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Pure As the Driven Slush (Personal Journal)

January 2nd, Two Thousand Three: Sex is good for you.

You heard me right. This is my credo for 2003. Not "Sex can be okay if it's safe," or "Sex can be good, but so can abstaining," and certainly not, "Sex is deadly." Nope. Sex is good for you.

It occurred to me the other day that I haven't heard that said loudly and clearly in a really long time, not even from myself or most of my colleagues in sex activism, smut or sex education. There are plenty of reasons why, but none of them good enough.

We can say, for instance, as health educators or advocates, that exercise is good for you, knowing full well that some forms of exercise are not available or accessible for some people, or that some people simply choose not to exercise. We can say that knowing that there can be downsides: sports injuries, overdoing exercise, doing the wrong exercise for a given person or body, et cetera. None of that keeps us from saying that there are a lot of benefits, that it is good for you, overall, and that everyone should be getting some.

But it seems we're reticent to say same about sex, despite the fact that it IS good for you. Very.

Why is sex good for you (and by "sex" understand that I mean anything from masturbation to orgies, with partners of any gender, or no partners at all, with or without genital stimulation, as you choose)?

• Sexual arousal and orgasm triggers the release of numerous hormones. A rise in oxytocin levels, for instance, has been shown in studies to be a profound pain reliever, for headaches, menstrual cramps and muscle aches, and promotes feelings of affection and nurturing which help to reduce stress levels. Sex encourages the flow of testosterone, which strengthens bones and muscles and helps transport DHEA, a hormone that is important in the function of the body’s immune system, as well as for tissue repair and neurological balance. Keeping testosterone flowing freely also helps to reduce the risk of prostate problems in men. In women, estrogen levels increase during arousal, providing benefits to the reproductive organs as well as to skin and hair. Endorphins -- releases in the same way they are after other exercise -- reduce depression, and can improve cholesterol levels and help increase circulation.

• Dr. David Weeks, a clinical neuropsychologist at Scotland’s Royal Edinburgh Hospital, conducted a study of 3,500 people ranging in age from 18 to 102. Weeks concluded that sex does actually slow the aging process. 

• Sex is excellent exercise, burning around 300 calories an hour when you get really active, and engaging all of your muscle groups. Sex can help reduce the risk of strokes or heart attacks through its gross cardiovascular benefits.

• A long term study of 37,500 adults at the Institute for Advanced Human Sexuality has shown that sex is important for sound mental health. People with fulfilling sex lives were found to be in much better mental health, more relaxed, with a more positive outlook, and more self- reliant than those without.

• Even kissing by itself has a whole lot of benefits, great news for those of us (like me) who think the kissing is the best part, anyways. Extra saliva produced in your mouth during kissing helps rid your mouth of bacteria and helps to break down plaque. Engaging your tongue helps tone the muscles of your face. Passionate kisses can burn as many as two calories a minute.

• Good sex promotes communication, tolerance, union, compassion, love, joy and peace. We need these things in our lives and our world, far more of them than we're getting or creating -- and we have to create and nurture them to keep it all going. My parents weren't saying "Make Love, Not War," blithely: they were right. Good sex keeps us tapped into the things that our minds and bodies need to relax, to stay centered and aware. Good sex keeps us open, in body, heart and mind, and circularly, when we are open in that way we're able to really have good sex.

If you look at a lot of health websites or general resources, you'll find very little detailing why sex is good for you. You'll find a whole lot about why it can be bad for you, or in what medical situations you need to be careful about sex, but very little on the plain old good stuff, most of which we've known for years. I simply refuse to have this be the year when remains of those positive messages about sex disappears entirely. Not on my watch, buster.

So, why aren't we hearing this? Well, unlike talking about the benefits of exercise, there seems to be a pervasive attitude lingering out there that we can't say these things because not everyone can "get sex," for starters. An idea which is, of course, fallacious, because we can all be our own partner whenever we choose to be. Sex is available to everyone, even those with some sexual dysfunction -- a phrase I'd opt to toss with the bathwater since what is often meant by that is genital dysfunction, and genitals working any one way or another really aren't required for arousal or orgasm. One of the best orgasms I ever had, I have to tell you, was due to stimulation almost solely to the back of my neck, which is about as far away from my twat as it gets. These things are doable, we just have to open our minds a little and be patient and engaged.

As well, we likely aren't hearing this because of the spread of STDs and STIs. If we encourage sex, we encourage disease, right? Baloney. To steal an analogy from a friend, let's think about driving for a minute, shall we? Driving is one of the most dangerous things we can do, both to our bodies as well as our environment (and potentially our minds, but that's a discussion for another day). As far as protecting our bodies and others, we inform people how to use seatbelts. We have stoplights and crosswalks we teach drivers to pay heed to, we have criteria for getting a license to drive. But none of these things prevent accidents, injuries or death 100%, or even close. If this were approached the same way we see sex being approached a whole lot lately, we'd simply be told "Precautions like seatbelts and stoplights do not protect us 100% from injury or death due to driving. Therefore, we suggest no one drive."

We don't hear that because (besides the economic interest in selling vehicles and fuel) that'd be a damned silly thing to say as so long as there are cars, people are going to drive them, most likely en masse. We don't say that because we allow people to make those choices and know that the best protection we can provide can actually be awfully good, and we know that life in general is not risk-free. It's even more ridiculous to take this sort of approach with sex because it's not only far LESS harmful than driving overall, it's natural, normal, and something we've been doing since the dawn of time, often quite joyfully. Infants often masturbate -- we can tell them to be abstinent all we want, but they're just going to look at us all blinky-blinky (or, sadly, we can smack their hands away from their genitals through childhood and assure we'll raise a child with sexual shame and a host of other ills). Yet, that approach is being taken with no seeming thought to how utterly stupid, ineffective and hazardous it is.

Moreover, we most likely don't often hear that sex is good for you because sex scares the hell out of a lot of people, much in the same way hurricanes do. It's natural, we feel urges and forces that really, we can't control. It's a part of us whether we like it or not. We can certainly control what we do with our sexuality or libido, but those feelings and sensations appear on their own most of the time, and in a world that is constantly grappling to control anything and everything, that's pretty damned scary. Boo!

Of course, right now in the US we REALLY don't hear it because our government is pushing abstinence, or sex only within heterosexual marriage, like it's going out of style (personally, I think it's passé already). It seems to me that it's tricky to manage that as a sex educator, because you don't want people to assume that if sex is good for you, celibacy must be bad for you. Celibacy has its place. It's what all of us may find we need at one time or another, and for some, it's a lifelong choice made because celibacy offers benefits of its own that are beneficial and fulfilling. But it's a fine line to walk, because in a culture of dualistic thinking, if sex is good, the lack of sex must be bad. It just isn't that simple, but explaining that is a real pickle.

And there certainly ARE ills to "abstinence." (Which has a meaning all its own now, and it isn't just about celibacy, but about waiting "until marriage" for whatever form of sex you have arbitrarily chosen, or taking pledges, or being put in a system of sex education or being that is about not-sex.)

The approach of abstinence makes several assumptions worth bearing in mind: 1) that marriage in and of itself provides the most beneficial, healthy environment for sex, 2) that marriage can provide protection on its own from all the possible negative consequences of sex, 3) that sex outside those contexts, no matter what the scenario, MUST offer more harm than good and 4) that not having sex is a higher moral position, especially outside the context of heterosexual marriage. All of which is hogwash in any general way, even for the select group of people it can apply to in the first place. But we know this.

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On a whim, I took an abstinence pledge with my tongue planted rather firmly in my cheek on the 30th. I pledged to be abstinent for the rest of the year. Now, I'll give you, a day and a half isn't a very long time. But in spite of my kidding about with it, I actually picked up on a few things.

• It is very easy to become rather obsessed with sex while abstinent, because you have to keep reminding yourself of what it is you may not do. I've seen this before now and then at Scarleteen, but I couldn't put my finger on it. But you go to touch someone and have to keep your head focused not on what you are doing, but on what you are not.

• It can turn into a real powerplay. You can keep mentioning it to those vying for your physical affections, and they really aren't allowed to challenge it in any way, because it has these "I did it for Jesus" connotations (and you have to wonder really, what an open, loving dude like Jesus thinks of that, but I digress). The abstinent one has the power.

• You end up categorizing sexual activities into one basket or the other, thus segregating them and attaching meanings -- or a lack of meaning -- to this activity or that one that are totally arbitrary and usurp the idea of sexuality as a whole body/mind experience.

• Your expectations are raised for the sex you do finally have after being abstinent, rather unrealistically, I might add.

• It's tough to sleep, and easy to get irritable. You seem to get less hungry -- all your appetites can get diminished. An article in the Washington Times some time back said as much noting that psychiatrists agreed that while abstinence may help prevent STDs, it can also lead to irritability, insomnia, psychosomatic disorders, low self-worth, sexual dysfunction and depression.

It is very good to not be abstinent. I know I only did it for a day and a half, and I know it was something of a joke, but this feeling of segmenting sex, of closing yourself off to just being open to touch and union and your sexual self is just really icky. I'm well aware that even in my Buddhist tradition there are many celibates, but the impetus there is incredibly different and most of us aren't monks, now are we.

It was this day and a half that led me to say, drolly, a little bit after the turn of the new year and thus, the end of my pledge, "Abstinence. It's so last year."

Now, I have to tread light in some of what I do. I really can't say at Scarleteen that abstinence sucks and I think it's a fucking stupid approach, both to sex and to what can be good about celibacy. I can't do that not because of the feds, as they are limited in what they can do about what I say at an organization they don't fund, but because I don't want to contribute to teens there who are trying the abstinence card to feeling worse. Perhaps worse than they already do.

And I do, there, talk about the ways sex is good for you, just not as plainly as I'd like to. I try, there, to teach our users to approach sexuality as whole body/whole mind. I can, there, talk about some of the ills of abstinence-approaches, like the fact that people reared to be sexually shameful are far LESS likely to engage in sex safely, even the ones that did figure out how to do so in spite of not being given that information. I can talk about the benefits of sex without reservation in the adult venues I work in, no problem. But I think I -- we -- need to say it more. Say it more loudly. Say it with a smile and a glow and a big wet one on the lips. Say it with words, with images, fuck, say it with flowers. We need be unafraid to say that, or to feel it, or worry we're leaving someone out, because the truth is that most of the folks who feel left out simply may not have heard this enough, or in an embracing, joyful way. We need to celebrate it, as-is, in it's myriad forms and faces.

So, hey, happy new year. Have a good one. And for the love of Pete, have some great sex. Moan louder. Orgasm more. Delight in touch. Shake, shake, shake, shake your booty. You can have great sex and still have it as safely as anything else, I assure you. Enjoy yourself. Be open to all of it: it's a gift, don't be ungrateful or dismiss it.

It's good for you.

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