Comes Naturally #95 (April 7, 2000):
Sex/No-Sex: The Medium is the Message

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April 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg


Is it sexual or isn't it?

Seems like an innocent enough question. But the assumption that sex is like an electrical switch -- either on or off -- is about as wrong as you can get. And the corollary practice of formulating rules based on this on-off notion of sex is a road that leads straight to all kinds of mischief and confusion, including a mess of hurtful and tangled legal definitions and court cases.

Be that as it may, the sex/no-sex question is definitely on people's minds these days, applied to hundreds of otherwise unrelated circumstances ranging from art reviews to custody hearings. Everyone wants to know, to be unerringly clear, about when they are living in Universe A (the universe of sexual activity and feeling) and when they have crossed the border into unrelated and separate Universe B (the universe where sexual activity and feeling are absent and, more often than not, forbidden). People want to know the answer to the fundamental sex/no-sex question minute by minute, gesture by gesture, thought by thought, artwork by artwork, pleasure by pleasure -- and, of course, relationship by relationship.

Now, I happen to believe that dichotomizing -- that simple-minded urge to label people and experiences as discrete opposites, to sort them into fixed boxes with polar names, and in general to see life through the filter of razor-sharp, either/or distinctions -- is a big mistake, especially when it comes to sexual matters. Sure, it's comfortable to think of things in clear, black-and-white terms -- good vs. evil, female vs. male, gay vs. straight, love vs. hate, beautiful vs. ugly, wonderful vs. horrible, adult vs. child, us vs. them, sexual vs. non-sexual. We all want to know where we stand in life, who we're dealing with, and what to expect from the future that lies hidden just that curve in the road ahead. Labels and dichotomies help reassure us into believing that we can predict both the future and the behavior of people around us.

But, as reassuring as tidy mental categories may be, the fact remains that real life -- before we package, program, truncate, augment, judge and interpret it -- rarely sorts itself out so neatly or definitively. The kindest people we know have their episodes of cruelty and deceit; the most selfish and self-serving people surprise us with moments of great love and generosity. Distinctions that once seemed inviolable between who and what is male, female, gay, and straight, are blurring and breaking down before our eyes, both in the individuals we know and in the culture at large. Again and again, we find ourselves hating the people we love, feeling affection for people we thought we despised, simultaneously appreciating and detesting various aspects of our lives.

Virtually none of the dichotomies we have traditionally used to signpost us through the world remain as clear-cut as we once believed them to be. To many of us, this is very much a good thing -- an opening to new possibilities, a call for new flexibilities, an opportunity to embrace life's paradoxes and ironies with new realism and understanding. Unfortunately, there are also many people, some quite powerful in the ways of the world, who are more devoted to the sanctity of their classification systems than they are to the subtleties of paradoxical possibilities that defy easy characterization. For these people, when something in their lives fails to fit gracefully into traditional dichotomies, the resulting confusion is blamed on life, or on specific non-conforming individuals, rather than on their frequently incorrect and overly rigid classification systems. Life and the people around us, these traditionalists would have us believe, should conform to categories, rather than the other way around.

Nowhere is this more true than in sexual matters. Because we treat sex so differently from the way we treat just about everything else in life, it becomes exceptionally important to be able to separate sexual times and experiences from non-sexual ones, to know exactly when sex is part of the picture and when it is not. If we treat sex in an exceptional way, we need to know when the exceptions apply. If we treat sexual energy as essentially demonic and dangerous, we need to know when we need to be on guard and when we can relax.

But the boundaries between what is sexual and what is not are not easy to draw, no matter how hard moralists and legislators try to convince us otherwise. The complexities of applying the sex/no-sex dichotomy turn positively arcane, as some of the language applied to sexual gray areas indicates. A review of a dance concert speaks of the movement of the dancers as being highly sensual. This is generally taken to be a good thing. An exhibit of artistic photography promotes itself as erotic. This is also generally taken to be a good thing. On the other hand, a film that is directly sexual is called pornographic, which is to say a bad thing. The film, as opposed to the photo exhibit or the dance concert, has presumably crossed some line from the world of non-sexual sensuality and eroticism to the world where the existence of sex can no longer be denied.

But are these three representations of sensuality, eroticism, and sexuality so clearly different from each other? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that pornographic films, dance concerts (except perhaps the most formal), and erotic photography shows all express sexual energy in some form? They are all likely, even intended, to provoke some degree of sexual response from their audiences, whether or not those in the audience are comfortable with the sexual aspect of how the work in question makes them feel.

The same is true of a great deal of art in other media as well. Sculptures by Rodin and Michelangelo come to mind immediately, as do paintings by Picasso, Degas, Rubens, or any of a dozen other masters. Yet we don't generally think or talk about this work in specifically sexual terms. We tour museums, listening to audiophones that deliver elaborate and thoughtful commentary about the works we see and what the artists are trying to express through those works. But, despite the fact that the sexual nature of being alive is one of the most common of artistic themes, rarely do these public explications speak of the sexual nature of art at all. Children might be listening, after all. And when it comes to sex, as Susie Bright has so accurately noted, we are all being treated -- and treat ourselves -- as if we are children.

No, as long as we are in the realm of fine art, sensuality is fair game, eroticism is permitted, but sex is declared to be absent. We are told that we must remain, according to the rules of the sex/no-sex dichotomy, entirely on the no-sex side of the divide. As a result, we often miss or ignore a good deal of what artists clearly intend to be part, even if not the principal part, of their work.

Sexual -- sensual -- erotic. Which is which, what's the difference between them, and how do we know when we shift from one to the other? Was that laughing remark, or sideways glance, or casual touch on the shoulder, from a co-worker a sexual gesture or not? Was that pleasant twinge I just felt a sexual feeling or not?

Maybe the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Maybe things can be a little sexual. Maybe it's not a question of dichotomous sex vs. no-sex. Maybe it's more a continuum with varying levels of sexual feeling. Maybe it's a dozen different continua about different kinds of sexual feelings, all of which may be going on, in a complicated, multisexual swirl, all day, all the time.

Maybe what we mean when we label something sensual or erotic is that it is somewhat sexual. Maybe we would do ourselves a service if we would let ourselves acknowledge the harmless, even delightful bits of low-level sexual energy and implication that crop up here and there -- fairly frequently, actually -- instead of protesting way too much that sex is something that only happens, or should only happen, between sexually designated lovers in sexually designated beds at sexually designated times.

What would be the harm in acknowledging, welcoming, and even celebrating the presence of diffuse sexual energy in the many aspects of our daily lives that we don't think of as sexual -- the parts of our lives that are primarily non-sexual, but not entirely so? Why do we require the casual aspects of daily life to be certifiably sex-free before we can feel emotionally secure, ethically proper, or morally sanctified?

I am a firm believer that low-level sexual energy, attraction, and arousal go on all the time, whether we admit it or not. I also believe that this need not be cause for grand alarm. We see people on the street every day whom we find attractive. That means we feel some degree of sexual attraction, of sexual response, to them. It doesn't mean we are about to attack or harass them, or that we walk around being repeatedly unfaithful to our spouses. We dress, walk, talk, smile, gesture, and generally act in dozens of little ways that are designed, in part, to solicit low, manageable, levels of sexual response from the people around us. It's part of what we mean by being attractive, being sociable, being liked.

We want and appreciate giving and receiving limited doses of sexual recognition and response. This in no way means we want to be sexually accosted by strangers or friends. It certainly doesn't mean we're pathologically promiscuous. It means, quite simply, that inhabiting a world that includes a variety of low-grade sexual buzzes makes life more vibrant and enjoyable. Yet, because sexual existence and intent are so suspect in this culture, because we are so beholden to the myth of discrete sexual and non-sexual worlds, we seldom acknowledge the sexual dimension of everyday life and interaction. If sex is thought to be fully on except when it's fully off, how can we admit to being anything but sexually turned off as we go through the day-to-day meanderings of our lives?

Being suspicious of sex also makes us suspicious of anything that has to do with the human body, especially the body that is unclothed. In a time of acute attention to the issue of unwanted sexual touch, we are more determined than ever to draw strict distinctions between the touch that we call sexual (touch that includes any degree of sexual feeling or intent) and the touch that we call non-sexual (touch that has no sexual aspect whatsoever). The presumption is that any degree of sexual feeling expressed through touch is problematic -- except when the sex switch has been turned to on, between lovers in the act of explicit sex.

With touch, as with art and with the nuances of daily, non-physical interaction, this immediately gets us into trouble. Inevitably, there are times when we have the same low-grade sexual feelings from touching or being touched that we have when we connect with people visually or verbally. We really do have the option of acknowledging, even appreciating, this without feeling like we are somehow aligning ourselves with sexual harassers and child molesters. We can acknowledge harmless, potentially appropriate, sexual feelings without running amok, without losing our ability to distinguish between what is friendly and what is hurtful, what does and does not take into consideration the feelings of the people around us. Indeed, it is the people who are least able to appreciate the somewhat sexual nature of their feelings and connections with other people who are the most likely to act in ways that are seriously harmful to others.

I grew up in New York City, traveling the city's subways during the daily ritual of rush hour. It is a time when people are packed together, body to body, as tightly as necessary to get everyone home in time to watch the evening news. Now, everyone who has to ride belly to belly with a dozen strangers for an hour or two a day learns how to depersonalize, and certainly desexualize, the experience. But it would be nothing short of unnatural to assert that in a subway car jammed full of two hundred compressed adults, absolutely nothing sexual is going on in anyone's mind. I would be so radical as to say that everyone who has spent significant parts of their lives in rush hour subways has had a taste of what it means to have some degree of sexual contact with a stranger. It's hardly surprising that sexual fantasies involving an unavoidable sexual connection with an attractive stranger, compliments of the New York City Transit System, is as generic to a New York upbringing as saying "waw-ter" for water, or thinking of the area west of the Hudson River as an undifferentiated wasteland. (For a elaborate film version of this mainstay, check out the "Love on the A Train" episode of "Subway Stories," with Rosie Perez and Mike McGlone.)

Physical touch, even casual, professional, familial, primarily non-sexual physical touch, often inspires some degree of sexual feeling or association, especially in a culture as touch-phobic as ours. This is true even between people at work, doctors and patients, uncles and cousins, teachers and students, parents and children. We can admit this without declaring open season for sexual harassment and child abuse. We can acknowledge low-level sexual energy and interaction and still take care not to override other people's feelings or act inappropriately, just as we do in all the other interpersonal aspects of our lives.

Acknowledging the presence of a sexual component of physical touch is not antithetical to human decency, despite the horrified warnings of the worst erotophobes. It's just a matter of copping to an uncomplicated, inherently benign, fact of life. On the other hand, if we insist on cleansing all our physical interactions of even minor doses of sexual feeling, not only do we move from reality to myth, but we also end up putting unnecessarily narrow boundaries around the very kind of nurturing physical contact that all mammals need for survival and emotional health.

Already parents everywhere are afraid of touching their children because they are afraid that they might, unconsciously, be molesting them, or because they are afraid that they might someday being accused of having molested them. (Accusations of child molestation have become a common stratagem in divorce proceedings, and not just against the fathers.) Already day-care centers, where many children spend more time than they do with their parents, operate in an antiseptic culture of near-complete physical isolation between adults and kids. Already researchers note how frequently people engage in explicit sex not so much because they really want to be sexual but because sex has become the only place where they can be touched in more than superficial ways.

Many years ago, I enrolled in a school that taught massage. It was a six-week intensive program leading to state certification as a massage practitioner, a state license to touch people for money. I did this not because I intended to set up a professional massage practice, but because I wanted to put myself in a context where it was appropriate to touch and be touched by other people in careful, thoughtful, meaningful ways.

I chose a school that was known for its sensual approach to massage -- long, slow strokes that emphasized the quality and depth of connection that is possible through touch, rather than the specifics of treating physical ailments and traumas. For six weeks I gave and received two massages a day, five days a week, in a physically beautiful environment that encouraged everyone to put as much of their being into their touch as they could. It was, without doubt, one of the more delightful six weeks of my life.

Was the massage we were doing sexual? Certainly not in the terms that are used to separate state-sanctioned massage from state-condemned prostitution. But, just as certainly, there was a great deal of intimacy and pleasure going around, especially as our little group of some twenty men and women got to know each other during the six weeks. More often than not, there was plenty of sexual feeling in the air, although we were all careful not to step across the professional line, at least not within the context of the training program itself.

Laid out naked on a massage table while my body was attentively stroked by another student, also naked -- or attending carefully to the feeling and texture of another student's skin and flesh as they passed under my oiled hands -- had plenty of sexual overtones. How could it be otherwise? But, in part because it was acceptable to acknowledge and welcome the sexual aspect of how we are all relating to each other, I felt quite content to experience my touch connections with other people entirely on the massage tables. As best I can remember, I had no inclination, beyond some momentary fantasies, to extend those sexual/sensual/erotic feelings into some more explicitly sexual arena. As far as I know, the other people in the program felt and acted as I did.

Attending this massage school was important for me because its culture of how sexual energy was experienced and defined differed so radically from the desexualizing denial of the world at large. In the context of this massage program (I have heard of others that are quite different in this regard), addressing sex in terms of some on-off dichotomy would have been totally absurd. Yes, there was real sexual energy in the room while we worked with each others' nude bodies, carefully and intimately, eight hours a day. No, the sexuality was not about to take over and destroy the integrity of the instruction program, to act itself out through explicitly sex in the middle of some touch exercise. How simple. How delightful. How adult. How sexually sane.

The program allowed me to see how vibrantly alive, how calmly reasonable, how deeply satisfying sexual/sensual/erotic energy can be, separate from times of primary sexual focus, when that energy is experienced openly, without apology, and without fear. Would that the larger world we all have to endure could be half as understanding of these possibilities.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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Santa Cruz, CA 95063
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