This Thanksgiving, I’m Grateful for Sex

I talked once with a woman who did volunteer education work with the American Heart Association, mostly going to workplaces and schools to talk to people about what they could do to reduce the risk of heart disease. She told me a funny story about talking with a group of middle-aged men about reducing their risk, and they countered with some scoffing about the litany of "Don'ts" they felt they were already familiar with from previous prevention education: Don't eat red meat. Don't smoke. Don't drink beer. Don't have sex.

At which point, the volunteer interjected, pointing out that sex, being aerobic exercise (at least if you're doing it right) was certainly not on the Don't list, and in fact was firmly on the To Do list of prevention techniques. At this point, the men scoffed even harder. Everyone Knows Sex Is Bad! It's indulgent and sinful and you're going to hell for it. We point fingers at brides who wear white without having "earned" it. You tell your kids to just say no. The sense that sex is bad is why people are willing to believe it makes you sick when it doesn't, such as the men who thought it must be bad for your heart, or the prudes who push the notion that women who have sex court danger to their mental health.

This unwillingness to counter the cultural narrative about the sinful nature of sex gives anti-choicers quite a bit of ammunition. I was reminded this while reading Jill's excellent retort to an article at San Angelo Live that traded in quite a bit of misinformation, especially in the area of lies about whether or not the non-profit Planned Parenthood profits off abortion. (What part of "non" do people not understand?) Most of the nonsense is easy enough for pro-choicers to refute, but the author smuggled in an idea that far too many of us pro-choicers let go unchallenged.

Crystal Conner, a spokeswoman for Right Choices for Youth, quoted in the San Angelo Live piece, is not convinced access to contraception in the schools is a good idea. "We don't want to send a mixed message," she said. She noted that a mixed message would be "don't have sex, but if you do, use a condom."

Most pro-choicers will immediately address the second part of the misinformation, saying something like, "Well, people are going to have sex anyway, so we need to help protect them." This is true, but doesn't challenge the basic, incorrect premise of the argument that Crystal Conner is making, which is that Sex Is Bad and Just Say No. I propose a simple solution when you hear this nonsense about "mixed messages": challenge the idea that people shouldn't have sex. Say, "Well, I think sex is a very good thing in the right circumstances, and people should feel free to indulge. Make love, not war, and all that good stuff." Once you return the debate to the fundamental premise of whether or not sex is a good thing or not, then anti-choicers don't have much of an argument.

I realize it's hard. It's important to save face by maintaining tight-lipped disapproval of sex in public, regardless of private behavior, which is why an abortion ban in a place like South Dakota might poll high and then quietly meet defeat at the ballot boxes. I have trouble overcoming internalized shame to speak openly in favor of sexuality, but despite that, I'm going to create a holiday-appropriate list of reasons to be thankful for sex.

It feels good. Granted, our puritanical culture often treats pleasure as immediately suspect, and often for good reasons. The men challenging the heart disease educator well understood that many things that feel good have dangerous consequences, and moderation to outright abstinence are often required to manage the risk. But sex is different — if the circumstances are right, i.e. you're protected from disease and unplanned pregnancy and you're right in your head about the emotional ramifications, then there's no reason not to go nuts. Your body lets you know when you've hit your limit most of the time. There's not too many pleasures that can be indulged without concern for excess, so we should be very grateful that sex at least fits the bill.

Humping for health. Again, like a broken record, I must repeat that this is only true if you control for disease, unwanted pregnancy, emotional readiness, and lack of coercion. But assuming the criteria is met (and contrary to anti-choice propaganda, these controls are easily met with good education), then sex by yourself or in a group setting is good for your body. It's aerobic exercise, of course, but sex and especially orgasms help strengthen pelvic muscles, something most of us will be grateful for as we age. Regular ejaculations reduce the risk of prostate cancer. The phrase "cleaning out the pipes" ended up being more factual than you might suspect. Sex relieves tension and stress, which aids in sleeping and can reduce the pain from headaches and menstrual cramps, and probably can help constipation, though you might not want to mention that in the heat of the moment.

It's good for your soul. For most people, a positive attitude about sex is crucial to having good sex and good sex is crucial to happy romantic relationships. The happy humping philosophy supports happy marriages, and therefore has more claim to family values than people who wish to introduce shame and doubt into marital beds. Good sex improves your relationship to your body, as well; if your body kindly supplies you with a regular dose of orgasms, your feelings of benevolence towards your body will rise. Sex lifts the spirits and improves creativity, as well. The dirty little secret to curing writer's block is to get thee to bed with a friend or a toy until the creative juices flow, along with all the others. The stereotype that posits that writers and artists are a little slutty has to be viewed in this light; I like to consider it part of the job.

For these reasons and probably two dozen more, it's important for sexual health advocates to remember that we're not just fighting to protect people from themselves, but to make the world a humpier — and happier — place to live.

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  • invalid-0

    A joyful read before the hectic travel ahead. Thanks for the cheer up, and lets all being giving as well as receiving


  • invalid-0

    For Sex Positive Feminism!

  • invalid-0

    In public health school school, a friend of mine commented on how we’re always missing the pleasure factor when we talk about designing programs for obesity (eating feels good! food is one of life’s great pleasures!), smoking cessation (regardless of its evils, smoking feels good to a lot of people), and STDs. I’m so happy to see this article, because working in reproductive health (particularly international reproductive health), we almost never talk about the fun, happy factor of this life affirming act. While we are legitimately focused on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of vulnerable women, we almost never discuss their sexual pleasure, and this comes through in the research. There’s an interesting article in the September 2007 volume of International Family Planning Perspectives, entitled “The Pleasure Deficit” that highlights the lack of research on pleasure seeking — particularly women’s pleasure seeking — in the reproductive health literature. The authors state “relatively little research has examined women’s pleasure-seeking and how it influences their sexual and contraceptive behaviors.” Understanding sexual pleasure is critical to understanding sexual behavior and developing effective safe sex programs. Thanks to Amanda for reminding us that mutually pleasurable sex is a good thing, and is an integral part of our quest for comprehensive reproductive rights.

  • invalid-0

    I hope men will read She Comes First, to learn from Dr. Ian Kerner some of the basics about pleasing women.


  • invalid-0

    Only a lady god could come up with such a great way to keep fit. So I’m safe from prostate cancer and stress. It’s also good for the facial muscles to smile a lot.

  • invalid-0

    The only good thing the moderator of one “job skills workshop” I got forced into attending ever did during the whole session was suggest that sex could (and should) be used as a means of improving one’s self-esteem after it had been thoroughly crushed, beaten, pulverised, bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated by the job-searching process.

    Who knew Canadians weren’t as stodgy as Americans?!

  • invalid-0

    This is something they tell to heart attack patients (at least they used to). Sex is fine (after your recovery period), but having having sex in the context of an affair will greatly increase your chance for another heart attack. Sex is good, I suppose, but cheating is too stressful…