Sex, in our culture, is like chocolate cake. It's delicious, but it's bad for you. It's a guilty pleasure. If you resist the chocolate cake, you are praised for your fortitude. If you eat the chocolate cake, you are told that you should feel guilty about what you did, which is really messed up, because most of those chocolate cake shamers are also eating chocolate cake.
This attitude about sex comes through clearly in the vocabulary used in pornography, and even magazines like Cosmopolitan. If you like sex, you're "naughty," "bad," "dirty." Thinking about how I used to use those words to describe sex now makes my skin crawl.
I've had enough of this "guilty pleasure" attitude. It's time for us to talk about how sex is good for you.
The ending to my story about my sexual trauma and my promiscuity is that I'm now in a healthy, loving relationship. And this ending is also a knew beginning--continuing my recovery with the help of my partner.
The first time Jack and I kissed, I began to feel panic bubbling up from my gut. When you've had trauma, sometimes you feel scared, even though there is no real threat. Whenever that happens, it's tempting to ignore the bad feelings and try to push through them, hoping that they will pass, rather than escalate. But my dad always used to tell me when I was younger: Never run through an asthma attack. I have to tell myself now: Don't continue when you're about to panic.
I broke away and said, "There's something I need to tell you."
I hadn't wanted to reveal that information so soon, because I still hadn't completely let go of the fear that he would run away if I made that confession to him--the fear that nobody wants to risk a relationship with someone who's damaged.
But as I felt the tears welling up, I knew I had to tell him. I wanted to be honest about the reason I was about to cry. And when I took a deep breath in and said, "I'm a sexual assault survivor," he looked straight through my distress and replied:
"Katherine, so am I."
Talk about humbling.
In that moment I realized something: In this world where violence and destruction are glorified, and nurturing and caretaking are considered menial, a staggering number of us are recovering from some kind of pain. The association of sex with domination and punishment (again, as so often occurs in pornography and other forms of media), rather than with love and partnership is the driving force behind our high rates of sexual violence. So many of us have suffered, and we don't know how to heal from our suffering, because the same society that injured us hides the tools that we need to fix ourselves. Fighting and conquering through force are good. But expressing emotions is bad. Showing any kind of vulnerability is bad. Crying is bad. The hero in the movies never cries.
Together, Jack and I began our journey of rejecting the bad coping mechanisms offered by the society that damaged both of us. We created a safe space for each other to express our emotions. I was relieved to finally be with someone who understands the psychology of trauma, who understands that sometimes you feel scared even though you're physically safe, who will sit patiently with you until your fear has passed, who will ask you what you need in order to feel better, and who will never make you feel like you need to apologize for your emotions.
And as we build our space of love and support, Jack and I are both discovering how sex can heal you when you no longer feel the need to regret it or feel guilty about it; when you no longer feel the need to punish yourself with it, or for it. For me, sex used to be a desperate attempt to regain control, measuring my well-being by whether I could play the part of the independent woman who seeks physical gratification with no desire for emotional attachment. And all those attempts at playing that character left me with a profound feeling of emptiness.
But now that I turn to myself for guidance, and not society, sex is different. Now, it feels like I'm settling down into a safe place, where someone loves my body, my heart and my mind as much as I do.
Sex is not like chocolate cake. Sex is like jogging, yoga, meditation, creative expression--as long as there is unity of mind, heart and body, sex is good for you. It adds positive energy to your life. It is a healthy part of self-care.
I want to clarify that this article is not a critique of casual sex. Though casual sex was not the healthiest choice for me, I have no grounds to claim it can't be healthy for others. It's a matter of personal preference. This article is not meant to say one kind of sex is better than another; it is meant to critique sex-negative cultural values, and the association of sex with violence.
When we as a society stop proliferating the message that things that are bad for us (violence, destruction, stoicism) are good, and things that are good for us (sex, emotional expression, self-care) are bad, not only will we be more able to help people who have suffered from trauma, we will probably also see our rates of trauma decrease. Demonizing sex and equating it with domination both causes sexual violence and inhibits recovery from that violence. We are left wondering why replicating what we see in media isn't making us better, but is, rather, making us more miserable.
It's time to break that cycle and see sex for what it was always meant to be: a source of health and happiness, which nobody should ever have to repent for. Our twisted puritanical values have caused too much suffering, while sex positivity, I believe, has an endless capacity to heal.