What’s good advice? Is it advice someone takes? Advice that you believe to be right, regardless of how the receiver feels? According to these folks, good advice isn’t so much advice as it is information. Which is great news for me, an educator, because information is my job.
But sex advice isn’t the same as other advice; it trudges heavily, as other advice doesn’t have to, weighted down by moral baggage. There are probably other forms of advice-giving and information-giving that are as laden with moral emotion, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head.
During Susie Bright’s interview Leonore Tiefer, the sex nerd’s sex nerd and one of my personal heroes, they discuss the difference in their roles as educator versus therapist.
Particularly important to me was the bit about the utility of telling people they’re normal. It’s the question I get asked, in some form or other, more than any other: “Am I normal?”
My typical way of answering the question is to say, essentially, “Yes you are normal, and here’s information that establishes the normality of your particular issue, but at the same time I recognize that your worry about being normal is separate from the actual issue itself.”
I ask the person what I could provide that would help them to feel okay about their issue. Sometimes it ’s enough just to have some information about the topic, and sometimes it’s even enough just to hear someone with some credibility tell them they’re okay. Sometimes.
But most of the time it takes more than normalizing statistics to liberate someone from the burden of fear. What can an educator provide?
Sadly, most often it’s advice about how to conform more to the cultural lie. Which makes me feel like a fraud.
STUDENT: I don’t have orgasms from penetration. What’s wrong with me?
ME: Nuthin’! Sounds to me like you’re in the 70% majority of women who aren’t generally orgasmic from intercourse. You’re completely normal.
ME: But you still feel like you ought to be having orgasms from penetration, huh?
STUDENT: Well my partner wants me to be able to, and I want my partner to be satisfied. And anyway, that’s, like, what everyone says is normal.
ME: Yeah. I know. But everyone is wrong. I wish the media and the culture and everyone hadn’t lied to you and your partner and made you feel broken. But they did and you do, even though you’re not. So what could I say that would help?
STUDENT: Well, you could tell me how to have orgasms from penetration.
ME: *sigh* …Okay.
So I tell them. It’s like trying to send the message that weight doesn’t matter, and then giving dieting tips.
Because I’m a human being, I compromise my beliefs in the name of making people feel like I helped them, even if the help isn’t the help they really needed, so they feel good and they like me and they want to come talk to me again. And maybe if they come talk to me again, we’ll have time to talk through a cultural critique of norms around women’s orgasmicity, I tell myself. Because real change takes time. Fast change is necessarily small change.
That dynamic there, where I give them what they want rather than what they need, is the kind of short-term decision-making that screwed up the economy. When you think about what gives you the most immediate payoff, you fuck some shit up in the long term.
I long to keep my eyes on the future – I want the work I do to help people right now, yes, but I also want to contribute to a saner, more healthful future for women’s sexuality. Leonore Tiefer does that – it’s why she’s a hero of mine.
Fortunately, every act of sex positive education is inherently an act of radical, progressive change. To talk about sex in public as a natural part of a woman’s life is to spark tiny revolutions inside the body of each audience member. Iterated over time and with more people, the sparks commingle and, we hope, eventually generate the fire of change.
So even if I tell a group of women how to increase their ability to have orgasms through penetration, all the while flagellating myself for the anti-feminism of reinforcing the norms, I’m still promoting women’s sexual pleasure, I’m still calling sex normal, I’m still giving women permission to be at choice around their sexuality.
Not perfect. By no means. But progress.