10 Things Humanists Need to Know About Sex

Dr. Marty Klein presented at the recent AHA Annual Conference on sex, how religion harms sexual expression, and what we humanists need to know about sex.

This weekend I spoke at the annual conference of the American Humanist Association. I started by explaining why humanists need a better understanding of sex:

  • Some people are scared about sex, and are therefore superstitious;
  • Some people believe sexual morality is impossible without religion;
  • The Religious Right uses the issue of sexual regulation to undermine secular democracy;

And, of course, sex is a great subject to discuss at cocktail parties.

Here’s an outline of what I presented:

Ten Things Humanists Need to Know About Sex

10. All sexuality is constructed.

Sex has no inherent meaning. Sex has no inherent goal or purpose. We owe sex nothing. The social norms that govern sexuality (What is sexy? What is sex? Who is eligible for sex? What is normal sex?) are a product of their unique time and place (Victorian England, 1920s Paris, 1950s American South, etc.). They do not reflect some deep truth about the “real” nature of sex.

9. Sexual problems are generally not about sex.

They’re generally about:

  • Self-image (including body image)
  • Self-criticism
  • Lack of self-acceptance
  • Hostility
  • Ignorance & misinformation
  • Guilt & shame
  • Unreasonable expectations
  • Existential issues (e.g., fear of aging)
  • Not wanting to make choices
  • The desire for a sense of autonomy
  • Communication
  • Values
  • Performance pressure
  • Ambivalence about the relationship

And, of course, power.

8.  Everyone makes assumptions about sex, love, and intimacy.

Everyone tells stories about (their) sexuality. Does love drive desire? Are sex and intimacy the same? Can a relationship be intimate with little or no sex? Does monogamy prove love? Does infidelity prove the lack of love?

There’s nothing wrong with having ideas or opinions about questions like these. The only problem is when we forget that they’re stories rather than “truth.” You know, the way traditional religion is always portraying its stories as “truth.”

7. Everyone has conditions for good sex.

In order to enjoy sex, we might have conditions about our self (say, being clean or feeling like we’re in love), our partner (say, smelling slightly of alcohol or having a big nose), and/or our environment (say, quiet or the possibility of being observed or heard)

When we have sex without getting our conditions met, we’re usually disappointed with the outcome. If, for example, you know that trusting and feeling special are important aspects of sex for you, picking up strangers at bars (no matter how good-looking or technically expert) is not a good strategy for you.

6. Desire and arousal are different experiences.

Desire is a mental phenomenon. Arousal is a physical one. They come from different places, and we experience them differently. Confusing the two makes sex more complicated.

Erection and lubrication indicate arousal (assuming that a person is willing enjoy these physical processes). Fantasies, toys, dirty talk, and playing games are all ways to enhance arousal. But enhancing desire? Humans have been looking for ways to do that for thousands of years. Frustrated, most people settle for, “You should be sexier, so I feel more desire.” Understandably, this doesn’t work too well.

5. Religion’s attitude about sex is complex.

It’s helpful to think about religion regulating sexuality rather than preventing it.

What do religious people fear sexually?

  • Offending God
  • Being out of control
  • Ruining holy marriage
  • Expressing satanic energy or intention
  • Hurting their community, as one’s private sexual behavior accrues to everyone
  • Slipping on a slippery slope

Of course, the idea that God is such a trivial creature that God actually cares which one of your partner’s holes you put your finger in—instead of what’s in your heart and your relationship when you put your finger where you do—makes the whole religious enterprise seem overwhelmingly silly.

4. Porn use does not lead to violence, addiction, or child porn.

According to the FBI, the rate of sexual violence and child molestation has declined in the twelve years since the Internet brought free, high-quality porn into almost every American home. This correlation has also been found in Germany, Japan, Denmark, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere.

Consumers who look at adult pornography are a different group from the small group of people who consume child pornography. Think about it: if you’re not into child porn, could anything—including sexual boredom—make you watch it and get aroused from it?

Watching pornography can’t be an addiction in the same way that watching TV can’t be an addiction. Calling someone who watches too much porn (or TV) addicted—and even hurts his life doing so—trivializes the real process of addiction to substances like alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine.

3. Sexually, male-female similarities are more important than the differences.

Men and women are not the “opposite sex;” nothing on this earth is more similar to a man than a woman, and vice versa. I don’t know what the “opposite” of a man is—a bicycle? A turtle? A pineapple?

Most adult men and women want the same things from sex, they’re worried about the same things, and they both experience enormous performance pressure and anxiety.

The categories of “men” and “women” each have three billion people, and the members of each category different widely. We can generalize about the “average man” and the “average women,” but since each category is so large, those averages tell us nothing (knowing that a person masturbates twice a week, or prefers to shower before sex, is no help in determining if it’s a man or a woman).

Unless you’re having sex with all men or all women, thinking about what the average men or woman likes or does is of no value whatsoever.

2. “Normal sex” is a dangerous idea.

Many people want to be sexually normal, and fear that they aren’t. Because of this, they’re dishonest with their partner about who they are, where they’ve been, and what they want now. And because they won’t acknowledge (must less ask for) what they want in bed, they settle for much less sexual satisfaction than they might actually have.

Ideas about normal sex are enshrined in American laws regulating sodomy, sex toy sales, thought crimes in chat rooms, who has to register on sex offender lists (and the punishments that derive from that), and the consequences of benign but unwanted sexual attention.

1. What most people want from sex is pleasure and closeness … and a little less emotional pain.

Not huge orgasms, or orgies, or to discover a new position. Just a little more comfort and relaxation, a little less anxiety and self-consciousness.

Surely, trying to have sex without offending God, or revealing oneself as abnormal, or disappointing one’s partner, or wetting the bed, makes this far more difficult. Let’s try a new approach: focus on what you enjoy, not on what you fear.

For more details on Dr. Marty Klein’s presentation at the American Humanist Association 72nd Annual Conference, visit www.SexEd.org/slides/AHA.