an essay, a rant, a polemic, a prayer
Note: This essay discusses sex and trauma, as the title implies, though there are no graphic details of either sexual activity or sexual violence.
I suppose I was one of the “lucky ones” in that I was first given sex education in kindergarten (or perhaps Grade 1 — the memory is blurry), in the form of a public health nurse who visited our class and showed us what heterosexual, penis-in-vagina, penetrative intercourse was using anatomically correct cloth dolls. I therefore had a rudimentary understanding of “what sex was” from the age of 5/6, whereas many of my peers notably did not actually know what the mechanics of reproductive sexual intercourse were until their mid-teens.
I don’t feel lucky, though. My sexual development as a young, queer Asian boy who eventually transitioned to living as a queer Asian woman was deeply traumatic — full of pain, confusion, and trauma, an experience that I now know to be shared by many. There was outright sexual violence and abuse in my life, certainly, and the traumatic effects of those incidents. However, perhaps even more traumatic was the impact of what I will venture to call “sex education neglect” — in that my needs for education and support around sexuality as a developing young person and adult (and perhaps especially as a trans & racialized young woman and adult) were invisibilized, ignored, and occasionally outright demonized by the people around me.
The trauma of abuse is perhaps easier, in this society, to track than the trauma of neglect. Abuse is the presence of active violence or exploitation. Neglect, on the other hand, is the absence of vital nurturing — neglect on a basic level is when we are not given the food, water, and shelter we need to survive. But there are other essential human needs that result in suffering and maladaptive development when not met: Humans need to be taught language, for example, to be given affection, we need opportunities for play and cognitive development. And, I believe, we also need opportunities and education for our sexual growth and expression across the lifespan — including appropriate validation and attunement for those on the asexual/aromantic spectrum. Such opportunities are rare in the dominant, heteropatriarchal society, and rarer still for those who are marginalized — LGBT people, disabled individuals, elders.
I suffered enormous traumas in adolescence and young adulthood. As an Asian male-assigned person, my body was desexualized, mocked and shamed. As a queer person, my sexuality was targeted for abuse. As a transgender woman, I am at once intensely fetishized and demonized by both the dominant society and the queer community I live in — seen as at once hideously undesirable in public, intensely attractive yet objectified behind closed doors, and dangerous to those around me for the mere fact of existing as a sexual and sexualized being. In response, my body developed an intense panic response to sex, would become numb and shut down around sexual interactions, and I became irrationally fearful that I was sexually harming everyone in my presence despite not actually doing anything wrong (or indeed, even sexual at all, in most cases)
It was not until I began to study “Somatic Sex Education” about a year ago, and the work of Caffyn Jesse, that I finally started to develop an embodied sense of my sexual needs and sexual self. Somatic sex education is a form of body-centred sex education and healing work that emphasizes the importance of pleasure, embodied consent, and permission-giving or de-shaming. Somatic sex education was created through the lineage of Joseph Kramer’s Sexological Bodywork and Sacred Intimacy — modalities that were originally developed to create a safe forum for gay men living with and dying of AIDS to share intimacy and sensuality. Though Somatic Sex Education and Sexological Bodywork (and the somewhat related modalities of neo-tantra and other forms of sensual bodywork) are not without their problems (and what modality isn’t?), this was the doorway through which I first began to reclaim any sense of sexual “okay-ness.”
There is an ancient tradition of sacred prostitution — of the “holy whore,” whose divine role is to provide cleansing and healing to the bodies of those afflicted by war. This tradition continues today, though the majority of sex workers who provide it are unceasingly criminalized and punished by the dominant society, pushed into the shadows and targeted for violence and murder. A relative few lucky sex educators (somatic and otherwise) and bodyworkers are able to work in the light of day.
Queer and other marginalized communities are in deep need of sex education that tends to our essential needs for growth and development. The model of “abstinence-based” sex education that so many of us are first exposed to is inadequate and deeply shaming. Yet even “health-based” and “harm reduction” models are most often based in fear — they tend to teach the basic names and risks of each sex act, emphasizing over and over the dangers and precautions that “responsible” individuals ought to take. Queer sex, kinky sex (which a majority of the population is interested in to some degree), asexuality and aromantic identity, and most of all pleasure are largely ignored.
And even “sex-positive” models of sex education are often lacking in that they tend to be under-conceptualized, idealizing a certain type of sex, usually centring bodies that are white, neurotypical, young, STI-negative, and non-disabled. “Sex-positive” discourse is responsible for the proliferation of the now-popular definition of sexual consent as “explicit, ongoing, informed, and enthusiastic.” This set of criteria, while well-intentioned and in many ways an improvement over previous definitions, has and continues to be weaponized against HIV-positive individuals (by criminalizing those who do not disclose their STI status to partners even when at an undetectable viral load and using condoms) and sex workers (since sex workers generally cannot be said to be “enthusiastic” about every encounter with every client they ever have — though they may be “enthusiastic” about continuing to maintain a financial livelihood!)
Yet even in the realm of unpaid, “safer” sex, the “sex-positive” notion of “explicit, ongoing, informed, enthusiastic” falls down. The reality of sex is literally fluid and dynamic, it moves quickly and changes from moment to moment, making 100% explicit and ongoing consent 100% of the time at best aspirational. There is often no way to know in advance how any sexual activity will impact us, which forces us to reconsider the notion of “informed.” And who hasn’t, at some point, given sex to a partner as a gift but without really enjoying it for oneself, thus rendering the “enthusiastic” part also problematic?
I am still a student in Somatic Sex Education, and I will be learning about sexuality for the rest of my life. I don’t have “the answers,” or even any answers, necessarily. But I believe we need a sex education that is:
Pleasure lies at the core of our sexual drive. It inspires and compels us, transports and afflicts us. We need to know how to cultivate pleasure, how to give and receive pleasure, how to give ourselves pleasure. We need to be able to honour the pleasure that we give ourselves as being of equal value to the pleasure we are gifted by others. Sexual pleasure cannot be solely limited to a biomechanical view of “what to do with X body parts in order to create GIANT ORGASMS!” but must be understood as a vast and complex spectrum of physical, emotional, and spiritual experiences. Orgasm and arousal are only small, though significant, parts of this greater whole.
Sexual pleasure is not a commodity, not something that should only be reserved for the young and beautiful, or for the wealthy. The beautiful and rich are not more deserving of pleasure than anybody else. And pleasure is not a luxury nor a sinful indulgence, something that it is shameful to think about instead of other, “more important” things. When sexual pleasure comes from our own bodies, over which we are sovereign, it is for many of us a need, and it is for all of us a right.
Pleasure-centred sexual practice necessitates embodied consent. It means that we have the right to enjoy sexual encounters, even if we are not actually getting aroused by them. It means that no one has the right to take pleasure from our bodies when we do not consent. It means that our role can simply be facilitating pleasure for others without having to perform pleasure when we aren’t really feeling it.
Sex education must be trauma informed, which goes beyond simply acknowledging that we have sexual trauma. It means understanding how trauma occurs (which, simply put, is when we are pushed beyond our boundaries into “too much too fast” or when we are neglected and given “too little for too long” as Caffyn Jesse teaches). And it means teaching the prevention of trauma wherever possible, which lies once again in a notion of consent that is embodied, dynamic, and flexible enough to be workable in the many contexts of sexual activity.
When we are trauma informed, we can give ourselves and others the space that we need to articulate our sexual needs (what we desire) and our sexual boundaries (what we don’t). We honour those needs and boundaries, and acknowledge that they are likely to change at least somewhat over time. We do not try to label, control, or shame others’ experiences. We give ourselves and others permission to feel, and to be confused, to feel more than one feeling at the same time. We give ourselves and others permission to heal — or to not heal. We see, hear, and respect the sacred dignity of all living things.
Sex is so powerful (and so frightening) in part because it lives so much in the realm of the body. It reveals to us the wild, unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of our flesh, fluid, and bones. Sex makes us feel and re-member parts of ourselves we have forgotten or pushed away. Sex transmits affection, attachment, affliction, it transports us and it traumatizes us. Sex forces us to confront the shape and size or our bodies, our physical limits, our ability and disability. Sex education must be open to, affirming of, all of these realities. We must acknowledge that our bodies are divine and also incredibly vulgar, sometimes tragic and hilarious. Body “positivity” is one thing, but we also need affirmation that having a body can be a negative experience, or that negative experiences come to us through our bodies.
We have bodies: Sometimes we do not like how they are shaped. Sometimes they fail us. Sometimes we accidentally pee in a partner’s face when they are going down on us (it happens!). Sometimes, they get sick. All bodies get older. Our bodies can be targeted for adulation, or for violence and exploitation. We need to have access to information and validation about all of these things, and most importantly, we need permission and supportive spaces to talk about them.
TRANFORMATIVE JUSTICE BASED
This is perhaps the hardest thing to talk about, because so many of people, in all walks of life and levels of society, have experienced sexual violence. Yet it is for this reason that we need to have conversations about what happens when something “goes wrong” in a sexual encounter or relationship. If this topic is covered at all in contemporary sex ed, it usually stops at defining abuse and asserting the importance of consent — which is essential. But we also need more, we need to go beyond and address what happens when consent is transgressed or violated. This is more than a “one or two workshops” conversation. This is a lifetime conversation.
Nobody wants to admit that they have caused sexual harm. But there is a vast range of sexual harms, from misreading the signs and hugging someone when it isn’t wanted, to intentionally targeting someone and overriding their consent (and different transgressions may have different impacts from person to person). I truly believe that every sexually active person has committed or will commit some form of sexual harm in their lifetime. We need to find a way to talk about this, so that we can own our actions and be accountable for them — without immediately spiralling into either brushing sexual harm under the rug or outright disposing of anyone who is named as a perpetrator.
If we cannot develop and implement a way for people to recognize and name sexual harm from the perspectives of both survivor and perpetrator, then we will never be able to create a society in which people take active ownership of their sexual learning. We will instead maintain the current social norm, in which most people choose to either totally ignore the notion of sexual consent entirely, or deflect responsibility for sexual harm onto “everybody else” without seriously engaging with their own behaviors.
Consent is a complex concept and a moving target. It is not as simple as “asking for permission” or even “active, informed, ongoing, enthusiastic.” It is a living dynamic, like a body itself. Sometimes, we get it wrong. How can we handle this? How do we hold it?
In over a decade of working with people as a community worker, former therapist, facilitator, educator, and bodyworker, I have met many individuals who would not take responsibility for their own breaches of consent. I have also met many who over-responsibilized themselves, taking too much responsibility (and disproportionate shame).
We need to be able to understand the difference between our own responsibility and the responsibility of others. We need to make room for the inevitable mistakes, and to grow from them, without minimizing the impacts of predatory behavior and sexual harm. We need to be able to learn in order to transform, and to transform in order to learn.
I breathe in and I breathe out. I wrote this essay in a single long, manic burst, over an hour. My body was holding it, needed to release it. I can feel my muscles, locked and clenched, bracing as I type. I breathe and let them open.
In the spiral of healing, there is endless pleasure, endless pain. Pleasure. Pain. Pleasure. Pain. The pulse of life, of learning, of growing. I was failed by my sexual education, and by my community. I am so grateful for my sexual education, and my community. For what I have found. I’m one of the lucky ones. I think.
One of the lucky ones.