I won’t lie. Last week was a long one and the thought of cuddling up in bed on Saturday morning was infinitely more appealing than arranging to be on the Euston Road by 10.30am.
But I had a ticket for the Wellcome Collection’s Symposium of Sexual Desire, so I got my shit together and I didn’t regret it one bit. This day long symposium promised to ‘delve into the complexity of sexual desire, tracing connections between history, sociology, psychology and neurophysiology’. It did so, with bells on and everything in between.
Two things spring to mind when thinking about this event. Research into an area that affects almost every waking moment of our lives is in its infancy and this fact blows my mind. We have built a rocket that could send a man to the moon but we still know next to nothing about the very reason that we exist in the first place. To illustrate my point, it’s only recently that we have begun to let go of the idea that vaginal orgasms are a myth for most women. It is simply not the way that the majority of the female population get off! But a man with a beard deemed it so sometime last century and culture dictated that these facts were not disputed.
Until now. Things are changing and Saturday’s programme at The Wellcome Collection confirmed this. The day was full of enthusiastic, insightful characters lifting away the layers of our intimate lives and trying to make sense of them. ‘It’s difficult to be scientific about such a subjective area’, said one of the speakers, but they gave it their best shot.
My second point is that at times, I am guilty of being negative about sex & the internet. I am disturbed by the fact that internet porn has become the default sex education. I’ve talked about this before. But the flipside is that the internet showcases a much more nuanced and less black and white model of sex. I see this in my own work all the time. If you’d asked a bunch of teenagers 10 years ago to define their loss of virginity, I’d wager that most of them (the heterosexual ones at least) would have mentioned penis-in-vagina sex.
Not today. Young people are freer to define their experiences on their own terms because they are exposed to more fluidity and choice. They understand that there are lots of different ways to experience sex and pleasure. So if the experience of having your first orgasm with someone meant more to you than having what, let’s face it, can be anti-climactic penetrative sex for the first time, so be it. Sexuality is a wide ranging arena and there are fewer and fewer ‘right’s or ‘wrongs’. Just what feels right for you.
Asexuality, a phrase that I feel sure is set to become a buzz word for the future, was laid bare by Liz McDonnell & Susie Scott from the University of Sussex as they offered up a palate of asexual persuasions. Susie and Liz illustrated the spaces and places where the so called ‘normal’ sexual world overlaps with the asexual. Once again, who knew that asexuality was so nuanced and colourful? It reminded me of how shocked I was (at myself more than anything) when I first read the account that later become ‘The Asexuality Story’ in my book. Because I realised that asexuality was nothing to do with prudishness or having a personality schism or something that happened to people who had had disturbing experiences with sex.
It was more often about people who, whilst they might lack sexual desire, definitely did not lack interest in romance, intimacy or even passion. That there are all sorts of different ways of ‘being’ in this world and a lot of us are pretty limited when confronted with anything that strays from the norm. Here is some lovely writing on the subject of difference from Canvas8.
Katherine Angel led a fabulous conversation around the language that we use to talk about sexual desire, specifically women & desire because language in this area is mostly modelled on a male understanding and that seeing it solely as something that is ‘urgent’ can be prohibitive. That again, mimicking the theme of the day, there are lots of different ways to experience the D word. She also pointed out that that whilst we take male desire as a given, a story is emerging around women being more ‘unruly’ than is traditionally thought and proceeded to mention a piece of research conducted by Meredith Chivers that I really love. I won’t go into one. You can read it here. But to summarize, women are turned on by just about everything: men, women, monkeys. Boom.
Kate Fisher delighted us with her collection of historical sex objects that she takes into schools to facilitate conversations with young people about sex, intimacy, body image and consent. What a genius, not to mention genuinely informative idea.
And author Frederick Toates said that we 'needed more narrative based research’ which as you can imagine was music to my ears because this is what you, the readers & participants of this blog have helped me to co-create at The Virginity Project for the past 8 years. Whilst I am at it, here is another narrative based piece of research I’ve recently completed.
The day could be summed up by Katherine Angel’s quote: ‘There is no normal; it’s just what is commonly accepted’. So going forward, can we open our minds and commonly accept something curious and new on as many days of the week as possible?
Which leads me to today’s story.
There is little else to say about it asides from the fact that it’s a good thing that people are born with brains and can work things out for themselves because that’s some serious layers of shite that Kacey was forced to wade through in order to find ‘the truth’. Aka, her truth, the only truth that matters and not someone else’s agenda to push gender relations back to the Victorian era. Big up to Kacey for putting pen to paper and sharing it with us.
‘Hi Kate! I love your blog. Reading about other people's experiences is amusing and interesting. So I wanted to share mine. I am Kacey. I was born in 1995 and I'm from the United States.
I come from a conservative Christian home. I was raised to believe that your virginity is special, only to be given to your husband and also that no good guy wants a girl that's already had sex. Youth pastors used horrible analogies to get this point across: "Would you want a present that's already been unwrapped? Exactly."
So this scared me a lot. I've always been intrigued about sex from the time I got "the talk" in fifth grade, but I didn't think I wanted to do it until I was married. I even had a purity ring (which sits, dusty, in my jewellery box as I type this). I had also been told by many people that you would experience immense guilt after doing it before marriage. So I felt pretty confident in my virginity pledge.
I met Justin when I was 16. He was so easy to be around. I never felt uncomfortable or judged by him. Soon after we started dating, the topic of sex came up and it turns out he had a pretty crappy experience with it at first. He had been kind of talked into it by a girl he was dating for only a few months and he didn't enjoy it. We decided it was in both of our best interests to wait.
Fast forward two years later; we were on his bed, getting hot and heavy. He asked if I wanted him to "go down there" I reluctantly said yes and I didn't regret it.
It was bliss.
After about a year of doing everything but intercourse, a few weeks ago, we tried it.
This huge experience that everyone told me about was finally here. I was anxious to see what my own "first time" would end up like.
It was pretty bland. It only lasted about four minutes, neither of us finished, and it was very uncomfortable, and slightly painful. Afterwards he held me and kissed me and told me he loved me like, thirty times. I was excited to have done it, and I can't wait to get more practice in.
The thing is, I don't feel guilt like I was told I would. I don't feel this big emotional connection either; I was already so emotionally connected to Justin. He's the love of my life, and it was simply one of many first experiences we have shared together.
That is my theory. Sex is what you make it out to be, and for me, it's an experience to share with someone. Don't get me wrong; I'm glad I waited to do it with Justin. But honestly, we had been ready to do it for a long time! Our relationship is so strong and solid, with or without sex. And that is what my youth pastors left out: Sex does not make or break a relationship. People do.'