This post is sexually explicit. Don’t read it if that makes you uncomfortable. And it’s about my own personal sexual interests. So you’ve been doubly warned if that makes you doubly uncomfortable.
When I deconverted from Christianity at 21 years old I had never had sex. And I had gone to an evangelical Christian college where this was quite normal. Nearly all of my friends either weren’t having sex either or weren’t talking about it if they were. I went to no wild parties where anyone got drunk or made out or had sex. I don’t remember sex being much of a topic of conversation even. You could get suspended or expelled from the school if you got caught having sex on campus (or, as it turns out, near the campus). So people didn’t really talk too loosely about their sex lives even if they had them. And I was clearly among the more sincere and committed of believers on campus and so it makes sense that anyone having sex was not going to tell me about it even if they were going to tell anyone else.
Now, we weren’t entirely prudish. People did make out with their partners in their rooms. But the rule was that men could only be in the women’s bedrooms from 8pm-12:45am on Friday nights and 1-5pm on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. And women could only be in the men’s bedrooms from 8pm-1:45am Saturday nights and 1-5pm on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Visitors had to be signed in to a specific room and while they were in the room they couldn’t close the door over completely. The official rule was that the door must be open at least a shoe’s width. So, students would keep their doors propped open with a shoe. For one school year I was a resident director (our equivalent of an RA but for upperclassmen) in one of the dorms and I had to spend many a Saturday night checking every hall to make sure shoes were in doors. I never pried beyond that to see what was going on behind the doors. But of course it was well understood that people at least made out with their significant others.
I detail all of this just to give a sense of how even though larger American youth culture and college culture might have been centralizing sex in the ’90s when I was a college student I was living in a bubble filled with people who were bent on tamping down their sexuality and waiting for marriage to have sex. It was in my experience, an outright desexualized environment. And I completely liked and preferred it that way. This was totally consonant with the evangelical Christian values that I had internalized by 12, earnestly sought to live by, and thought everyone should live by for the sake of their own happiness. I thought God had laid down this perfect plan whereby if people could save themselves for just their spouse they could have the most undiluted unitive experience of connecting with them around something they only ever experienced with that one person. To make sex between spouses the most special it had to be something reserved only for them.
This is not to say that our sexualities vanished. Based on my own experience the psychoanalytic concept of “sublimation” best captures what I think was going on. Nietzsche first formulated sublimation as a psychological concept. He conceived of it being when a drive, an impulse, an interest, etc., cannot express itself directly, because of social pressure or other repressive forces opposing it, and so it transmutes into a more tolerable form so that it can realize itself through a socially acceptable outlet. Nietzsche and, later, Freud, thought of our drives as not going away when they were stomped down but rather as still working beneath the surface and manifesting themselves in other ways.
When I was young and living in bubbles of evangelical Christianity, at camps, conferences, or college, there was this extremely comfortably touchy environment. As I’ve been stressing already, I think because so many of us were, in all seriousness and discipline, willfully sexually abstinent, out of our shared, fervent, sincere moral convictions against premarital sex, there was a reduced sense of explicitly sexual tension and sensitivity about male/female touching (and male/male or female/female touching because of the denial of homosexuality). There was an assumption of “pure” intentions (and for many of us, there were actual “pure” intentions).
And so it was just so regular for everyone, male or female to be hugging one another tightly, holding hands in prayer circles, giving back rubs to friends, etc. Rather than feeling any sort of sexualization related to touch because of the background possibility of sex, sex was removed as a conscious option and instead a lot of our needs for physical touch were being “safely” met through this communal, huggy atmosphere. You could be much more physically expressive when there was little risk of leading someone on. And I strongly suspect that the amount of not-having-sex going on was part of what drove us literally into each others’ arms so much in the non-sexual ways available to us. (Some Christians are aware of this “problem” and are making ridiculous efforts to celebrate the “Christian Side-Hug”.)
In fact, seared in my memory, are three particular hugs from three different women who were camp counselors with me. They each embraced me as hard and with as much passion as I have ever been squeezed with in my life. No lovers since have put as much intensity into their hugs as these women did and they were merely my sisters in Christ sharing what were ostensibly Platonic emotions of solidarity or gratitude or friendship, as the cases were. Nothing ever “came from” these hugs. (Though, in two of the cases, I did have to wonder if they had crushes on me afterwards.) They were peculiar bursts of feeling, each one startling enough to create these strong (and cherished) memories. In another instance, I remember feeling depressed and lost in my own mind one day when one of my women friends out of nowhere startled me by putting her hand on my shoulder and I looked up at her and she smiled at me as it felt like her hand with a single touch was reinfusing my body with life.
And while I know of no studies to confirm this impression, I felt certain–even at the time–that our repressed sexuality may have been fueling some of our ebullient and ardent expressions of piety towards God and our over the top spiritual exuberance in prayer and worship. The intense longings, petitions, and worshipful outpourings to God I suspect had some sort of bolster from all those unspendable sexual energies. This even came replete with all sorts of quasi-orgasmic highs in religious experiences of worship connected to conversions and recommittals of lives to Christ and struggles to recapture the intensity of full body feeling of connection to God in those initially addicting ecstatic worship experiences, as though trying to endlessly reignite a literal physical love affair with another person and taking every waning of bodily and spiritual passion as a frighting sign the feeling was gone forever.
And honestly a monogamous lover can monopolize many a person’s affections and intensities to a worrisome extent. So there’s something to be said for the liberality of affection that the chaste can sometimes manage towards a wider array of people when they’re not concentrating it so much in one direction. There’s also something to be said for harnessing “sexual energy” to fuel the passionate pursuit of productive endeavors rather than to be spent all on one’s lover. But there’s also much to be said for the wonders of being ecstatically and intimately in love and forming a profound connection with another person through incredible concentration of focus and devotion in their one direction. So I appreciate the opportunities of both chastity and intimate love and as my life has oscillated between eras of each I have learned well that so long as all that “energy” one has for love and for self-expression and for connection is spent and multiplies in the spending, a life can be lived well and happily in either condition.
But when I first deconverted, I was hardly so high-minded about the equivalent benefits of chastity to intimate love. I was sorely hurting from a four year losing streak romantically. Despite at least six prolonged, painful, and utterly unrequited crushes (and countless more smaller ones and longings), I hadn’t managed so much as a date in all my college years. And the drought would just persist another two years after the deconversion. Having no ulterior sexual motives, I had numerous strong friendships with women and even some moments of intense connection with them. But despite being a guy many women liked, I couldn’t ever figure out how to get a dating relationship off the ground. This was primarily because since childhood I was in the awful and backward habit of first figuring out that I was totally in love with a girl and then indicating my feelings. Which is a terrible strategy because it means you’re way too invested at the stage she might at best be amenable to warming up to the idea.
This was self-sabotaging. It was leading with abstractions rather than basing feelings on an organic, evolving rapport. Sometimes I barely knew these girls directly but built them up in my mind before trying to start a friendship. This unhealthy approach was deeply influenced by my over-corrective fear of being in a wrong relationship. I had to convince myself I knew a girl was right for me before even trying to date her lest I date and marry the wrong girl. My parents had divorced when I was in high school and I was terrified of being with the wrong person. I also had relatively stringent evangelical Christian ideals about not wasting your love or physical romantic expressions on people you weren’t going to marry since this was taking away from your eventual partner, with whom you wanted all your love and physical expression to be utterly and completely special.
Only after I deconverted and gave up on the ideal of trying to only ever be with the one sent from God to be my ideal soulmate, did I shift my mindset to resolutely and deliberately avoid letting my feelings get ahead of the actual state of my relationship with a woman. I resolved only to consider women who were actually signaling interest first and, preferably, with whom I had some kind of existing rapport. While this has made me a bit over-correctively and counter-productively timid about making casual first moves where there may be some hope, it’s spared me a lot of heartache and made actual relationships possible where I had previously spent the decade from 11-21 years old in a long series of unrequited crushes, but for the one girl-initiated relationship I had been lucky enough to have fall in my lap in high school.
But at the point of deconversion, four years without a girlfriend and my entire adolescence and college years being spent without having sex, I felt starved of any specifically romantic or sexual affections. I quickly and decisively refused the interest of one woman senior year who pursued me whose feelings I didn’t return. I didn’t even allow her to express much by way of affection because I didn’t in the slightest want to lead her on and her behavior was more obsessive than flattering. Beyond that one woman’s behavior, whatever romantic or sexual interest any women might have been feeling for me was either not being revealed to me or being couched completely ambiguously in gestures easily interpretable as friendship or spiritual solidarity.
In addition to being influenced by living in a highly chaste Christian enclave and going through a personal wilderness with respect to romance and sex, I found that mainstream culture made women’s interest in sex a mystery. I felt bombarded with messages about how much less women want sex than men. Sure, there were half naked women everywhere you looked in the media. Even a young Christian guy anguishedly trying to avoid porn couldn’t avoid seeing sexualized women. But what I had little traces of was their genuine desire for sex. Girls were the gatekeepers of sex, the ones who wanted to wait longer to start having sex, they were the ones to stop the make out sessions before they went all the way, they didn’t all get orgasms, and after they got married they all faked headaches to get their husbands to leave them alone or they faked orgasms to get the sex over with. The thought (let alone the sight) of a penis is a source of humor, revulsion, or duty. Being a “cocksucker” is shorthand for something awful. Who would want to do such a thing? What possible enjoyment could there be in such a degrading thing? In a good chunk of men’s descriptions of the desire for it, it seemed as though to them it was just a signal of their power over a woman that she would willingly reduce herself to do such a thing for him. Men may have appeal if they’re powerful, but we were unilaterally understood to be the uglier sex, the less sexually desired sex, and our libidos were mocked as innately being anything bad you could delineate on the scale from pathetic to predatory.
So it didn’t matter how many models or actresses, from magazines to porn to mainstream films, would pose and speak according to scripts of desire, I was acutely suspicious of it all as a sham for men’s benefits. I didn’t get much gratification or consolation from objectified women mimicking the gestures men wanted and paid them for. This was arousing enough but I still felt so alienated. What I wanted was access to women’s sexual agency. I wanted to know about women’s desires. I didn’t want to have women, I wanted to be wanted by women. I wanted to know all about their fantasies. I wanted to know all about what turned them on and what got them off. All my sexual agency would be aimed at eliciting theirs. That’s how I approached sex. Because the only kind of love and the only kind of sexual desire that has any meaning to me is the freely given kind. The kind that could have been refused but instead is eagerly offered. Every degree of genuine coercion reduces sincerity. And all the meaning is in the sincerity of desire. I cannot even begin to resonate with the conception of sex that finds it satisfying in terms of bare sensations bereft from any connection to the kind of interpersonal exchange that’s going on. Just totally foreign to my psychology to put the pleasantness of the raw feels above the ideal of an erotic exchange of desire.None of this is to say that people willfully submitting to each other to feel themselves overwhelmed by or dominated by someone they desire is at all illegitimate. When that is just a way of totalizing desire that’s completely hot.
But I bring all of this up to point out the agency in sex acts of “serving”. Too much of what I read about sex elides this. Specifically I have read some of the response to the U.K.’s ridiculous new extension of porn censorship (and fantastic protests of it) that arbitrarily forbids depiction of numerous consensual sex acts. The one I felt most defensive of was face-sitting. Which is simply oral sex where the giver is laying or seated below the recipient and he or she is putting his or her genitals to the giver’s mouth himself or herself. I use the gender neutral he or she to stress that this could be done in any direction and between any kind of partners. But it’s worth stressing that this is often seen as a distinctly woman on man kind of position. And, to me bizarrely, it’s often talked about like it’s either primarily or exclusively a domination thing. Apparently the theme is assumed to be that she’s simulating suffocating him. Clearly the reversal of power roles there makes sense. clearly the idea is that the woman is in so much control that not only is she the one being “served” and pleased, not only is she the one determining how she is pleased, but she is also overwhelming the guy to the point of literally making it hard for him to breathe and controlling whether he can breathe. As a domination fetish it even appears common to have the woman mostly clothed, even just ripping a portion of her clothes so that only her genitals are exposed. So, again, she’s so in control that while he’s naked (vulnerable) she isn’t.
What I want to stress is that while this may be some people’s conception of what’s hot about face-sitting or might see all the “passive” and “serving” kinds of sex (being penetrated on one’s back or belly or all fours, being “ridden” while on one’s back, being the “giver” of oral sex or anilingus, etc.), it’s only a partial picture. Whatever domination themes are at work are superficial to me. They underestimate how much power is in the giver’s hands and mouths or in the recipient’s bodies. And I stress this because it corrects for a domination-obsessed aesthetic of sex. I want to round out the other half of it.
To me having a woman on top of me has always been about that the way it reinforces and expresses certainty of her desire to have me inside her. It has been a satisfaction to know that she is using my cock precisely as she wants it. It is her tool for pleasure. And that is a rich experience of knowing her sexual agency and her desire. That’s what satisfies me after my years of Christian repression that cut me off from experiencing women’s intimate sexual sides completely and after the broader sexist culture repressed women’s desire by presenting women as passive objects and men’s bodies as gross and undesirable. I have no particular kinks of wanting to be dominated. I like “taking charge” and “being in control” in sex quite a bit. What I love about having oral sex wherein my lovers actively uses my mouth or penetration with wherein she uses my cock is that she can express her agency and make unequivocal her desire for my body and her general sexual desire for me as expressed through all of this. And of course, I want to be good at laying her back and exploring her pleasures with my fingers and tongue and be in control of her pleasures and have her pleasures be the center of our sexual activity. It’s why for me the biggest turn ons are knowing a woman is wet without trying or is turned on by seeing me or by touching herself as she listens to me or looks at me, or involuntarily squirts with pleasure or goes through waves of multiple orgasms on account of me. The rush of all of it is knowing the authenticity and purity of her desires and pleasures.
And in that context, when she, an unambiguously desirous sexual agent, wants to please me and have that power over me or when she wants to receive me and feel filled and overpowered by me as I penetrate her, I don’t worry that it’s any symptom of passivity on her part or objectification of her. I know that it’s an expression of her freedom and her agency and, thus, her desire. And that’s what’s hot about it. That’s what’s intimate about it. That’s what has to be earned to be experienced. And all the more so since it’s so relatively absent in public in our sexist culture.
For more posts on my days as a Christian, how I deconverted, and how I evolved personally and philosophically afterward see the list of links permanently updated here. F0r a companion piece about more of the ways my rejection of sexual repression influenced my approach to sex and feminism, read this post. For my views on sex education in light of my experience read this post. For a meditation on the ironic ways that my conservative Christianity made me egalitarian towards women even before I deconverted, read this post. For my thoughts on the possibilities of post-religious sexual spirituality read this post. For those struggling with feelings like I had related to being “behind sexually”, I recommend this post, particularly its later paragraphs.
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For most of my major posts on sex, I recommend using the following list:
A Debate About The Value of Permanent PromiscuityHow To Create The Sexual Utopia
Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery
On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”
Why Do We Need Labels Like “Gay”, “Bi”, “Trans”, and “Cis”?
Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed In Equality Between The Sexes
#YesAllMen Are Responsible