Rule 34: If it exists, or you can imagine it, there is porn of it. No exceptions.
Rule 34 summarizes everything about sexuality.
It says that human sexual fantasy is limitless. It says that anything can be eroticized, can be arousing, can be life-affirming. It reminds us that any ideas we have about what's normal sex are about us, not about sex. I'm always telling patients "don't blame sex for your ideas about sex."
Rule 34 reminds us exactly what pornography is: a library of human eroticism. Pornography is a celebration of how humans can stretch their erotic imagination—sometimes in ways that disturb you or me. Nevertheless, pornography celebrates the erotic imagination BEYOND specific content. Like the ability to imagine the future, and the knowledge that we're going to die, the enormous range of pornography is uniquely human.
Rule 34 also reminds us that people don't necessarily want to do what they fantasize about. Sex with Kramer, George, & Jerry at the same time? Sex with a dolphin? Sex with someone about to be guillotined for stealing a loaf of bread? Sex with your grandmother at high noon on Times Square? A threesome with Batman & Robin?
Rule 34 also reminds us of the coin's other side—that none of us can imagine the entire range of human eroticism. That should keep us humble. It's somewhat like a gourmet travelling to a far-off, isolated country and discovering they eat something there he never considered food—say, fried worms. The issue isn't so much does the gourmet want to eat fried worms; rather, it's the idea that there's "food" that he never considered food. And if that's true about fried worms, about how many other "foods" might that also be true?
Rule 34 shows us all knit together in an erotic brotherhood (or sisterhood, if you will). If the human project of eroticism is bigger than both you and me, your turn-on and my turn-on that appear so different from each other are really small parts of a much bigger whole. And there are others who are into your turn-on (which I find so exotic), and there are others—perhaps many others—who think my turn-on is so very exotic.
Imagine travelling to another country whose customs may be unfamiliar. We go to Italy and see adults and children topless together on the same beach. We go to India and see cows on the street. We go to Vietnam and see old women doing manual labor on construction sites. We go to Denmark and see men and women nude in a sauna together. We go to Russia and learn we have to bribe taxi drivers with Marlboros if we want them to pick us up.
International travel teaches us about our own customs: when I return from a trip I've always learned something about the way WE do things, because I've been to a place where they don't do that. I learn that my way isn't the right way, it's just my way. No matter how much I prefer it, no matter how much it's right for me, it's just my way, not the right way.
Rule 34 helps us understand that about sexuality. Your porn isn't right, it's just your porn. That goes for No Porn, and Gentle Porn, too: it isn't right, it's just your way. And that goes for our sexuality in general—our way isn't the right way, it's just our way. A good sexual relationship involves people whose respective ways mesh: one person expands their vocabulary, or both do, or one narrows theirs, or both do. As long as people can fit together with dignity and celebration (um, there's MY values again), it doesn't matter what they do.
Rule 34: everyone else is different from you. But governments, religions, and activists try to whitewash almost every kind of sexuality except the version they approve of. As biologist Mickey Diamond says, nature loves variety; unfortunately, society hates it.
Before the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, there was a joke popular in New York nightclubs. What do eggs benedict and a blowjob have in common? They're two enjoyable things you don't get at home.
Yes, kids, there was a time when oral sex was exotic, primarily the province of prostitutes and gay people. Well, times have changed.
In the 1994 "Sex in America" national study, Ed Laumann and colleagues 3,432 American adults. They found that about a quarter of their sample had had oral sex in the past year. Today, depending on the study, it appears that over half of adults who have partner sex are having oral sex at least occasionally.
My patients have a wide range of feelings about oral sex. The most common include:
* I love it, what's the problem?
* I like it, and feel self-conscious enjoying it
* I don't mind doing it, I wonder if I'm good at it
* I don't mind doing it, but why do some people love doing it?
* It's creepy. Mouths don't belong down there
* I don't see what anyone enjoys about that
Making things more difficult, the common English expressions "to give" and "to receive" oral sex are way too limited. It's true, in some couples one is giving (and not enjoying) and other is receiving (and enjoying, or wanting to enjoy). But in many couples, both partners are enjoying it equally, regardless of whose mouth and whose genitalia are involved (and of course in situations often called 69, all are involved at the same time).
So why the complicated feelings about oral sex?
* Religious taboos against non-reproductive sex;
* Personal "ick" factor;
* Confusion about why someone else would want their mouth "there";
* Cultural norms about "who does that" (i.e., not "nice people like me");
* Situations in which A wants B to go down on A, but A won't go down on B;
* Situations in which A says to B, "I'm willing to go down on you, so you have to go down on me."
Frankly, some of these feelings are about oral sex, while others are about something else (like power or trust or body image).
As a therapist, it's not my place to encourage people to do oral sex. (In fact, while most patients like to get advice, most patients don't want to be told what to do.) However, as with decisions about almost anything, it is my place to encourage people to talk about how they decide what to do, what their beliefs are about who does what, and whether they want to examine beliefs they acquired long ago.
For example, some women whose partners suggest cunnilingus (he goes down on her) refuse simply because they don't feel clean "down there"—even after a shower. "I just can't help how I feel," they report. Or "I don't know why anyone would want to do that. He says he enjoys it, but I just can't believe it."
The world won't come to an end if her vulva doesn't get licked (especially if she enjoys other kinds of sex), but why would a person hold on to a funny belief like that? I generally think there's something else going on (like feeling her femininity is somehow dirty or deficient, or not wanting to feel too vulnerable), so it's my job to help her chase that down—if she wants to. Sometimes she's willing, sometimes not.
Then there are guys who expect blowjobs like it's their right–big mistake. Or expect some majestic, theatrical, biologically unlikely Deep Throat—big mistake. Or who assume that every woman wants a guy coming in her mouth, or on her face—big mistake. Or who feel insulted if a woman spits the stuff out instead of swallowing it–big mistake. What's with these guys?
"Too much porn" is not an answer. A lack of manners, or empathy, or communication, or appreciation is more like it. Guys, if you're not taking your behavioral lessons from NASCAR, Star Wars, or Wrestlemania, don't take it from porn, either.
Most people don't know that legally, "sodomy" includes oral sex, and of course various states had criminalized sodomy for centuries. Those laws were endorsed by the 1986 Supreme Court decision Bowers v. Hardwick, eventually overturned in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas. In both cases, laws criminalizing male-male anal sex was at issue. Heterosexual oral sex just came along for the ride, so to speak.
So is oral sex "sex"? If you haven't had intercourse but have had oral sex, are you a "virgin?" Is a blowjob "infidelity"? Which is more "intimate," intercourse or oral sex?
I am asked each of these questions many times every year, whether by patients, lecture audiences, or email inquiry. The answer to all of them is the same—it all depends on what you mean. All of these terms are socially defined; every culture in every era has its own answers, and every person adapts these answers to fit their own circumstances (whether of passion, guilt, or need to follow authority).
At the end of the day, oral sex is just one more way that people align their bodies with each other, or their hearts with each, often leading to wonderful pleasure for both people. For others it's a way to prevent pregnancy, or to deal with pressure, or to feel grownup, or to make a buck, or to dance with taboos. It doesn't matter if you do it or not; the reasons for your decision matter way more than your decision.
What is sex? There are as many answers as there are people.
Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton's famous testimony about "sexual relations" made "what is sex" a daily topic of conversation (look it up, kids, under Monica Lewinsky and some-blow-jobs-require-you-to-shut-your-mouth).
Couples who see me for therapy have been arguing the question longer than that, and of course the internet has made the question even more complicated. Virtual Reality will be the next frontier for the question. If a pair of goggles and some software can give you a deeply personal experience of having sex with Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain, what is sex?
Philosophically, there actually is no "sex." There's "my experience of sex," "your experience of sex," and maybe, depending on your point of view, "our experience of sex" (a bit of pot definitely supports that last point of view). As our lives unfold, of course, the meaning and experience of sex changes, so what's even more accurate is "my experience of sex today" and "your experience of sex today."
Actually, this is all quite practical, as I discussed with 200 therapists in Austin, Texas last week. Sponsored by Southwest Sexual Health Alliance (SSHA), I spoke for the afternoon on Sexual Intelligence. I discussed how everyone, consciously or unconsciously, answers the following questions:
* What is sex?
* What is sexy?
* Where do I fit in?
* What is my history?
Everyone gets to answer these questions for themselves. Culture, of course, shapes our answers: religion, the media, science, politics, standards of beauty, etc.. So does our family, our friends, and that boy in third grade.
If a woman with small breasts decides small breasts are unattractive, that will shape her sexual experiences forever. If a man decides that losing his erection the first time he has intercourse means he's a terrible lover, that will shape his sexual experiences forever. If a couple decide that masturbating together is "real sex," that will give them options other couples don't have, especially as they age.
The much-beloved sex researcher John Gagnon died last week.
The New York Times says he "shifted the ground in sex research by proposing that sexual behavior could better be understood by looking at social forces rather than biology or psychology." If you don't yet have gray hair, it may be hard to appreciate what a revolutionary approach that was back in the 1960s and 1970s. Except for anthropology, most social science back then was rather mechanistic, putting people in categories more than understanding their subjective experience.
John was a prime influence in me becoming a sociologist. When my Midwest graduate school discouraged me from specializing in his approach, I left and went to study in California. John soon became a prime influence in me specializing in sexuality. He later became a treasured friend.
John, along with his colleague Bill Simon, explored how society shapes the very categories with which we think about sexuality. As a therapist today, I show people the dynamics of how they define themselves sexually. If the results of that self-definition are hurtful ("I orgasm the wrong way," "My fantasies are weird," "Men always disappoint me," "No one with my background can ever enjoy sex again," "I'm no good at sex," "Of course sex hurts sometimes"), I invite people to change their definitions of themselves and of sex. When they do, the results are glorious.
Some people like spanking, others don't. Some people like their nipples licked, others don't. Are these things sex? If you want them to be, sure. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that if you like them, you give yourself permission to do and to enjoy them. And that if you don't, you don't.
"Sex," the Italian saying goes, "is the poor man's opera." Everyone can write their own unique aria, and everyone's voice is perfectly adequate. We just have to go and sing without worrying about anything else.
For a body-centered look at this topic, see this.