The Gay Trees and Sex-Positive Forest

Scan the map of culture change in the U.S. and two trends leap out at you—the changing attitudes towards marijuana and gay rights. For some, it’s a moral Armageddon. For others, it’s a modicum of common sense, finally.

(Guess which side I’m on.)

Anti-marijuana folks have been arguing that once you allow medical marijuana, you’re opening the door to the broader legalization of pot. Guess what? They’re right. You’ve got Colorado and Washington, and more will follow soon.

More under the radar, a similar trend is unfolding vis-a-vis sex. Gay rights is ultimately about two things: fairness (the right to not be discriminated against relative to heterosexuals) and sexual freedom. In this particular case, that means things like one man’s freedom to take another man’s penis in his mouth. Or his ass. (I’m being intentionally graphic because that’s exactly why so many people are horrified at the thought of gay marriage—it means mental images like these are culturally sanctified; it means doing that sort of thing is, THE HORROR, okay.)

As we as a culture say yes to homosexuality (and it’s happening), we’re also saying yes to people’s right to celebrate their sexuality in whatever way feels right to them. (With an important qualification—see below.)

This is what scares the bejeesus out of the one and only, once-and-possibly-future presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who memorably argued that if you say yes to homosexuality, next thing you know you’ll be saying yes to man-on-dog sex.

He has a point, sort of. (If you cut him slack for imbecility.)

There is a slippery slope here, as Santorum suggests. When a culture accords people the right to pursue sexual self-expression, as it’s doing with gay people, what it’s really doing is stripping the shame out of sex—and that, friends, is a mighty big deal. It means the culture is authorizing people to embrace their sexuality, wherever it may take them. We’re talking a deeper shift than gay rights here. We’re talking about transitioning from a shame-based sexual culture to a celebratory one.

We’re talking sex-positivity.

Santorum was right. Gay rights is the camel’s nose inside the tent and the rest of that big ol’ humpy body is following. Kinky people are stepping forward and claiming the right to be kinky. Women are stepping forward and claiming the right to embrace their sexuality in the face of widespread slut-shaming. And so on.

But Santorum was also wrong. (Here’s where the imbecility part comes in.) He conflates sexual freedom with the right to impose one’s sexual will on an unconsenting being. If you give one man permission to have sex with another consenting man (or one woman permission to have sex with another consenting woman), that doesn’t mean you’re giving them permission to have sex with a dog. That’s because the dog can’t consent. This is true no matter how much he humps your leg.

Santorum doesn’t seem to realize that you can have sexual freedom and celebration alongside a high level of interpersonal (and inter-critter) responsibility. Sexual ethics aren’t about who you do it with or what you do with them. It’s about if they can—and do—consent.

One of the reasons I love my partner Sheri Winston’s new book Succulent SexCraft is because it is, among other things, a manifesto for the sex-positive movement. We live in a culture that’s totally mixed-up sexually. We obsess about it; we sell off it; we vulgarize it—and then we shame people for delighting in this absolutely amazing aspect of our birthright. How screwed-up is that? Succulent SexCraft does a great job of laying out a vision of sex-positivity.

The book isn’t only about how to have great sex. It’s also about how to create a great (as in, sex-positive) culture.

The armies of prudishness are powerful, but I’m sensing a momentum shift in the great culture war that pits fear and shame against our right to be ecstatic and the perfect logic of celebration. Have we got a long way to go? For sure. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

Step aside, Rick Santorum. Slippery slope, here we, er, come.

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