The nuts and bolts

Sex on Tuesday

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Blessedly, my wonderful parents never had The Talk with me.

The Talk is obviously the sort of thing 1980s PSAs might suggest parents should do — giving some ham-handed message like “Don’t let your youngsters get the wrong ideas, teach them about procreation.” But I am simply delighted that I’ve never discussed sex with my parents. As much as I love them, I think I’d sooner be drawn and quartered.

That being said, I think discussing sex is very important, and I think everyone needs people who’ll frankly talk about sex with them — ideally, people other than your parents.

Personally, I have a spectrum of friends: To some, I’ll spill all the beans; to others, just the headline news; with a few, I wouldn’t even mention sex. And I appreciate this variety. I don’t want the whole world to know my business (yes, I see the irony of this column), but I want to feel like I can share exhilarating moments in my life with friends. And perhaps most of all, I love hearing my friends’ stories and offering counsel.

Maybe you already give your friends blow-by-blow accounts of all your spiciest news on the daily. Congratulations. Godspeed. But among people I know, that degree of candor is rare. Even my most mature, unselfconscious friends still hesitate to get into the nitty-gritty. To me, that’s telling.

When I first started having sex, I preceded nearly all of my close friends. When gossiping, I mostly told friends about my sex life, and not vice versa. At times, it was lonely thinking I was the only one who felt or wanted something. Although considerable bonding came from entrusting friends with my intimate stories, I would have liked to vicariously enjoy more of their triumphs and travails in addition to recounting my own.

But broaching the topic of sex isn’t just a favor for your friends, it’s also an asset for society. I’d argue candid conversations about sex, especially with peers, are one of our most powerful means of improving sexual norms. For instance, I think we could reduce the serious inequity in sexual relationships if we talked about sex more. 

People with neglectful partners, for example, might not think they need to put up with unsatisfying sex lives if their friends say their partners are getting things right. Every relationship exists in its own context, but that’s no excuse for your partner to disregard your desires — even inadvertently.

On the other hand, people with less sexual experience might realize how normal that is. Some friends of mine with families from less hypersexualized cultures describe feeling torn between family expectations and social pressures. Even though our generation is having less sex and starting later than previous generations, the peer pressure around sex still seems strong. So even discussions of not having sex can help.

Implicitly, frank discussions of sex can also help set the rules. Norms don’t have to diffuse explicitly. Sometimes just listening to your friends’ experiences teaches you a lot — about what’s normal, about what’s respectful and about them. Imagine a friend of yours is a bit unclear on the standard for consent, even in 2019. They could learn a lot from a casual conversation where someone mentions a hookup and says they appreciated being asked about what they were comfortable doing. 

Besides education, an open discussion of sex can also expand what’s possible. Many of us, understandably, don’t feel we have permission to try whichever kinks entice us. Personally, I don’t think exotic acts make sex any better than more “conventional” intercourse, but I think it’s worth telling your friends what appeals to you and hearing what appeals to them. That could help lessen some sexual taboos.

Some environments, of course, could be unwelcoming to the frank discussion of sex: some religious spaces, professional settings and family gatherings come to mind as possible candidates. And some forces — faith especially — can encourage firm limits on sexual openness. But I invite even the faithful to find a social space to be candid about sex; such discussion might be more in keeping with your values than you thought.

Some might argue, convincingly, that major social forces are already eroding taboos, not least of which is the internet. But the internet is a very blunt instrument. Conversations among friends can be much subtler and more vulnerable than most digital communication. And if pornography, given its abundance on the internet, becomes many people’s primary source of sexual messaging, our sexual relationships could be impoverished indeed. 

Above all, whether you already broadcast your sex life or keep it tightly under wraps, know that openness and vulnerability can be extraordinary resources. Whether deepening friendships, subtly educating peers or discovering ways to push the envelope and try exciting things, being blunt about sex is a powerful tool. Let’s talk more about the nuts and bolts.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].