Why I’m Silent About My Sexuality (For Now)

Me in a contemplative moment. Photo by H. Root.
Me in a contemplative moment. Photo by H. Root.

This is a topic that weighs heavily on me and is not easy to write about.

I’m massively in favor of providing shame-free sex education, of oversharing as a political act, and of creating sex-positive learning environments. And yet I feel unable to talk about my own sexuality publicly or in print.

In a way, this betrays my multifaceted privileged status: I’m a female-bodied person married to a dude, so very few people question whether I’m straight. I’m white and middle class, so it doesn’t seem to occur to people to wonder if I’m a sex-worker. I’m cis-gendered, so people don’t attack or misgender me. The fact that I even have the option of choosing not to discuss my sexuality publicly means I’m already benefitting from an intersectional system that oppresses some and lifts up others.

With that acknowledged, my reasons for not discussing my sexuality publicly are many.

  • I teach at the college level, and American culture is so intent on shielding children from any contact with sex that it’s usually considered inappropriate for teachers of any level to reveal anything about their sex lives (despite the fact that my students are all over 18, and despite the fact that teachers with children of their own are admitting to having had sex at least once).
  • I don’t want my own sexual experiences to distract from anything I’m teaching, especially in the sex education classroom, where I want to model appropriate boundaries.
  • Our culture is so sex-negative that there’s someone who will judge you for just about any sex act out there. Certainly, some sex acts should be harshly condemned (those involving non-consent, for example), but consensual sex acts between adults? Not deserving of shame, intolerance, or really much discussion at all from anyone who’s not directly involved/impacted.

In regard to that last point, I feel that women are judged especially brutally for their sexual experiences. Getting a lot of action? You’ll be called a slut or whore, and if you try to set boundaries or say no, you might be in danger of verbal or physical harassment. Not saying yes to a lot of sex? Then you’re a prude or a tease… and also in danger of verbal or physical harassment. Yes, I think that hegemonic constructions of male sexuality are also very damaging and very limiting for men, but at least they have the option of being sexually active without being condemned quite so hatefully.

I really want to change the world and improve everyone’s perception of sex, in part so that everyone can be more liberated, and in part so that I can feel freer to be myself in public discourse. I know that one of the ways to make that happen is by being more open, by showing that it’s okay to be who you are even in the face of misogyny and sex-negativity. But honestly, I’m afraid to.

I’m terrified that people can take any facet of my sexual experience – the age when I became sexually active, the kinds of people I do or don’t have sex with, and so on – and use it against me. There’s a particularly vengeful glee that you see in sexphobic rhetoric, when dragging someone’s sexual identity or experiences through the coals, that I am fearful of being the focus of. I worry that my academic colleagues will stop respecting me, that the general public will think I’m weird or slutty or whatever… though while writing this sentence, I know that I make ethical choices about my sex life and thus my sex-positive peers and friends will still have my back, so that’s something, I guess.

But I worry that being too open will rob me of the legitimacy I can claim by occupying a detached academic vantage point, where we all pretend to be more objective than is actually possible by suppressing our sexuality and hiding it behind closed doors and in various closets. As I’ve written about mind-body dualism in the past, it can be incredibly damaging to pretend to be all mind, no body. And it’s disingenuous too, which always bugs me.

And because sexual norms are socially constructed, damn near any kind of sex that someone’s having or not having is probably demonized by someone out there. In our sexphobic culture, it’s especially likely that anything outside heterosexual monogamous vanilla sex within marriage purely for procreative purposes will be stigmatized – and not just that the sex itself will be stigmatized, but also the person/people having it (I explore the mechanism underlying this phenomenon in my post on the adjacency effect). In a rare candid moment, yeah, I’ll admit that many of my sexual experiences don’t fall into that narrow category of acceptable sex described above. But really, whose do? Narrowly defining “normal” sex is not only an inaccurate way to model the world (because there’s such a variety of sex practices and identities out there), but it also places rigid limits on what is a dazzling diverse facet of human experience. Again, so long as consent is foregrounded, I don’t really think there’s a wrong way to have sex.

Writing all this out, yes, I can see how it’s melodramatic and a tad ridiculous to be this worried about being judged for my sexuality. But I worry about it nonetheless. And I’m sharing this brain-vomit post to illustrate that these kinds of fears of sexual judgment exist, even among folks like myself who are trying to end slut-shaming and stigma and sex-negativity and all that horrible stuff that makes people afraid to explore their sexuality in whatever way is healthy for them and helps them grow in their lives.

I hope that someday I’ll refer back to this bog post and be able to say that I’ve outgrown this fear. That the people in my life whose opinions really matter have demonstrated repeatedly that what happens in my sex life doesn’t impact their view of me as an intellectual person, a scholar, a teacher, an artist, an ethical human being. Since I try to surround myself with awesome, open-minded, compassionate people, the limiting factor is more likely to be my own anxiety combined with the very real consequences that our society imposes on people who deviate from the norm. Which, again, is a wonderful motivation to be an activist for sex positivity, so that we can change arbitrary, stupid norms as well as demonstrate that there are many ways to be sexually active as a human, whether that means abstinence or being an ethical slut.

Time to hit “publish” and see if I’m alone in having these kinds of fears.

16 thoughts on “Why I’m Silent About My Sexuality (For Now)

  1. Quite the conundrum. We can’t speak of it but we can’t end the BS until we start speaking it. Living in the Midwest, as a white, middle-class, middle-aged, married lady I can relate. I have enjoyed a very diverse and exciting love life that I dare not share with most for the same reasons. SOMEONE, somewhere, could use it against me or my family causing damage to our family members’ reputations or livelihoods. If in casual company, over wine, I may confess to saying it should be OK for others to enjoy those freedoms but rarely would I divulge that I have done so. I understand your trepidation and would say stay silent until you feel safe to be otherwise. In my opinion, it’s safe until someone has an ax to grind…and that is always just a matter of time.

    1. Excellent points! I agree that it’s far too easy to point a finger and insinuate that someone’s had sex and is thus unethical/unfit/a bad person/whatever… and unless someone was doing harm by having sex of a certain kind, why does it even matter?!

  2. This post resonates with me as well. Especially putting things in print on the web. My professional role is also intended to keep my personal life quiet. Yet I wonder how much academic distance can we really keep? We do have a vested interest in this area.

    1. I’m glad that this resonates with you (though obviously not glad for the reasons behind it, that we live in a sex-negative culture, etc.). And yes, you’re absolutely correct that EVERYBODY has a vested interested in sex, and it’s hypocritical to pretend otherwise… yet that’s pretty much what society requires of most folks (especially in certain occupations and economic classes).

  3. Even though I’m a “sex geek,” and not involved in any sort of professional capacity, I have similar feelings. Moreso because people don’t expect it from me. I keep a lot of my sexuality private, although I have been a bit more open about it lately.

    One thing that has helped, but I don’t know if it’s something that you personally would be interested in, is becoming involved in some sex positive online communities. Where I’m mostly anonymous, but it’s a forum (literally in some cases!) where I can talk about those things that I don’t feel comfortable with the general public knowing.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’ve been getting more involved with various sex-positive communities, both online and IRL, and I’ve found it to be wonderful for some of the reasons you suggest. People are really lovely and tolerant and open-minded, and we’re all working to make it a better world (even by doing simple things such as having conversations like this one).

    2. Agreed with sex positive online communities. I act as a sort of counselor in a couple of them, but I’m also protected by the anonimity of the internet, and prefer to keep it that way for two reasons. For one, if I “out” myself as being involved in them, I’m also inadvertently outing some friends and acquaintances as well. But also, even with sex positive communities, I’m afraid of my support being misconstrued as consent, and don’t want some of those I help to know my real life identity.

      It is interesting how much sex and fear are related.

  4. “I hope that someday I’ll refer back to this blog post and be able to say that I’ve outgrown this fear.”

    I hope that someday you’ll refer back to this blog post and find that our society has changed enough to render your fear moot.

  5. Good thoughts, Jeana. I completely understand your point of view. As an author who appears in public every time she posts on Facebook, I know that readers are everywhere, and they revel in the right to judge. And I judge too, of course. I can’t lay claim to higher moral ground. Even when I think I’m not judging , I’m judging.

    I do try not to lynch, however. Can’t say that about everyone else on the planet. So, discretion, yes.

    1. Yes, Jennifer, I take your point about everyone judging. The question is, what do you do once you’ve formed that mental impression of someone? There are more and less crummy things to do with that information…

  6. Agreed on all points. The dissonance is palpable and destructive.

    I will add to this mix that the careers and community standing of our spouses are also directly affected by our choices to voice controversial positions, especially sexual. It is maddening to ponder that every announcement I might make about my sex life is implicitly just as much an announcement of the makeup of my marriage and my spouse’s sex life. Such an act of exposure could even be non-consensual, as the spouse may not be comfortable with any of the above being even remotely public.

    Maddening.

    1. Excellent points, Troy. Everyone has different comfort levels about how much of their private life is made public, and it’s unlikely that life partners will be 100% on the same page about disclosure. However, it’s also important to note that our society overlooks certain heternormative sexual announcements as being inappropriately revealing. It’s safe to infer in most cases that a married cohabitating couple that’s heterosexual has probably had sex… but switch up the genders, and imply that sex is being had in some other fashion, and suddenly it’s deviant, or not appropriate to discuss publicly, or whatever.

  7. I struggle with this kind of thing frequently. I am working on changing fields and fear the potential ramifications of corporate America learning who I am. I reason with myself that if they find out and reject me on that basis, that I don’t want to work for close-minded fools… But it still scares me. I couldn’t bring myself to post for coming out day for these reasons. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings on the topic.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Tori. I agree with you, since I also have a hefty mental dose of “if they don’t want me, I don’t want them” … but it’s harder to implement than it is to think.

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