Things To Be Thankful For (In Bed)
This column first appeared in the Boston Dig.
You’ve played that fortune cookie game, right, where everyone at the table adds “in bed” to the end of their fortune? Here’s my most recent one: “An exciting opportunity lies ahead of you.” IN BED! Excellent! Far friskier than most horoscopes. But because I’m a sexologist, there are days when my entire landscape looks like this: not excitement in bed, necessarily, but looking at the world through the lens of sexuality. I’m very, very used to it. Herewith, my Thanksgiving version of this fabulous game.
I’d like to note that I’m not the first person to have this idea, exactly; in fact, my favorite columnist, Jon Carroll, regularly does an annual Thankfulness column that includes this line: “We all learned about good sex from somebody, and that person deserves a moment” [of thanks]. Sprinkled into a list of favorite authors and teachers, it stands out: We’re not generally used to hearing this message, and certainly not in the context of commentary that otherwise doesn’t have to do with sex. Carroll perfectly integrates it, though, takes it out of the closet into which our culture tends to put sexual speech and experience. So my first thanks in this column about thankfulness is to him: Thanks, Jon, for managing a light and sensible touch, seemingly without any extra effort, when you discuss sex. If everybody could do that, I’d pretty much be out of a job.
But learning about sex is so rarely simple, and for some of us, there’s not just one person to thank. No, I’m not talking (yet, anyway) about promiscuity and the “it takes a village” model of learning about sex and sexual diversity. Stick with me, I might get to that. But first — how about thanking our sex ed teacher? OK, I realize not all of those folks deserve huge rounds of applause; in this era of abstinence-based education, plenty of poor frightened PE teachers have been dragooned into striking the not-quite-explicit fear of god (and AIDS and herpes) into the hearts of youth. But some sex education teachers are heroes.
Look at this week’s New York Times Magazine piece about Al Vernaccio— you, too, can have a teacher this good, if you’re a private school student (and especially if you’re a Quaker). (There’s the terrific Unitarian/United Church of Christ program Our Whole Lives, too, for those of us lucky enough to be affiliated with that community — if you’ll click on their link you’ll see the word “justice” embedded in it, and thanks, UU/UCC, for understanding that sexual knowledge is a social justice issue.)
And let’s face it, even if your sex ed class wasn’t stellar, there were likely moments of revelation involved, clarifying answers to questions you might not even have known you had — or at least the beginnings of answers that you were then inspired to go out and try to learn for yourself.
From there, independent study can go all kinds of ways: to the web (sites like Scarleteen –thanks, Heather Corinna, for putting years of your life into the great good work of making sure youth have a place to ask all their questions– and Go Ask Alice are indispensable for youth, and my colleague Charlie Glickman and I labor in the fields of knowledge on behalf of older and younger people alike); there are online workshops, sex ed films, all kinds of things. (As you may have already noticed, not all information on the web is created equal, so cross-check your sources.)
There are books — so many of them, again not always equally valuable, but thanks to (almost) everyone who sets out to write about their own sexual perspectives and experiences, or to get information about a topic down in a format that will be useful to readers. My favorite sex book right now is Jaclyn Friedman’s just-released What You Really Really Want — thanks, Jaclyn, for opening doors to women (and everybody else) that will allow them to explore sex without shame. Because, in spite of Dr. Jack Morin’s fascinating and useful insight (in his book The Erotic Mind) that for many people, shame, fear and guilt are deeply intertwined with arousal, and hence for some of us, shame-filled sex IS a variant on “good sex,” I wish for each of us, as part of my own definition of sex-positivity, that we might escape the strictures of shame when it comes to sexuality, sexual functioning, and sexual choices.
And that brings us to two or three other kinds of thanks.
Naturally Jon Carroll is right, at least as far as many of us are concerned: There was one person who showed us how good sex could be. Whether or not that person is still in your life, they deserve a moment of thanks, and if you’re still connected now — maybe they’re your Facebook friend, maybe they’re in the next room or sleeping quietly next to you — tell them what they mean (or meant) to you, if you can do it without reviving long-ago drama. You might be that person for somebody too — check your Wall! Thanks are due to the one you’re intimate with now, too, even if they weren’t your first.
Of course, there are those of us who’d have to, ahem, poke quite a few Facebook friends, because we learned about different things at different times from different people. Maybe some of them weren’t even people we had sex with — they were friends whose example inspired us, or who introduced us to somebody else who proved important, or who loved us inclusive of our sexuality when somebody else (maybe everybody else) rejected us. Those people deserve to be thanked too. Anyone who made space for you to be yourself sexually, and who accepted you, deserves thanks. (Please note: I realize some readers haven’t had sex yet, and might not even want to, at least not right now. I’m not just talking about sex here, I’m talking about sexuality, and everyone falls somewhere on that spectrum, even if they don’t have sex. My asexual friends: case in point! Plus, sex-positivity is not about rushing to have sexual experience you do not desire, but having a life in which you can seek the experiences and relationship/s you want.)
How did you first orgasm (providing you have had that experience so far)? Maybe you have another person to thank. Maybe some special gizmo in your life deserves those accolades! A vibrator, a stuffed animal, the edge of the dryer on spin cycle — give thanks for the nerve endings that allow you to have pleasure, and the many ways those neurons can be stimulated.
And of course you might find, in considering your sexual life so far, that you owe thanks to one more person: yourself. Maybe you picked out that delightful toy. Maybe it was your own hand that taught you about good feelings. Maybe you had to be brave enough to come out, and you did. Maybe you took a risk, told someone they were special to you, and the result was a fabulous fling or the most meaningful lifetime partnership. Your own sexual experience can barely be said to exist without your own desires, preferences, and agency. If you’ve had any fun at all IN BED, or wherever you have found yourself experiencing sexual feelings, you do have yourself to thank. Can you pick out one or more of those moments when you made a decision or took an action or followed a hunch that led you in the direction of pleasure or your own sexual integrity?
If this were a writing class, that’d be a prompt. Feel free, if you are so inclined!
Here are just some of my personal thanks:
My Mormon teacher who didn’t sanitize the bookshelf when I came over to babysit.
Myself, when I went to the library set on learning a definition for masturbation.
The older man who gave me not only sexual experiences, but also someone with whom I could openly discuss them.
The old Swedish massager I found in my parent’s hall closet.
My first girlfriend Natalie, whose comfort with sex and masturbation were frightening and inspiring.
Pat Califia, the first writer I encountered who wrote really smart, complex things about sex.
The faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, where I first heard the term “sex-positive.”
Betty Dodson, who showed me that you really can build a career teaching and writing about sex.
Magic Wand! Thanks for the orgasms, trusty pal!
Joani Blank, who offered me a job at Good Vibrations.
My partner Robert Morgan Lawrence, with whom I’ve had more comfort and adventure than I ever knew could be possible.
And that’s just a few of the many people (and gizmos) I have to thank for a lifetime (so far) of sexual knowledge and adventures.
What are yours? Whatever they are, they’re an integral part of the kind of sexual person you are, and with any luck, you still have experiences and people who have yet to come into your life — for whom, next Thanksgiving or further on down the road, you’ll find you also want to give thanks.