You’re Not Weird & You’re Not Alone
By Hayley MacMillen
My formative sexual education came not from my peers or school or parents so much as it came from the internet. There isn’t much data on how true this is for those of us who had internet access growing up — a 2013 study of 5,543 internet-using teens published in the International Journal of Sexual Health both declared itself “the first review to date that exclusively examines adolescents’ use of the internet as a sex education resource” and ceded that it was “unclear whether online sex education replaces or supplements traditional sources of sex education” — but I know that I’m far from alone in this. Of respondents from Refinery29’s own survey on sex ed in America, 76% counted the internet as having been been a source of “helpful, useful information about sex,” as compared with 50% who credited their friends and 15% who credited school. (Sorry, parents, you didn’t feature in the answers to this question.)
Specifically, literotica is where I first found my sexuality reflected, where I both identified the desires particular to me and confirmed that I wasn’t alone in having them — the proof being that other people had written about them. (Shout-out to all the wordsmiths who have ever submitted to the NSFW Sex Stories Post or its sophisticated older sister, Literotica.) Those “traditional sources of sex education” to which that 2013 study referred are notoriously bad at conveying concepts of agency, desire, and pleasure (what we want in our sex lives) — focusing instead on what we don’t want, namely pregnancy and STIs, thus creating a deficit that literotica helped meet for me.
There’s a conversation to be had on the extent to which our early experiences with explicit content shape our tastes versus the extent to which they show us what was already latent in us, but the feeling of click when my teenage self found something that resonated with me was undeniable. That’s when I first understood the power of sexual representation online: the power of recognizing that whatever you like, whatever your identity, you are not weird and you are not alone. Better yet, you might even have a dazzling capacity for pleasure already locked inside of you. It’s a power that those of us who write about sex can hope to harness.
This is my last column for Refinery29. It has been a pleasure to explore sexuality and relationships here in hopes of offering people information, and options. When I joined the newly created Health team two years ago and we began crafting our approach to sex, we knew we wanted to move from the prescriptive and aspirational (this is what you should want, what you should do, how you should be) to the descriptive and celebratory of people’s identities and choices — whether they are in sexless relationships or open ones or fantasizing about kink or discovering their asexuality — and to suggest tools for communicating about their sexualities if and when they choose.
Because the hallmark of sex, even in 2016, is silence. A 2011 meta-review of 30 years of research on sexual communication painted a bleak portrait of the general discourse on sexuality today: “Many parents see it as their responsibility to talk to their children about sexuality and yet do not engage in in-depth discussions with their children about sexual topics,” wrote author Sandra Byers, PhD. “Most romantic partners have difficulty telling each other what pleases and displeases them sexually. Many health care professionals do not meet their patients’ needs for information about the sexual changes they experience as a result of their disease or treatment.”
Sex ed in schools, meanwhile, covers abstinence and anatomy but rarely pleasure or consent. We’re having a hard enough time providing sex ed in the first place, with the Guttmacher Institute reporting that, as of March of this year, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandated it — and only 13 states required that the instruction be “medically accurate.” More often than not, sex ed is also overwhelmingly heteronormative, with research showing that LGBTQ teens are more likely than their heterosexual peers to search for sexual health information online, because, as one study stated, they didn’t have anyone to ask.
We turn to the internet for the conversations on sex we can’t have elsewhere. When we do, we look for stories, both made-up and factual. Soon after I was approached about writing this column, I had the opportunity to meet my problematic fave, Gloria Steinem, after a panel. I asked her if she had any advice to guide my writing. “Stories will save you,” she said. “We’ve been sitting around campfires for 150,000 years, telling stories… People don’t remember generalizations or statistics.” It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard, and it wasn’t the silver-bullet answer to my questions of what to cover and how, but of course she’s right. It’s one thing to know that you are one of the approximately 36% of the female-identified population to be into spanking, and another to read a woman’s story of how she discovered that she is, and how that discovery altered her sex life.
This column has often included stories and examples from my own life. A woman whose reporting on reproductive health and rights I respect very much once asked me why. “Of course I believe everyone has the right to do what they want with their personal information,” she said. “But just because you can put it out there doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you somehow.” She’s not wrong. My hope is not to disclose because I can, though, or to do so reflexively or gratuitously, but to cherry-pick the things I think will spark a flicker of recognition and connection in a reader.
And so I choose carefully what to disclose and how, and am sometimes still surprised when people ask, “How can you share all that?” — since the intimacy in my writing is curated and public and performative and not the same as the intimacy I grant my intimates. You don’t know what you don’t see, and so you might think you see it all. And while women should never be pushed into personal writing, or have their books recast as memoirs or their darkest moments coaxed out of them by editors for use as clickbait, I’ve chosen to write personally, in my way. I’m glad to have had the opportunity, both for the feeling of being seen and the times I know someone has seen something I’ve written and thought Me, too — what a relief.
I’ve told others’ stories here, too, and I’m grateful to those who have shared their experiences or expertise with me and helped me right course when I’ve missed the mark. I want to thank Kelly Bourdet for bringing me on and showing me the potential of women’s media, Anna Maltby for helping me birth this column, Rebecca Adams for her editing eyes, Amelia Edelman for her top-editing talent, and of course Anna Sudit, for creating illustrations that strike a bewitching balance between whimsy and grit. You truly are a sorceress. And a very heartfelt thank you to that “partner” I kept writing about and all of the anonymous sources whose brains I picked via deadline-pushing texts and emails. You know who you are. Finally, thank you to everyone who has read some or all or part of this series. Whether here or elsewhere, I hope you find the stories that make you feel not weird and not alone.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen. Find all of The Bed Post right here.
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