21ST CENTURY SEXUALITY
Peters is a freelance writer and editor, anti-war and community
activist and Boston area coordinator of the East Timor Action
Network. This article is published with the permission of
active in the anti-war movement, supporting eviction blockades
in my city, working with youth who are surviving oppressive
schools and violence on the streets, I often wonder how I can
justify taking the time to imagine what sex, family, gender,
and care giving might be like in a better world. Isn't it frivolous
fantasizing in the context of humanity hemorrhaging?
I notice again the powerful pull these forces have on all of
us, no matter what or how dire our circumstances. Being sexual,
being intimate, being expressive and nurturing towards each
other - these are both the urgent needs and enormously satisfying
wants that are important parts of what make us human. We pursue
our desires almost no matter what -- even in times of war, even
in the most mind-numbing, soul-killing environments of degrading
work, racial discrimination, gender oppression, homophobia,
and the methodical destruction of the planet. We have a powerful
drive to connect with others, to share, and to express ourselves,
and in some ways, these desires define the core of our world.
about how powerful these aspects of humanity are, I remember
why I do the anti-war work and the eviction blockades. It's
not just because I want to stop the illegal and immoral occupation
of Iraq, for example. It's because I want the Iraqi people to
be free of U.S. terrorism so that they can pursue their lives.
It's not just because I want to stop another family from becoming
homeless. It's because I want them to be home, where they will
pursue the fine art of loving each other, being neighborly,
and creating the great web of kinship that binds us to others
and gives us a place in the universe.
consider how little we discuss the ways we pursue these goals
now and the way we might pursue them in a better world. What
are the systems and institutions that govern the ways we nurture
each other, the avenues open to us for seeking intimacy, and
the norms that govern the way we have sex? What values do they
support? What behaviors and norms do they give rise to? How
can we create new systems and institutions that sustain positive
kinship networks - those ever-expanding circles of human community
that play such a significant role in shaping us, instilling
values, and literally helping us grow up?
should pay attention to these questions for three reasons:
The kinship sphere currently includes norms and ways of relating
that are oppressive to everyone, especially women and children.
If we are committed to a society that values equity, diversity,
justice, and solidarity, we must conceive of new norms and ways
of relating in the family that will support these values.
Without a "reimagined" kinship sphere, it will be
impossible to have a truly participatory, democratic society
because most women and young people will not be able to be effective
participants given the sometimes oppressive constraints of the
The kinship sphere is a key site of intimacy, warmth, and fun.
Not to mention sex. We'd be crazy not to talk about it. While
parecon folks gather to fine-tune production and consumption
patterns and the par polity folks debate the subtleties of nested
councils, over here in the kinship sphere, we get the fireworks.
please read on. Try imagining with me what it would be like
to have a liberated and liberatory social space in which we
could be in family, raise our children, express gender and sexuality,
and experience intimacy and love. Imagine that you are joining
a process that, if it works well, may never be exactly right
for everyone but could be always evolving toward what is most
right for most people. We are not looking for exact prescriptions
of what should be. As people function in a better society, and
continue to do so for generations, surely the family will evolve
accordingly. Minds freed from oppressive work and oppressive
culture will make much better choices about how to organize
look at one of the key activities that happen in the kinship
have sex and learn to express sexuality (though these activities
are not limited to the family; they also happen in the community/culture/society,
as well as in the economic sphere -- -e.g., the production of
erotic literature, movies, sex toys, sex work, etc. Also, I
don't mean to imply that sex and sexuality are 100% "learned"
behaviors. They have roots in biology as well).
and sexuality are fundamental to who we are. Although they are
spheres of life where people have experienced enormous pain
and victimization, they also have found many powerful and beautiful
expressions. Unlike economic and political structures, which
are harder to imagine, we could actually fairly easily access
some decent ideas about sexuality just by looking around, seeing
what we like, noticing our own desires, noticing what others
like, and caring enough to imagine what it would take to cause
these things to thrive in a way that felt fun, freeing, rewarding,
following subsections identify an attribute of healthy sexuality
and then discuss what sort of society we would need to be able
to give rise to and continually nurture such conditions. This
is not meant to be exhaustive, obviously, for two reasons: (1)
One would need multiple volumes to be thorough on this topic,
and (2) I just don't think it could be done well anyway, without
the participation of many folks, feedback, processing, and re-thinking---all
of it evolving over time as we learn things we didn't know before.
Healthy sexuality is a powerful and necessary form of expression
in which we act independently and inter-dependently, and which
is fundamental for every human being.
and sexuality can be a means toward an end -- i.e., reproduction
(at least as far as heterosexuals are concerned), but with technology
being what it is, you don't need sex to fertilize an egg and
you don't need to be a biological parent to make a family. So,
while many people use sex at least in part as a way to make
babies, it seems most useful to think of sex and sexuality as
something we do for pleasure, to deepen our understanding of
who we are, and to create intimacy. Just that right there practically
makes it a radical undertaking.
is both a need and a want, and so it has something in common
with other things we need and want -- like solidarity, diversity,
equity, artistic expression, delicious food, engaging work.
Sex doesn't enrich anyone; it doesn't impoverish anyone; it
doesn't create ownership or disenfranchisement. Instead, it's
a place you go to just be or to experiment with your being or
to experiment with what it means to be close to another being.
Often, it's a process more than an event, but maybe sometimes
it is just an event. In any case, sex is where you claim your
needs/wants either alone or in conjunction with others. In the
process, you express some part of your deepest self -- not because
you have to, but because you want to, and claiming that want
is empowering and life-affirming.
Healthy sexuality is sometimes fluid and includes a wide spectrum
of behaviors and feelings --from genital-oriented sex acts to
other activities that are erotic, sensual, or sexual, such as
dancing, singing, touching, and playing.
sex and sexuality are where we pursue pleasure, a sense of self,
and a sense of belonging and connection to others, then we must
put a lot of care into the forums where it is carried out and
where it is learned. It is a precious part of ourselves and
an integral part of being human, so it deserves utmost care
and families must get great quantities of support so they can
pass on great quantities of the same to their children who will
need it so they can be loved unconditionally, their bodies treasured
and kept safe, their minds allowed to roam but also seek guidance,
their desires affirmed, reflected on, and never shamed. Assuming
parents are also sex partners, they'll keep their actual sex
life private, but the sexual energy they emanate, which they
surely will and which any kid with half the typical kid-radar
will pick up on, should broadcast respect, care, and appropriate
degrees of lust, too. Right? Why not? If parents are not sex
partners, if they have sex with various partners or in some
other configuration, they too will have to think about how to
communicate to their children messages about this private part
of their lives. Whatever the sex lives of the parents, children
should get lots of physical love and attention that walks a
very special line between pure abandonment and clear boundaries.
How do we achieve all these tricky, challenging, nuanced goals?
The only way I know is through experience, seeing how others
do it, reflecting on how it was done to you, and learning from
others. This kind of learning happens when communities and families
make time to talk and share.
and community centers must offer engaging, empowering education
around sex and sexuality. Understanding how the reproductive
system works, along with the mechanics of birth control and
sexual health are vital, but only small parts of sex education.
Through mentoring, creative writing, artistic projects, kid-led
support groups, kids should have the opportunity to explore
sexuality. All along the way, kids should receive powerful messages
that their bodies (and everyone else's) are precious, that sharing
a sexual experience with someone should be respectful, mutual,
safe, and fun. And there should always be older kids or peers
or adults available for kids to talk to about whatever they
reorganizing work and reducing the degree to which care giving
work is done privately in the home, society must do away with
rigid gender roles and definitions of sexuality so that people
are free to seek identity and intimacy in whatever way(s) they
see fit. The culture must support art and music so that those
channels are available to all for expression and reinforcement
of diverse sexuality. Work cannot be so boring, alienating,
or demeaning that it's impossible to feel desirable or desire
after a long day. In fact, there shouldn't be long days of work.
Maybe one of the principles around which work should be organized
is: does it leave people enough time and energy to go home and
Finally, it should
be understood and reinforced in various ways in the culture
and society that a person's sexual identity might change over
time---opening and closing the door on various practices or
approaches. Or a person might take a lifelong "polyamorous"
approach to sex and sexuality, holding onto many identities
and forms of expression at one time. Or a person might be happily
monogamous, and that all these choices can be affirming expressions
of sexuality. As sex-positive commentator, Greta Christina,
asks in her blog, "My Vision for a Sexual World,"
why not think of our taste in sex as something that might change
over time similarly to our taste in music? The music metaphor
is quite useful for talking about sex and sexuality. Christina
We understand .
. . that music is a basic human activity, maybe even a basic
human need. We understand that music exists in all human societies,
and has existed in human society for tens of thousands of years.
We understand ... that music is a fundamental part of how our
brains and our minds operate. We see music as an activity that
is both necessary and joyful, a vital social bond, something
that connects us to our history and projects us into our future.
I'd like us to see sex the same way. I'd like us to see sex
as something that we couldn't possibly get rid of, and wouldn't
want to get rid of even if we could. I'd like us to recognize
that sex is one of the most fundamental ways that our minds
are wired, one of the chief lenses through which we view the
world . . . and not only recognize this fact, but accept it,
and even celebrate it. I'd like us to see sex as one of the
great joys, inspirations, consolations, forms of communication,
forms of connection, and just pure forms of entertainment that
the human race has.
Healthy sexuality is powerful, but it does not victimize. It
is always safe, even if it sometimes causes pain.
I was in college, my politically correct lesbian friends used
to joke about how they tried to have politically correct sex.
They took turns, each getting five minutes "on top."
But sex isn't like a political meeting, where everyone should
have an equal opportunity to talk or a balanced job complex
where everyone does similar amounts of empowering and disempowering
work. It seems to me, sex is a place you go to work out deep,
pleasurable, and even painful feelings about vulnerability,
power, being in control and not. Maybe you're a lifelong "bottom"
who's found a devoted "top" as a soul mate, and you
discarded the stop-watches a long time ago. Maybe hovering along
the line between pleasure and pain is exactly what turns you
on the most, and you and your partner have communicated well
about this and so sometimes you feel pain (exquisitely), but
you are not a victim.
matter what kind of society we create someday, there will be
emotional and physical hurts that we might look to resolve through
a friend who was in a terrible car crash when she was a young
child. Her brother died and she experienced severe burns over
much of her body. The emotional and physical pain from this
experience figure prominently in her life. She told me once
about getting her labia (or was it her clitoris?) pierced. I
cringed. "Doesn't that hurt?" I asked. She didn't
answer with a simple yes or no, but rather with some background
on how she has a long, complicated relationship dealing with
hurt and loss in her life, and with her body being worked on,
and operated on, and treated in various ways. At that time in
her life, she was using her sexuality, and specifically piercing
her vulva, to work out that relationship to pain. I don't pretend
to fully understand, but I support her choice of expression.
a book I read about Borneo, the writer describes how men implanted
their penises with various hard barbs or sticks (or something!)
in order to increase the sexual pleasure of their female partners
during intercourse. Presumably, they checked in with the women
about this, and the women did in fact agree that there was some
benefit in it for them.
golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do
unto you," does not apply when it comes to sex. What you
would do unto others, they may have no desire to do unto you.
And you can't make them. And that's okay. Sexuality should play
itself out in wide open (emotional) spaces with very few prohibitions.
If what someone does in her private life makes you uncomfortable,
then don't do it yourself.
it may be worthwhile to pause and pay attention to what makes
us cringe. There may be something to learn from it, and we may
have something to offer to each other. Being non-judgmental
doesn't mean turning off your brain. If we care about others,
we should be present for them. I could be available to listen
to my friend as she works through her issues around pain. I
could be what various people have referred to as a "fair
witness" (see Patrick Carnes) -- someone who offers a reality
check, a warm embrace, a willingness to bring a different perspective
if she is seeking that. In a society that supported these types
of informal exchanges, maybe even encouraged them using available
communication channels---schools, the media, etc. -- maybe people
would be less likely to replicate their hurts in sexual encounters.
Or at least maybe they would have more true choice about it.
Healthy sexuality is learned in families and in societies and
cultures that embrace diverse feelings and expressions, but
also constantly reinforce the need to balance rights and responsibilities.
matter what kind of society we create someday, it may be that
we are never completely rid of rape, sexual abuse, or coercion.
Progressives should support a strong and fair judicial system
that enforces legal protections, but the first line of defense
against these crimes should be the existence of institutions
-- e.g., the family, schools, the workplace, the civic communit
-- that stress the mechanisms by which people both experience
their rights but also take responsibility for the rights of
others. In the family, in the community, on the job, and in
the political sphere, people should continually have the opportunity
to practice getting their wants/needs met, and making sure others
are as well.
if, for example, you have learned in the workplace that a guiding
principle is that decisions should be made by people who are
most affected by them, then you have some practice at this concept.
It is a fair principle that is just as true in the bedroom as
it is in the workplace. If you are off on some sexual adventure
that involves only you, then you have 100% decision-making power.
Go for it, as they say. However, if you are with a partner who
will be affected by your desires, now you have to modulate your
adventure, allowing it to be changed and affected, by the other
person. The sex/music metaphor holds well here. If it's just
you and your earphones, then you get to listen to whatever you
want. If it's you and your friend jamming in the basement, you
two get to work it out. If your band is playing in the streets
at 2:00 am, there are other people you'll have to take into
consideration. What if your teenager is blasting grossly misogynistic
lyrics at full volume through his earphones? Is it really nobody's
business but his own? Of course not. In our better world, someone
is paying attention.
a better society, all the ways we practice solidarity, equity,
and diversity in all the various spheres of life will provide
the greatest disincentive to violent, coercive, or even just
inappropriate behaviors when it comes to sex and sexuality.
We will be schooled in how to act according to these principles,
and we will bring that knowledge to our private relationships
and our roles as mentors, "fair witnesses," parents,
peers, and community members.
Healthy sexuality takes a certain amount of work (for lack of
a better word). Let's call it intentionality.
we live with a certain myth that sex and sexuality spring unbidden
from deep biological urges (mostly) in men or are tied to romantic
swoons (mostly) in women. Sure, sex has something to do with
biology and sexual pleasure can be tied to love, but it's okay
to be a little more intentional about it as well! Maybe that's
why these myths persist---to save us from being intentional
about our sexuality. It is so embarrassing, after all. It would
be a lot easier to consign it to some murky part of ourselves
that we can claim to have no control over.
of mine who was steeped in motherhood, full-time work, and the
demands of home and community told me recently she had zero
sexual drive. She missed it. I suggested she try reading some
erotic literature to see if that might spark her interest. She
looked shocked. I think she thought that if it didn't happen
on its own accord, there was nothing she could do. But there's
a lot we can do to fully embrace being sexual, and in a better
society, this sort of renewal would be expected and supported.
would be a wide range of erotic literature, movies, and music.
There would be support groups, how-to books, mentors, friends,
and enough time to keep in touch with this important part of
when I say "wide range," surely there must be parameters.
What if someone seeks sexual "renewal" in a way that
others consider oppressive? This raises the question of pornography
and the long and sickening history of male power being used
to sexually subjugate and objectify women (and sometimes children),
often violently. Perhaps participatory economics will partly
deal with this. Women won't need to be sexual slaves to husbands
for economic reasons; women won't need to earn a living as sex
workers; women and their sexuality and everything about them
will constantly be reinforced as autonomous and inviolate. Furthermore,
men will be liberated from the need to use women's bodies as
the battleground on which they prove their masculinity.
what if rape still exists? What if there is some drive (which
our better society has not yet foiled) for men to see women
as "other," which they might then seek to act on through
sexual abuse and/or rape? It goes without saying that non-consensual
sex of any kind would be illegal. But what about pornography
or erotica that suggested non-consensual sex or showed images
of it -- for the express purpose of turning people on? Obviously,
there can and should be prohibitions against certain acts (such
as non-consensual sex), but should there be prohibitions against
fantasies, stories, and images?
answer these questions, we need open dialogue and society-wide
problem solving. We need positive, sex-and-sexuality-affirming
people to consider the sensible parameters in the sex trade.
On Susie (the sexpert) Bright's website, she mentions viewing
some pornography that left her unsure whether to cry or masturbate.
Clearly, a whole society (even a "better" society)
of people "being intentional" about sexuality will
have to muck around in exactly such a gray area to figure out
the parameters of sex-positive intentionality.
by Cynthia Peters:
Living Up to Chomsky
Gender-based Income Redistribution with Honour and Dignity
Abored the Porn Express
Traders in the Material World
Divas, Pantydom and 3-Chord Ditties
Defense of Pornograhy
Triumph of Pornographic Imagination