Guest Opinion

To Change Sexual Culture, First Change Yourself

When I first announced I was moving to Tucson, my co-workers in Boulder couldn't believe that someone like me—a sexuality educator—would move to a state that regularly tried to pass outrageous, sexually-restrictive measures. "Keepin' the AZ in CRAZY," we said, rolling our eyes as the 2012 Arizona House passed a bill allowing employers to refuse to cover contraception for non-medical purposes (like, um, having sex for pleasure?!). Turn in a doctor-approved excuse to your employer—or hand over your whore pills, ladies.

The bill, luckily, died in the Senate. But the sexual culture of Arizona remains restrictive. We don't mandate sex-ed in our public schools, which means few students receive it—despite strong evidence that students who receive comprehensive sexuality education delay their sexual "debut" and make healthier decisions once they're active. We also—as in the recent case of a Gilbert high school—consider ripping pages out of biology textbooks because they explain in flat, scientific language how abortions occur, which is apparently a violation of state law.

I could go on. But what all this has made clear is that it's not enough to oppose legislation piecemeal. We must support sex itself.

We live in a society that brands sex as wrong—and if you disagree with me, consider our qualifiers: The culture sanctions sex that is married, monogamous, heterosexual, missionary-style, reproductive, and occurring between two people in their 20-40s (generally of physical ability and reasonable attractiveness). Fall outside these standards of "normal"? Someone—probably lots of someones—will be raising their eyebrows at you.

Social worker Brene Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling ... of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." It's this fear of unworthiness that keeps us silent about sex. We don't want to be seen. We fear we're abnormal: We want too much sex, or too little. We've had too many partners, or too few. We want to be whipped, or we're too boring. Out of this defensive crouch, we judge others' sexual behavior and interests, slinging the word "slut" and fueling sexting scandals.

Yet despite the profound sex-negativity of our culture, most of us still have sex—and it's a source of joy, connection, pleasure, and autonomy.

We change culture by changing ourselves. We must accept that our interest in sex is not a moral failing but an essential feature of our species. The sexual impulse's infinite variations are part of its brilliance, part of the resilience of the human animal. When we can look at our desires dead on—when we can say what we want, out loud, to ourselves, and own it—it is a radical act.

From this place, we must speak to others.

Sometimes, I hear pushback on the idea that we should talk about our sex lives publicly. "Sex is private." There is nothing wrong with this—so long it's a choice and not a default setting, driven by shame. Holding something close to your chest is different than feeling so shut down about your interests that you cannot speak.

At the very least, we must learn to discuss sexuality with our partners. But it's important to discuss it with other intimates, too. For most of us (asexuals respectfully excluded), sex accounts for a sizeable chunk of our lives, whether we're fantasizing about it, having it, or trying to figure out how to get it. The kind of discussion I am advocating is not blustery—not that thigh-slapping frat-boy bragging. Rather, what I advocate is vulnerability. We must share our actual experiences of sex with each other, despite the potential for being rejected.

I am advocating that we welcome sex into our lives the way we do other things that are important to us.

In doing so, we alter the public sense of what is "normal." It is only through this process—of bravely giving witness and bearing witness to what sexuality actually looks like in each of our lives—that the sex culture will shift. When we don't think of sex as something appropriate only for a chosen few, in particular situations, in prescribed ways, then providing all people medically-accurate information about their bodies won't be controversial. And maybe, for a little bit, we can keep the AZ out of CRAZY.

Katherine E. Standefer is a Certified Sexologist who has provided sexuality education to more than 7,800 people. She currently teaches a seminar on "Responding to the Sexual Health Stories of Patients" to UA medical students as part of a pilot narrative medicine program. Winner of the 2015 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, Standefer will be teaching her sex writing class, "Penning the Nasty," starting November 3 at the Tucson Hop Shop. Visit to register.