Sex Is a Skill, Like Riding a Bicycle
I have been doing sexuality education workshops since 1989. In one particular workshop, I focused on the idea of sex being a skill. One participant reacted very strongly against that idea. It was as though sex and sexuality could not possibly be anything other than natural or innate. I’ve been thinking about this reaction for some time now and reflecting on it in light of my experiences with learning a couple of skills as an adult.
One of the things I am most proud of is learning how to swim in my 30s. As a child living on a family farm, I heard stories of children being thrown off a boat by their siblings and told to swim—which they did. To the storytellers, my siblings, that was proof that swimming was natural. I was only grateful they didn’t throw me in the water. Instead, I was taught, mostly by my mother, to be afraid that if I attempted to learn to swim, I would drown.
As an adult dealing with the intense fear messages I had learned, I didn’t find that swimming came naturally. In fact, it was a very steep learning process to release the fears and learn the skills. It is hard to float when you are afraid. I am not the best swimmer today by any stretch; I think that some people have a natural ability to float and that it would have been easier for me to learn to swim as a child. But more important are all the other factors that affect my potential to tap into a natural ability, whether it’s about swimming or sex.
The fear in my brain was the biggest obstacle. The messages I’d heard, the stories I’d been told and my lack of experience were as much a part of my learning (and unlearning) as any inherent natural ability in my body to float in the water. But knowing when to breathe and synching my movements with my breathing are skills I had to learn regardless of any innate ability to swim. When I learned to swim, I took classes and had teachers. I had to practice in real life, in a swimming pool. I couldn’t just read about it or watch a video.
To use a different example: I learned how to ride a bicycle as a child. Whether or not balancing on a bicycle is innate or learned, I will let you decide. Just as I had developed the fear of water and swimming, the fear of cars was instilled within me in as large proportion. I had twelve siblings growing up, and most of them were older. Unfortunately, drinking and car accidents were common in my family; one accident left one of my brothers paralyzed from the waist down. So once again I learned, mostly from my mother, to be very afraid of car accidents. It didn’t help to be in my first car accident as a passenger at the age of fourteen; I was left with broken teeth and a broken left wrist. Having had at least one other very serious car accident as an adult, which left me with a severe neck injury, I appreciate the damage that can be done to my body if I am in a car accident while in a car, much less on a bicycle.
Moving through the fear as an adult and getting on the bicycle in a city was and is no small thing. And just because I learned how to balance on a bicycle as a child did not mean I didn’t have a lot more to learn as an adult. There were no stop signs on the farm.
I give the swimming and bicycle riding examples because I think the same thing happens with sex. If we learn that masturbation is a sin, as I did growing up Catholic, it has an effect on our sexuality. Whatever might come instinctively as part of a sexual experience presupposes that I have body awareness and openness to sexuality. Having body acceptance did not happen until my adulthood. I know many of us have struggled at some point in our lives with being present in our minds, emotions and bodies.
So how do we learn the skill of sex? Or how do we unlearn fear of sex, as I unlearned some of my fear of water and cars? Pretty much the same way we learn anything: We can read and research the topic. We can ask our friends or a professional. We can learn from watching a video. And we can learn sex by doing—by having sex.
There are ways to learn to be present in our emotions and body that are nonsexual in nature but can be helpful in sexual situations as well. Anything I do to increase my self-esteem or self-acceptance will also allow for increased self-esteem in sex and sexuality. After all, our sexuality is not separate from our minds, emotions and body awareness. Anything I do to enhance my emotions will allow for more emotional capacity in love, relationships and sexuality as well. When I learn to communicate appreciation and care in all relationships or how to communicate through a conflict, I can use those same skills when talking about sex.
I do recognize some of the inherent or natural aspects of sex and sexuality. If we have the foundation of body awareness or trust in ourselves and/or a partner, we can feel pleasure and may intuitively touch a certain way or respond sexually in some natural way, such as instinctively doing a rocking motion with our pelvis. But trust may need to be reestablished if it’s been broken for whatever reason. Many people can benefit from exercises and learning to increase their body awareness, and practical information on sex and sexuality can help enhance pleasure for many people.
If sex was only a skill, I would probably not be as interested in it as an education topic. I would consider it boring and technical, and it certainly would not have been one of the main focuses of my work for over twenty years. I cherish all of the creativity, humanness, flow and spontaneity of sex as it can exist in our minds, emotions and bodies. I appreciate the art of communication and building trust, of learning to let go when alone or with another person. I value the changes and growth and even naturalness of sex. If we really believe sex is natural, one place to start to honor that belief is to support, rather than shut down, children’s innate tendency to masturbate and explore their bodies. And if we acknowledge that sex is also a skill, we can get as good at it as we choose and still honor all of its creative mystery.