A while ago, a friend and I were talking over beers at Common Market when she said she believed the act of heterosexual sex to be inherently patriarchal and invasive by definition. Feminist psychologist Dee Graham would agree. In her influential and controversial 1995 book, Loving to Survive, Graham argued that men's sexuality is by nature violent. Women who fear reprisal in the face of this violence must conform to patriarchal norms of femininity to avoid being hurt or killed. Graham says what women perceive to be love and attraction toward men in fact comes from a kind of societal Stockholm syndrome.
Today, powerful men are losing their jobs left and right as allegations of sexual harassment and assault rain down upon them. Reading the details of these men's behavior is and should be appalling, and the pervasiveness of the problem lends credence to Graham's idea: Women are subjects of men, and we do what we must to survive.
These harassment allegations call into question feminist notions of sex positivity. It's abundantly clear that sex is a recurring source of pain, subjection and degradation for many women and some men. How can we celebrate such a force for harm?
Celebrating sex is exactly what this column aims to do. Sex is a conversation starter and conversations begin to bridge difference. Sex is also changing, and I try to highlight Charlotteans who take an active role in challenging traditional ideas of sex and wonder instead what sex could be in a perfect world.
Arguing with my friend over beer, I tried to conjure sex in its most perfect form: Fun and hot and sweet, like a gooey cookie just out of the oven. A window into someone else's being. An excellent way to pass time. An opportunity to connect, for a few minutes or for a lifetime.
My friend wasn't altogether impressed. That's what sex can be, she pointed out, but that's not what sex is for many people, especially women today. The sexual harassment allegations demonstrate that.
But still. The right response to harmful, inappropriate and patriarchal sex is not abstinence. It's an acknowledgement that sex and power are wielded to harm and abuse, but it's also a leaning into the potential of sex and consent.
"No means no" is a common refrain from assault prevention advocates. Many women aren't offered the choice to begin with, but whether she's asked or not, a woman who says no means it. In 2008, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti edited a book that aimed to turn this formula on its head: Yes Means Yes! What if instead of having to deny consent, women could leap headlong and enthusiastically into sexual encounters, their desire burning hot? What if our stereotype of women's reluctance was replaced with women's desire running riot? Wouldn't sex be more fun for everyone?
We recently published the results of the Great Queen City Oral Sex Survey (to the dismay of some readers). The results pointed at the disparity between women's pleasure and men's. In many cases, "oral sex" was interpreted to mean fellatio exclusively. But the results also pointed toward what sex, oral or otherwise, can be: an otherworldly slice of heaven right here within our grasp.
When sex and power join forces, the results can be horrific. But despite the recent headlines and long falls from grace, I still believe that sex positivity from men and women alike is key. Enthusiastic consent can only begin, though, when fear and harassment end. When women are no longer held hostage to anyone's desire but their own.
Inspired by our crowdsourcing of oral sex tips and in the spirit of what sex could be, I would like to curate a playlist of songs that represent for Charlotteans their best sex, sex in the best possible world. Your contributions can be conventional or unconventional, romantic or profane or both. Tweet your song suggestions to @allisonbraden or @cl_charlotte. I’ll be compiling the playlist on Spotify.