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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008

What’s Sex?

Think outside your box

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B Y L A U R A A N N E S T U A R T , M P H

Welcome to SEXpress, the Shepherd Express’ new sex advice column. As your lovely hostess, I’ll be answering your questions, interviewing nationally known sexperts as they travel through our city, and sharing my thoughts about all things sex related.

How did I get this plum job, you ask? Well, I’ve worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade—on college campuses, in community organizations, in state agencies and in congregations.

I’m a writer and teacher-trainer for Our Whole Lives, a series of sexuality education curricula. I own the Tool Shed, a feminist sex toy store in Riverwest. I’ve taught sex-ed classes around the country for everyone from kindergartners to middle-school kids to parents. Basically, my life is devoted to talking about sex. What I’ve noticed while wearing all of these different hats is one consistent truth:

Rarely do we have a common understanding of what we mean when we say the word “sex.” For some, sex is something that should be reserved for state and church-sanctioned marriage. For others, sex means vaginal intercourse only—anything else, like oral and anal sex, doesn’t count.

(Sometimes these two groups intersect, which is where the fun really begins.) For people trying to conceive, sex is inextricably linked to procreation. For many, sex is all about recreation. Sex can provide deep emotional connections with other people, and it can be an incredible spiritual experience.

Who you have sex with or how you have sex can be an integral part of your personal identity. I espouse a very broad definition of sexuality that can include all of these viewpoints. To me, sexuality encompasses our physical bodies and their capacity for pleasure, but also our ability to form relationships with others, our sexual and gender identities, reproduction, sexual health and the ways in which power, control, the media and society impact our sexuality.

Many people think that because I am a sexuality educator, this means that I go about encouraging everyone to have as much sex as possible. In reality, I encourage people to make informed decisions about their sexual behavior. For example, there are many reasons why someone might not want to have sex. A person might have strong religious beliefs that prohibit sexual activity in certain circumstances. Someone might identify as asexual, meaning that he or she does not feel sexual desire. Someone might be recovering from sexual, physical or emotional abuse and need to take some time to heal before having sex. However, even if someone is not engaging in sexual behavior with others, he or she is still a sexual person.

All the people mentioned above who have decided to abstain from sex have carefully considered their sexual behavior and identities and made a choice that is right for them at this time—or, at least, that’s what I hope. My work as a sexuality educator is devoted to making sure that whatever choices people make—to abstain, to try anal sex for the first time, to become involved in a kinky community, to explore attractions to different/same genders, or whatever else—they are making these choices because they are right for them, not because someone told them that this is how they must identify or act or behave.

So what’s the purpose of this column? To make sure that you, dear readers, are able to make your own informed decisions about sexuality. Too often, people’s questions and concerns about sexuality are met with judgment, jokes or inaccurate information. Even worse, some questions never get asked because of fear or shame. I want you to ask your questions, and I’ll do my best to provide an honest, factual answer. If I can help create a more open dialogue about sex in Milwaukee, then my work here is done. Whether you agree or disagree with what I write, let’s keep talking.

Send questions for Laura to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in this column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear in the column. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

To submit questions online, visit ExpressMilwaukee.com/sexpress.