It was only in my 20s when I first realised how much my sexuality influences my sense of self. Books, words and the cerebral sphere being my natural safe zones, this was a surprise. Sex, it turned out, was a form of expression I was rather interested in. Oddly enough, that’s when my then boyfriend accused me: “All you care about is sex.” He said this because did not want a sexual component in our relationship at all. A perfectly fine thing, if partners agree. But not an option for me.
The shame I felt over this was immense — I internalised his words about how valuing sex as highly as an emotional or mental connection was primitive, stupid. I told myself I should be smarter than that… The confusion he had over his own feelings about sex in relationships unfortunately triggered for me a lot of confusion as well. A textbook case of two naive people accidentally hurting each other with their naivety. I began to deny that I was a physical person at all, and a part of me was squared away in a box labelled ‘do not touch’. A far cry from liberation.
Only more recently have I admitted the truth to myself: I am not an idiot for being a physical, sexual human. My physicality is an active part of my identity. Now, I am rediscovering my body in all new ways. I am finally paying attention to it, rather than dismissing it out of hand for the ‘superiority’ of the mind. The mind is a powerful thing, but living entirely in one’s head is also dangerous. Our true self is something that I think can only really be understood and explored if we are balanced in both mind and body.
It is in this vein that I began to reflect on what ‘liberation’ really means. It’s something that gets bandied about — we all have that one friend who thinks they are super woke and sexually free and ‘get it’. But beneath these declarations over a beer at a party, what is there really? What does liberation really mean?
It’s about openness
Being open minded doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and fear around the physical realm (the vulnerability required and pressure of ‘performing’ to expectations) can really mess with the process of opening up to pleasure. I have had friends who couldn’t even use the word “sex”, when it is not a word we should have fear of — if there’s a problem already just saying the word, how can we possibly be open in the act?
Fear about intimacy appears to often become separated from physical acts, which can become easy to perform compared to the emotional action of opening up.
On the other hand, I’ve had friends who have gone off to learn about kink, but can’t stand to be around couples just holding hands. This too is challenging. Fear about intimacy appears to often become separated from physical acts, which can become easy to perform compared to the emotional action of opening up. Thus why kink can seem fine, but intimacy scary. Professing to be free doesn’t always equate to understanding or acceptance.
People are contradictions, in the end. And there are many factors that overlap with sex — culture, sexual orientation, religion, media, to name but a few. We absorb all these things, alongside information about our gender roles, alongside ageism and ableism and everything else that aims to hold some bodies above others for particular kinds of pleasure. Untangling these things to figure out where true desire and pleasure starts and finishes is really rather tricky. But without a sense of being open and ready to explore, real pleasure is very hard to achieve.
I have done my best to eliminate assumptions about what my body is here to do on this earth. It’s here to do many things, not all to do with my sexuality, nor all to do with my thoughts. Liberation requires openness to begin down that path of discovery.
It’s about self awareness
Self-awareness is a challenge in a lot of aspects of life, let alone in the sexual sphere, where internalised shame can do so much damage. When you’re young, you’ve got no idea — what it is you’re expected to do, how you’re expected to be, there are body issues and shame issues thrown in, that haven’t yet been questioned, merely absorbed.
It’s not news that women understand even less about their own pleasure than men often do, what with masturbation being something utterly undiscussed. And at the same time, there is the unreasonable expectation that men are meant to understand it all perfectly (when of course they don’t), which makes it hard for them to ask questions as well. It’s the blind leading the blind. Or rather, nobody leading anyone — everyone pretending everything/anything is fine, a system that benefits no-one. Not to mention the entire spectrum of gender that comes in between these extremes, for whom representation itself is so poor, and information incredibly scarce.
Only once we are open to exploring can we begin to ask ourselves the tough questions that will help us become more self-aware. We have to explore, we have to ask questions, we have to experiment. A sense of trust is important, and becomes even more important if others are involved — if discovery is taking place with a partner, for instance. We have to be dedicated to the pursuit of understanding of ourselves in order to feel truly liberated.
It’s about communication
I’ve heard a straight man say that he considered sex to be worthwhile even without helping his partner achieve orgasm — that exploring bodies was sufficiently fun and no more is really required. On the one hand, I get it — the emphasis on orgasm can be a pressure that gets in the way, and sometimes shuts down its very possibility when partners begin overthinking. However, the way this was said really concerned me: he was speaking on behalf of his partner, and the discussion indicated that this was a common occurrence for him — that his partners didn’t come, and he was fine with that.
Now, I don’t think sex is all about orgasm — but orgasm is a fairly important part of it for a lot of people. And alarm bells are always ringing for me when I hear a straight man say this. It speaks to the age-old assumptions that female pleasure isn’t quite so important — the partner he imagines as sufficiently pleased by a lack of orgasm is a partner who hasn’t really spoken for themselves. I’d love to know her point of view on the matter.
In essence, it felt as though there was an assumption here about male versus female ‘needs’. But the reality is that whatever gender you are, the needs of your partner are a thing you must discuss. And given the huge assumption that exists about male orgasm (that it is ‘final’ — it signals the end point of all heterosexual sexual encounters), it’s extra important that this is discussed. Orgasm is important, and female orgasm is not so much mysterious as it is undervalued. But the emphasis on male ejaculation is also problematic. The pressure for one partner to dole out pleasure, take pleasure, initiate and finalise the encounter, is far too great. Much of this is being dismantled with time. Again, it comes back to expectations and the pressure applied to achieve absolutes that are grounded in stereotype and assumptions, in an arena where absolutes do not exist.
Sensuality is often fluid. The things we like might change. Bodies are not machines, they don’t always act as we expect. We have to learn how to communicate our needs and give our partner an opportunity to express theirs, in order to really experience liberation — and to ensure we don’t suppress our partners, either.
It’s about choice
In an excellent episode of the Sexually Liberate Woman podcast, Ev’Yan Whitney (who is a sex educator) features guest Jaliessa Sipress, who at one point in the podcast says:
If you are being fulfilled by vanilla sex, then you should do that. You know what I mean? Just because you are a sex educator does not mean that you have to try every flavour in the ice-cream shop…
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This summarises perfectly what real liberation looks like. Liberation isn’t about claiming the most outrageous or deviant sexual practice as your own, just to be able to say that you can. It might include these themes, but it isn’t necessitated by it. You can have vanilla sex and be liberated. You can have kinky sex and be liberated. You can have no sex and be liberated. Liberation is about understanding and about choice — it’s knowing your own pleasure, knowing your own needs, being able to communicate these and having the ability to choose for yourself.
There is such a huge spectrum of what constitutes physical intimacy. From the moment you hold a partner’s hand, through to the most specific of kinks, sensuality and sex allow us to unlock a creativity that is quite particular. It’s a part of us that doesn’t always get a chance to exert itself in everyday life, and for many of us it is a realm that is entirely separated from our other selves. Not everything on this spectrum is desired by all of us, and it is a clear mistake to suggest that some part of this spectrum is somehow ‘more valid’ than another. It’s a mistake to suggest that liberation looks the same for all of us. The gap we create between our ‘everyday’ and our ‘sexual’ selves only helps to foster this fog and lack of understanding of who we each are as a whole, what it is we desire and how we fulfil those desires.
I am looking to undo this distance in my own life — the gap between my physical, emotional and mental self. There’s so much more I want to say about this topic. But for now, I’ll conclude by saying that liberation takes time, it takes work, and I’m grateful to be able to finally, freely explore these themes. To ask honest and direct questions. It is as much as I could hope for any of us.