Last year, the blog Pervocracy posted a piece called ‘The Sexcalator’. Its writer, under the pseudonym Cliff Pervocracy, pointed out that our society’s view of sexual experiences places different sexual practices on an escalator, imagining the most ‘depraved’ and ‘shocking’ sex acts at the top of the escalator, whilst quotidian intimacies like kissing and cuddling are relegated to the bottom. He also highlighted how we assume that certain types of sex – such as sex with a stranger or kinky sex – are more extreme or daring than others. The ‘sexcalator’ can then be used to deride anyone whose sexual practices err towards the top or bottom of the escalator – those who only ever kiss, cuddle and touch are regarded as naïve, prudish or unadventurous, while those towards the top are seen as depraved, weird and sexually immoral. ‘The Sexcalator’ immediately resonated with me, because I’ve lived for a long time under the shadow of sexual fears, and it’s great to hear someone debunking those fears’ foundational assumptions.
I was 14 when I realised I probably wasn’t going to like penetrative sex. I felt no desire to have a foreign object enter my body, and I still don’t; I felt anxious at the concept of using tampons, and I still do; I was intensely squeamish about the idea of invasive contraception like the coil or the female condom, and I still am. Around the age of 16, when I had my first romantic relationship, I sensed that it was going to be a problem. It was generally assumed that once you had a boyfriend, you had sex, and a few of my friends had ‘lost their virginity’ – a phrase I hate, because it associates intact hymens with psychological and emotional immaturity. I was perfectly fine with my hymen being intact, but I wasn’t fine with people thinking I was immature as a result. It was a ridiculous situation, and I was trapped, hemmed in by the expectations of both my peers and my new boyfriend (with whom intimacy was sexcalating quickly).
I first saw a therapist when I was 17. ‘Progress’ in bed had stopped suddenly, and I could see nothing in the media telling me that perhaps that wasn’t an issue. I assumed, then, that it was an issue, and resorted to visiting a psychosexual health professional to tell me what was wrong with me. I had my first assessment, where she analysed me and told me she could offer me ‘treatment’, but I turned her down because I was underlyingly optimistic that my ‘mental illness’ (which was how I was starting to see it) would soon disappear of its own accord, in the heat of some moment that never materialised.
When two of my female friends got together, I started to properly question my assumptions about sex. They were unhappy with the phrase ‘lose your virginity’ too – what could ‘losing virginity’ mean when their bedroom was a no-penis zone? Together, we started to reconceptualise sex, nourishing ourselves with the occasional stumbled-upon online article on progressive sex-education websites and burgeoning queer publications. This set off a process of challenging my heteronormative assumptions. Yet still, I thought that whilst their analysis worked all-very-well for lesbians, it didn’t really hold for me. Would a man ever want to be with a woman that couldn’t give him sex?
Of course, the answer is that it shouldn’t be a process of ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’. Sex is not a gift, it’s a mutual experience; it’s not something we should have to concede. If we didn’t live in a world where ‘penetrative sex’ was on the most favoured step of the sexcalator, maybe heterosexual people wouldn’t see penetrative sex as a duty, an expectation and a rightful demand. Not that they all do – many people are a lot more flexible and respectful than that. However, generally, male-female penetration is still assumed to top the hierarchy of acceptable and enjoyable sex acts, and if you don’t ‘end up’ at that point in your relationship, something must have gone wrong somewhere along the way.
This is where the queer movement comes in. Most of the individuals who are empathetic towards my complaints about our sex-stratified society are from the LGBTQ community. Mainstream feminism has, in some ways, abandoned me on this one – most feminist communities talk about the ’emancipatory’ potential of sex, and celebrate enjoying sex as ‘sexually liberating’ without any thought of what that language might mean for people like me, or people who choose not to have sex – that we’re trapped, imprisoned by our sexual preferences. The Caitlin Moran brand of feminism, aside from being problematic in other ways, asks me to love my vagina and the things I can put into it as if penetration were an integral part of being a woman. I just don’t think it is, and the only place from which I’ve heard voices back me up on this, repeatedly, is the queer community.
Feminism is best on the issue of sex when it intersects with other movements, accepting all forms of consensual sexuality as viable, and accepting people’s ‘abnormal’ sexual preferences. Where feminists have had contact with the queer movement, they are often a lot more understanding. Of all the communities I’ve ever spent time in, I’ve found queer circles to be the most welcoming – both for me as a sometimes self-consciously unfeminine woman, and for me as a non-normative sexual being for whom penetrative sex is an uncomfortable, disagreeable experience.
Now that reproduction is no longer the main aim of most of our sexual encounters, why must we privilege heterosexual penetrative sex? We should knock penetrative sex off its phallic pedestal as soon as possible – and level that sexcalator while we’re at it.