by Jason Stotts
I think that some of the ideas that people hold about sex are quite interesting. Some people think that monogamy is natural (it isn’t, although it still might be an optimal form of relationship for some people). Some people think that the purpose of sex is reproduction (that’s only one possible end of sex, the number of live births per sex act is about 1 to 1,000). Some people think that only heterosexuality is natural (it’s not, a certain percentage of the population is homosexual in any culture).
Another interesting idea is that sex is private. Some people take this idea so far that they won’t discuss anything related to sex: not things related to reproduction, not things related to sexual health, not things related to relationships, not anything at all. This, however, is completely irrational.
Sex is an important part of a human life. Unfortunately, we’re not born knowing anything about sex. Not about how to do it, not about how to do it safely, and especially not how to do it well. We must learn all this information and we can either do that through trial and error or by learning about sex from others, in the way we learn about everything else. The problem with trial and error is that, while it works adequately for things like technique, it works terribly for things like sexual health and reproduction. Many STI’s are incurable and will harm a person’s life. Getting pregnant when you don’t intend to can be very traumatic and forces a person to choose between options they might not want: carrying a child to term or getting an abortion. Even with sexual technique, trial and error isn’t a great option. Most people know little to nothing about sexual anatomy or technique and their lives would be greatly improved by this knowledge.
Thus, a person’s life would be objectively improved by learning about sex and sexuality. Consequently, to not learn about sex, at least the basics, would be immoral.
Now, admittedly, there is some sense in which sex can, and perhaps should, be private. The things you do sexually with your partner, or partners, is no one’s business except your own. You can choose to share that information with others or not. While I don’t think you should just tell everyone you meet about your sexual exploits, I also think that it’s good to talk to at least some people about it. Many people, especially before the advent of internet forums and chat rooms, thought that their sexual practices were unique to them and abhorrent, because they went beyond the christian idea that sex is only for reproduction and not for pleasure.
If we more freely shared information about our sex lives, then we would see that others have the same desires, thoughts, fantasies, and feelings. Sharing information about our sexualities would help to normalize different kinds of behaviors and desires in our culture, behaviors and desires that are actually already common in practice. Part of what makes certain kinds of sexuality shameful for some people is thinking that their desires are “abnormal” and this troubles them. But, I doubt anyone has a truly unique sexual desire. In fact, the range of what’s (statistically) “normal” would probably surprise most people; like, for example, adultery (more than 50% of people in our culture have experienced infidelity).
So, the question is, what is the line that we should walk regarding sex and privacy? Certainly, we should not tell everything to everyone, but neither should we make the mistake of not even talking about sex with our partners. We should treat sex as a normal part of a healthy human life and as an important part of what it means to live a happy human life. We should always talk to our partner or partners about it and about our likes and dislikes, our desires, and our fantasies. We should seek out information about sexuality to improve our lives and make sure that we have adequate information about sexuality to live well. Ultimately, the exact amount of information that one shares with others, to whom they share it, and in what contexts, is a matter of personal preference and personality and must be decided by each individual. However, we must not let our personal preference lead us to live less well than we could otherwise.
Another question we should address is why people want to keep their entire sex lives private and feel shame whenever sex is discussed openly. This shame comes from accepting ideas that that sexuality is base and low, that it is not natural, and that it is unimportant or even detrimental to living a good life. In our culture, these ideas come from the christian hatred of the body and of this world. In christianity, copying Plato, the body is nothing but a corporeal prison of the soul that taints it with its desires, urges, and drives. These base bodily things cloud the purity of the soul and prevent it from reaching its highest possible state in the realm of the forms (heaven). People who believe these misanthropic things and internalize these beliefs experience shame about their bodies and about natural bodily processes. They also experience irrational expectations about what their bodies should be like and how they should behave.
Now, it can be perfectly rational to not disclose everything about one’s sexual practices and past to just anyone. However, if the reason that one doesn’t share any information is due to shame, then this is illegitimate and needs to be worked at to be overcome. There are lots of reasons why one might not want to disclose information about one’s sexuality, like fear of reprisal, loss of future job prospects, etc. However, it should be pointed out that the situation won’t ever improve for people with alternative sexualities until they start coming out in large numbers so that “normal” people realize that they actually know people who are gay, or who are polyamorous, or who are swingers, or who are into BDSM, etc. There is very clear historical evidence for this in the gay movement, where homosexuality was considered aberrant and unnatural, until gay people started coming out in large numbers and demanding recognition for who they were. Now, although our culture still has some hang-ups about homosexuality, the culture is moving inexorably towards treating gay people as real people who have rights and can participate in societal rituals like marriage. If other alternative sexual groups want to have the same kind of recognition and acceptance, they too must come out and be open about who they are.
Ultimately, there are good reasons to keep sex private, but there are also very good reasons to be open about sexuality and to share information about sexuality. The appropriate path for any particular person must be cut by them, but I hope that this essay will have given some useful things to think about when considering whether to share information about sexuality and how much information to share. I do think that if we are to err in our disclosures, it would be better for all of us to err on the side of too much disclosure rather than too little, because at least with too much disclosure we will see our society change for the better. Additionally, if we don’t discuss this oh so very important part of human life, this leads us to have a sub-optimal life and will impede our long-term happiness.