exposed to a wide variety of musical and culinary tastes almost every day of our lives.

So unless you’re pathologically stubborn, you eventually learn perspective. You figure out that, as much as you may personally dislike broccoli or blue cheese, Wagner or Western Swing, people who eat it/ listen to it are not mentally deranged. (Or the reverse: that as much as you may personally enjoy these delights, people who don’t like them are not pathologically cut off from the one true source of pleasure and meaning.) People still do sometimes make personal judgments about others based on their tastes in food and music; but those judgments don’t usually result in people being sent to the county jail or the loony bin.

But when it comes to sex, most of us don’t get that kind of training. People don’t come back to work on Mondays and chat about how they tried spanking over the weekend, they way they’ll chat about how they tried a new Moroccan restaurant or went to see a German funk band their brother told them about. They don’t go to parties and share a funny story about the new buttplug they just bought, the way they’ll tell a funny story about trying to make a salmon souffle for their in-laws or the weird harpist who opened for Radiohead. (Well, they sometimes do at my parties… but you know what I mean.) Most of us haven’t been regaled with myriad and varied stories about exactly what kinds of sex other people like, and why exactly they like it.

It’s better now than it once was, by a long shot. The amount of sexual information that’s easily available today far surpasses anything I had when I was young. But most of us still don’t get exposed to a widely varied range of sexual tastes… not the way we get exposed to a barrage of different tastes in music and food, simply as part of everyday life.

And I think that casual barrage is exactly what we need to break through the intensely personal, intensely visceral nature of our sensual experience and give us perspective on it. It’s what we need to teach us that other people really and truly feel differently about sex than we do.

What’s more, it’s what we need to teach us this, not just with one or two specific examples, but as a general principle. People will often get it about one particular sexual variation, without getting it about sexual variation in general. I mean, plenty of straight people genuinely understand that gay people actually do enjoy their gay sex… but still have to start from scratch when it comes to SM or blowjobs or sex work.

Which brings me back to sex work, and the counter-examples, and the sex workers raising our hands all over the world and saying, “I’m actually pretty okay with this.”

Because while offering “Don’t tell me what I like! I do so like that!” counter-examples may not work in any particular argument over any particular sexual variation, I think that in the long run, it’s exactly what we need to make these arguments eventually go away. I think if we want a world where people have perspective on their own sexual likes and dislikes, a world where we treat varied tastes in sex the way we treat varied tastes in music or food, we need to talk more about what we do and don’t like in bed. We need to give each other counter-examples, and plenty of ’em. We need to give each other a world where the basic fact of sexual variation is commonplace, familiar… and unsurprising.

Sexual Perspective, Or, How Can You Eat That?
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15 thoughts on “Sexual Perspective, Or, How Can You Eat That?

  1. 2

    I’m completely with you on this, and it’s a point I’ve talked about on my blog a bunch of times. The biggest problem with the anti-porn/anti-sex-work faction of feminism is their total inability to grasp that different women may have different sexual responses, tastes, preferences, etc. The puritanism is truly secondary. The root problem is their insistent belief that nobody could like something they don’t like. “She says she likes X? Well, she’s WRONG, because X is horrible! She must be brainwashed or something!”
    Here are a couple of posts where I’ve talked about this:

  2. 3

    This seems to be related to a comment Jon Stewart made some years ago on The Daily Show, which I recently ran across, along the lines of “I’m worried about gay marriage. They’re going to make it mandatory, aren’t they? Because clearly, if they’re not going to force guys to marry dudes, there’s no reason for anyone to be up in arms about it.”

  3. 4

    Haven’t you just assumed that because you think the world would be a better place if we all talked about butt-plug soufflés with our aunties then we all should think the same?

  4. 5

    No, David. I didn’t assume that the world would be better if we talked more about our sexual practices. And I didn’t assume that, because I have this opinion, you should all have it too.
    I made a case. I made an argument. I made some observations, and analyzed them, and came to a conclusion. If you think my observations are incorrect or my analysis is faulty, then by all means, please say so, and explain why.

  5. 6

    Hello, first time posting but I’ve been reading for a while 🙂
    I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you say here – I experience this because my friends and I do talk about sexual experiences, and they can’t understand how I can be so ‘boring’. I just don’t want to sleep around, have threesomes or engage in anything by vanilla sex. Crazy, apparently.
    But I have to disagree slightly with the thing about sex work. Most of the ‘anti-sex’ feminists I am familiar with (I am one of them – though ‘anti-sex’ is a misleading label) are not opposed to sex work because they think no woman could enjoy it. I am opposed to coerced sex work. The reality is that most women in the sex industry do not have the free range of choices available to people like you. Sex trafficking, drug addiction and poverty are very real indeed.
    So not all opposition to sex work is ‘anti-sex’. Rather, I think it can be entirely consistent with your opinions. Women should have the freedom to engage in sex work if they want to. But a lot of feminists opposed to sex work don’t oppose that kind of sex work.

  6. 7

    You are probably not going to see this, as this is an old post, but anyway, here goes.
    I will exclude the cases of coercion (which are obviously disgusting, sick and twisted) and focus on those who voluntarily do sex work.
    Sex work is wrong for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is that these people are getting paid for something entirely non-productive. People have sex all the time, just like they eat or sleep. Heck, I wish someone would pay me to sleep!
    About prostitution, I find it extremely unethical. Here’s the thing. Would you accept money for being a friend to someone? Like, hanging out with them, chatting, going to movies etc? I would be surprised if you said yes to that – it’s just wrong, right? So why do you think it’s OK to ask for any kind of reward for having sex with someone? If they can’t buy your friendship (and if you ever accepted such an offer it would be hypocritical), how can they buy sex?
    Ultimately, our natural motive for sex is lust (just as our natural motive for actions of friendship is love). When you believe money can compensate for the lack of the natural motive (lust in this case), that means you don’t think very highly of the value of your emotions. That’s the only way I can see it.
    Lastly, prostitution is wrong because it puts young men in the role of the customer, “teaching” them that they are the ones who desire sex and women are the ones who will “provide” it, regardless of whether or how much they desire it. This “education” is a horrible basis for future relationships.
    About porn. It’s not that women “can’t possibly enjoy” all this stuff – of course some women do enjoy doing these things. It’s that (through porn) men are taught not to care if women enjoy or not. That’s the whole point of the “objectification” argument. Porn is used in such a way as to teach people that men are the agents, and women are the objects. Again, we have here a horrible basis for future sex life.

  7. 8

    Sex work is wrong for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is that these people are getting paid for something entirely non-productive.

    The same could be argued for any service industry. Is it wrong to charge people money for massage? To work in your garden? To come into your home and cook for you? If not, then why is sex work any different?
    Sex work does produce something. It produces an experience. It produces sexual satisfaction, relaxation, stress relief, human contact. It is every bit as productive as any other service job that produces an experience rather than a physical product. Would you argue that theater actors are unethical because their work doesn’t “produce” anything?
    Re most of the rest of your comment (which I’m not going to quote since there’s too much of it): You’re making the mistake of assuming that everyone does, or should, have the same motivation for sex that you do. Not everyone feels deeply emotional about sex… or at least, not everyone feels deeply emotional about all the sex they have. And I don’t see anything unethical about that. It’s just human variation. (You;re also assuming, btw, that all sex work is heterosexual with male customers and female workers. It isn’t.)
    And in fact, people do pay for profoundly personal and emotional experiences. Look at therapy. Therapy isn’t exactly like paying someone for friendship… but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. Is that unethical?

    It’s that (through porn) men are taught not to care if women enjoy or not.

    And how exactly does it do that?
    I will agree that some porn — even a lot of porn — is more focused on male pleasure than female pleasure. It’s a critique I’ve made myself, and often. But that’s a critique of specific instances of porn… not of all porn by definition. There is plenty of porn that is very focused indeed on female pleasure. (And even the mainstream porn that doesn’t have enough female pleasure in it does typically portray women as sexually aggressive and assertive sex-seeking agents. That seems to be one of its major appeals, in fact.)
    Yes, a lot of porn is sexist and promotes sexist roles for women and men. But if you’re going to argue that porn is therefore, by definition, unethical, you have to argue that TV is by definition unethical. Movies. Popular music. Fiction. We live in a sexist culture, and a lot of a lot of things in it are sexist. You haven’t made a case for why the genre of porn should be singled out for exceptional condemnation.

  8. 9

    People get paid for many things that they and/or other people do for free. Here are just some of them: cook, drive, clean, care for children, build bombs, teach, write, play music, take photographs, fly airplanes, repair vehicles and appliances, ride bicycles, groom animals, ride horses, give advice over the phone, shop, remodel homes, donate blood, make clothing, observe stars and planets, predict weather, predict the stockmarket, fish.
    Their motives vary: pleasure, affection, charity, duty, commitment to a cause, etc. Motives always vary from person to person and often from situation to situation. there is no such thing as a natural motive.
    If you think the natural motive for friendship is love, watch a bunch of middleschoolers.

  9. 10

    I’ll try to answer all the points made above.
    First off, I do realise that there is a sex market for gay people and heterosexual women, but since the bulk of it is aimed at heterosexual men, that is where one would naturally focus. Of course, my arguments don’t apply to all depictions of sex.
    About the first point. I stand by my claim that sex is nonproductive and therefore one should not receive any reward for it. Massages cure your pain, cooking produces food, gardening results in decorative and/or practically useful plants, therapy (which is very different from friandship, btw – your therapist is your doctor, they do not console you, they do not keep you company, these are the tasks of a friend) helps people sort out their problems. Art is a special case, and personally I think it shouldn’t be sold; artists should either get paid honorarily by the state (ie not as a reward, but rather to help them concentrate on their art free of distractions) or, in most cases, not at all. In the same vein, if you find sexual pleasure in having sex while other people watch, you are of course free to videotape yourself doing it – but that is not something you should expect a reward for.
    On to the second point. Our sexuality is the most sensitive part of our personality (isn’t that the reason why sexual abuse is the worst and most traumatising kind of abuse?) so we take care to shield ourselves from a potential bad sexual experience (otherwise everyone would sleep with everyone else). Sex is a very dirty procedure, and it would be disgusting if not for desire. When I don’t feel any desire for someone, I view any possibility of intimacy with them as repulsive and probably humiliating. That’s why I can’t wrap my head around the possibility of someone having sex for any other reason than lust. I don’t consider lust a “deep emotion” (actually I’m surprised to find out there are people who see it that way).
    Lastly, I mentioned above that the motive for friendship is love, which got refuted. Indeed, “love” is a strong word; instead I should have said something like “fancy”. Love is something that comes about in a more mature stage of friendship. But still, my initial point holds.

  10. 11

    TentacledBeast, there are so many things wrong with this, I don’t even know where to begin. But let’s just take two.
    First: There’s your continued assertion that sex work is unproductive, in a way that other service jobs are not. Sex work produces the relief of tension and stress; it can be as great a reliever of tension and pain as massage. And it produces pleasure and entertainment, much the same say that, say, entertainers or professional athletes do. It is a service job that produces an experience. You just don’t value the experience that it produces.
    And if you think sex work doesn’t take work or skill or effort, than I strongly advise you to talk to a sex worker, or read some sex worker memoirs. Sex work involves a great deal of psychological and interpersonal knowledge and skill — and in many cases, it involves physical knowledge and skill as well. Tell a prostitute who specializes in prostate massage, or any kind of pro dominant, that their work doesn’t involve knowledge and skill, and sit back as they laugh in your face.
    (Oh, and on that topic: Cooking and gardening don’t “produce” food and plants. Farming does. Cooking and gardening handle and arrange food and plants in a way that creates satisfaction and pleasure. Much like sex work does with human bodies.)
    Frankly, if you think sex is just a passive consuming act like eating or sleeping, then I’m really glad I’m not having sex with you.

    Our sexuality is the most sensitive part of our personality

    And this, I think is the heart of the problem.
    This may be true for you, but it is most emphatically not true for everyone. The overwhelming problem with your argument is that you’re assuming that everyone feels the same way about sex that you do — and that if they don’t, there’s something wrong with them.
    Not everyone shares your attitude towards sex. Not everyone shares your feeling that sex is both “a dirty procedure” and “the most sensitive part of our personality”; that it’s both a passive, unproductive, skill-less act and something precious that should be saved for people you have intimate feelings for. Many people are both more positive about sex and more casual about it than you are.
    If sex work violates your personal feelings about sex, then by all means, don’t engage in it. But many happy, healthy, ethical people do not share your feelings about sex. I, for one, find them offensive and repugnant. And your assumption that everyone does or should share your feelings about it is a perfect illustration of the point I made in this post: about the lack of sexual perspective, and how it makes people judgmental about other people’s ethical and consensual sexual choices that simply happen to differ from one’s own.

  11. 12

    Hi, Greta;
    I just randomly picked an old post to comment on, hoping I wouldn’t detract from the current threads, because I just wanted to ask if I can email you off-blog? I need advice about my soon to be wife and our sex life. I don’t know what your addy is, though.

  12. 13

    I know it’s been a long time (again). Hopefully you’ll see this.
    Apparently, you haven’t understood a word I’ve said. You seem to read what you want, and not what I write.
    Where did I claim that good sex doesn’t involve skill? Where did I claim that sex is (or should be) a passive act? Where did I claim sex to be “something precious that should be saved for people you have intimate feelings for”? I said that sexuality is the most sensitive part of our personality, not that it is necessarily connected to feelings of love. It is connected to *desire*, though. Even if you look at the sheer physical part of it (women’s lubrication and men’s erection)!
    Sex isn’t dirty if desire is involved… because then your hormones take over.
    You compare sex workers to entertainers or professional athletes. Well that would be a valid argument assuming that your opponent supports these two professions – but you don’t know that about me. Anyway, you can’t equate all kinds of service… for instance, a few years ago I read about a young girl (in Australia, I think) who kept company to unpopular children for money. She would be their “friend” on pay. Would you support this?
    PS – cooking does produce food (raw meat isn’t food, cooked meat is) and gardening does produce good-looking plants (bad-looknig plants is the “raw material”).

  13. 14

    I couldn’t resist making a second post.
    The fact that the quality of sex depends on skill doesn’t mean it’s some sort of olympic sport, so don’t expect a medal. Backgammon requires skill too, but nobody would pay me to play a round with them; that would be ridiculous. And please don’t stretch this analogy.
    Also, your analogy is completely false to start with. Prostitution is not like liking a different kind of food. It’s like eating a food you don’t really like because someone pays you to.
    My moral code goes like this: Be true to yourself. Act the way you feel. Don’t hang out with people you don’t actually like. Never tell a lie. Have sex only when you’re horny and only with people who turn you on.
    Sex is important. If you value it, don’t trivialise it. Sex should be so enjoyable that you long for it, not so bad that you ask for something in return.
    As happens with most people, I often look down on those who don’t follow my moral code (not always – it depends on the case). Many who don’t share the same moral code as I do are bound to find my attitude offensive (as you do). But I don’t see any reason for you to be *personally* offended; it is my understanding that you were a stripper, not a prostitute.
    PS: I already explained that I don’t connect sex to love, that sex is not disgusting if desire is involved, and that its quality depends on skill (although that’s probably not the first thing on your mind while you’re having it). If you’re still going to assume that I’m against casual sex, or that I think sex is evil, or that sex has to be passive, I’m giving up.

  14. 15

    Prostitution is NOT a sexual preference, and you cannot make it seem that way no matter how hard you try. I imagine paid sex *could* be pleasant, but it doesn’t change the fact that sex workers do it for a different reason other than pleasure.
    All animals in nature have sex BECAUSE it is pleasant. Humans are animals too, and they need to listen to their instincts in order to be happy with themselves.
    (And yeah, this is essentially a bump.)

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