Let’s talk about sex (or not)

“All too commonly, people think not only that their own way of living is right, but that it should be everyone else’s moral standard as well.” — Warner, 4

“It seldom occurs to anyone that the dominant culture and its family environment should be held account­able for creating the inequalities of access and recognition that produce this sense of shame in the first place.” — Warner, 8

I have seen myself in a lot of our readings throughout this class (I am sure this is the case for a lot of queer people in a class about identity). This sense that I was reading stories and reflections from people very similar to myself started with our first(?) reading: “The Trouble With Normal.” Warner writes about theories of sexual shame, repression, and heteronormative assumptions/societal expectations. As a queer person who was raised in a Catholic family, I am very familiar with the guilt and shame associated with sex/sexuality, as well as the repression (of identity) that follows. Assigning a level of morality to sexual activity in general, or to certain sexual orientations, is often rooted in religious beliefs that sex is something sacred between a man and a woman– and in my experience, is to be saved for marriage and for the purpose of reproduction. A question I have wondered myself and that is posed in Warner’s writing is “why were they so driven to control something that we now recognize as harmless, and by definition not our business?” (pg 4). This is in reference to masturbation, but is applicable to lots of different things that individuals can be shamed for– i.e. having sex at all, experiencing same-sex attraction, or otherwise acting/presenting outside of the norm. Why is there this need, in so many aspects of society, to control things that don’t affect the person trying to control them? This is also directly applicable to my family: why does it matter to them how I identify my sexuality, choose to dress, tattoo my body, or plan my future? It was expected that I would fit into this box of what my parents envisioned, a box that is firmly heteronormative and socially acceptable. 

Relatedly, the quotes above suggest not only that “people think not only that their own way of living is right, but that it should be everyone else’s moral standard as well,” (pg 4), but that this belief creates and further enforces shame surrounding sexual variance. The “dominant culture and its family environment” (pg 8) can be what ultimately feeds queer children in particular this notion that they aren’t “normal,” or that their desires should be hidden. This can continue into adulthood as well, and isn’t limited to queer folks– the notion that any sex at all is shameful can be a very harmful narrative. My Catholic family taught me (either directly or by implication) that sex was not to be done or talked about unless it was in the context of marriage (between a man and woman) and reproduction, which left me to learn sex education from my public school (not a great set-up either) because my family simply ignored its existence. I was never given space to explore nor did I ever think to question my sexuality until I attended college. 

“The term “repression” is often applied retrospectively in this way. There is a catch-22 of sexual shame; you don’t think of yourself as repressed until after you’ve made a break with repression.” — Warner, 8

I feel like this quote accurately represents my experience with learning about sex and sexuality. I wasn’t aware of feeling repressed (or even being closeted) until years after leaving the repressive environment and learning about my bisexual identity from peers, college courses, social media, and through therapy (which is where a lot of these so-called “break[s] with repression” happened). Ultimately, the assumption by my family that I would be straight and not sexually active only served to create an idealized version of me which only ever existed before I learned to question social norms and repressive religious beliefs. This has had lasting effects on my sense of self, and on what parts of my identity I feel comfortable sharing with my family (or not, out of the fear of not being understood or fully accepted).

One thought on “Let’s talk about sex (or not)”

  1. Thank you for sharing that part of your story, I think a lot of us can relate to that. There is this narrative of shame and secrecy around sex and sexuality. The topic is deemed unsuitable for children and families, unprofessional and crass. Society teaches us to feel shame regarding sex and sexuality, of any kind, of all kinds, but especially around queerness. Growing up queer in a world that tells you otherwise is an act of survival and getting to the point where you love your own sexuality and have no shame around sex is an act of courage.

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