First of all, I’m sorry for disappearing. In my never-ending quest for financial solvency, I did the unthinkable and got a job. It’s been hard to find a regular writing schedule since then, but I haven’t forgotten about this blog (or its wonderful readers!), and I’ve got some exciting pieces in the metaphorical oven.
Speaking of metaphors, I’d like to throw around a theory that I’ve been contemplating recently. It goes like this: for some people, the best way to talk about sex is to talk about something else entirely.
Here at Yaybody, I try my best to approach sexuality head-on. I’ve found that if I get cutesy or beat around the bush too much, it becomes harder for people to understand what I mean. Also, I want to equip my readers with the language and concepts necessary for them to understand their bodies and desires.
That’s all well and good, but sometimes it seems as though people – even sex educators – would rather talk about anything aside from sex. Take food, for example. Al Vernacchio says that we should talk about sex the way we talk about pizza. Emmeline May says that sex (or, more specifically, consent) should be treated like tea. My sex ed students have decided that sex is actually more like macaroni and cheese.
What gives? Or, in the words of one of my students: “Why you gotta make all of my meals about sex?”
For a while I resisted all of these food metaphors. After all, the goal is to speak more clearly, not less. And then it hit me: Most people understand food better than they understand sexuality. Diving into conversations about genitals, sex toys, masturbation, consent, and kink can be really overwhelming, both because there’s a lot of information to take in and because many of us aren’t used to talking about these things. Having something “boring” to talk about allows us to approach an incredibly charged topic with a clear head.
Metaphors aren’t just for those of us who shy away from sex talk, though. Contemplating sexuality in other terms can shed light on our own biases, allow us to drop our baggage, and improve our communication with partners. In other words, metaphors can actually help us understand sex and sexuality more clearly.
Here are some reasons metaphors are good for all of us:
1. Metaphors force us to recognize and address differing views and opinions on sex.
Growing up, we internalize messages about what sex is, how it should be done, and more. Some of us learned as children that sex should only be for baby-making, and others of us learned that sexual pleasure was natural and good. Some of us grew up thinking of STDs as “dirty” things that marked people as promiscuous, unfaithful, or unclean while others of us grew up knowing and loving people with HIV and other incurable STDs.
Since sex is a hush-hush topic in the wider world, most of us haven’t gotten any real chance to sort out our feelings on these things. Without knowing it, then, we bring our biases to the table every time we talk to people about sex. The same word might have different connotations, even – some people use the word “slut” to talk about promiscuity in a positive light, and some people use the word “slut” as an insult. It’s hard to tell how people will react to our language.
When we use metaphors, however, these differing expectations and world views become much more clear. Not only that, but it’s much easier to talk to somebody about why you think they’ve got a flawed metaphor than a flawed grasp of sexuality.
2. Metaphors eliminate shame.
Have you ever wanted to pee on someone? Have you ever wanted someone to pee on you? Does the thought of that gross you out?
“Golden showers” or “water sports” are a pretty common kink, but a lot of people have a very hard time admitting that they’d even be willing to consider them. And shame isn’t just limited to kinks – people frequently feel shame simply for admitting that they’d like to have sex (or not have sex). How are we supposed to feel comfortable telling our partners about our fantasies – or even our desires – if doing so will change their opinion of us or result in humiliation?
Here’s where metaphors become handy. If we’re using the pizza metaphor, for instance, we can talk about different sexual acts as though they’re simply different toppings. Some people love mushrooms and some people hate them, but nobody feels ashamed of their position because they recognize that it’s pretty arbitrary and (more to the point), not a reflection of their character or moral composition.
In other words, metaphors destroy the sex myth. They help us understand that sex, while sometimes exciting and often beautiful, is just something that we do with our bodies – like eating, sleeping, running, singing, and more – and that there’s no reason to be ashamed of our preferences.
3. Metaphors help us think rationally and compassionately even when we’re really horny.
Have you ever put yourself in awkward, risky, or just plain stupid situations all for the sake of some nookie? You’re not alone. In general, we’re not great at thinking rationally when we’re aroused (something else to blame on your amygdala). For many of us, it feels as though our brains turn off when our bodies turn on. This leads us to send (and receive) mixed signals that can have unintended effects on our relationships and on our bodies.
Good conversations about sex require us to rise above these hurdles, and metaphors can help us do that. In a recent workshop I co-facilitated, Melanie, a sex educator at Partners in Sex Education, came up with hiking as a metaphor for sex. I think that’s a particularly good one to help us approach sex more calmly and healthy. Would you go on a dangerous hike that you weren’t prepared for just because you really like hiking? Would you go on a hike that you didn’t enjoy simply because you hadn’t hiked for a while? What are the consequences of hiking without the proper gear?
There are a million good metaphors for sex that can help us approach sexuality from a cooler, healthier perspective. In fact, they can make sex talk extremely fun and – remember good sex? – low stakes in a surprisingly pleasant way.