Sep 132016
 

A graphic of a projection screen with a pie chart.

Projection Screen With Pie Chart

We’re all normal.

let me repeat that, we’re all normal.

Our bodies are normal.

Our relationships are normal.

Our sexual desires are normal.

Our sex lives are normal.

Note: This only applies if you don’t use sex as a weapon. If you do,stop…just stop.

*

Emily Nagoski is the Wellness Education Director at Smith College. During her keynote at this year’s Guelph Sexuality Conference, she shared one of her most life-changing moments teaching college students about sexuality. When she asked her students, on the end-of-year exam, so, you know, they had to answer – what one thing they learned from the course, the answers were, overwhelmingly, some flavour of “I learned that I’m normal.”

When we (and I mean we of any age, not just young people) talk to our friends, or read sexy novels, or watch movies, we see and hear conversations about sex that often just don’t resonate. We get the message, from those books and movies, that there’s one kind of sexy, and we’re not it. We worry, when we talk to friends, or see their bodies, if our desires aren’t like theirs, or our bodies don’t look like theirs. This reminds me of when I went to Cara Liebowitz’s workshop on asexuality at the Breaking silences conference and she shared how strange and isolating it felt to hear college friends talk about feeling horny, to hear the trope that all young people want sex, and to not know, on a gut level, what horny even felt like.

Another example: Most of us aren’t too interested in sex when we’re stressed, right?

Right – but most isn’t all. Apparently, studies have shown that 80% to 90% of participants reported trouble getting aroused when they were stressed out. That leaves 10%-20% of participants who got more revved up sexually when the stress piled on. Neither way is “right,” it just is – though I’m guessing it makes for lots of misunderstandings in relationships.

*

Emily wants to help people understand their own sexualities, and figure out what kind of sex (if any) they want by looking at what the science has to say.

If you’re a sex nerd like me – or, just a nerd – this is super exciting. I was on the edge of my seat, frantically taking notes, the whole time Emily was talking.

That said: Relying on the science does have limitations. As Emily pointed out, science still classifies people as either male or female, depending mostly on what they have between their legs. Yeah, there are other ways to measure that, but most of us haven’t had our chromosomes tested. And, even if we did, maleness and femaleness aren’t so clear-cut as all that. Sex and gender are way, way more complicated.

What Emily didn’t mention in her lecture was that there are other unknowns when we’re looking to science to tell us just what the heck’s going on with our sexualities and sex lives.

We’re limited by who gets researched: Is it mostly college students? Mostly nondisabled folks? Mostly people from one cultural background or another? Mostly people who are evaluated as being in “good health?”

How we experience life affects how our sexualities develop. it affects how we relate to our bodies, to other people, to the world around us. Our personal histories can affect how our bodies react, and how we react to our bodies

My biggest take-away from all the scientific research is that the results give us new ways of looking at the world, new ways of thinking about sexuality, and new ways of -possibly – understanding our own bodies.

*

The research also clears up, once and for all, a misconception that’s been around far too long!

When you’re having sex with someone, listen to what they’re telling you, not whether they’re hard, or wet, or panting, or flushed, or….

The way someone’s body reacts, doesn’t tell you whether they want to be having this sex. It’s called arousal nonconcordance and while the studies show that it happens more to participants who were categorized as women – in other words, people with vulvas and vaginas – this can happen with any person, at any time, for any reason. Yes, even people in long-term relationships can have their bodies act like they want sex, when they couldn’t be less into it. Wanting sex one day doesn’t mean wanting it the next, even if all the physical arousal signs are there.

It doesn’t help that wanting sex is usually talked about in terms of how fast someone got wet, or the fact that their penis was hard. I don’t know about you, but most novels I read take us from casual flirting to full-on arousal (and, implied, full on interest) in less than thirty seconds.

Emily read us a passage from Fifty Shades of Grey (first time i’d read any of it, and I doubt I’ll be reding more). Christian is spanking Ana, and remarks on how much he “knows” she likes it because he sees her wetness. Meanwhile, Ana’s thoughts are all about how much she doesn’t like it, and wondering why she’s doing this, and justifying to herself why this is okay.

Nope, Ana is not aroused, or having fun!

The worst part of judging whether someone wants sex by what their body is doing, rather than on what they’re telling you is when that person’s “no” or “slow down” or “I don’t want this” isn’t listened to. A friend told me recently about a mutual acquaintance who was trying to make out with her. He stopped when she asked him to, but he couldn’t resist observing that her nipple had gotten hard, as if that was some kind of hard evidence (no pun intended – really!) that she enjoyed the contact even if she said she didn’t want it.

Then there are the people who don’t stop. It’s way too common (and makes my stomach turn! – No, scratch that: Fills me with rage!) that sexual abusers will insist that their victims must have liked it, because they got wet, or had an orgasm, or moved their hips, or whatever lie seems to fit best and work to manipulate or discredit the “I didn’t ask for or agree to that.” Little do they know: Science is not on their side.

If the mind is saying no, we listen to that, however someone communicates that to us. period.

Here’s a Youtube video on arousal nonconcordance (fully captioned).

*

The second most pivotal thing I learnd was this:
Scientifically, sex is not a drive; we don’t need sex to survive, the way we need food, or water, or sleep, or enough sodium (salt).

No one ever died or got injured for lack of sex.

So, what we call a “sex drive,” that feeling that makes us want to get our sexy on? That’s actually called a sexual incentive motivation system. That doesn’t roll off the tongue so well, but there you have it. It’s totally fine if we want to keep calling it a drive, as long as we understand the differences.

A drive is for something we need to have to survive – like I said above: water, sleep, food, certain minerals from food.

An incentive motivation system is an external thing, external attraction, that pulls you into it and compels you to explore. Think of it like being intensely curious about something where you start reading everything you can on it, talking about it all the time, living it day in and day out, versus being dry-throated, fuzzy-mouthed “dying of thirst” thirsty.

According to Emily, when we say we have a high sex drive, we’re basically saying that we have a high curiosity for sex, a strong pull to explore sex or feel sexual sensations.

I have this in my notes, which I really love: Your partner, or a sexual act, is a source of wonder, exploration, curiosity – hot curiosity.

Takeaways:

  • We do not need sex to survive.
  • Sexual frustration will not kill you.

Sexual frustration will not kill you.

I repeat: sexual frustration, lack of sex, unsatisfying sex, not having a sexual partner – won’t kill you. It won’t even make you sick.

*

The title of this presentation was “Pleasure is the Measure.”

when we shed the things we think we’re supposed to do, or feel, or think, about sexuality, we’re left with what we want.

It doesn’t matter who you have sex with, or how, or why, or where (as long as you’re obeying local laws), or even if you’re having sex at all.

What matters is that it’s what you want to be doing.

It’s not just sexytimes and orgasms that make the plesure happen; it’s feeling safe, happy, secure, not doing things you don’t want to do, knowing what you do want to do.

Further Reading

Come As You Are

The dirty Normal

A sexually accurate romance novel “How Not To Fall”

Jul 212016
 

I was excited to see Noah Eidelman’s workshop Neurodivergent & Naughty: Sex and Sexuality for folks on and around “the spectrum” on the schedule at the 38th annual Guelph Sexuality Conference., where I spent a fun, exhilarating, exhausting couple of days in June. Collectively, our conversations about sexuality and disability are still revolving mostly around physical and sensory impairments or illnesses. When we turn to intellectual and developmental disabilities, we’re still too often stuck at the question of ability to consent, or at validation of sexuality (including asexual identity) in the first place.

Noah’s presentation took us beyond that conversation, to the factors that can affect relationships, sexual identity, and sexual expression for neuro-atypical or neuro-diverse folks. Noah likes the shorthand of neuro-weird or neuro-whatever. As someone who would be considered neurotypical (more on that in a minute) I don’t feel comfortable adopting the term neuroweird, but I love it…because it describes just how messy and imprecise the whole neurodiversity umbrella is.

Noah started the presentation with some definitions and language etiquette.

I was pleased that Noah mentioned the problems with referring to someone as high- or low-functioning, something that’s done a lot, especially with autistic or mentally ill folks. This kind of language is a problem because it places value on the ability or inability to do something. Whether someone can tie their own shoes, count to ten, wipe their own butt, or live on their own without help isn’t a moral question. Assigning a functioning level to someone is supposed to tell the story of what supports or technologies they need, but it’s a sloppy shorthand. Much clearer to spell out what a person is or isn’t physically or mentally able to do.

When we talk about neurodiverse folks these days, we usually think about autistic people first, but the neuro-atypical umbrella can include people with ADD or ADHD, people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or dyscalculia (difficulty learning or understanding number-related stuff), people with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder, and other people with neurological disorders, brain injuries, and developmental disabilities.

In short, we’re usually talking about people who have been labelled with some sort of medical diagnosis. Sometimes, this is helpful, when it means that someone gets the support and validation they need for how their brain works. But the diagnostic process also has a really intense history of racism and cultural bias – for example, the history of racial prejudice in intelligence testing.

There’s really no such thing as a normal brain. I’ve looked for definitions of neurotypical, and most of them boil down to “not autistic.” IN everyday use, “neurotypical” often refers to cognitive functioning, learning ability, and what would be considered stable mental health.

I think that what we usually mean when we say neurotypical is the brain that can manage, or mostly manage, to deal with the world as we’ve set it up, to learn in the one or two ways that are considered acceptable or “normal,” to emotionally cope in the environment, to react to stress and external stimuli (loud noises, flashing lights, crowded subway cars, etc) in culturally acceptable ways.

None of this actually means, for example, that noisy, crowded, fluorescently lit environments are ideal, or good for our physical health, or anywhere close to ideal for helping us understand and remember things, or that the way we’ve set up classrooms and the way we teach information actually supports learning, or that our culturally sanctioned ways of conducting a relationship and communicating about or during sex are actually useful or health-promoting. So-called neurotypical folks just happen to be the majority (and majorities don’t always refer to the largest groups of people).

Here are just a few of the points Noah shared about neurodiverse folks’ experience of and needs around sex and relationships.

  • Communication needs and methods: Some folks are nonverbal, partially verbal, or only verbal some of the time or in specific situations. These folks communicate through writing, sign language, or other nonverbal methods. Other people struggle with social aspects of communication, such as how to make small talk.
  • Sensory Issues: Some folks are sensitive to being touched, or have strong negative reactions to specific textures, or temperatures, or ways of being touched. I think it’s important for we neurotypical folks to understand that these reactions are often Not just expressions of discomfort, but of deep distress.
  • Social skills: Trouble with or fear around meeting people, with knowing how to negotiate different relationships – neighbor, boyfriend, stranger. Some folks may also struggle with what diferent social cues mean, or when and where to act out diferent social behaviours. Noah stressed that not all neurodivergent people will struggle with social skills, and that some folks may have good and bad days with regards to their abilities to understand social cues, depending on their level of anxiety, whether or not they feel overstimulated, or other factors that might affect how their brain functions.
  • Self-esteem: A lot of neurodivergent folks have a low sense of self-worth. Here’s how I understood Noah’s explanation for part of why this happens: When you’re always told you’re doing something wrong (not expressing yourself the right way, not being socially appropriate,, “overreacting” to events or stimuli – loud noises, etc – that “should” be “no big deal”) and people are trying to show you the “right” way to do that thing or react in that environment, it can take a toll on a person’s sense of self and make them value self less.
  • Gender: Many neurodiverse folks identify as genderqueer;. If you already have a different perspective on the world than the one society dictates we all adopt if we’re going to be “normal” prescribed roles of maleness and femaleness already make less sense. These roles are less likely to feel right for yourself if they don’t make sense to begin with.

Even progressive understandings of sex and sexuality can exclude the experiences and needs of neurodiverse folks.

Our basic understanding of how to do enthusiastic consent doesn’t account for the communication or sensory needs some neurodiverse folks might have during sex. A person’s inability to consent might have nothing to do with whether they do or don’t want the sexual activity to continue. Sometimes folks can be so overwhelmed by the sensory input of sexual activity that their ability to speak, or to find the right words, or even to acknowledge that they’ve been spoken to might be impaired or absent altogether.

If communication is not being understood. If the person doesn’t have words. Or the words that come out aren’t the words expected for that situation, the feeling behind the words may not be understood or respected and this is when misunderstandings, and assault happen;

If their senses are overwhelmed, a person may not be able to say what’s wrong or how to fix it.
If “I don’t like this” comes out as movie dialogue or a word being repeated over and over… it’s unlikely a partner will understand, and know to stop what they’re doing, unless they’ve been told ahead of time that this is a typical response to feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or otherwise needing the sex to stop or change.

What to do when this is your, or your lover’s, reality.

  • Set up parameters about what’s going to happen during sex ahead of time, when that’s the only thing people are thinking about, and there isn’t a whole bunch of sensory input to compete with.
  • Agree about wants, desires, and boundaries ahead of time in whatever communication form is strongest for all partners on that day.
  • agree to what activities will or won’t happen, and agree to what words or signals will be used in the heat of the moment to give consent.
  • Noah suggested using a a neuro-diversity and sex checklist, like this one.

To help with communication during sex, people can try:

  • Asking their partner yes/no questions. For example: asking “Do you like it when I…” instead of “What are you feeling when I do this?”
  • Or, ask ranking questions.”How much are you enjoying this, with 1 being not at all and 5 being “Hell,yeah, don’t stop.”

It’s ironic, in a pleasant way, that noah’s presentation gave me new and interesting ways to understand some things I already knew.

I hadn’t, for example, thought about the ways special education and behaviour therapies could impair a person’s awareness of their own body, sexually and otherwise, but it makes so much sense. When you’re told that your perception of the world isn’t accurate, you can, I imagine, start not believing that any of your perceptions or sensations are accurate, or that they’re acceptable.

When you’ve been trained that the way you react to loud noises is socially unacceptable, you can start to lose touch with your instincts.

When you react negatively to being touched, and you receive behavioural therapy to “teach” you how to handle touch, you might start thinking that you’re not allowed to have boundaries around what’s done to you or how you feel about what’s done to you. This could have some pretty negative consequences for a person knowing how to protect themselves from unwanted physical or sexual contact, knowing how to ask for the kind of physical or sexual contact they do want, and for understanding and respecting other people’s physical and sexual boundaries.

Having these kinds of experiences can result in feeling out of touch with your own body, and you can need reinforcement that your body is your own.

***

Over and over again, I’m struck by how much our disability-inclusive conversations about sexuality are really the conversations everyone needs to be having about sex and sexuality. Like: Of course no one is the same (E.G. your current lover isn’t necessarily going to like the same things your last lover did, so having signature sexual moves isn’t going to do much for anyone except the lover who likes them.) IN other words, there’s no one –size-fits-all, magic bullet sexual technique that you can use and thereby avoid the awkwardness of asking your partner what they want.

Our ideas about what’s supposed to happen when in a relationship? They depend on being from the same culture, and being willing to mess up a lot because one of you thinks that first dates are for kissing only, while the other is sure the cultural rules say “second base” is absolutely acceptable. The idea that there’s a right way to do sex and relationship stuff and that everyone knows that way without having to talk about it is just a messy, harmful myth.

For folks who can’t pass as neurotypical, there are very real struggles, interpersonal misunderstandings, and traumatizing incidents – all of which can seriously impact sexual expression, or even how a person understands their own sexuality. Add this to cultural myths and you often have a mess.

There are so many parallels between the things that neuro-atypical folks find they have to think about, and the things so-called neuro-typical folks need to be thinking about if they’re trying to have healthier sexual relationships.

More About Noah Eidelman

Noah Eidelman is based in Montreal.

From the conference Web site:

Noah Eidelman is an atypical support worker, community organizer, workshop facilitator, childcare provider, and all-around nerd. Noah’s interests include (but are definitely not limited to): confronting systems of power and privilege, challenging assumptions and stereotypes, trauma theory, disability and disability justice, first aid and community healthcare, the awesome stuff learned by hanging out with kids, reading, cartoons, and pigeons.

(A love for community healthcare and pigeons? Rock on!))

Jul 152015
 

Last month I attended the 37th Annual Guelph Sexuality Conference.

The lineup was amazing, and I learned so much – about consent, about community-based research with youth who have HIV, about how to use gender-neutral language to talk about sexuality and relationships – and about sexuality and disability.

Kaleigh Trace presented Desirability as Resistance: Reading Disability Differently, the presentation title that finally got me to stop dithering and register for the conference.

I had just read Kaleigh’s sexy, funny, thought-provoking book and was excited to meet her and learn more from her.

Workshop Description:

The aim of this workshop is to critically examine our internalized (and often ableist) ideas about what it means to be disabled, and rewrite these constructs by looking at some of the work being done by radical disability activists today. In particular we will examine disabled activists who work to be visibly sexual. As such, this workshop will benefit all folks who work with people with disabilities and any individuals working in sex ed. through a look at disability and sexuality.

One of the beautiful things about this session was how open and comfortable it felt to be there. Kaleigh got her participants laughing, and gave us plenty to think about, but where she really shines as a presenter is in presenting enough information, and asking the right questions, to spark open and emotionally safe participant conversations. I think we learned as much from each other as we did from her, and most people felt able to share experiences and opinions that made them more vulnerable to the rest of us. Kaleigh also does not set herself up as an authority. She was very clear with us that she speaks about what she’s learned and experienced, from her perspective as a disabled white cisgender woman – hers are not the only opinions or lived realities.

Kaleigh introduced us to the justice model for understanding and talking about disability. Two of the most well-known models of disability are the medical and social models. The medical model focuses on “fixing” disabilities, and people who follow it tend, in general, to ignore the expertise and abilities of disabled people themselves. The social model teaches that society’s prejudice and lack of physical access and acceptance is what disables people, but fails to take into account that many people are disabled by pain or illness, individual situations that society, as a whole, can’t do anything about. A justice model of disability, helps us look not only at the social roots and causes discrimination and exclusion of disabled people, but also the individual histories, experiences, and identities that shape each person’s life.

We talked about desirability, about how we’re taught that disability is the opposite of beautiful or attractive – that any body that doesn’t conform to beauty standards is automatically considered less than. Beauty standards are different from culture to culture, and have definitely changed over time. Right now in Western cultures, beauty standards are hinged on the ability to conform, to be symmetrical (or, at least, to be asymmetrical in a chic way), to be willing to put your body on display in some way (not necessarily through showing skin), to move and present ourselves only in ways that are pleasing to other people (and it seems to be assumed that everyone will find the same, or similar things, pleasing, appealing, or even sexy).

Kaleigh took us on a quick, informal tour of what desirability has looked like – at least the forms of desirability that have been passed down to us through paintings and, later, photos – through the last 500 years in Western cultures, a look she summarized as “people in hats and dresses.” These looks are modest by modern standards. They also force bodies to conform, by covering them up and making them look the same. It’s hard to see certain kinds of disability and difference when a body is covered by fabric, sometimes from head to toe.

The kinds of clothing that are seen as desirable now, and over, say, the past sixty years, bring attention to the body, and show differences between bodies.

What we find attractive to look at hasn’t quite caught up with this trend, so that when people see more of a disabled or different body, and it doesn’t fit into the beauty or sexual attraction standard, they clasify it as ugly, or even nonsexual.

When disabled people talk about sex, especially about their own sexuality, when we change the stories about what and who is desirable by including ourselves or other disabled people, we’re turning our desirability into an act of resistance.

Resistance is a tricky thing. We talked a lot about what it is, what it looks like, and whether we actually want to do it.

Do we want to challenge stereotypes of how we’re supposed to behave or what we should say just for the sake of challenging stereotypes?

If, in resisting these stereotypes, we’re acting in ways that have us not being true to ourselves, are we really resisting what’s expected of us? Or, are we just performing a different kind of conformity?

Further Reading

Kaleigh’s book: Hot, Wet, and Shaking: How I Learned to Talk about Sex

Some of Kaleigh’s picks for “rad disabled activists”

More sexuality and disability resources.