Living In a World of Prudes, Sluts and Nobodies At All

In my experience it feels like there are two crowds, those who are 'cool' and have frequent sexual activity, hookups etc both in and out of relationships (or at least portray themselves as doing so) and those who are 'pure' who have decided at this point to abstain from sex until marriage, who are frequently Christian or otherwise religious. I think there's pressure to fit into one of those groups, either to go out and have lots of sex or to not have sex at all. There is stigma from both sides to each other, the cool group think the pure group are 'frigid' and boring, the pure group think the cool group are disrespecting themselves and God or something along those lines. If you're not willing to put yourself in either box then you can cop it from both sides. And if you are out LGBTQ then chances of fitting in either group are slim to none. I'm not sure if this is how it is for other people but that's how it feels to me in the last few years.

That's from Caitlin, a member of our community at the message boards who's in high school in Melbourne. This came up in a conversation the other day, and I was really struck by it, how well she put it into words, and by how many young people I've heard express similar things. But there's something else that struck me about it, which I m usually struck by when I hear those kinds of sentiments.

In a word, that whole paragraph could have come out of my mother's mouth, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I mean, to the letter, this dynamic is not one I grew up with myself in the 1970s and 1980s, but which my parents certainly did. If I called my mother up right now and asked her to describe the sexual dynamics and politics she experienced while in high school, what she would say -- and has when we've talked about this -- would be almost exactly what Caitlin, in high school now, said.

We are simultaneously bombarded with two conflicting messages: one from our parents, chruches and schools -- that sex is dirty and therefore we must keep ourselves clean for the love of our lives; and the other from Playboy, Newsweek, etc., almost all women's magazines, and especially television commercials -- the we should be free, groovy chicks.

That's from Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women's Health Collective, in the 1971/1973 edition, penned by women in their twenties at the time.

But now and then aren't the only times this has come up, either. We've had waves of these kinds of push-me, pull-mes several times in the west over the last 100 years and more, with relatively few cultural breaks in between, particularly cultural breaks which were very widespread, rather than very local or quickly fleeting.

Public discourse absorbed both currents, the condemnatory and the celebratory, and new sexual conventions grew in tension between the old (Victorian) and the new, between the sexual proscriptions of authorities who sought to control sexual expression, and the sexual prescriptions of youth, who places sexuality at the center of youth culture.

That's from From Front Porch to Back Seat, p. 78, by Beth L. Bailey, who is describing changes in sexual mores in the 1920s in that paragraph.

The increased visibility of sexuality in the public sphere disturbed middle-class Americans, especially middle-class women, who had been entrusted with the guardianship of the nation's morals. In response to the movement of sexuality outside the family, these women sought to retain their authority over sexuality by organizing moral reform and social purity crusades... Other sexual reformers responded as well. Doctors and vice crusaders such as Anthony Comstock opposed abortion, contraception and the public expression of sexuality by demanding greater state intervention in the regulation of morality. In contrast, sexual radicals of the anarchist free-love movement rejected any state involvement in personal matters. By the end of the century, diverse reformers -- women, doctors, vice crusaders, free lovers -- engaged in heated debate over who should regulate sex: the individual, the family, or the state.

That's from Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, by John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, p. 140. That passage might sound familiar, like some things we see and hear now and have over the past ten years or so.

But the authors aren't talking about the last century in that paragraph. They're talking about the one before that, describing American sexual politics not in the late 1900s, but in the late 1800s.

I'm someone, due to my age and where and how I came of age, who doesn't feel like I experienced these kinds of dynamics in my teens and twenties. They were there, for sure, but it felt fairly easy to opt out of and avoid, and it seemed, to me, a very quiet periphery, even perhaps something just kind of dangling out the window of the past as it was driving away, not an ever-present din from my peers, parents or the media. It seemed like it was the property of my parent's generation and those before them, not to my own, particularly in the punk/new wave, queer and neo-hippie subcultures I spent my teens and twenties in. I certainly never would have imagined that those politics they lived through were not static -- that there were also periods where things weren't so like that -- but also that they were so very far reaching, and that this pendulum had been swinging back and forth in the west for such a long time. And would swing back to these kinds of sexual politics yet again.

I certainly recognize it as something many young people grapple with now, as it's voiced often, and is often a part of some of the sexual choices a person is trying to make. It comes up all the time around whether a sexual choice is a right one or a wrong one, especially according to others, more than oneself. It comes up around the expectations of partners, or worries about a partner's judgment about a sexual history, or a lack of one. It comes up as a barrier in communication about sex and sexuality between young people and parents. It comes up around access to STI testing and contraception and worries about privacy with either or both of those things. It comes up a lot when people express feeling like their sexual choices are also major identity choices: they they don't just dictate if they do or don't have any kind of sex, how or with whom, but who they are as people, and who others will see and treat them as as people.

I'd love to hear some of our readers weigh in on this; talk together about if you have experienced or do now experience this kind of dynamic, and if you do, how you deal with it and how you feel it impacts you and others. If none of this sounds familiar to you, and you feel like the dynamics where you are and have been have been wildly different, I'd love to hear from you, too. So often folks hear and read older people talking about all of this about young people. Far more rarely are people able to read (or take the time to read) young people talking about it themselves. As always, we're much more interested in how you feel things like this impact you than we are in someone else's third-party interpretation of your experiences and feelings.

If you're really up for a challenge, I'd love to hear about what you think could potentially break this pattern that just seems to keep coming back again and again and again.

What do you think could get people and culture to a place where no sexuality or sex life is a right one, a wrong one, or not recognized as any kind of sexuality or sexual life at all; a place where there's much, much more room for everyone, and much more respect for everyone's diverse selves and thus, diverse choices?

After all, the times there have been cultural shifts around these kinds of dynamics, the people who tended to conceptualize and drive those changes or different views weren't usually older people. They were most typically young people. So, just like there's a historical precedent for these kinds of dynamics, there's also a historical precedent for young people being the ones who envision and start to enact a different picture.


Honestly, I feel as though my only choice in my public sexual identity is that of "slut," and it really upsets me. Why should I have to take on a identity that stereotypes me? On the other hand, I've had to deal with the prude issue as well, because I want to work in sex ed and I do have a lot of those loud, open about sexuality, and otherwise "slut-like" qualities, but my number of partners is low. I wondered for a long time whether a sex educator could be ok at her job if she had just one partner. Also, I have a lot of respect for sex and I absolutely value the idea and the practice of abstinence. I feel it needs to be spoken about in a way that is positive. I like to say that no sex doesn't equal no sexuality. But does that make me a prude?

I wish there were some kind of activism where people show that being sexually active and openly enjoying sex =/= sex with everybody all the time. Kind of like SlutWalk, but more like..."I'm a Sexual Human Walk." What would that look like? I mean, could there be some kind of way to get every voice together, from the so-called promiscuous folks to people who have sex in a serial monogamous way to abstinent-until-marriage people and everyone in between?

Blog/tumblr project, maybe? :p

I really want to let all of you have this conversation among yourselves for a while, first, but I did want to quickly say something about sex educators and our personal sex lives based on one of your comments.

Ultimately, a really good sexuality educator is someone who is relying on, and addressing, far more that's about broad populations, experiences and studies than one's own personal life. In other words, we are supposed to know, and always make clear, that anecdotal sexual experiences are NOT the stuff on which to base or center quality sex education.

And just so you know, as a sexuality educator and someone who networks with a ton of other educators, we are a very diverse bunch, and there are absolutely some educators -- and good ones -- who have only had one sexual partner, as well as some who have had NO sexual partners.

I don't think there's anything within this field as a field which tends to usually consider sex educators on that kind of criteria. Again, that would be considered woefully unprofessional. I think the sense that most or all sex educators have had, or must have, a certain kind of sex life is actually based more on stereotypes of who we are by people outside the field.

So, relax! People who want to be sex educators get to have the personal sex life they want to have, and unless that's in real conflict with the parts of the job that matter (like, say, sound ethics around consent with partners), I feel confident saying that whatever that looks like and you want it to be won't impact your ability in that job. In fact, if you can make it look like and be like what you want it to be authentically, not based on what others want or you think they feel should be, THAT skill and kind of sexual choice is likely to really support doing this kind of job well, because that's something many, many people you'll educate need real help with. :)

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Still trying to put all my thoughts on this issue into something coherent, but just wanted to say that I would be totally on board with a blog or tumblr project along those lines. It could be so cool, and something really useful, too.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

During my first year of high school (I am now 23 years old) I was moderately sexually active. When this topic came up with my friends, it somehow got blown out of proportion and over the next couple of years I began to self-identify as a slut. After that, I started engaging in more and more risky sexual behavior as kind of a "Okay fine, I'm a slut so this is what I'm supposed to do" sort of thing.

Looking back now, I don't think I was having any more sex than a lot of my friends, I was just the only one willing to talk about it as a positive thing (or, I TRIED to talk about it as a positive thing). Also, I don't remember any of my friends or peers in high school talking about being sexually active as a casual thing - as is talked about in the blog, there were two groups: people who had lots of sex and got labeled as sluts and the people who abstained (or talked about abstaining) and got labeled as prudes (or straight edge or whatever) And I think that is one problem with this - until we can redefine the language we use when we're talking about young people being sexually active, this crazy stereotype of the two (and only two) groups is going to be the norm.

I read a very interesting discussion around these topics recently on boingboing. There was a talk given by a sociologist on her research into sex on college campuses ( Seeing the talk, and reading her paper kind of wiped me out, because everything she described was exactly what I had seen and experienced, but somehow someone putting it into words and talking about the experiences of others (and their dissatisfaction, too) just felt hugely freeing. Like that even in my own mind, it wasn't something I was allowed to think or question.

This is an excellent article and really makes clearer some of the things I've been ruminating about for the last 6-12 months.

Growing up, I internalized a lot of messages about what it meant to 'be a man', and it limited just how much I was willing to use my emotional strengths and personal values in certain situations. I was more expressive and satisfied with my romantic behavior as a teenager, but as a young adult who lost his first girlfriend and stopped believing, I thought I had to conform to societal norms, and started running with the crowd.

I had a lot of casual sex and generally unfulfilling relationships that went nowhere. But every time it was over, I felt a little more empty inside. I felt like what I wanted was something different, free of social conditioning and meaningful. Eventually, a course in feminism during my psychology studies changed my life, and coupled with therapy, I came to a place where I was able to accept myself as a human being who deserves love, rather than playing the role of the ideal masculine and adventurous lover that the world tells me I ought to be.

As a result, I find myself dating a lot less frequently, and by choice. I am no longer interested in romance for the sake of getting my jollies off or filling a void inside me with another's adoration. Like men, lots of women are conditioned into acting out historical dating scripts that not only dictate behavior and influence expectations, but also prescribe unequal power and dominance. If that's what works for others, fine, but I want no part of it.

It wasn't easy to get to this place, but now that I'm there, I can honestly say I have a better relationship with myself than I ever did before, and my connections to women, whether romantic or platonic, are of higher quality. I see relationships and sex in a whole new way that, and know that my next relationship will be more satisfying for me and her. Until then, I'm more than happy to be single and uphold respect for myself and others, even if that makes me an uptight male feminist.