Myths busted III: real sex, with real people, in real life
1. Sex in real life looks like sex in porn. There is something wrong if it does not. (aka. Sex in porn is a depiction of how good sex looks like)
Sex in real life takes a wide variety of forms, as human beings (luckily) are all different and very complex. Sexual activities can (and should) be pleasurable, enjoyable and mutually respectful, and may, sometimes, be awkward or emotionally challenging. However, they should never imply violence and/or lack of consent, in which case they fall under the category of sexual assault. Sadly many porns show violent, non-consensual sex, objectify women (treat them as objects for others’ gratification), and fetishise non-white and LGBT+ people. They also show bodies that are rather different from most of the viewers’ and often modified by cosmetic surgery, which tends to increase people’s insecurities. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong in stimulating sexual fantasies in ways that we find pleasurable. However, you may want to explore erotica and feminist porns, which try to be more respectful of women, LGBT+ and BME people generally bear in mind that your sexual life should not live up the expectations set by any director or actor.
2. Penetration is the only real sex. Forced penetration is the only real form of sexual abuse.
Let us emphasise this again: penetrative sex (penis in vagina) is by no means the only (acceptable) form of sex. People of any sexual and gender orientation can consent to and enjoy a wide range of sexual activities. Importantly, this also means that, apart from forced penetration, sexual violence and assault come in many other different forms. Forcing someone to unwanted oral or anal sex, touching, sexting or exposure to pornographic material are all examples of sexual assault. Cyber-abuse and revenge porn (sharing images or videos with nudity of sexual content without the explicit and freely given consent of all people involved) also counts as sexual violence. If you have ever gone through any of these traumatic experiences, please know that your pain is very real and you are not alone. Plenty of online and offline resources (peer support groups, counselling, rape crisis centres, self-help books, other forms of therapies etc.) are available for you. Never thing that what you underwent is not ‘bad’ or ‘serious’ enough to deserve love, healing and support.
3. It is OK, or even a compliment, to fetishise sexual partners (i.e. Hispanic women are naturally sexualised, Black people are wild in bed, Asian women are submissive, trans/bisexual people are promiscuous etc.).
Human beings have their own, complex individualities and all differ from one another. Some people may identify with cultural traits and even national stereotypes, but many feel extremely uncomfortable with being seen and judged through the lenses of their race, religion, origin or their sexual and gender orientation etc. When it comes to love and sex, we all wish to be wanted and desired for what we truly are, and treat someone as a fetish (an object that embodies a certain characteristic) is offensive and dehumanising.
4. Disabled people cannot have sex. Therefore, they cannot be abused (or they cannot have consensual sex without being abused).
People affected by physical as well as mental disabilities can most certainly explore their sexuality and engage, if they want, in sexual activities that vary a lot according to their condition, tastes, interests, sexual and gender orientations. Sadly many disable people, especially disable women, get also sexually abused, even in medical or therapeutic settings. However, this by no means imply that they cannot have a fulfilling and enjoyable sexual life based on enthusiastic and freely given consent.
5. All ‘normal’ people want sex (or a certain kind of sex) and experience sexual attraction.
Some people do not experience sexual attraction or experience it just at specific times and under specific circumstances, some others are happy to engage in romantic but not sexual relationships, and everyone is attracted to different people and/or enjoys different kinds of sexual activities. This is all completely OK, and no one should be forced or pressured to conform to someone else’s standards and expectations. Sometimes people, for example survivors of sexual assault of other forms of trauma, choose to abstain to sex for some time, and then they might ask for help and support while working on reclaiming their sexuality. In some cases, they might not. Every personal choice is always a valid choice.
6. Asking questions, setting boundaries, expressing needs and dislikes during sex makes it boring and unpleasant for a partner.
Far from it! Discussing what we want and like with our sexual partners can be a very sexy experience and, to many, a turn on. At the same time, those who feel they need to discuss their Dos and Don’ts in a less playful way, possibly out of the bedroom, are obviously in their full right. Above all, what makes sex enjoyable and exciting is people’s participation and involvement, which is likely to be way more enthusiastic and relaxed if everyone involved feels safe and respected.
7. Abused people are damaged goods. They never want sex (or always want it).
Abused people are courageous survivors and deserve all your respect. Some of them might struggle with some areas of their life, including sexuality. They might decide to take a break from sex to spend time on their recovery, or instead find that consensual sex is empowering and healing. All their choices are valid. If you are a survivor and struggle to make sexual choices that feel healthy and truly yours, please allow yourself plenty of time and forgive yourself for any set-backs. Psycho- or sex-therapy, as well as feminist and survivors-friendly erotica and self-help resources might help you reclaiming your sexuality (which does not necessarily entail having sex), in whatever way feels appropriate for you.
8. Once sex has started, it cannot be stopped.
Sex can always be stopped and everyone has the right to end a sexual act at any moment. Interruptions can lead to no physical consequences of any kind. It is important to communicate any discomfort or uncertainties to a partner, and to be receptive to any verbal or non-verbal signals that might indicate that a partner wants to stop a sexual act from happening.
9. Sex has winners and losers. It is about doing/giving something to someone.
Sex should be about shared fun and mutual enjoyment, relax, passion. Sadly in our society power dynamics are often at play, and women, non-binary people and historically discriminated against groups often (but not always) pay the highest price for this. It is important, however difficult, to dismantle all the beliefs and routines that bring us to think of sex in term of power. For example, self-identifying women (and no one else, for that matter) do not ‘lose’ virginity, and self-identifying men do not ‘win over’ their sexual partners. Of course, sex implies sometimes assertive communication and negotiation, asserting boundaries and so on. But it must always take place in the context of mutually respectful relationship between equal, consenting adults. This applies to BDSM and ‘kink’ practices (in which the exploration of power relationships can be explored but is always carefully negotiated) as well as to the most ‘vanilla’ of sexual encounters.
If you are a survivor of any form of abuse or trauma you might especially struggle with reshaping your beliefs about sex: allow yourself time and plenty of care, you deserve it.
10. Being sexually rejected by a partner is shameful. Your sexuality defines your self-worth. (aka. She didn’t want to sleep with you in the end? You loser!”)
Rejection, as and in itself, is not shameful. Rejection of any form, in any area of life, can feel upsetting, or frustrating. But it is essential to accept that people have the right to say no to us, as we can to them. The word rejection is also problematic: a partner saying no to sex does not mean they are rejecting you. It means they are exercising a freedom of choice, and (for various reasons) may not want to engage in a certain activity, at that moment in time.
Similarly, sexuality does not define your self-worth. Self-worth comes from all the different things that make a person an individual. Your talents, achievements and attributes stretch way beyond your sex life, and whilst it is important to feel proud and happy about your sexual choices and preferences, it is by no means the only (or in any way the most important) thing that defines you. It is important to remember that both in and out of sexual scenarios.
11. Bisexual people are just indecisive, you are either gay or straight. Sexuality and desire are fixed and always stay the same.
Sexual preferences are not set in stone and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation the individual is in. This is often described as Sexual Fluidity. For example, if someone identifies as heterosexual, they might at some point in their life feel increased sexual or romantic attraction to same-gender persons. Like any other social trait, sexual preferences, attitudes, behaviours and identity can be flexible to some degree. Bisexuality is defined as the romantic or sexual attraction to two or more genders/same or different genders. If you ask people who identify as straight, but then have sex with someone else of the same gender, this experience does not necessarily make them “bisexual”, but it might well make them sexually fluid.
12. It is OK (or even our right) to talk to others about our sexual partners and the sex we engaged with them without their permission.
Sex is by no accounts shameful, but is an important, delicate and private part of our life. No one has the right to share intimate details’ about someone else’s sexuality without their permission. In particular, the assumption that ‘boys will be boys’ and that self-identifying men are justified in indulging in this kind of ‘lock-room banter’ is damaging and sexist. It harms those partners who had not consented to have their sexual lives discussed by others, and all those self-identifying men who feel obliged by social expectations to join in kind of conversations they might feel uncomfortable with.
This course has been created by GenPol, a think-tank on gender and politics based at the University of Cambridge, in cooperation with Serlo.