Sex and Sexuality

When it comes to bodies, genders, and sexual desires, society can be rather intolerant of difference. At the very least life can make us feel that way, and this feeling can instil a deep-seated sense of shame and secrecy in those who sense they don’t fit society’s rigid and narrow definitions of male, female, man, woman, sexual desire, sexual activity, or sexual attractiveness. Although many people are able to manage difference on their own, many others need someone to talk to about it. Sometimes a sympathetic ear permits a person to speak aloud about this aspect of themselves for the first time in their lives

Sexual Desires and Identities

When we talk about a sexual identity, we usually say things like “I am straight” or “I am lesbian” or “I am asexual” or “I am (something)”. This use of the word ‘am’ carries the message that our sexual desires form an enduring part of our ‘selves’. In other words, we’re saying that the fact we want to have sex with men or women (or both...or nobody) never changes, and that these urges (whether acted upon or not) say something about who we ‘are’.

On the one hand, these labels can be useful in that they allow other people to understand what we mean when we talk about it. The upside of this is that it helps us to find others who feel the same way because communities form around the labels. This is all well and good if there is an appropriate label ‘out there’ that feels like a good fit, and it’s a label that a person is comfortable wearing. On the other hand, someone might feel as though none of the labels is a good match. Unable to apply a commonly understood term to their sexual desires, such a person can feel invisible and isolated. Another problem is that our sexual desires (i.e. feelings of sexual attraction) don’t always cooperate with our self-labelings. Sexual desires can be quite fluid, and this fluidity can cause us to wonder whether we’re just ‘confused’.

Even if someone is quite comfortable with calling themselves straight or gay or bi, they might want to have sex in ways that fail to fit society’s narrow definitions of what is normal. They might participate (or want to participate) in sexual acts that they feel are ‘kinky’ or exciting, whilst others might consider such acts to be ‘dirty’ or ‘perverted’. Once again shame and secrecy can build up around these feelings of difference.

Bodies and Genders

The media is filled with messages about bodies that we don’t usually think about consciously. Certain body types or body characteristics are portrayed as sexy and others as repulsive or boring. No matter how much we hear that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, such words can ring hollow to the ears of those who feel unattractive and never seem to get any positive sexual attention from others. Negative feedback loops can develop in which we neglect ourselves, which does nothing for our sexual attractiveness! This can lead to a vicious circle. Talking to someone about it can be the first step in setting up a more positive feedback loop.

One of the things that most of us take for granted is that we have a body which is clearly male or female. “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” is the first statement that our new ears hear when we’re born, and this sets us on a certain life pathway. Far from solving all of our problems, at least it’s something consistent in our lives.

The picture is different, however, for intersex people, or those who are born with a body that’s not clearly male or female. Being born intersex is more common than most people realise; in fact it occurs with 1 in 2000 live births. These babies often have surgery on their genitals at a very young age and are raised as the assigned sex (male or female). This disciplining of the body goes fairly smoothly for some, but for others it can create a sense of shame and secrecy. Even for those who have happily embraced an intersex identity (or an assigned sex), life brings daily challenges that can get them down. After all, in terms of ideas about male and female the world is viewed not in Technicolor but in black and white.

Then again, some of us are born to a chorus of “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”, but then once we’re old enough to think about it, we realise that this is not a good description of who we are. The desire for a change of sex, especially if acted upon, takes a person down a very challenging road. Socially, our family (including children), friends, and employers might find the whole idea extremely upsetting. To get the surgery the person might have to convince doctors that he or she has a psychological condition, and this diagnosis might sit against a person’s sense of independence and self control.

Of course some of us are happy with our bodies the way they are, but we don’t feel a need to always act in a way that is clearly like a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. Rather we are happy to keep the same body but use it to ‘perform gender’ (i.e. act/look masculine, feminine) in non-standard ways. Maybe a male enjoys wearing dresses, or perhaps a female likes to grow facial hair. This fluidity of gender can be done in public or in private, and it can take many forms.

Alternatively, some of us always do our best to act and dress in ways that are seen as appropriate for a man or woman, but somehow we fail to meet those expectations. It doesn’t matter how many pairs of patent leather shoes and lace-frilled dresses we put on, we are still labelled a ‘tomboy’. It doesn’t matter how many rugby games we play or how much facial hair we grow, we’re still called a ‘poof’ or a ‘fairy’. This situation can create tremendous frustration and lead to negative feelings about ourselves.