My 60-year-old Catholic immigrant mom called me after my first column was published. She told me that one of her patients at her dental office saw my face next to my column on her news feed. Given the nature of what I write, all I was thinking was, “Well folks, it’s the end for me.”
Luckily, I was able to make up a shaky excuse because her patient couldn’t read English very well. At the time, I almost wished that she could, that she would tell my mother every nasty detail about my sexual and romantic life. Fearing that my mom would take me out of this world just as swiftly as she had brought me into it would have been a great reason to not write about sex anymore.
I didn’t want to write about sex because I believed I wasn’t qualified to write about sex. I’m no Dan Savage, no Alexandra Cooper, no Sofia Franklyn. People always tell me their crazy sex stories, not the other way around. To be honest, I don’t have sex as often as you think a sex columnist would, and I carry terrible intergenerational trauma that taught me to put off intimacy in order to survive. In fact, I was so uncomfortable with being vulnerable that I always felt extremely uneasy when my friends talked to me about something as simple as their favorite sex positions or how many fingers they had up their butthole last weekend.
Alas, being honest with myself and my sexuality was an easier bridge to cross than I had thought it would be. There was no epiphany or anything. I just continued being me. Both in sex and in my writing, I find it amusing to swing back and forth between boisterous confidence and quiet vulnerability, blunt physicality and embellished make-believe. I discovered quickly that sex is everywhere — that every corner of life is overflowing with orgasms, vulvas and phalli.
Everywhere I looked, sex was there looking right back at me — for better or for worse.
Once, while standing on a crowded street in San Francisco, I felt someone’s hand caress me under the hem of my skirt. But when I turned, I could only see the back of his head as he walked away. I was shocked. I mentally reenacted that moment many times, daydreaming about what I wished I’d said to this man who touched me.
I imagined grabbing him by the back of his polo, spinning him around and decking him in the face. I imagined what would have happened if I had worn pants that day instead. I imagined someone noticing what he did and asking me if I was OK. None of these scenarios played out. Instead, my voice caught in my throat. At the time, all I could muster was a private expletive before angry tears began to well up in my eyes.
Moments like those have shown me sex at its worst. As soon as I was old enough to notice, I learned that men wield a unique power to objectify and commodify women’s bodies. I learned that sex is often the manifestation of an unjust imbalance of power. All of the heteronormative, patriarchal, misogynistic and colonialist dimensions of sex left me with little hope of uplifting myself, let alone being vulnerable.
I have, however, also seen sex at its best. I love how beautiful and powerful I feel when someone touches me with care and respect. I love having sex with people who ask me for my consent. I love laughing during sex. I love having sex with people who have grown beyond selfishness, and I love decolonizing my body and unapologetically asking for more.
I have also fallen in love with the sheer physicality of sex, but sometimes I forget this. I have to remind myself that outside of all the oppression and injustice, sometimes sex is just something that makes me feel good. Sex lets me forget how much I hate the way that the patriarchy finds its way into my life, if only for a moment.
Sex is many things, not just eroticism. Sex is everywhere because sex is about power and choice. Sexual chemistry, horniness, intimacy — these are all realities that we will into being, not just happy accidents. Everyone, especially oppressed peoples, can wield the vulnerability of sex to dismantle systems of domination. As soon as I realized that I have the power to advocate for myself, feel good and make other people feel good, writing about sex suddenly didn’t seem that daunting after all.
Noticing that sex surrounds us means embracing our vulnerability and physicality in full. I restored power to myself when I freely chose not to hide or disappear. I thought I wasn’t qualified to write about sex, but I did it anyway. Indeed, most of us are far more qualified to talk about sex than we think. It’s just a matter of paying attention.
Laura Nguyen writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]