I try to think back on the best, or even worst, sex advice I’ve ever received. I flip through my memories like an overstuffed Rolodex, but each card I pull is blank. There are no names, no numbers, no recollections of anyone ever giving me any advice about sex.
Growing up, I knew sex meant you could get pregnant and that was scary. I knew sex meant you could catch itchy, red, or even deathly diseases, which was also scary. I knew that sex was something people wanted from me and were willing to hurt me to try to get, which was something so far beyond the realm of scary that I did everything I could to be invisible so that it would stop, although it never did. The consequences of being sexual and having sex were the only aspects of sex that were ever brought up to me. No one ever told me pleasure, self-exploration, and orgasms could be outcomes too, and no one ever told me I could give all of these things to myself.
Growing up, sex meant a penis belonging to a man being inserted into a vagina belonging to a woman. Sex was over when the penis was dispensed of the lumpy yellow-gray fluid that lived inside it, like a hand pumping soap in an effort to clean itself, except, as a woman, you were never clean after sex — you were dirty and dispensable.
Sex was what people who loved each other did, and sex was what people who didn’t love each other did behind each other’s backs. Sex was sin, and sex was salvation. Sex was what men wanted, and the ability to give them what they wanted was the only power women had over men. Sex always confused me.
The pink-spined magazines my friends read after school were filled with endless articles about oral techniques and how to act on a first date, but where were the pieces instructing men to kiss our thighs and communicate? Our youths were relegated to summers-long rituals of hair masks and being hungry so that boys would think we were pretty, while our anxieties exclusively centered around how to pleasure their bodies and fulfill their desires, never once thinking that maybe we deserved to feel good too. I cried the first time I touched myself, and all the times after. I thought there must be something horribly perverted about me, something wrong with me, if I could make myself feel so good. I was ashamed of my own pleasure, and although I can identify them now, those feelings still exist within me.
Growing up, sex was exclusively centered around the penis: Gay men had sex, gay women had something akin to arts and crafts. Anyone else doing anything else didn’t exist, except in pornos or in foreplay — which never counted, of course, because that wasn’t sex. It isn’t until recently that I understood that what we were taught has everything to do with the way religion interprets biology. The penis sends its soldiers off to deliverance inside the womb, and without that, babies can’t be made — which, according to the old books, is the only reason to have sex anyway. Any pleasure a woman derives is irrelevant to baby-making — all one really needs is the hole in which to be injected. A man must be pleasured enough to make him explode inside a woman, and that became what sex is.
When I was 21, I fell in love with a woman. I was living out of the country, and couldn’t fathom “losing my virginity” (I’ll tell you right now that this is a made-up concept, and one we’ll eventually unpack) to a woman before I had slept with a man. The week I moved back to the States, I had sex with my high school boyfriend, so that I could finally get “sex” out of the way. While I was, for the first time, truly peeling back and exploring the layers of my identity and desires, I ended up stuck at the misnomered basics.
Even today, I don’t have very much “sex,” and not just for someone whose career has been primarily centered around sex. In the last year, I’ve had a penis in my vagina approximately twice — the most recent a few weeks ago, for which I got a yeast infection right after, like an uncomfortably itchy prize.
Sex, as society defines it, is constructed, just like everything else, and so it can be deconstructed. There are many people who don’t have sex — not because they can’t get laid, but because they don’t have a desire to. There are many people who never involve a penis in their sex, and there are those that involve multiple penises. There are sex scenarios where a partner is tied up, flogged, released — and a penis is never touched. There are ways to explore sexual intimacy and desire without having ever even met another — chat rooms, sexting, or playing out a fantasy in one’s mind.
Does sex equal genitalia, or does sex equal pleasure? And what if you want pain with your sex, or you really don’t want pain, but that’s what you experience when you have sex? What is sex?
In this column, I’m not going to answer questions with tips and tricks on how to find your G-spot, the best tongue techniques, or which positions you have to “master” next, because there endless answers to these questions from all perspectives on the internet — not to mention professional sex workers you can work with — and you don’t need me for that. I’m here to deconstruct all the trash that we were brainwashed with, and dance with you on the edge — whatever that edge is for you, because it’s different for everyone. I’m here to explore with you, ask questions with you, and remind you to look in the mirror and hold yourself accountable to the types of intimacy and relationships you want — and I promise none of these things have to do with how deep you can stick anything down your throat (although it’s also totally cool if that’s what you’re interested in learning).
The best sex ever has nothing at all to do with flexible positions, looking a certain way, or how loudly you moan — good sex has to do with communication, trust and feeling safe to explore. It’s about being able to say what you feel and what you want, knowing that your boundaries will be respected, and being open to going places you’ve never been before because you know you’ll be OK. Amazing sex has to do with everyone involved feeling seen, respected and prioritized.
This space, along with having the best sex ever, is for all genders, all expressions, and all identities, and I will do my best to hold space for anyone that wishes to enter it. Our identities play such a big role in how we move through the world and create connections with others, and we fool ourselves when we ignore them. One person’s fantasy is another’s trigger, and there’s room for all of it to exist next to each other.
My experience is the only true lens through which I can speak honestly, and as we get to know each other, I will continue peeling back the layers that make me who I am. I identify as a woman, although sometimes I feel a lot more like a person. I am Jewish Latinx born to immigrant parents, and I know what it is to have yachts and ski houses, and I know what it is to come home to an empty fridge. I also know that I have Abuela’s couch to crash on should my career in writing about sex not yield any lucrative results, and that is enough privilege to know that I have a lot of it. I’m queer, and it's taken me a long time to wear that word comfortably — it sits like a prickly wool shawl across my shoulders, warm, comforting, and still quite itchy. I’ve been hyperbolically sexualized since I was eleven years old, and it made me disinterested in sex for a long time. I experienced various assaults, a rape, and was molested by an uncle as an adult, an experience that still impacts every space of my life today. My career is mostly a reclamation of power that I felt I had lost, and a way to create something new when I felt destroyed.
I do not know everything, but I am deeply committed to knowing myself. I carry guilt, shame and fear, like we all do, and I know the only way to move through it is to recognize these parts of myself and make a safe space for them to exist. I love myself passionately, and this love is hard work to maintain. I do not know more than you or have all the answers for you, but I can listen and offer my advice if you want it. Ultimately, it is you who will choose what to do with it.
Whether your questions concern your relationship to yourself, or to someone else — or even to multiple partners! — send them to me at Arielle@Salon.com.
It’s lovely to meet you, dear reader, and I do hope to hear from you soon.