I saw in The Atlantic that we are in the middle of a sex recession. A WHAT? I panicked. I’ve been through a sex recession before, and it’s not pretty. That was my own personal recession, but now it’s a national recession? How can this be? We can fix it, can’t we?!
The idea of a sex recession has become fodder for conversations on the radio, TV, and articles since The Atlantic’s December cover story, Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex? by Kate Julian. Apparently, people still want to read about sex, talk about sex, and comment on other people’s writing and talking about sex, just not have it. I sit here listening to the young people at the next table discussing the “sex recession,” and I want to get up and leave the coffee shop. Just the idea of a sex recession, without even reading the article, gives me anxiety. I have lived enough of my adult life in a sex recession, sometimes even in a complete, stock-market-crash-depression, with a few fabulous boom times. My boom times have never lasted. And while I may not be in a boom time right now, at least the market hasn’t crashed. I have no intention of heading into a recession.
Social media has given us the idea that young people are having sex all the time, with lots of lip-licking, tongue wagging, and cleavage. Tinder. Bumble. Swipe right, swipe left. All you have to do is go online, and you can have sex at any time, or so the dating apps would have us believe. Get laid, fall in love; whatever you want. Women are claiming the title “slut,” refusing to be shamed. There is a plethora of sex advice articles, and S&M, and non-monogamy. Threesomes, which used to be on the fringes, have now headed into the mainstream. LGBTQ folks no longer have to hide. Sex is EVERYWHERE. How can there possibly be a recession? Apparently, sex is being talked about and viewed on social media, rather than being experienced. The online, find-it-fast culture might not be the key to good sex. Or to any sex, for that matter.
What I’m more interested in is women owning our own sexuality, having the sex we want, and not having the sex we don’t really want (when mentioning the sex we don’t really want, I’m not talking about sexual assault, which is not sex). Owning our own sexuality seems so simple, but in a world that objectifies and degrades women’s bodies and women’s sexuality, it’s not. Women are still expected to be polite and to not hurt other’s feelings. Ownership over our own wants and desires is still not the norm for women in our society, no matter how many women are owning the title of slut. Women’s bodies are used to sell everything from lip balm to cars. Our sexuality is a commodity, with sexist, degrading porn more accessible than ever, porn written and performed for the pleasure of male watchers. Impotence is an outcome for many men who watch a lot of sexist porn, as is the expectation that women will respond in the same way to the sex acts they’ve seen performed by actors. The idea that sex is a two-way street can be lost in this equation. The interplay of racism and misogyny, in all its various forms, adds additional assault on women of color’s paths to sexual empowerment.
Unfortunately, sexism isn’t just a factor in heterosexual relationships. LGBTQ folks grow up with the same societal messages of women’s worth and women’s sexuality, wrought with slut shaming and the valuing of masculine/butch over femme (even if that is not the value for women’s looks in mainstream culture). Lesbians have specific misogynist shaming games all their own, such as the idea that a lesbian who has never been with a man is a “gold-star lesbian” and, thus, more valuable. Bi and Pan women experience shaming from straight folks and lesbian and gay folks. We aren’t really queer, we aren’t able to be monogamous when we choose to be (and it is our choice), we are always open to threesomes, etc. Trans women experience complex versions of misogyny, which often includes a rejection by both men and women of their basic identity, making self-ownership of sexuality particularly complex. The cultural degradation of women’s sexuality plays out differently for women of various identities, but it’s always there obscuring empowerment and choice.
While society becomes more and more diverse, all of our bodies are still supposed to look the same. The body du jour. When I was young, we were supposed to be super thin, with big breasts. Now women are supposed to have big butts and hips, as well as breasts, with small waists. There are variations to this theme, but they all include “not good enough.” Shame about normal body hair is greater than ever, with the norm the expectation that women remove all or most pubic hair, as if an adult woman’s pubic region is supposed to look like that of an 11-year old child. Our bodies are wrong no matter how they look.
With all that pressure, it’s amazing that so many women do find the path to satisfying, empowered, completely consensual sex! There are so many layers of shame and falsity to remove before we can even know what we really want.
Sex recession or not, I believe that many women post-divorce or post-long-term relationship feel that they are just coming into really claiming their own sexuality. This is true for me. It is certainly a good time, once some time for healing has passed, to really explore sexuality deeply. There can be less worry about being perfect once you have been through the loss of a long-term relationship; once you know you are not, and will never be, perfect. Or more importantly, once you accept that fact, and start accepting yourself for who you are, and forgiving yourself for the mistakes you have made. As we age, for many of us there is less concern about looks, and more concern about other things, including good sex, as reasons for attraction to and involvement in a relationship. A perfect body, whatever that is, is absolutely not necessary for good sex. Or, to put it another way, our bodies are all perfect for good, fulfilling sex.
Sex is one of those things that can actually improve toward middle age. Physiologically, women over 40 often experience more intense orgasms. More importantly, however, is the maturity and empowerment factor. Learning what is most pleasurable and how to ask for what we like takes time, and a certain comfort level. My body is not what it used to be, with wrinkles in places I didn’t know could wrinkle and a need for twice as much exercise to get ½ as much results, but I like my body so much better than I ever did when I was young. It’s mine, and it has the ability to do so many wonderful things when I CHOOSE TO DO THEM. I have learned how to say no. While it is still uncomfortable to disappoint someone, I say no directly when I’m not interested. This seems so obvious, but it takes practice. I think saying no is part of saying yes. I have learned how to say yes, not just fall into something. I say what I want and what I need. I feel so much more in control of my body and my sexuality, owning my body, sharing it when I choose to, and pleasing myself when that is what I choose.
That’s the key, isn’t it? Owning our bodies and our pleasure, owning our sexuality. Good sex has much more to do with self-acceptance than anything else. The more we are in charge of our own bodies, the less we have to worry about a recession. The rest will take care of itself.