So I’m at a party and a stranger asks what I do.  When I tell them I’m a sex columnist, they laugh and joke that they should send me a letter.  “I’m not that sort of columnist,” I say.

Their brow creases.  “Well then, what do you write about?”

When I tell them sexual politics, they often look twice as confused.  “What’s that?” they ask, or else they shrug and say, “Isn’t that quite a limited topic?”

It isn’t their fault that they aren’t aware.  In most communities, sex is so taboo that people just don’t register the sexual side of political issues.  They know Michele Bachmann’s anti-gay stance is destructive, but they don’t particularly consider it a sexual topic.  Neither do they think that the Miss Universe contest, or Anders Beiring Breivik’s sexist manifesto, impinge on people’s sexual lives. That’s not to say they don’t care, because often they really do.  But the word “sex” doesn’t enter their minds.  Brothel closures, sex workers’ rights, condoms in porn, gay suicide…once I mention these topics, a light goes on and they’re with me.  But the fact that we’re not encouraged to view these issues as sexually political speaks to the effect that sexual silencing can have.  (In fact, in a recent column, I wrote about Michele Bachmann and the damaging power that her silence can wield).

The truth is, when we don’t talk about a powerful human issue, suddenly it’s everywhere — the elephant in the room.  That elephant can be so darn hard to ignore that we have to play psychological tricks with ourselves to keep it invisible.  Our unconscious gets used to automatically suppressing the sexual so that our conscious minds stop making the connection.  This could be viewed as an adaptive quality.  (You should see how often people glare at me because I even mention sex).  But I believe we need to start reversing this process, especially since so many are missing the lies we’re being told about sexuality.

Seeing as you are reading this post, I’m confident that your eyes are open to sexual issues.  So I thought you might be especially stirred by a list I created in order to answer the question, “What is Sexual Politics?”  I’ve entitled the list, “What Sexual Politics Is,” and it contains some (but by no means all) of the political issues that fire me up, right now:

Sexual Politics is:

When you work in a brothel where your clients dodge payment, until the brothel building is deemed structurally unsafe, and, much to the delight of the neighbors, is eventually closed down.  The fact that you were working in dangerous conditions isn’t mentioned by the local press. (And will you get arrested?  And Jesus, where will you sleep tonight?).

When five year-old children in Amsterdam ask their teacher “What is sex?” and he tells them it is a loving act, and none of the parents prosecute.

When your teenage son commits suicide because he was bullied for being gay, and then, after his death, the bullies continue to chant “We’re glad you’re dead,” when a grieving family member is near.

Sexual politics is a  vibrator that’s illegal, even when it’s shaped like a rubber duck.  It’s when queer sex and queer love are looked on as sinful.  It’s when you want to marry your lover, but aren’t allowed.

It’s when a porn movie, with consenting actors, is more shocking to many than the war scenes on the news.

It’s the boy who says no to condoms.  It’s the girl who says no to pleasure.  It’s the kid who feels neither female nor male, but is told that isn’t good enough, and wants hir life to end.  (If this is you, dear one, please look to Kate Bornstein who is amazing).

It’s the man who spends time with a sex worker and suddenly feels embraced and at peace, even though, technically, he’s just made himself a criminal.

It’s a world that doesn’t understand when a trans woman is having sex with a male partner and they identify as gay.  Or a world in which people who are attracted to both men and women are told that they aren’t real unless they choose.

It is a woman who has experienced deep trauma and decides to bravely enact a rape fantasy to deal with her pain.  Then, after this role-play with a trusted partner, she feels significantly healed, but is described by so-called “feminists” as as victimizing herself.

It’s a Facebook wall of rape jokes by men who, apparently, are making jovial confessions online, yet Facebook refuses to remove the conversation.

It’s when the word “cunt” is considered more offensive than “cock,” or when you’re in love with more than one person, yet society tells you you’re not.

(And that’s just the start of it).

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Come over here, you sexy bitch.”

The bartender’s voice seeped slowly into my awareness as I stood staring hang-jawed at my surroundings: the dark wood sheathing the club from floor to ceiling, the fish tanks embedded into the face of the long bar, and, especially the person sitting on the barstool. Was that the same person featured in the drag show I’d been at a few weeks earlier? Finally, I heard the words.

I turned my head toward the bartender and the space between me and the bar, which had only seconds ago been filled by other customers but was now empty, and realized he was talking to me.

“Oh! I’m the sexy bitch,” I said. “Thanks for that. I was worried that I looked like Xena: Warrior Princess.”

In Boston where I live, every Borders store is closing.  It’s sad news, especially for sex.  I’ve always found the Borders staff to be a sex-positive bunch who don’t keel over with horror when I ask for the Sex section.  What’s more, Borders actually has a Sex section.  And that’s a political stance.  Acknowledging the need for Sex or Erotica shelves is akin to announcing that sex is important – and baby, that’s a statement I respect.

Frankly, my relationship with bookstores often turns sour when I ask for the Sex and Erotica sections.  Recently, in a little indie establishment, the bookseller responded by raising her nose in disgust and telling me this was a family store.  Well, where the hell does she think family comes from, dammit?  To prove a point, I spent my final few moments hunting the shelves for hypocrisy.  I found Nabakov’s Lolita, Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.  All of them can be classified as erotica and two of them contain incestuous sex.  I’m pretty sure incest isn’t “family store” material.  Snort.  It seems that snooty woman was housing the bookshelves of doom!

In truth, any bookseller who claims they don’t stock books about sex has got to be pretty naive.  Let’s face it, you can’t avoid the topic.  It’s where we come from.  And understanding sexuality is vital.  For instance, a teenage boy who is beginning to believe he might be gay should be able to easily get his hands on a book about sexual identity.  Likewise, he should be able to find literature about safe sex without having to ask stony-faced people who send him away with a flea in his ear.  I can’t think of a more family friendly policy than having a sex section that anyone can locate.  Not getting pregnant by mistake, not living in shame, not having unprotected sex…these are family friendly notions.

Still, it isn’t all doom and gloom.  Bookstores with sex-positive policies do exist, and thankfully many librarians are knowledgeable about sexuality.  I used to live near an excellent library where the collection of sex books was expanded every year.  That said, I once borrowed a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and was greeted with a glare when I handed it over at the desk.  (It was actually so hilarious that I got a fit of the giggles!).  But would she have glared if I was a shy teenage girl who was borrowing a book on abortion?  And what if that shy teenager wasn’t used to libraries, and had to ask a library assistant for help locating such a book?

So that’s one of the reasons I will miss Borders.  But the battle isn’t lost.  Next time you’re in a bookstore, ask for the sex section, especially if you know there isn’t one.  Do it because you’re politically proactive and want plant a seed.  Because the more we learn that sexual openness is vital, the more healthy this world will be.

On the subway last week, the man sitting opposite was ranting about his groin. “See this?” he asked me, pointing at himself. “Think I don’t have anything? Well, you’re wrong. This is mine.” As he continued to spout I got out my book (Anais Nin’s Fire, since you ask) and walked to the other end of the train, before I heard him move on to the next poor soul. He was right, of course. He does own his groin. But how sad that he had to announce it.

Like it or not, there’s often a sexual vibe on the subway. Of course, sex on the train is a classic fantasy, which, during rush hour, can give rise to as many furtive looks as you’d find in a busy bar. I suppose being sealed into a compressed space and traveling superfast is a recipe for lust, particularly when you find yourself face-to-crotch with a stranger. (Depends on the stranger! Depends on the crotch!). And perhaps being in the underbelly of the city releases all those urges we attempt to suppress. In London the subway is called the Underground, a word that also connotes spycraft – rather fitting, considering the amount of watching going on.

As it happens, I’m all about sex on the subway, but there’s a context. I use my commutes to catch up on my reading, which is often about sex and sexuality. The written word offers us a wonderful way of revitalizing and nurturing our sexual imagination, broadening our erotic focus and challenging our assumptions.  As an activity that can be solo, reading is also a great reminder that our sex lives lie within ourselves – we can still experience rich sexual worlds when we’re alone, and beautifully at that.  So, seeing as I love book recommendations, here are some quotes from great sex books/stories I’ve been reading on the train:

From “Dumbrowski’s Advice” by Steve Almond, in This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey:

“At the hospital, you told Dumbrowski: I met a girl, which might have been the truth from time to time, though really you dreamed of the waitress, your waitress, sweet greasy onion rings on her fingers as you lay in a pool of your own heat.”

Riki Wilchins in Genderqueer, ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins:

“…I am speaking, of course, of intersexed infants. Such children, who are not clearly male or female, occur in about one in every 2000 births. Because anything that is not male or female is not a true sex, we pronounce them ‘abnormal,’ fit them legally into male or female, and fit them physically into boy or girl by cutting them up at a rate of about five a day. Thus are ‘natural’ males and females maintained…”

From “Lina” in Little Birds by Anais Nin:

“She bought herself a black lace nightgown like mine. She came to my apartment to spend a few nights with me. She said she had bought the nightgown for a lover, but I saw the price tag still fastened on it. She was ravishing to look at because she was plump and her breasts showed where her white blouse opened. I saw her wild mouth parted, her curly hair in a wild aureole around her head. Every gesture was one of disorder and violence, as if a lioness had come into the room.”

It turns out that 2011 may be a good time for us bookish types to bask in the limelight. Sex expert Petra Boynton predicts this will be a year of sexual introspection: “…I think we’ll see the idea of self reflection and sexual diary keeping become more of a mainstream phenomena.” Self-help, philosophy, guided explorations…these may well be the kind of texts we’ll see reflected in print and online. In fact, Susie Bright recently brought out a 2011 sex journal, entitled Love & Lust, which provides prompts and guides for exploring your sexual self – my copy’s on its way and I’m excited to get started. So we don’t have to shag in public to be sexual while we commute…though maybe a few of us will get to do both! But as sex-positive readers with a mischievous streak, we can always tell our friends, “I had sex on the train today…” before pausing for effect, and adding, “vicariously, of course.”

The photo on the main page is by By Étienne ANDRÉ