The Reinvention of Sex

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”—Oscar Wilde

We have a problem with sex in America.

This past year we have had the spotlight shine on some of our more slimy and cancerous predatory sexual behavior. It is hard to keep track of how many powerful men have been exposed for their longstanding history of sexual harassment, coercion, assault, or rape. And we know that those named barely scratch the surface.
We know that this happens with regularity in every industry, at every high school and college campus, and every kind of institution.
And we know that there is a spectrum to unwanted sexual behavior. That so much of women’s daily existence is full of quiet discomfort at the “small and harmless” actions of the men they encounter. So much so that these encounters can fade into the background, just a daily sense of unease and guardedness.
We—as a collective culture—know all this because women have told us. They have told us this for decades, it is only now that we are starting to listen, and even better, actually believe them.

It is wonderful, and I’m surely highly vindicating, to finally have these stories be taken seriously. It is powerful that the extent of this exposure shows that this is not just the case of a “few bad apples” but is actually a widespread epidemic. It is important that this exposure continues. It is also important to sit with and honor the stories and the women and men who shared them.

It is also time that we as a culture take a hard and scrutinizing look in the mirror and reexamine how we have viewed and talked about human sexuality itself.  

The issue of rape and sexual assault is no doubt a complicated one, and there are factors involved with these crimes that extend beyond pure sexual impulse, most involving the desire for power in some form or another. There are often issues of race, class, and psychological disorder at play. It is important to acknowledge that up front.
That said, the way we define and talk about our sexuality also plays a major role in condoning, and sometimes even expecting, certain kinds of nonconsensual sexual attention. And that is something that we can address, and hopefully even something we can correct.

In an essay in Yes Means Yes, an anthology on issues of rape and sexual consent, Thomas Macaulay Millar 1 defines our current cultural view of sexuality as “the commodity model of sex.” It is “a culture where sex is not so much an act as a thing: a substance that can be given, bought, sold, or stolen, that has a value and a supply-and-demand curve. In this ‘commodity model,’ sex is like a ticket; women have it and men try to get it. Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction.”

You can see how this model plays out even in the way that we talk about sex. Men “get some” while women “give it up.” We tend to favor analogies that present sex as adversarial: men are hunters that “win” over a woman’s heart. Sex is baseball where men see how many bases they can get to with the hopes of eventually “scoring.” It is already obvious with this language that for someone to win then there must be someone to lose. If there is a hunter, there must be a prey. Even the phrase “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” is indicative of these attitudes. Because in this example the milk is the product, it is what is desired and valued. No one is all that concerned about the well-being or desires of the cow.

Commodities are valued based off of supply and demand. If there is an abundance of something or if that thing can be acquired with relative ease it is considered “cheap” and quite literally “worth less” than something more costly and harder to obtain. While this is helpful to distinguish between gold and thrift-store copies of 50 Shades of Grey, when sex is commodified, a woman’s value can be diminished to what they decide to do with that “ticket” of their sexuality. If they give it away too freely, they are considered cheap and worthless. And holding on to that ticket makes them a “frigid bitch.”
Thus women are taught very early on that they must play hard to get, to not give away too much too quickly, but not to wait too long either, all in order to keep the value of their ticket high.

And for men, when sex is seen as a transaction it means that there is a system, a protocol, a set of rules that, when properly followed, makes one entitled to sexual reciprocity. The hero kills the dragon and wins the girl as a prize.This explains the entire “pick up” community where men believe that there is a literal script and set of behaviors that will guarantee them sex. It also accounts for the whole “nice guy” problem where men feel that because they listened to a woman’s problems or helped her out in some way or just acted like a decent human to her that he is entitled to her body.
That feeling of entitlement, mixed with the belief that women are supposed to initially say no lest they seem easy creates a lot of those “blurred lines” and “grey areas” where women are pressured into sexual acts that they do not want to do, but often eventually acquiesce to because they feel obligated to uphold their end of the “transaction.” He did buy you dinner after all.

And this comes into play with the stories that we have heard from the #metoo campaign. Men in positions of power tend to act more sexually aggressive because they believe that it is power in and of itself that entitles them to sex. They believe this because this is the message that men constantly receive from our culture. First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women. This is an idea so ensconced in our culture that it doesn’t even have to be said. It is just known. Rich and powerful men get the loveliest looking ladies.
And there is no doubt that having power and influence can be attractive. There are certainly women who place those attributes as their highest priority when selecting a mate. The problem, however, is that men have been so sold on this idea that they believe having power and influence gives them constant and all encompassing access to all women’s bodies. That this is the reward they’ve won for obtaining their status. When you are a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Henry Kissinger said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” But I can’t help but wonder how often that is actually the case and how often power just makes it harder for a woman, for any number of reasons, to say no.2

Edit: My friend Alessandra wanted to rightfully point out that "all men - wealthy, poor, CEO's, homeless, etc - have the privilege of being innately endowed with power by society just for being men. Thus [her] rapist, who was a homeless gang member, still felt he had power over [her] just because he's a man and [she's] a woman. Even though he had no money or societal power [she] was still a commodity for the taking."

As you may have noticed, the commodity model is—if I may use my five dollar Women’s Studies vocabulary—deeply heteronormative and phallocentric. This model makes it hard to conceptualize same sex relationships. It is why you hear people asking “who the man” is in a relationship. Because one has to be the pursuer and one has to be the one giving something up.
It also creates the stereotypes that gay men are highly promiscuous—if there is no woman acting as a “gatekeeper” than sex must be a free for all—and it also creates stereotypes that lesbians tend to immediately go for commitment and emotional intimacy, because that is what we as a culture believe women are always most interested in. This obviously creates a plethora of problems for trans, asexual, or otherwise queer folks.
It is also a problem for those who simply do not conform to the traditional gender script we are supposed to follow. Shy men and aggressive women are both shamed and stigmatized for not acting like a proper lady or man.
There is also this notion that men always want sex and will have it with anyone, which does not allow men the space to say no to sex without feeling abnormal, and surely creates distress for women who do not fit our currently preferred body type or age, or just simply experience sexual rejection. In a culture that sees sexual desirability as the most valuable aspect of a woman, women who are not presently sexually desired might struggle to find their worth as a person.

Most religions, and for our purposes, specifically Evangelical Christians, claim to offer an alternative to these secular attitudes through what we will refer to as “purity culture.” They seem to believe that they rise above the dominant culture’s casual handling of sex and instead preserve it as the sacred act that it is. In actuality, however, these attitudes tend to reinforce the commodity model far more than their secular counterparts.

Growing up in the church, I heard sex compared to chewing gum. No one wants it after it has been chewed. We also did the exercise where we passed around a strip of scotch tape, applying it to each of our arms and noting that the tape became less sticky (and thus less valuable) with each use. Sex for us was treated like a new car: instantly less valuable the moment it is driven off the lot.
These lessons seemed to be especially applied to teen girls, who I’ve been told were taught that their hymen was like a diamond, and it should be held in exchange for an offer of a lifetime of love and provision. As Millar half-joked in his essay, women’s sexuality is like “olive oil, the ‘extra virgin’ is worth a lot more.”

And by the way, this notion is actually ridiculous when placed in other contexts. Can you imagine believing that a recording of the very first time Miles Davis put his lips to a trumpet would be infinitely more valuable than any of the recordings he put out as a highly experienced virtuoso working in rhythm with other highly skilled players?
Valuing virginity as some glorious prize indicates sexuality as an item of scarcity with diminishing returns, when in fact it becomes more enjoyable, expansive, and abundant the more it’s used.

The commodity model is dangerous in its capacity to permanently shame sexual curiosity, desire, and experience. It can cause added shame and psychological damage to survivors of sexual assault who might feel “used up” or broken and thus now undesirable or unworthy of love.
And in some cases can cause even more harm. As you may have noticed, viewing sexuality as we have been places little to no emphasis on the woman’s pleasure or even comfort. They are the object of pleasure, the thing to be obtained. The game is to see how far they’ll go, not to explore what they want. Earlier this week, Lili Loofbourow published a heartbreaking essay about how women are conditioned to expect sex to often be a painful and uncomfortable experience. That is not okay.

More dangerous still is the idea running rampant in Evangelical circles that women are never to deny their husband’s sexual wants. To me, this clearly treats women’s bodies as property belonging to the man. It is not complementarianism, it is a form of sexual slavery. Marital rape is a very real and highly underdiagnosed problem in America. It is consistently reported that 30% of all rape is committed by a husband, boyfriend, or common law partner (and only 12% committed by strangers, leaving the remainder to those on the spectrum between the two). It has been reported that women in intimate relationships with men are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted than lesbians or single women.
And that’s not including the vast amount of women who do not consider non-consensual sex with their husbands as “rape” because they feel it is their wifely duty, that it is a sin to “not submit” to their husbands, or their fear that denying sex makes them responsible if he cheats.
Studies have also shown that pastors and Christian counselors are more likely to recommend that a woman stay with her husband, even in instances of marital rape and physical abuse.  Because the man is the head of the household. And God hates divorce. And women are to submit to their husbands.

This is the world I was raised in. This is how I always thought of sex and marriage. It was only this week as I was working on this essay that I realized this is why I have always been so averse to marriage. It just seems so unfair to the woman to be expected to deny or limit herself in support and service to me and my dreams.
I know Christians will say that I have a misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about these things, and sure, I might. But I’d counter that if I do, so do far too many believers. Regardless of how things are taught, this is how sex and relationships are played out. It may never be spoken out loud, but there are still certain expectations and scripts we have been taught to follow. It is no coincidence that unmarried women live longer than married women, and the reverse is true for men.

It is for these reasons and so very many more, that I would like to reinvent everything I know about sex. I want to unpack, deconstruct, delete, and learn all of it again with brand new eyes. I want to actually listen to women. I don’t want to look at sex like some game to win or the result of a well rehearsed sales pitch. I want sex that’s not a business, but an art. Not a transaction, but a creation.

I want to restore the sacred to sexuality.

Conservative Christians have spent the last few decades fighting hard to preserve the “sanctity of marriage” by keeping it confined to one man and one woman. But to me, that is not what makes a marriage sacred. I say that because I have seen more than my share of those pairings behave in very unhealthy and unholy ways. Having the form of tradition is not enough. No, to make sex and love sacred, there must be something more.

The word “consent” comes from the latin words “con” which means together, and “sentire” which means to feel.  To consent is to feel together. Think about that for a second. Consent is far more than just the absence of a no or an eventual wearing down. Consent is to be in sync and in mutual enthusiastic agreement.
This means that if your sexual energy does not meet the sexual energy of your potential partner(s), consent requires that you don’t move forward into you are in agreement. Looking at consent this way totally eradicates the Aziz Ansari situation.
It also provides a clear answer to all of the internet dudes that are saying, “so what, I can’t even hug a woman anymore?” The answer is not if she doesn’t want you to hug her.  
It isn’t particularly complicated. It just requires communication and enough respect to listen when someone places a boundary. As my friend Hazel Grace always says, you should be grateful to hear a “no” because that means you can really trust a “yes.”

Millar asks us to think of sex in terms of music. Good music requires negotiation, it requires listening to your partner, and communicating what you want in regards to tempo and mood and even genre.3 This allows for sex to be fun and creative and varied. It also reaffirms the need for enthusiastic consent. Forcing someone to play music when they don’t want to isn’t fun for anyone.

Another thing I like about the music metaphor is that it also allows for all kinds of sexual expression. You can play a solo, a duet, an ensemble, it could be a one time collaboration or the formation of a lifelong band. It could be all woodwinds or exclusively tuba. It’s all music. Some things won’t be to your taste, but that’s fine. I’m not going to make you listen to my ska if I don’t have to listen to your dubstep.

And that’s important to note. I don’t want my Christian brothers and sisters to think that I am attacking abstinence until marriage or monogamy in and of itself—and I hope that you don’t, but ultimately don’t care, if you judge me for my more libertine views and premarital adventures—I think saving oneself for marriage can be a beautiful and noble and highly sacrificial choice to make. But I believe it is the choice itself that is sacred and valuable. Not the fear based idea that you will be somehow ruined if you choose otherwise.

Most importantly, much like music, art, and poetry, when done well—when felt together—sex is the most concrete evidence of the divine that I have personally ever experienced. As Hermann Hesse said in Siddhartha,4 “one cannot take pleasure without giving pleasure, and that every gesture, every caress, every touch, every glance, every last bit of the body has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it.”

The Buddha once said that the difference between lust and love is that lust sees a beautiful flower and plucks it, while love waters it and allows it to grow.

And it is that affirming, intimate, life-giving, transcendent genuine connection is what makes sex so powerful, so spiritual, so divine.

That is what makes sex sacred.

I want to live in that sacred space. I am directing my energies towards getting there.

Oh, and hey, some friends and I created an all online book club that will be first reading about religion and sexuality. Click here to find out how to join us.

1.  In full disclosure, I am going to say that roughly 70% of this essay is just a summary of his. I want to make sure I give him credit for his rather exemplary work, but also wanted to avoid making this a straight out academic essay with MLA format or whatever. Creative nonfiction is tricky.
2.  Hey LGBTQ fam, I’m sorry for exluding you so much in this essay, but I felt it was better than trying to presume to speak for your experiences. If you’d like to add your perspective to all of this, I’d be more than happy to post it as a guest essay on here. Just reach out to Thanks. Love you.
3.  Interpret that as you will.

4.  One of my all time favorite books


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