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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Think Outside the Box

How redefining sex benefits everyone

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Last weekend, I attended CatalystCon East 2014 in Arlington, Va. CatalystCon is an event whose mission is to “inspire exceptional conversations about sexuality,” and it’s attended by sexuality educators, bloggers, sex workers, people who make sex toys or porn, and many others who want to take part in this conversation.

I attended many interesting sessions, but two in particular stood out to me: “Shattering Assumptions About Sex and Aging,” led by Melanie Davis, and “Problem-Solving Sex with Disability,” led by Mara Levy. The thread that linked these two sessions for me is the harm that can be caused when we limit our definition of “sex” to penis-in-vagina penetration.

Our narrow definition of sex is something that I talk about a lot—I even discussed it in the very first SEXPress column I ever wrote back in 2008. This definition erases the existence of many queer and trans* people and severely limits our experience of sexual pleasure. Ultimately, it’s a disservice to most of us.

We are all “temporarily abled,” meaning that as we move through life, we lose some of the abilities that we once had. With the exception of those who die earlier in life, we all face aging and disability at some point. Age and/or disability can make a hard penis or comfortable penetration difficult or impossible to achieve. Both Davis and Levy, as well as audience members in their CatalystCon sessions, shared that clients they worked with sometimes felt extremely frustrated that they couldn’t have sex the way they were “supposed to” or the way that they had in the past.

The solution to this is to redefine what sexual success means. Can you have fun with a soft penis? Can you experience pleasure and/or orgasm without vaginal penetration? Of course. Instead of having one particular sexual activity like penis-in-vagina penetration as a goal, explore and respect your own and your partner’s limits, desires and needs. This reframing doesn’t just benefit older people or people with disabilities; it allows every person to experience their sexuality in a more authentic way. 

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than 15 years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXPress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.