Think back to your high school sex education classes (assuming you had any). If they were anything like mine, they were
limited to images of putrefying genitals — blighted with some or other
sexually transmitted illness — and birth control (“Be wise, condomise!”).
If you were very lucky, your sex ed classes may
have included some form of slut-shaming, particularly directed at girls.
(“Watch how much you drink; only have sex with some- one you love; don’t wear
promiscuous clothes; don’t sleep around; don’t pay too much attention to men;
don’t laugh, breathe, exist too loudly.”)
Most discussions of sex and sexuality are marred
by a lens of morality — a list of “do’s and don’ts” that do not adequately
equip teens (or adults) for the actual politics and complexity of sexuality and
Or, worse, a moral-panic approach that tries to control
sexuality, particularly that of teenage girls and women.
Sex is much more than a “do’s and don’ts” list. It
a relational activity and, in an inequitable world with regard to sex and
gender, it is also a never-ending negotiation of power. It is therefore
complex, making the kind of prescriptive black-and-white thinking taught in
most schools dogmatic and unhelpful in real life situations.
The simple fact that morality is often used to
abuse power and oppress those it considers “deviant” makes it incompatible with
a truly equitable negotiation of power in sex.
Ethics, however, provide us with more nuanced and
useful tools on how to negotiate power structures in sexual intimacy that help
to benefit and amplify safety — empowerment and pleasure for ourselves and our
French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests that,
to be sexually ethical, we must be mindful of not only our own desires but
also the effect of those desires on our partners, through a constant
renegotiation with ourselves and others.
Discussions of sexual ethics and the ethics of
pleasure have gained traction over the past decade. (The fact that these are
not reflected in sex ed classes speaks to the lasting effect of moralistic and patriarchal
discourses attached to sexuality.)
The importance of consent has been the focal point
of many sexual ethics education and campaigns outside the school cotext.
“Enthusiastic consent”, when “only yes means yes”, is an example
of such a campaign, and has taken root in anything from vanilla, heterosexual
relations to a wide variety of kink communities.
As I wrote for Playboy in 2013, enthusiastic
consent is less of “Can I give you a golden shower?” and more of “What would
you like me to do to you?” It’s the perfect opportunity to whip out those
sexual fantasies you have kept hidden away in the darker recesses of your
imagination. Finally, you can tell your partner about your affinity for some
light whipping, and also hear about their geeky Star Trek role-play
fantasy. (I prefer World of Warcraft, myself.)
To further Foucault’s concept of sexually ethical,
enthusiastic consent is respect for your sexual partners’ bodily autonomy as
well as your own. “No” means “no”, but the absence of a “no” does not mean
“yes.” A “maybe” is not a challenge to keep trying until your sexual partner
gives in to your persistence — it’s an indication that your partner isn’t
a-okay with what- ever you are asking.
Comments like “I don’t know” and “if you want me
to” are also signs that your partner isn’t really that into it. And who wants a
partner who isn’t ready to bang your brains out at the very suggestion?
This is particularly relevant in heterosexual
pairings, which are overloaded with inequitable patriarchal discourses about
men’s and women’s sexual behaviour and interactions. By explicitly asking a
sexual partner what they agree to and how, you are not only respecting their
boundaries but also your own.
The acronym BDSM is as multifaceted as the
community itself: its letter pairings stand for bondage and discipline,
dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. BDSM takes the inevitable
negotiation of power in sex and turns it into power play.
But as power also has the potential to be misused
or abused, it is by necessity that the BDSM community has not only embraced the
language of sexual ethics but also mandates it, even as a tool to push the
limits in their sexual explorations. The community’s guiding ethical mantra
is “safe, sane and consensual” at all times.
This is crucial to maintain the distinction
between what is pleasurably painful, and what is merely pain. Learning about and employing a language and
framework of sexual ethics is crucial to ensuring equitable, mutually
pleasurable sexual intimacy for you and your partners.
And, let’s face it, wouldn’t you rather discuss
sexual ethics and the ethics of pleasure in a sex ed class than witness yet
another slide of putrefying genitals?