The Many-Headed Goddess, Part 4: What would you tell your younger self about sex?

March 3, 2008 at 7:30 pm (proclamations, sex)

(Parts 1, 2, 3.)

In which my ideas about sex become one with my ideas about art, community, and love, some of which are here.

My mom asked me to give my 14-year-old brother a sex talk today. I’m not sure whether I will. My mother specifically wanted someone to talk to him about how to put on a condom. No idea why she though I would understand that better than she does. I’ve actually never participated in any sex act in which a condom was used, ever.

I told her I would try to find a good book. Any suggestions? I’ve seen a bunch for girls, but I’m not sure where to start for a boy. Looking for something sex- and body-positive, (pro-)feminist, with good, accurate information.

Anyway, it got me thinking about what kinds of things I would want to tell a kid about sex, in an ideal world where embarrassment does not exist. If I could talk to my 14-year-old self, what would I tell her about sex? What would you tell your younger self? What information would actually be useful?

I had good sex ed for someone growing up in the US today, which is more a statement about the sorry state of sex education than the completeness of the information I received. I learned how heterosexual sex leads to pregnancy and about a few different kinds of protection, and heard some scare-stories about teen pregnancy and HIV. That’s it.

There are many things missing from this picture, but the big one is so obvious, hidden in plain sight: nobody ever thought to mention why people have sex. It’s really the clear starting point. Why would you talk about the terrible things that can happen when doing something before you’ve even established why people do it? Why would you learn how to do something before you understand what it is, before you see its function? Before you know how to gauge when it’s a good idea, and when it’s not?

If you start there, you naturally get to all the other missing information: consent, sexual orientation, orgasms, etc. You know, the stuff that people actually need to know, in addition to the mechanical things.

So, with all of that in mind, this is what I would tell my younger self about sex. It is, of course, tailored to me, but I think it applies beyond that.

People have sex because it feels good. There are a lot of things that can get tied into this, but, at its most basic level, sex is about pleasure. People have sex to enjoy their bodies, alone or with another person. That’s the goal.

It’s important to keep this in mind. Sex is about feeling good. Since sex is about feeling good, while having sex, you should do things that feel good. There are a lot of ways to do this. Everyone’s body is different, so you will have to learn what you like, and whenever you sleep with someone, you will have to learn what she or he likes. It will take practice.

It’s important to pay attention to yourself, to notice how you are reacting. It’s also important to pay attention to your partner and notice how he or she is reacting. It’s important to tell your partner what feels good, and to ask him or her what feels good, which can be scary. Having these conversations is part of having sex.

Since sex is about feeling good, while having sex, there is no reason to do something that doesn’t feel good to you. If something feels bad, there is no reason to do it. If you feel like you’re supposed to do something, but it feels bad, don’t worry: you’re not supposed to do it, because you are only supposed to do things that feel good.

Sex isn’t something you can understand by seeing it in a movie or reading about it in a book. It’s good to learn as much as you can, but it will almost certainly surprise you. If nothing else, you may find yourself surprised by its realness, by the fact that it is actually happening, by the knowledge that you are feeling what you are.

Sex isn’t something you can understand by doing it. Sex is like speaking.* You can learn how to talk or how to make somebody come, but that is just the beginning. Then you go out and start having conversations. You start reaching out to people.

Some of these conversations will be boring. Some will be tender. Some will be angry, some sad, some euphoric. Each will be attempt to communicate, to connect with another person. An attempt to ask a question or give an explanation, an attempt to tell a story. You can have these conversations with as many people as you meet, or with the same person over and over. The important thing is that you keep having them. Keep asking questions. Keep making connections.

Sex is like archeology. You will uncover layers, one and then another, deeper and deeper. There is no way to know what you will find there.

Sex is like art. You will begin exploring yourself and you will never stop, for you are infinite. There are worlds of things to discover, things to express, things to process, things to attempt, things to remember and to forget. And there are always different ways to approach the same things, new frames to put around them, new perspectives to try.

Sex like art: it’s about communication. It’s about sharing your most secret self. And there is no wrong way to do it, as long as it’s sincere. As long as it is yourself you are sharing. Just as with art, when what you’re doing is what you want to do, when you’re making what you at your most honest are moved to make, it will be something beautiful. It will be something worth listening to.

* Image appropriated from here.

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International Sex Workers’ Rights Day

March 3, 2008 at 4:54 pm (feminism, sex)

I’ve just learned that today is International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Visit that post for a bunch of good links pointing to blogs, outreach programs, and other resources.

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The Many-Headed Goddess, Part 3: On Mutilation And Mysticism, Chesed And Gevurah

February 26, 2008 at 11:06 pm (proclamations, sex)

(Parts 1, 2.)

This post is likely to seem only tangentially related to the others, but they are very connected for me, sister cities in the geography of my mind. I said the first post began in the middle of the story; this one happens closer to the beginning. It is a meandering sort of post.

So, anybody study Kabbalah at all?

The foundational text of Kabbalah is the Zohar, which is a medieval work of mystical Torah commentary. “Torah” means law; “zohar” means light. People who like convenient aphorisms will tell you the Zohar is the lamp one holds to reveal the true meaning of the Torah.

Another very important foundational idea in Kabbalah is the Ten Sefirot, also called the Tree of Life. The way this was explained to me: the Tree of Life is a diagram of the Godhead. It is also a diagram of the soul. It is also a diagram of the world. It is also the map of the process of creation: it begins at Keter, the unified Godstate, unwinds and branches down into Malchut, the manifest world. The universe is a fractal, with the sefirot existing wholly at every level.

Here is a friendly diagram of the Tree of Life, which should serve you well for the purposes of this post:


(Image credit.)

Complete with English transliterations! For extra credit, compare and contrast with chakra systems.

Okay, onto the meat of the matter.

As you may know, I was a self-mutilator for a long time. Or am, maybe, in a “recovering alcoholic” sort of way. I would like to be able to pin this phase of my life down, to say, “I was a self-mutilator from 2001 to 2006,” but mutilation — what a tricky thing to put a box around. Do thoughts count? In many real ways, I think they do. What about acts that permanently changed the contours of my skin, but were carried out in love, or in a lovely form of madness? I wouldn’t count them, but I imagine anyone who happened to notice such a scar would not assume agreeable intentions, a gratifying memory.

During the worst periods, all four limbs and more became war zones. Overall, though, my attacks on myself were focused on a remarkably small area, the inside of my left forearm, the part closest to my elbow. Precisely where my tattoo is, on the other arm.

Of all the events of my adolescence, I can easily point to the one that had the greatest impact on reducing (and eventually stopping) my self-harm: coming out. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were lifted from my heart. I was visibly glowing for days, for weeks. Suddenly, finally, I felt love for my body.

It’s important to note that my coming out story is a little different from a typical one. I was fifteen; I had been struggling to puzzle out my sexual identity for a few years. For me, “coming out” wasn’t telling a secret I had known for years; it was realizing, understanding, accepting, and revealing the secret, all at once, in one great rush of wind.

I have often retrospectively conceptualized my self-mutilation as an attempt to literally cut parts of myself out. I wanted to cut out the queerness. And more: I would cut myself not when I was sad, but when I was furious. I was trying to tear my anger out of myself. It is obvious to me now that sex and rage — my rage at injustice, the anger that follows judgment — are my two strongest sources of power. I was trying to neutralize myself.

On the chart above, you can see that the second circle from the top in the left column is Gevurah. Gevurah is the sefirah associated with the left arm. And what ideas should it connote: judgment, fire, and ultimately, power.

On the right side, we have Chesed: love and kindness. It’s probable that this all happened because I am right-handed, but we are meaning-makers, so let us make meaning. This goes back to what I wrote in the first post about a disconnect between love and sex, which is a disconnect between Chesed and Gevurah, in my thinking.

In my misery, I wanted to amputate my rage and my hunger; so backwards was this desire that it perverted the forces of love and kindness into forces of brutality. And in doing so, of course, I did not get rid of my anger or my desire, I multiplied them. We only have two arms. In order to try to remove the cruel one, I had to turn the tender one into a weapon.

The severing of Chesed and Gevurah also happens when we try to make bold distinctions between nice, loving sex and intense, aggressive sex (something I did as I was first trying to understand things). The best sex, in my experience, is both and neither: the nice things are intensely nice, and the intense things nicely (pleasantly) intense; and we are aggressively loving, and lovingly aggressive.

The Tree of Life is also correlated to the major arcana of the Tarot. More precisely, the lines between the sefirot are connected to different cards. The bridge between Chesed and Gevurah is the eleventh card: Justice. For what is needed to make power and judgment just? Love. And what is manifestation of love? Power.

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The Many-Headed Goddess, Part 2: On Having Real Sex

February 21, 2008 at 8:00 pm (proclamations, sex)

Just to clarify: when I use the word “sex,” I mean consensual sex. Rape is not sex anymore than beating someone with a bat is baseball.

Picking up where I left off here. First of all, Infra left a very beautiful and thought-provoking comment there, which everyone should probably read. I plan to explore the ideas raised there more.

Going back to the mechanization of sex. That thought occurred to me while I was puzzling over a different, sex-related problem: the notion that some kinds of sex are “real sex,” and others are not.

Which, you know, just putting aside for a moment all the sexist, phallocentric, heterosexist shit that comes with the idea straight penis-in-vagina intercourse* is the be-all, end-all of sexuality, is really just… Stupid. It’s stupid, and it doesn’t make sense, to say that sex acts between consenting adults are inherently anything. It’s ridiculous to say some are inherently more intense or valid or important, and it’s ridiculous to say some are inherently bad or immoral or degrading. It’s like saying certain kinds of food are inherently delicious, or inherently gross, or inherently The One And Only Real Food.

But, stupid as it is, I do think it makes sense that such an idea would happen, if we’re imagining, as I did in that last post, that our hang-ups about sex are largely related to trying to make sex less terrifying, more manageable. Because, what’s happening when people** are having sex? What’s really going on there? What are we really experiencing?

What is literally happening, to be sure. But much, much more importantly, we are having a subjective experience of the bigger context of those acts. We are experiencing whether we’re turned on or not, whether or not we’re nervous. We are aware of what our partner/s is/are feeling, too. We are experiencing whether we like, love, hate, or could care less about the other people involved (or the lack of them). Perhaps most importantly, we are experiencing our own hunger. We are deeply, directly connected to our own yearnings. In terms of the specific acts that occur, what is significant is how they mesh with our desires, not how they rank on an arbitrary ladder of importance.

People do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. Some of those of reasons are physical — not all bodies can do all things, for gender reasons and for health and ability reasons. Some of those reasons are preferential — not everyone enjoys all acts, and most everyone enjoys some more than others. What matters, though, is whether or not what we’re doing, in that moment, what we want to be doing, in that moment.

What matters is not who is putting what where. That’s something much simpler. What really matters — what really causes the experience — is the messy, multilayered content of our hearts and minds. The brain is the most important sex organ, right? So the details of what is happening to our genitals are far less meaningful than the story we are telling ourselves about them in our heads, the story that our hearts are telling us about them in our chests.

I think the idea that some kinds of sex are more “real” than others acknowledges this, actually — that’s why it says what it does. We know that the subjective experience is what’s actually important; that’s why it’s the part that gets cut out. That is why it’s the part we ignore when we’re trying to turn sex into a logical, mechanical, manageable thing. We take fairly straight-forward physical actions — a hand here, a tongue there — and brutally cut and tear them out of the scenes in which they gain meaning. We disembowel sex; we lobotomize it. We reduce it to a quantifiable sequence of mechanical actions.

And then we extend this process to its inevitable conclusions. We build a hierarchy of sex acts, decide that some things are Real Sex, and other acts are permanently classified as “foreplay” — games that exist just as build-up and preparation for The Real Thing.

It does not matter that “foreplay” acts are generally more orgasmic than Real Sex, because orgasms are not the point. Pleasure for its own sake is one of the things that has been cut out in the disemboweling. (Women’s pleasure obviously has; this segment of the afore-linked essay by Richard Jeffrey Newman points out that men’s has, too.) Pleasure is, obviously, purely experiential — so out it goes. And along with it the incredibly obvious fact that the most real sex anybody can possibly have is the sex that they most want to have. Extremes of desire lead to extremes of experience. Sex, like anything, becomes intensely real to us when we intensely want to be having it.

* For added flavor, toss in “married” and/or “procreative” and/or “missionary position.”

** Any number.

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The Many-Headed Goddess, Part 1: An Attempt Has Been Made To Solve The Unsolvable

February 18, 2008 at 9:07 pm (proclamations, sex)

(I’ve been told all my life I am a very sexual person; to whatever extent that is true, this writing reflects that truth, that perspective. I mean no disrespect to people who identify as asexual. This is my reality, and though I think it applies beyond me, I know its applications are not universal.)

Okay, first of all, while I was writing this I realized that the perfect name for a blog carnival for sex writing would be The Carnal Carnival. If anyone happens to be thinking of starting such a tradition, please do it, and please use that name. I will help.

Moving on. If we’re to have halfway happy lives, each of us must grapple, in one way or another, with the train-wreck that is sexuality in this culture. I’ve been doing this lately. It happens in a lot of little ways and is mostly in my head. I’ve got a few separate ideas to explore about it, so I think it will be a series. This is part one, or something of an introduction. It begins in the middle of the story.

I don’t think I could have done this — the grappling — until now. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s something that can be done until you’ve steeped in the realness of sex for awhile. This makes for a lot of fumbling, a lot of anxiety.

When my girlfriend and I were first fooling around, she would frequently stop kissing me to smile. She would smile like babies smile, with complete and uncomplicated happiness. I would stare at her with complete confusion. She was feeling sweetness, love, joy. I had unconsciously shifted gears out of Love Mode and into Sex Mode; these were two totally unrelated frames of mind. The latter was my yearning covered over in harshness, in toughness, a massive shield of stone and anger blocking everything tender in me.

After weeks and months of steady exposure to a potent cocktail of love, this wall thinned and crumbled. Sex and love could flow into and out of and through each other, or they became one force, a many-headed goddess. Sex the extrapolation of love and love the extension of sex. This was sort of the first solid step out into the water. I have gone much farther from there.

An idea (not a very original one): sex is overwhelming and nearly unstoppable, and in that way, it is terrifying. Many of the cultural myths and lies, the cruelty and slander, about sex, are misguided attempts at making sex less horrifying, less uncontrollable. They are attempts at making it understandable (but it is not understandable), making it rational (but it is absolutely irrational), making it manageable (but it is not). They are attempts to mechanize sex, to simplify it, to reduce it to the sum of its parts. (And these ideas would be very applicable here.)

They are attempts to demystify it when all its power is in its mystery. They are attempts to understand it when its beauty is that it cannot be logically understood. They are attempts to make sex as rusted and predictable as factory machines, to tame and crush and rape and batter it as we have done to animals and nature.

They are, in effect, attempts to kill it, though it is life itself, if anything is.

We are left the remains of this attempted murder. We are given selves with parts cut out, with parts cut off. Some of experience this evisceration literally, bodily. I think that all of us experience it psychically, emotionally. We feel it in our brains and in our guts and in our groins.

So I will be trying to unravel the damage this has wrought within myself. I know that others have tried to do this, and have done this, and are doing this everyday. If anyone would care to join me, here in comments or on your own blog or in your own mind, please do so.

Two links that made me think along these lines, for anyone looking to do more reading: Blackamazon on sex; Richard Jeffrey Newman’s complicated essay, My Daughter’s Vagina (you can find all the segments he’s posted so far there; start at #1).

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Your genes are gay.

October 16, 2007 at 4:02 pm (LGBT, sex)

More talk about whether there’s a “gay gene.” That post touches on my thoughts about the whole thing which are: demonstrating a solid biological basis for queerness? Interesting, sure, but beside point. The point is that there is no reason to actual discriminate against people in same-sex relationships, whether those people have a choice about the relationship or not.

I’ve got a strong suspicion that if the biological cause of lesbianism were to be discovered, and people could be tested for it, and they were to test me, my results would show I’m queer through and through. That suspicion is based on a lot of things, namely the fact that my liking girls can be traced back through my very early childhood (like, age three). My girlfriend, on the other hand, isn’t gay; she’s had romantic relationships with boys and certainly could have more in the future, and though she definitely likes girls, if I had to guess, I’d guess whatever biological forces are at work within my anatomy aren’t at work in hers.

So is it okay for me to be with girls because that’s my essential nature, and not okay for her, because she could (theoretically) choose to be with boys?

It’s okay for both of us to be with people of any gender, of course. So the whole question of where queerness comes from — which, let’s be honest here, is a question of whether it’s changeable — is just the wrong one to be asking.

There’s a very related discussion going on over here about whether it’s appropriate to ask why or how people have the preferences and orientations they do. And basically I think some people really do have a kind of choice, and some people really don’t. And both of those experiences are valid and real and okay.

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What feminists already know and you might be missing out on.

October 15, 2007 at 6:53 pm (feminism, sex) ()

This from a new Rutgers study:

They found that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier heterosexual relationships for women. Men with feminist partners also reported both more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction. According to these results, feminism does not predict poor romantic relationships, in fact quite the opposite.

The authors also tested the validity of feminist stereotypical beliefs amongst their two samples, based on the hypothesis that if feminist stereotypes are accurate, then feminist women should be more likely to report themselves as being single, lesbian, or sexually unattractive, compared with non-feminist women.

Rudman and Phelan found no support for this hypothesis amongst their study participants. In fact, feminist women were more likely to be in a heterosexual romantic relationship than non-feminist women. The authors conclude that feminist stereotypes appear to be inaccurate, and therefore their unfavorable implications for relationships are also likely to be unfounded.

Ha. Take that. Again (I mean, as I stated in the title of this post, this isn’t news to those of us in the know…but still satisfying).

Via Feministing.

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Common Ground, Anti-Choice Hypocrisy, Etc.

October 15, 2007 at 4:12 pm (feminism, politics, sex) (, , )

Jill at Feministe wrote this interesting post in response to this interesting post about looking for common ground on abortion. In the original post, Morning’s Minion from the Catholic blog Vox Nova gives a thoughtful list of ways feminists and anti-choicers could cooperate without either side compromising its stated* principles. Morning’s Minion notes, among other true things, that abortion bans don’t stop abortion, and that in order to actually reduce the abortion rate, we can do things like provide universal healthcare and fight poverty. Jill adds that, of course, contraception is just about the easiest way to bring down the abortion rate.

First off, I want to say that I think Morning’s Minion clearly has good intentions and that I, like, oh, every other pro-choicer in this great country, would love to see anti-choicers joining in on the tireless efforts of pro-choicers to reduce the abortion rate with good, comprehensive sex education, universal healthcare, better support for families, etc. etc., as well as broader progressive goals like not going to war. I think Morning’s post is one that needs to be read primarily by anti-choicer folks because, as Jill at Feministe notes, there’s nothing we can do to minimize the abortion rate that pro-choicers aren’t already doing. There does seem to be at least one actual pro-lifer in the US — Morning’s Minion, who opposes unjust war, nuclear weapons, and the death penalty, and who is, I would imagine, a vegetarian out of her** staunch commitment to life. Truly pro-life folks could further their cause quite effectively by joining in with feminist and liberal activists as we lower the abortion rate, protest the current unjust war, agitate for universal healthcare, etc.

Anyway, okay, all of that was just a big excuse to talk about what I actually want to talk about, which is a thought I was having last night that just so happens to be relevant.

There’s a billboard near here that Emily and I have thought of vandalizing a time or twelve, an anti-choice monstrosity calling abortion the “American Holocaust.” That’s a load of offensive bullshit on all kinds of levels. It upsets me as a feminist and as a Jew, but mostly it upset me as an intelligent human who knows that there actually was an American Holocaust, a full-blown act of state-sponsored genocide that went on for generations. The victims were, of course, American Indians, who were brutally, unforgivably attacked with evil techniques as varied as outright slaughter, forced relocation to concentration camps, and just about every other horror out there. This is extra important as we’ve just passed my second least favorite holiday, Columbus Day, and are about to celebrate my number one least favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. The US is a country that has two entire holidays dedicated to glorifying the actual American Holocaust.

Anyway. My thought last night. If anti-choicers really think abortion is murder and legal abortion is equivalent to the Holocaust, what the hell is their problem? Why aren’t they doing everything in their power to (peacefully) reduce the abortion rate? I’d like to think if I were living in Nazi Germany (and not Jewish) or living in Andrew Jackson’s United States (and not Native), I would do anything in my power to save anyone I could, even one person. I absolutely fucking would not do stupid shit like agitate for, say, propaganda campaigns in public schools that would raise the death rate (abstinence only “education”), or fight against safe, effective measures that could hugely reduce the death rate (contraception). Duh.

So, it’s good to see at least one person trying to do that (though I’m guessing that, as a Catholic, Morning’s Minion has no interest in making contraception widely available). But I’m betting we’re not about to see legions of anti-choicers joining in.

Basically: common ground absolutely exists, but anti-choicers aren’t willing to go there (and pro-choicers are there already!), because they’re not really pro-life at all.

* “Stated” because, as Morning’s Minion acknowledges, much of the anti-choice leadership is concerned with controlling women and sexuality, not with protecting life.

** That’s “her” as a general pronoun. I have no knowledge of Morning’s gender identity.

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If you have sex outside of a heterosexual Christian marriage, you will ruin your chances at education, family, and happiness.

October 9, 2007 at 3:41 pm (feminism, movies/video/clips, politics, sex, sexism)

Video from Feministing. Made for you by the federal government.

You know what this world needs more of, folks?

More disconnect between people and their bodies. We need more people alienated from their sexualities.

What do your kids need to hear?

Not, “Your body belongs to you.” Not, “Do what you want to do when you’re ready, safely.”

Oh no.

They need to hear what you want for them. What you want for their sex lives.

Because who is sex about? Is sex about you and your parter?

Christ no! Sex is about what the authorities dictate! Hello!

…Seriously, what the fuck kind of message is that? I am all for families communicating about sex; I am not for anyone trying to control what anyone else (minors included) does (consensually) with their own sex organs. It is psychic rape. And it doesn’t work. And it’s bullshit.

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The Sensuous Woman

September 28, 2007 at 11:45 pm (amazing things, art, funny things, sex) ()

So, I just returned from seeing The Sensuous Woman, a show organized by the always wonderful and hilarious Margaret Cho. The line-up was impressive, and I was happy to see some old favorites and also make some new ones. And I had my first live experience with burlesque performance. It was a night of laughs and nipple tassles, and by the end I actually had a cramp in my side from laughing so hard and was also fighting back tears (it was so overwhelming). Let me just say this about that: I saw more of Margaret Cho than I ever dreamed I would, and I watched Kelly (the internet rock star of Shoes and Let Me Borrow That Top fame) sing along to a Spanish garage band version of Shoes. No, I don’t even know what that means either, and I was there. And, dammit, this ridiculous song is stuck in my head-

Yes, he was one of the performers. And after all of that, I paid a small visit to the NY neo-futurists who managed to pull off 30 plays in 60 minutes.

All of which is to say that the inside of my head right now looks a lot like the last few scenes of this new Kelly video where everything escalates into total chaos.

…I’m going to bed.

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