Earlier this week I came across an article entitled “How Millennials Are Changing the Sexual Landscape”, focusing on the supposed sexual permissiveness of the current generation and how that is changing cultural trends around gender and sexuality.
Here’s the six ways in which millennials are supposedly creating a sexual revolution:
1. Porn and masturbation are now things that “normal” people do
2. Millennials are more likely to experiment with the same gender – and overwhelmingly support gay marriage
3. Sex is no longer necessarily between two people, and love doesn’t need to be either
4. Kink is the new mainstream – and it’s leading to intelligent discussions about consent.
5. The stigmas around sex work are lessening as attitudes about sex become more relaxed.
Looking at this list, I have to say that I don’t think that any of these are actually new facets of human sexuality—after all, every generation thinks that it invented sex. But what’s changing is the cultural conversation around sexuality, and how far more people are claiming their desires, whatever they may be and however “against the grain” they might have been in yesteryear.
For instance, it wasn’t long ago that commonly held beliefs about masturbation included misinformation like: it makes you go blind, causes acne, makes hair grow on your hands and could even shorten your lifespan. And while many people still experience shame around masturbation and porn (especially early in life), we have to thank activists like Betty Dodson for challenging the sex-negative culture and insisting that masturbation is actually the foundation of all sexual activity—because it involves your most important sex partner: yourself.
Regarding porn, I do think it is important to assess the often-misleading standards that porn can set, to consider the ways it has evolved through technology, and to look critically at the impact it can have. But porn has always existed in some form or another – see the wall drawings from ancient Pompeii brothels for evidence (see image below). Watching porn and masturbating have always been things that “normal” people do. It’s just that now we are starting to lift the veil of shame that has surrounded them, and to acknowledge that they are aspects of healthy sexuality… which can only be a good thing. If you have doubts about whether or not your porn consumption is “normal”, check out the insights that Pornhub.com posts.. They’re fascinating!
Similarly, same-sex desire and experimentation have always existed. It’s just the level of public recognition and acceptance of it that has varied widely. Kinsey himself theorized that very few people are an “absolute zero” (completely heterosexual) on his scale. Polyamory and consensual non-monogamy have garnered more attention and acceptance, in part through cultural exposure from shows like “Polyamory: Married and Dating” and books like “The Ethical Slut.” (I myself came out as poly last year, and have appreciated the dialogue it’s opened in my readers.) When you consider how long it was socially acceptable (or at least tolerable) in the West for married men to have mistresses, and to seek sexual fulfillment outside the social contract of marriage, the ideal of that historical “pure” marriage becomes a little more unclear.
The “slippery slope” argument around sexuality argues that the more permissive society becomes around sex and relationships, the more depraved and boundary-less we will become. This is the mentality that drives people to oppose same-sex rights because “if a woman can marry another woman, or a man can marry another man, what’s to stop one person from marrying a group or people or trying to have sex with animals or children?” Of course, comparing polyamory to bestiality or pedophilia is totally preposterous. And yet I think this argument reveals the fear that some people have: that it’s only our (very strict) rules about sexuality that keep us safe. And if we start to question or remove those rules, we open ourselves up to danger.
So in the spirit of changing the sexual landscape, I want to suggest: instead of asking “what can go wrong here”, why not ask “how can this go right”? Instead of relying on other people’s standards to keep you safe, how can you develop the tools to make your own sexual decisions and use your own judgment? What ways have you believed—consciously or not—that you were not sexually “normal”, and what difference would it make for you to let that belief go?
Once you stop playing by the rules of “what you should do,” you get into the territory of what you actually want. Taking on this work personally and claiming your own sexual power can lead to some of the biggest transformations in your life. And that’s something every generation needs.