The Complexities of Sexual Well-Being

Meghan over at the F-Word has a thought-provoking piece about the recent post by the Pervocracy on sex-positivity, and it’s inspired me to finally write something that’s been on my mind for a while.

As I’ve said before, I think that the only relevant criteria for assessing a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people involved. While that may sound simple, there’s a lot more to it than may be immediately apparent. After all, consent is really only meaningful when one has the ability to make a fully empowered decision. That’s limited by what options people are aware of (sex education!) and believe are open to them, among other things. If you’ve been taught that you have to have sex in a certain way, or that your partner will leave you if you don’t have sex, or anything else that restricts your ideas about what sex is supposed to be, that can shape your capacity to consent. But to take it even further, in a world that offers remarkably restricted ideas of what “sexy” is, how do you know that your desire to do those things is authentic? At what point can you say for sure that your decision is genuinely yours and not influenced by media representations of sex? Exploring these questions is, I think, both a sex-positive and a feminist act. And I feel sadness that two groups of people who offer such useful and complementary tools for looking at these questions end up arguing, instead of finding ground for meaningful dialogue.

One place where we might begin looking for this common ground is the issue of “well-being.” The fact that one has a particular desire or fantasy doesn’t necessarily mean that acting upon it is going to support their well-being. For example, a man might have fantasies about being sexually dominant. To the degree that that comes from his internalizing the “Act Like a Man” Box, enacting those desires may actually hinder his well-being rather than fostering it, especially if he’s performing dominance in order to comply with the rules of masculinity. In his book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, clinical psychologist Michael Bader points out that we each have different motivations for our fantasies, even when the narratives of the fantasies might be similar. Without knowing what the backstories are, any interpretations we make are going to be at least partly the result of our own projections, which is a notoriously inaccurate tool. In my experience, rather than describing what’s actually going on for someone else, those projections are likely to express our own Shadows.

I think that it’s often worth asking “how do these desires or practices support well-being?” I can’t answer that for anyone else- that has to come from each individual. All I can do is make room for people to explore that for themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people either assume that “if I enjoy it, it’s ok” or judge someone without finding out what their motivations really are. In my view, both of those are often manifestations of arrogance.

When people argue that the fact that they enjoy something is sufficient justification for doing it, they often neglect the question of their well-being (or that of the people affected by their choices). People do all kinds of things that feel pleasurable and that are harmful to themselves or the people around them, and in my view, a sex-positive response is to challenge that. Meanwhile, it can be just as much of a problem to assume that everyone who does those things is ranking their pleasure above their own or other peoples’ well-being. Ignoring the diversity of motivations and experiences that people have, even when they engage in the same sexual practices, isn’t going to help, either. We  need to be able to hold onto both pieces, if we’re going to get anywhere.

So where does well-being reside? How do we know whether someone’s choices are fostering it or not? And what do we do with that information? Those are some of the really important (and fascinating) questions to explore. I would love to have those sorts of conversations with Meghan- she’s smart, insightful, and articulate. Unfortunately, she also seems to oversimplify what I’m saying about sex-positivity, or at least, that’s how it seems to me. I’d like to be able to hold onto both the individual experiences AND the socio-cultural factors that shape our lives (and that we contribute to through our actions) as part of that discussion. If Meghan or anyone else is up for that, I’d enjoy that.

Update: Meghan responded to my comment and raised a really important question:

How do you decide where and when ‘well-being’ begins and ends? And how does, for example, pornography and prostitution contribute to the well-being of women at large, even if it, according to some, benefits individual women?

That is exactly the kind of question that I want to explore. I don’t think it’s up to me to “decide where and when ‘well-being’ begins and ends” for anyone but myself, although I would find the conversation around it really useful.

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17 Responses so far.

  1. Guy New York says:

    One answer to Meghan’s second question in her response to you is agency. Pornography and prostitution contribute to the well being of women at large specifically because it benefits individual women.

    If we decide the voices of some women are somehow “too influenced by the patriarchy” then we deny their ability to make informed decisions. If we ignore the voices of women in the porn industry for example, we’re reinforcing the idea that women’s choices are suspect from the start. That somehow, they’re unable or unwilling to pull themselves back from cultural influences to make decisions that effect their lives.

    When we recognize that people have the ability to make informed decisions (even when they differ from our own) we’re contributing to the well being of people as a whole.

  2. LoriA says:

    When are we going to realize that the question of sexual ‘authenticity’ and wondering whether a sexual practice is *REALLY* good for someone are just means of policing marginalized sexualities? It’s no one’s goddamned business if, for example, the kinky sex I engage in is *really* healthy for me, and it’s rude of them to ask. It’s especially rude if, like the “smart, insightful, and articulate” Meghan and her followers, you publicly bully women for being dupes of the patriarchy for having alternative sexualities.

    There are also incredible ableist currents running through her kind logic, because it’s based in a neurotypical framework of what constitutes ‘healthy’ and a belief that anyone with a mental illness or trauma history can’t possibly know what’s sexually beneficial for her.

    I honestly don’t understand how you can support someone like Megan by giving her line of logic a boost.

  3. Charlie says:

    @LoriA In what way is the discussion of sexual authenticity a way to police marginalized sexualities? How can an exploration of the ways that each person can (to paraphrase the words of Brene Brown) learn to let go of who they think they’re supposed to be and embracing who they are turn into policing anyone? As far as I can see, that’s precisely the reverse of what I mean by it.

    Can you point to one place where I “publicly bully women for being dupes of the patriarchy for having alternative sexualities”? I get that you’re angry at Meghan, but why take that out on me?

  4. Charlie says:

    @Guy New York While I agree with you that the argument that cultural forces limit agency is sometimes taken too far, I also think that the argument that choice is enough is also sometimes taken too far. I’ve spoken with too many people who either aren’t aware of what possibilities are open to them, or don’t believe that they could ever make those choices, or that they don’t deserve them, or don’t have the information to know what they’re getting into, to think that people’s choices aren’t shaped and limited by what they think is available to them.

    Now, the question of how we can tell the difference between a decision that someone makes because of they don’t recognize other possibilities and a decision that isn’t what we would make ourselves is a tricky one. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that every choice is an informed one. That’s just as limited as the trap of thinking that no choice is an informed one.

  5. SmJ says:

    When it comes to porn, I always get annoyed when it is treated monolithically. Already almost everybody means ‘filmed pornography’ when they say ‘pornography’. I think one can be a lot more imaginative with written pornography, for example, because the issue of how people are treated doesn’t even come into it. When it comes to filmed pornography, unless you’re prepared to argue that all voyeurism is inherently damaging, then it really becomes an issue of which particular films or series have dangerous messages and why. In the same way it is relatively easy to point out the flaws in a relatively low brow ‘comedy’ like ‘Just Go With It’, it is easy to see the problems in Max Hardcore’s work. It is harder to see exactly what the problem is when a thoughtful person, such as Bobbi Starr, directs a film such as ‘Bobbi’s World’. I think that’s the only level where it makes sense to engage.

  6. Discussion of sexual authenticity is problematic because the criteria is self-reported and all the dominant culture has to do is say “nope, don’t believe you.” The entire frame of authenticity is tailor made for oppression.

    It’s one thing to ask someone “are you sure you really wanna do that? really?” and it’s another thing to refuse to take “yes, I’m sure” as an answer. If a person eventually says “I’ve decided not to do it” how can we be sure which is the authentic choice? When authenticity is questioned repeatedly, and affirmative answers aren’t accepted – can eventual negative answers themselves be considered authentic? I don’t see how they could.

    Has anyone ever told you that your sexuality isn’t authentic? I’ve had people telling me that for quite a while now, and it’s beyond infuriating. So far beyond until it turns to dehumanization, that it results in women like me being easy prey for serial killers.

    That this “authenticity” argument is actively used TODAY to deny rights to people, to lock people up in jail, to put them in mortal danger – that is a problem that should be addressed. Instead our local blogosphere decides to once again ask “yeah but are they really sure they want to be doing that?” and the kicker here is that the final question isn’t even being addressed to us, and it wouldn’t make a difference if it was because we’ve answered it a hundred times already, only to be told, “nope. don’t believe you.”

    Go look at how many people are being told that they aren’t ‘authentic’, check Uganda for starters. It consistently petrifies me that people don’t seem to realize that the concept of gender performativity is the VERY SAME thing that is used by anti-homosexual bigots the world over.

  7. Charlie says:

    @FeministWhore I don’t think that the issue there is with the concept of authenticity. I think it’s a problem of people discounting, disbelieving, or denying the stories of folks they disagree with or can’t understand. The problem is when people take the idea of authenticity and then turn it around to shame others when they make their own choices. The problem is when people project their own fears, shames, and insecurities onto others, and use the language of authenticity to justify it.

    I think it’s the height of arrogance to tell someone that their choices are wrong, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else (i.e. they’re respecting the consent, pleasure and well-being of other people). I think it’s arrogant to attack someone who makes a different decision. But the problem isn’t whether “authenticity” exists- it’s the arrogance.

  8. @Charlie, thanks for responding, and to clarify just a bit:

    When I say the problem is with the ‘concept’, I mean that the concept of authenticity gives cover to those who oppress others, and that’s what needs to be exposed.

    What I am saying is that if you can recognize that ‘authenticity’ is used as a method of delivering oppression rooted in arrogance, it should be called out when we see it. Even if it’s feminists who are doing it.

    All of us have a responsibility to understand and actively work to discredit, or at the VERY least we should acknowledge, the tools used for oppression. It’s not enough to know that arrogance is behind it, we need to know how that arrogance is expressed, and I believe we need to tell others to watch out for it.

  9. manfromfred says:


    I think I can put the concept of authenticity better. Here’s the simple rule you could tell anyone questioning whether a sex worker is being “authentic”: “No means no, and yes means yes.”

    Denying either one is equally insulting, equally oppressive, and very harmful in their separate ways. If they deny that yes means yes, then no must not really mean no either. They can’t have it both ways.

    If a free adult woman (or man) chooses to take money and provide sex, she has said “yes” to her client. And there should be as much respect for that decision as there is for if she says “no.”

    The problem with sex-nags trying to infer authenticity is this: people are pathetic at detecting lies. This has been shown in study after study. There’s no doubt about it. And if you’re disbelieving a story are the prejudices you’ve brought into it, such as: “No true woman would do this unless she was forced,” you should probably instead go with facts, like the dozen pages of releases she signed before doing the porn scene, or the fact that she receives money for sex regularly.

  10. Charlie says:

    @manfromfred While I agree that listening to people’s stories and respecting their choices is essential, I also think you’re overstating the case. I know that I’ve made plenty of decisions that were based on things like what I thought the other person wanted me to do, peer pressure, a limited understanding of what my options were, or because I had expectations about the negative consequences of choosing one thing over another. To boil it all down to “they chose to do this, so it’s ok” is, I think, a rather myopic view. There are a lot more nuances than that. At the same time, I think you’re right about the effects of projection and confirmation bias and I would also suggest that it goes both ways.

    In my experience, some of the more useful questions to ask are: what did they want to get out of the experience, and did they get it? How do they feel about it after? Are they experiencing joy, shame, anger, satisfaction, grief, happiness? Are they able to integrate their experience into their lives, or are they distracting themselves from it in order to avoid thinking about it? If they could go back in time, would they make the same decision? If not, why is that and what would they do differently?

    Of course, those questions are really only useful when we ask them from a place of genuine curiosity (without projecting our expected answers), and when we listen to the responses with an open mind. As FeministWhore points out (and thanks for clarifying, FW), it’s easy to use questions like these in order to make claims about other people. I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to decide whether someone else is acting authentically. The most that I think we can do without being arrogant about it is share our experiences and decisions with others. Otherwise, it’s really easy to slide into telling other people what we think they should be feeling, which is incredibly oppressive and only makes things harder.

  11. LoriA says:

    “In what way is the discussion of sexual authenticity a way to police marginalized sexualities?”
    If you seriously don’t get this, maybe you shouldn’t be writing about it.

    “Can you point to one place where I “publicly bully women for being dupes of the patriarchy for having alternative sexualities”? I ”
    Perhaps my original sentence was unclear. It was meant to read as “IF you (i.e. one) do this, like Megan…”

    ” I get that you’re angry at Meghan, but why take that out on me?”
    Because you’re engaging with her nasty sexuality policing? The fact that you even *can* engage with her is telling enough. If you were a woman and a sex worker, she wouldn’t bother having an open conversation with you.

    And, finally, in regards to this part of your response to manfromfred, “In my experience, some of the more useful questions to ask are:…”, where the hell does anyone get off asking those questions of anyone else? *That* is what I’m talking about with policing people’s sexual behaviors. And by ‘people’, I mean the only people who ever get asked those questions: queer folks, kinksters, and sex workers… *especially* if they’re female.

  12. Charlie says:

    @LoriA Let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You’re telling me that because I can engage with someone who disagrees with a lot of what I say (and in fact, she & I have gotten into it a few times in the comments on her blog) and sometimes find ways in which her perspective can offer insight is a bad thing? You’re certainly welcome to your opinion, but I’m willing to engage with a pretty wide range of people. Often, it reaffirms my own views. And sometimes, it helps me hone my language or even discover aspects that I hadn’t thought of before, in which case, I think it’s only honest of me to acknowledge that. That’s a process that I’m both willing and able to undertake. In fact, I’m doing much the same thing with you, right now. So maybe I’m missing something- what is it that you think is “telling enough” about that?

    As far as why I have the kinds of conversations in which those sorts of questions come up, well, I’m a sexuality educator. I talk with people all the time about their sexual experiences. I don’t go up to strangers to ask them those things- people come to me because I’ve been studying sexuality for over 20 years. So when they’re looking for some support or insight around their sexual desires and practices, I ask questions instead of telling them what I think about what they do. I try to create a space in which they can come up with their own answers, which is often easier when there’s someone who’s genuinely listening, rather than judging. I ask people those questions because I’m interested in supporting them as they find their own paths. And contrary to your assertion, I ask those questions to straight folks, vanilla folks, and non-sex workers.

    Now, I do agree with both you that those questions are often used by people to shame folks whose sexualities they disapprove of. It’s rare that anyone asks a straight person how they know that they’re straight, for example. But the fact that these tools are used to harm or control others isn’t the fault of the tool- it’s the fault of the person who uses them in those ways. I use the same tools in very different ways, and I suggest to you that you’re blaming the tool instead of the person using it.

  13. LoriA says:

    No, what I’m saying is you’re not a sex worker, and you’re having a discussion with a woman who is anti-sex worker, who cannot have a reasonable discussion with us and whose followers publicly attack us, but is having a reasonable discussion with you partly because you are not one of us. It’s like if I, as a straight ally, were to thoughtfully engage with a virulent homophobe. That’s not being a good ally. The only proper response, as an ally, is to either condemn or ignore that behavior, not parse out whether this bigoted person has a right to examine the ‘authenticity’ of sexual minorities I am not a part of.

    Being willing and able, as you say, to have that kind of conversation, is a privilege, and I utterly fail to see what it has to do with sexuality education. Seriously. What positive things can possible come out of dissecting other people’s sexual well-being unless the people doing that dissecting are that person and hir doctor? It’s like proposing with a fat-hating nutritionist to examine what fat people eat and whether they know if it’s good or bad for them. It’s stupid, useless, patronizing, and borderline abusive.

  14. Charlie says:

    I’m curious to know what makes you say that a doctor is the only person who can discuss someone’s sexual well-being in a positive way. Most medical doctors get no training on anything beyond STIs and pregnancy, and most psychiatrists get even less. A few programs offer therapists better training, although even then, it’s pretty minimal (and they aren’t doctors, so I don’t know if you’re referring to them). You seem to assume that I’m talking about dissecting someone’s well-being, when I’m talking about supporting it. I don’t think I’ve ever dissected someone’s well-being in my career as a sex educator.

    Further, to use your example, what if the nutritionist wasn’t “fat-hating” and was only interested in encouraging and supporting someone’s health? Couldn’t they actually offer useful information or input? Again, the problem isn’t the tool, it’s the intention behind it.

    As far as whether there’s any value in engaging with people, I disagree with you. I think that condemning or ignoring problematic behavior are sometimes the best strategies, and they aren’t the only ones. If you find them useful, go right ahead. Personally, I find that they often make it impossible to facilitate change. And if you think that there is ever only one “proper response”, again, we’ll disagree.

    Lastly, just to be clear, I think that there are ways in which sex work and sexually explicit media can contribute to the well-being of society as a whole (which is one of many places that Meghan and I disagree). I’m interested in what can be done to make that happen, including decriminalization, advocacy, and education, which is why I think it’s a relevant question.

  15. LoriA says:

    I’m not going to get sidetracked on the minor point of listing all of the people with whom it’s appropriate to talk to about your health/well-being. So let’s just say that the list is longer than ‘doctor’ but does not include ‘some stranger on the internet who responds to your divergent point of view about your own sexuality and political ideology by claiming you are misinformed and a liar’ (referring to Megan there, not you). Sufficient?

    “Further, to use your example, what if the nutritionist wasn’t “fat-hating” and was only interested in encouraging and supporting someone’s health?”
    Megan is the fat-hating nutritionist in this example. I would love to see evidence that she has been anything other than disrespectful, dismissive, and condescending to people with marginalized sexualities like sex workers and kinksters.

    “Again, the problem isn’t the tool, it’s the intention behind it.”
    You can’t pull this out of its context. It’s not like you spontaneously decided to expand your definition of sexual well-being, or decided it by reading other reasonable, qualified people’s divergent points of view. According to this article, you were spurred by a conversation, an interaction, with a particular person with a particular history regarding her treatment of the people this ‘tool’ is to be most frequently used on.

    “As far as whether there’s any value in engaging with people, I disagree with you.”
    Apparently I was unclear about this. It’s not that there is no value in engaging with people with different opinions. It’s that there’s no value in you, a person from dominant group X (non-sex workers) engaging with a person also from dominant group X, who is hateful towards people from oppressed group Y about something that largely affects group Y, when people from group Y can’t even engage with her without being dismissed.

    “I think that condemning or ignoring problematic behavior are sometimes the best strategies, and they aren’t the only ones.”
    Um, they’re the only strategies I have in this situation, because trying to engage with this person gets me outright dismissed by her and harassed by her followers. If I were just some random person that wouldn’t relate to any of this here in the slightest, but *I’m part of the group directly affected by what you two are discussing.* I mean, seriously, who do you think inquiries of ‘sexual well-being’ are mostly being directed towards by people on the left? I’d say, primarily, sex workers and kinksters and *of course* (eegads!) kinky sex workers (and to a lesser extent, the mentally ill, trauma survivors, poly folks, queer folks, and women. God help you if you’re all of the above.)

    And you two can discuss all you want the complexities of sexual well-being in society, as is alluded to in the ‘update,’ but there really should not be anything complex about sexual well-being for individuals: listen to people, *trust* them, and/or mind your own business.

  16. LoriA says:

    What I find most frustrating about all of this is that I agree with Megan that the definition of ‘sex-positivity’ should include the broader social impact of certain aspects of sex/ sexuality as judged through a radical feminist framework (where we diverge is that I think certain things have a positive impact and she thinks those same things have a negative impact) but she thinks so little of me that *she straight up does not believe me when I say this.* And here you are, having pretty much the same conversation women like me could have had with her, because you are privileged by not being a sex worker and therefore she doesn’t automatically wave you away. This is a woman who will not talk about sex workers with sex workers in any productive fashion, and you are encouraging her to talk over us anyway. That is what gets me. That is insulting, and, furthermore, it’s really not going to get you anywhere useful in the end.

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