Sex therapist and educator Marty Klein, Ph. D., says that people ask him all the time about what “normal” looks like. His reply? “I say forget the number of times people have sex per month, or how often someone masturbates, or how long it takes to climax. Those averages tell you nothing. Knowing that you don’t laugh during sex, are too embarrassed to use lubricant, or can’t tell your partner ‘No, not there, here,’ tells us much, much more.”
But what does it tell?
That the “… circle of lovers / Whose hands are joined in a dance” can often be a space of bad and hard feelings: shame, blame, intimidation, resentment, pessimism, loneliness. That for some people, says Marty Klein, “not failing is the best that sex ever gets.”
We want, he says (and he’s right), some combination of pleasure and comfort, but before, during, and after sex, our focus can be on the exact kind of things that kick pleasure and comfort out the door.
The reason why can be summed up in one word: noise. The music that moves a circle of lovers into sexual dancing—or, in less poetic and more physiological terms: the sexual signal that the brain sends down the spinal column to the pelvis where, as a result, vasocongestion leads to erection or lubrication—this music, this ecstatic music of sex positivity, is blocked, jammed, drowned out, depressed.
Noise does this to us.
Noise: the idea/feeling that sexual desire in general is something dark and dirty and secret and awful. A bias that is confirmed in so many ways by American culture, including, for example, its penchant to say no to sex but yes to violence. Back in 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that a ban on selling violent video games was unconstitutional, but apparently unconstitutionality does not extend to banning depictions of sexual activity that is perfectly consensual and nonviolent. Show a head exploding, and that’s ok. Show a penis, erect or not, and OMG.
Or this noise: the idea/feeling that some specific kinds of sex are dark and dirty. Just ask the Georgia legislators in the House and the Senate about House Bill 757, the so-called “religious liberty” bill, which would have legalized open discrimination against LGBTQ people but which, thankfully, Governor Deal vetoed. Just ask the North Carolina legislators who framed a comparable bill called House Bill 2 but the governor there didn’t veto it and so now open discrimination in that state is the law.
Noise, noise, noise. It jams the sexual signal and stops the dance.
The noise that says, “Only some kinds of sex are good.”
One variation of this noise is that only sex with a partner counts. Masturbation is wrong, is not a valid way to generate pleasure, so especially if you are younger and you haven’t been with a partner yet, well, you better get on the sex train stat even though you might not be ready and doing it is risky. You can feel this way even though nature blows raspberries against this anti-masturbation bias. Apes and orangutans and capuchin monkeys are champion masturbators, and so are bottlenose dolphins and killer whales and elephants and walruses and squirrels and bats and iguanas and turtles and penguins and on and on. Masturbation is the norm in nature, not the exception. So why do humans create an alternate norm around this?
It’s noise, and so is this: the noise of the “normal.” Only normal sex is good. Normal-looking penises, vaginas, vulvas, all functioning in normal ways that drug companies approve, all erect or lubricated in normal fashion, and everything marching towards normal orgasms.
But normal can also mean a view of how enlightened men and empowered women look and feel and behave. In this sense, is Beyonce’s sexuality, for example, normal? Does it reflect genuine female-empowered sexual expression, or is it merely an internalization of male fantasy? (Your answer to this question says something, arguably, about which wave of feminism you belong to.)
And consider yet a third sense of normal, which assumes that people’s relationship with sex is fairly simple and straightforward. But what if you’ve been raped, or you’ve experienced some kind of sexual violence? Your partner’s sole focus is on orgasms, and he makes it sound like that’s normal, so what it means is that miles of who you are is left out of the sexual relationship. No room for your heart and your healing. The noise of the normal drowns your authenticity out…
But there’s still more noise to consider.
The noise that says, unless sex exhibits perfect genital functioning, it’s no good.
The noise that says, unless sex culminates in penetration with orgasm, it’s no good.
The noise that says, unless the sex I’m having is like the sex I had when I was in my 20s, it’s no good.
The noise that says, unless the conditions of my environment are perfect (no kids in the house; not a single chore to do; I went to the gym and flossed today, and so did my partner), the sex is no good.
The noise that says, unless my partner can read my mind—unless I can just say nothing or at least go no further than having to say “down there” or “it” or “you know”—the sex is no good.
Noise noise noise…
Ultimately, with all this noise, the experience of sex becomes one of policing, monitoring. Listen to Marty Klein on this: “Many people are watching themselves during sex more than they are experiencing sex…. We usually imagine, harshly judge, and worry about what our partner sees, smells, hears, and tastes. […] It’s like trying to enjoy dinner while wearing a brand-new expensive white suit.” Marty Klein goes on to say that we can also monitor our partners. “[T]hey take their partner’s functioning personally. Many people scrutinize their partner’s arousal and orgasm because they don’t want to be judged a failure… But,” he asks, “how can you relax when your partner is examining your sexual response—not in a joyful, attentive way, but with an eye for signs that he or she has failed?”
All the noise just makes for loneliness, where we feel that we are on the outside, looking in. Rather than experiencing in all our authenticity, we are watching and we are judging….
Yes we can learn much from knowing that way too many people don’t laugh during sex, are too embarrassed to use lubricant, or can’t tell their partner ‘No, not there, here.’…
And do you know what Unitarian Universalism has to say to all of this? Especially now, in this time of year when the plant world is in furious sexual heat and the pollen everywhere is the bold brash evidence of that?
What Unitarian Universalism has to say was confirmed at General Assembly in 2012, when Unitarian Universalists from across the world came together to choose “Reproductive Justice” as the UUA’s next Congregational/Action focus for 2012-2016. “Reproductive justice advocacy,” says official UUA literature, “is grounded in a vision where sex and bodies are not stigmatized and a diversity of truths are possible; where we can tell the truth about our lives and learn to hold each other in non-judgmental compassion.”
Unitarian Universalism says, Drown the noise out with Love. Subvert that noise, silence that noise. That noise is not true to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. That noise is not true to what it means to live as part of the interdependent web of all existence. That noise is not true to Beloved Community, where there’s a place at the table not just for people who are young and people who are old and people who are black and people who are white and people who are brown and people who are theists and people who are atheists and people who are abled in one way and people who are abled in other ways and on and on—not just a place for people like that, but also a place for their bodies. Their bodies are as welcome as their minds. Beloved Community is embodied community. If Beloved Community can’t embrace sexuality, then it is not Beloved.
So Unitarian Universalist Beloved Community says, Enough with the noise! Give us music instead!
Or more specifically: give us “sexual intelligence.”
In his wonderful book with that as its title, Marty Klein defines it as “the set of internal resources that allows you to relax, be present, communicate, and respond to stimulation, and create physical and emotional connection with a partner. When you can do that, you’ll have enjoyable sexual experiences, regardless of what your body does.” Essentially, there are three kinds of internal resources: correct information about sex; emotional skills that enable a person to use the information effectively; and body awareness that brings it all together.
We don’t have time to explore all three resources, but we do have time to at least get a good start.
Our sexual intelligence grows, says Marty Klein, every time we let a piece of the noisiness go. Every time we turn a source of noise down.
Turn down the noise that sexual desire is something dark and dirty and secret and awful. Masturbation is just healthy and good; and as for sex with a partner, that is worthy to stand in the light if at least five conditions are met: (1) If a person is truly ready for it and it’s not just about peer pressure or showing a partner how much you care or something like that; (2) if a person is truly acting out of respect vs. using sex in manipulative, destructive, hurtful ways; (3) if a person is taking responsibility for protecting themselves and their partner against pregnancy (if that is the desire) and also against STDs; (4) if a person is fully aware of what’s happening (not drunk for example), and they can always say no; and (5) if a person is having sex with someone whose power is equal to theirs vs. there being a power differential between the two. Fulfill those five conditions and it doesn’t matter if it’s straight or gay, it doesn’t matter what the flavor of your kink is, the sex is worthy to stand in the light of day.
Turn down the noise of all that drowns out the beautiful music!
Turn down the noise of the “normal.” You know what’s truly normal in sex? “Normal,” says Marty Klein, “is worrying about being sexually normal. Normal is not talking about being worried about these things.” Turn down that noise, so the music of your authentic self can course down from your brain and through your spine and you become what Walt Whitman once called the “body electric” but in an utterly unique sexy way.
Also turn down the noise of moralists who want to tell you who you need to be to be a real man or woman or feminist. Sex-positivity affirms diversity. The blogger at Pervocracy says, “Some people are asexual. Some people are sexual but not all that into it. Some people are monogamous, heterosexual, and not into kink. Some people have physical or psychological issues that interfere with them having sex. Trying to ‘free’ any of these people from their ‘repression’ is ignorant, presumptuous, and the very opposite of promoting sexual freedom.” And note how all this sexual freedom is within the moral bounds that I just defined; ethically permissible sexuality is as varied as nature is.
Turn down the noise, and allow for diversity.
Turn down the noise, and welcome your partner in all his or her fullness, including the hurts and scars. Let there be space for being honest about this, and for healing.
Turn down the noise, and imagine how your entire body could be an erogenous zone, not just your genitals.
Turn down the noise, and enjoy what’s happening without having to monitor “where it’s going.”
Turn down the noise, and accept what happens as your body ages and the sex changes accordingly: create space for that. Every age and stage of life has its unique worth and dignity.
Turn down the noise, and know that it’s ok not to pay attention to whatever would pull you out of the experience (the dishes in the sink, you didn’t floss today). For the moment, let it all go.
Turn down the noise, and acknowledge that a common sexual vocabulary is a part of good sex. Spontaneous fun happens during bike-riding or going on a picnic or having a lovely dinner, but to get to that spontaneity there’s got to be some preparation ahead of time. People have to plan. People have to talk. Take your partner’s hand and show them what you like and say, “Like this.” If something feels good, say so. If something doesn’t feel good, never ever lie. Just say, “no thanks.” Say, “Do this instead.”
Unitarian Universalism wants everyone to be free, and fully realized. Not on the outside looking in, but immersed in experience. Not lonely, but seen and known and held.
In this interdependent web of all existence, in this springtime when the pollen everywhere reminds us that the world is torrid with sexuality, Unitarian Universalism says, Love the sexuality that’s yours. Understand it, own it, take care of it.
Either just by yourself, or shared with another: let pleasure and comfort be yours.