In Order to Fix Professional Boundaries, We Must Revolutionize the Meaning of Sex

Photographer: Erik Mayes
Photographer: Erik Mayes

I think about professional boundaries a lot. This is in large part because I occupy a number of professions: scholar, adjunct professor, sex educator, dance instructor, dance performer, and freelance writer, to name a few. I see a lot of people in a lot of different contexts (some of them even social!) and I like to think that I give people the appropriate cues to know how to interact with me in a given setting.

But in the parts of my vocation that deal with sex – as a researcher, writer, and educator – I must tread carefully. And I’ve noticed this with others, as well. There are conference sessions devoted to wrangling professional boundaries, and lots of informal discussion about whether to disclose certain identities or activities to do with our sex lives (identities, orientations, preferences, lifestyles – anything that we might do or be, especially if it’s something that we’re closeted about because it’s not mainstream).

I get that professional boundaries exist for many reasons. When you go to the dentist, you don’t need to know if she’s married or not to gauge whether she can do a good job on your teeth. It doesn’t generally matter if your bus driver has kids or not. For many jobs, someone’s training and ability to be present doing the job are what matter the most.

For some reason, though, your sexuality matters when you’re a customer. As the recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle in Indiana demonstrates, being gay can apparently make you an undesirable customer (as in the wedding cake example).

And for educators, sexuality matters too. Many of us have concerns about being perceived as “normal” when it comes to sexuality. But as Dr. Marty Klein brilliantly dissects here, “normal” has two main meanings in inquiries about sex: “natural” (a.k.a. occurring in the natural world, which is a social construct anyway), and statistically more common, which, too, is meaningless. He insightfully states: “there is no normal when it comes to sex. There are things that are statistically more common than others, but that doesn’t make them superior. Besides, with a global population of five billion adults, something done by only a tiny minority can involve a huge number of people.”

In the sex educator community specifically, many of us grapple with how much to lead by example, especially when it comes to dispelling stigma and stereotype. Some of us are straight and some are not; some of us are cis-gendered and some are not; some of us are monogamous or vanilla, and others are not. My general sense is that higher proportions of us are practicing what we preach in terms of ethically exploring sexual alternatives than folks in the mainstream, though I don’t have a peer-reviewed study to quote, and besides, I don’t want to out anyone.

But I’ve been in on enough conversations to know that a lot of us are concerned with how we’re perceived. If we’re doing outreach to “the muggles” (as I’ve heard non-sex-positive people referred to), then sometimes it behooves us to appear a bit more mainstream and a bit less outside-the-box. Other times, it can be helpful to disclose that we’re queer or kinky or have been successfully non-monogamous for a decade or whatever (it might be relevant if, say, teaching a workshop on basic polyamory skills to walk in with that kind of life experience backing you up).

While I don’t think ruminating over the appropriate amount of disclosure in a given situation is a bad practice, I do think that it’s the system that’s broken, not us. I believe that we will continue to retread the same ground, ultimately not reaching any helpful conclusions or fixes, until we revolutionize the meaning of sex.

By that I mean that we must symbolically and culturally detach sex from any kind of implication about a person’s moral or ethical standing, unless it’s a very specific sex act that causes concrete harm (such as rape, assault, abuse, molestation, harassment, stalking, and so on; arguments could be made about cheating on one’s partner doing harm to them, but that gets a bit more fuzzy).

The problem is that, due to what I’ve termed the adjacency act, many people associate non-normative sex acts, gender identities, relationship configurations, and so on with immorality and wrong-doing on an abstract level. This corresponds to another of Klein’s points: “Sex researcher Mickey Diamond says that nature loves diversity; but unfortunately, society hates it. I’d add that society fears it, especially if the diversity involves sex.”

Due to the combined powers of stigma, moral pollution, ontological shock, cognitive dissonance, and a bunch of other things with fancy social science terminology to explain them, people who do sex and/or gender things outside the box are seen as irrevocably immoral and unethical, no matter how cleanly they separate their personal lives from their professional lives. And that’s not okay. That needs to change.

As I’ve written, it’s not okay to judge consensual sex acts, even if you disagree with or are squicked by the specific kinds of sex happening in those acts. This needs to be true when people are acting professionally in their professional lives and are out (or outed) about something they do in their sexual lives.

I don’t know how exactly we’re going to change it, or how long it’s going to take. I know that some of it is just about making sex normal, as Dr. Debby Herbenick does in her Make Sex Normal tumblr. I know that part of it will be accomplished by education and outreach, by pointing out the illogical dissonances in in sex-negative outlooks and helping people understand that the folks doing supposedly non-normative things are, in fact, pretty normal.

I feel quite strongly that we’re going to keep fighting redundant battles about professional boundaries until we address the issue of how sex-negative outlooks make everything non-normative look immoral, unethical, and polluted. So we need to step up our education game, and… well, I’m open to other suggestions, too. But since I’m mainly an educator, this is where I’ll be fighting.

4 thoughts on “In Order to Fix Professional Boundaries, We Must Revolutionize the Meaning of Sex

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this very important issue. It is not only important to therapists and all sorts of sex educators (hi Reid!), it is also an important piece of the puzzle for sexual freedom advocates like myself. Wearing the mantle of such makes us targets of of the fear and hate you reference when we speak to mainstreamers. Ironically, as a once very mainstream person raised in the highly sex negative south, when I chose to become polyamorous as a generally better relationship model than cheating, I found very few mainstreamers who were polyamorous. Fortunately that began to change as the media took notice polyamory and began to publish neutral stories about. We are now seeing more and more mainstreamers in the poly world, which to me is quite satisfying. They are invariably challenged to think about sex-negativity when they face challenges around coming out. So freedom of relationship choice is a key piece of the puzzle as to how to eliminate sex negativity so that sex educators and therapists can do their work and be who they are at the same time.

    1. Hey Anita, thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you about freedom of relationship choice being an integral part of sex-positivity. After all, if we’re against judging people for their gender expression or sexual orientation, how can we possibly say “but it’s ok to look down your nose at those weird poly/swinger/kinky/etc. folks”? This is a huge reason why I try to include commentary about relationship style in my writing, as well as advocating for acceptance for LGBTQ folks, the kink community, and so on… as well as saying that mainstream sexual/gender expression is a-ok as well!

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