Allow me to start by clarifying here: We should absolutely talk about sex, educate ourselves, spread good information, trade tips, ask questions, and be there for loved ones who need someone to confide in or just want to share something. We should be open to learning about sex, how to better protect and enjoy ourselves, and all the different kinds of sex people are having — it shouldn’t be something we’re squeamish about. Parents should teach their children about their own bodies — about masturbation, protection, pregnancy, and all of the risks and rewards that can come with having an active sex life. Couples should make healthy, informed decisions about forms of contraception. We should all be getting tested, and asking each other about those tests. All of that, I am in support of a thousand percent. Sex is a beautiful, wonderful thing, and it shouldn’t be scooted away into the Cupboard of Shame, left to collect dust as we mystify it.
That being said, there is a difference between talking in generalities about sex — or even anecdotally mentioning an experience out of context — and using your sex life, and sexual encounters, as a way to distinguish yourself and make a name in entertainment. It’s not a very complicated formula: we think (and rightfully so) that we can replace talent, depth, or general intellectual heft with gratuitous disclosure. The old formula of giving a 25-year-old woman a little space on a blog or paper in exchange for vulgar tell-alls about the sex she’s having is a pretty tired one. And on the male side of things, any men’s forum (Tucker Max being perhaps their seedy, seedy poster boy) shows that they are wont to disclose as much as they can with no remorse, as well. There is the undeniable lure of interest, of comments, of curious eyes who are going to peer into your dirty underwear bin and get out of it whatever cheap thrill they can while the story is still fresh.
But this is not like writing a thoughtful, informed, respectful piece on sex which helps people discover themselves and shows us that we’re all human. This is taking individual sexual encounters, perhaps changing the name for some absurd sense of “anonymity,” and divulging every last detail about whatever happened between you two. For example, just last week, I read an article in a New York-based alternative paper in which a 20-something woman described an event the previous weekend in which she took a man home from a bar, brought him back to her apartment, made out with him on the couch, went back into the bedroom, exchanged awkward oral sex, and while putting the condom on, the man lost his erection. She described the half-hearted justifications he gave, and how he abruptly left afterward, ostensibly out of enormous embarrassment. And these kind of stories are par for the course in this genre. Now, forgetting any judgment that you may be willing to lay against the person who wrote it, think about the man in the story. Think about how humiliated he would be to read that, how much a betrayal of his privacy, his intimacy, and his physical openness. Think of how easy it may be for some acquaintances or friends to put the pieces together and realize that he, indeed, had trouble getting it up with this new girl. Imagine the sense of secrecy — of discretion — that he probably feels has been taken from him without asking. His sex, and now his humiliation, is public fodder for us to snicker at.
A few years ago, I had a male friend with whom romantic feelings started to blossom on both sides. For one reason or another, it never really manifested in a relationship, and because of the awkwardness that caused, our friendship sort of dissolved along with it. About a year later, I saw him perform a piece at a poetry reading that was clearly about us. The details — though shrouded in just enough artistic license to not call me out directly — were clear to me, and to anyone who knew us. Though the nature wasn’t sexual — and, for that matter, we had never been sexual — I felt extremely violated nonetheless. I confronted him, and told him how hurt I was that he would invade my privacy like that, and call me names in a piece that was clearly directed at me — making sport of the mistakes I may have made, or the private things I’d shared. I felt, for lack of a better word, naked. And while I understand that private experience can always become inspiration in art, there is a difference between using private events to create something bigger — and, to most, unrecognizable — and laying it out word-for-word in an attempt to “shock.”
And that may be the biggest fallacy of all, this idea that laying out the intimate, most explicit details of individual sexual and romantic encounters is somehow revolutionary or brave. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is taking someone else’s most intimate moments and laying them out for your own gain. It’s pawning the remnants of your encounter for their lowest street value, making a quick buck (or pageview) off of the little meat left on the carcass. It’s saying to your partner, “I don’t care if you want me to share this, I don’t care if you wanted this private, I want to tell everyone what happened, and I’m going to do it.” But this isn’t Sex and the City, and these people we’re talking about have real feelings and can be deeply hurt. I know this firsthand, and I expect that I am not the only one. There are so many ways to be revolutionary and brave when talking about sex, and how we interact with each other, and the various intimate moments we share. And I would say that respect for another’s privacy and humanity would be at the top of that list.