Unlearning the Sexual Script

Several months into the #metoo Movement, many of us are perhaps wondering, “What do we do now?”

We must continue telling our stories, we must continue holding men (and women) accountable for their behavior at all levels. However, at some point yet to be determined, we must shift from telling men what not to do and start having conversations about what to do. Samantha Bee hinted at this when she cried, “If you say you’re a feminist, then fuck like a feminist!” It seems straightforward enough: our bodies and behavior should be in alignment with what we believe. Unfortunately, this is clearly not the case. Our bodies (i.e. the ways we fuck) have not caught up with our own political and social espousing, as perfectly demonstrated by the Aziz Ansari story.

I say we, because both women and men have agency in this conversation. This conversation is not just about raising the bar for men, but it is also about women dismantling our own internalized misogyny that prevents us from verbalizing clear “nos” and calling cabs. This takes time, and I hope we can find it in ourselves to give each other the grace as these conversations unfold. Each of us has years of cultural messaging entrenched in our bodies, passed down through centuries of patriarchal control. I’m no anthropologist, but I don’t think a few decades of feminism is going to immediately undo many centuries of such a pathologies embedded deep in our behavior.

Perhaps we ought to start with a practical problem. Sweeping patriarchal narratives aside, one of the most visible problems is that way we (Millennials) have primarily learned how to fuck is through consuming unprecedented amounts of porn*. The vast majority of which centers on a script that privileges heterosexual male pleasure, creates a tunnel vision towards male orgasm, and treats women as objects. Such a script perpetuates the narrative that men always want sex and women are always playing hard to get. The result is a sexual culture that de-centers intuition and body intelligence and privileges a rote script with prescribed gender roles instead — a culture where stories like “Cat Person” and Aziz Ansari have become ubiquitous, normalized.

As an artist, I recognize that scripts have their place. There is nothing new under the sun, really. However, I think most of us will agree that this particular script has drained us of our ability to connect intimately with one another as well as perpetuated harmful — and in many cases, detrimental — sexual dynamics.

So how are we to unlearn this harmful wiring?

I keep returning to the idea of actor training. The goal of actor training is to be a free and open vessel — one that is easily responsive to internal impulses as well as external stimuli. Training can involve everything and anything from trust exercises to touch-therapy to yin yoga to, in more rigorous cases, Rolfing. Well-trained actors strive to cultivate a heightened sense of intuition based off of the five senses, to listen well to similar impulses created by other bodies in the room, and to use both those sources of energies to collaborate on something beautiful. The by-product is richer understanding of sensuality, which is not explicitly sexual but entirely necessary to the sexual experience.

There are lessons to be learned from such a foray into self-knowledge. The practice of contact improv in acting (or dance) classes is of particular interest to me. It’s a common tool especially useful if you’re working with a new scene partner and need to get to know their quirks and energies. During an exercise the two participants are charged with creating something new together using only each other’s bodies — and perhaps a bit of music — with little to no guidelines of what that should look like. The exercise might be centered on a mood, word, or story arc of two characters, but the movement is entirely contingent upon both participants listening to their own body as well as their partner’s.

Such an exercise cannot be successful unless each actor is able and willing to bring their inner life into the space. And of course, there are ground rules to establish beforehand what kind of touch is and is not permissible, i.e. slapping, kissing, tackling, picking up another human. More importantly, areas of trauma and injury are discussed and respected in service of bodily autonomy.

Al Vernacchio was on to something when he proposed we throw out the baseball metaphor and use pizza instead. What if, instead of seeing sex as a series of bases to round, we reframed sexual encounters as a creative act? Creativity demands vulnerability, so it doesn’t seem that far of a leap to rethink the most vulnerable act known to humans as a freewheeling, generative space. We already know that sex can be sweet, subtle, explosive, passionate, subdued. Framing it as a free-thinking and generative is simply granting us permission to feel freely a range of emotion, action, intention — a permission that many people don’t feel is available to them.

Wouldn’t that be freeing? To know your body so well that you no longer feel tied to a script but to the expressed needs and desires of yourself and the partner in front of you? I would call this body intelligence — to not only know what a body needs but also why it is asking for it — be it your own or your partner’s. (It goes without saying that verbal assent/communication is of course just as integral into a healthy sexual relationship). It would seem to me that that kind of self-love precedes our ability to give generously to our partners, which is exactly what is lacking in porn-informed encounters. Perhaps then sex no longer need be defined as penetrative, or in pursuit of orgasm, but instead by the intimacy created.

I am finding it helpful that more general practices involving body intelligence — be it a form of dance, yoga, or improv — are (ideally) non-gendered spaces, perhaps giving us pointers away from a rigid, binary script and towards a more intuitive space of communion. This is not to say that we should all be incorporating 45 minutes of hatha yoga into our foreplay (but if that’s your thing, then more power to you). However, the principles of contact improv are particularly useful when rehearsals with a script have gotten too rote, too stale. One might not be able to rewrite a script, but a bit of free-thinking and creativity goes a long way into opening up fresh ways of knowing each other more deeply, more intuitively.

*This is not necessarily an anti-porn post, but a call for those who consume porn to use it judiciously and for those who create it to get serious about representing a broader range of perspectives.