by Malachi Grennell
In thinking about sexual freedom, the first thought that pops into my head is, “Well, freedom stands opposed to constraints. We are free when nothing bars our way to fulfillment.” But as I think about this, I’m not sure this is exactly the correct sentiment: I think freedom is an understanding of the choices available, and the ability to have informed consent in what choices (and, for some, what limitations) we put on our sexual relationships.
For example, someone that is monogamous because monogamy is the only option that was ever presented to them is not necessarily “free;” they are simply doing what they know to do, whether or not it is healthy for them. Someone who chooses to pursue monogamous relationships because they feel that that is the relationship structure that feels most authentic to who they are…that, to me, is freedom.
I don’t think that constraints are inherently bad when they are chosen with intention and understanding. Limitations can keep us safe and healthy. For example, as a non-monogamous person, my partner and I have limitations on what types of sex we have outside of our relationship:
neither of us have sex with people without barriers (condoms, dental dams, gloves, etc.) to minimize the risk of disease transmission. Am I less “free” because of it? Yes, in some respects: it impacts some of the technical aspects of sexual relationships, but I also chose and consented to this particular limitation because it keeps me (and my partner, and our sexual partners) safe, and there is a type of freedom in that safety as well.
For me, my biggest hang-up (and perhaps, largest self-imposed obstacle to sexual freedom) is my discomfort with communicating desire. I have a
difficult time asking for what I want sexually. Now, my sexual relationships are incredibly fulfilling and satisfying and I’m quite happy in them, but something I have struggled with for years is my difficulty in stating, “I want (fill in the blank).” It comes from different places: at times, it comes of a place of feeling like I don’t deserve to feel certain types of pleasure, at times it comes from fear of rejection, at times it comes from a place of being fairly satisfied with what’s currently happening (or satisfied enough not to ask for something different), at times it comes from a place of genuinely not knowing what I want.
This is a constraint on my sexual identity and relationships that I don’t like and have been actively working to overcome this for years- and have made great progress, although it’s still something that I have to be very aware of. And in this way, I feel that my own sense of sexual freedom in inhibited in a way that I don’t like- but the issue is more than just a sexual one. It’s a sense of worthiness (which directly relates back to socialization and women wanting for the sake of wanting); it relates to sexual trauma, survival mechanisms, and shame (include feeling like my desires were shameful in and of themselves); it relates to feeling uncomfortable with my body and skin and trying to incorporate desire into that discomfort.
Sexual freedom is a tricky thing because I can’t limit it to simply my sexual self. My idea of sexual freedom also includes an aspect of freedom in my body and an understanding of gender dynamics which also includes an understanding that gendered expectations are not the same across cultures, so there needs to be an element of dismantling racism and culturalism, which also means shifting our understanding of class dynamics (which also ties pretty directly into sexual freedom anyway), and the whole thing is a gigantic, circular discussion of the different ways that oppression affects our ability to be whole, authentic people.
As a person who has friends who are (or have been) sex workers- and as a person who has considered sex work at points in my own life-sexual freedom feels like the ability to make choices about our bodies- including using our bodies for income if we want (there is a fantastic quote from an Ani DiFranco song that goes “I want you to pay me for my beauty/I think it’s only right/cause I have been paying for it/all of my life”). As a member of the BDSM community, sexual freedom is about finding safe and creative ways to explore fantasies with informed and enthusiastic consent, to feel safe to discuss and try new things, to experience new sensations and do so in ways that feel good and empowering and authentic and safe. As a queer person, sexual freedom is the ability to be a sexual person without the threat of violence because of the audacity to be a sexual person. As a trans person, sexual freedom is not erasing my experiences as a sexual person- as a woman, I received a good deal of sexual harassment and some sexual assault and violence, and I still carry that with me even though I don’t identify as female. As a trans person who identifies as male but does not always “pass,” many people who don’t know me often believe that I am a man transitioning to a woman, and I receive much of the fetishization, sexualization, and objectification that transwomen experience- so although I am not a transwoman, sexual freedom is, for me, freedom from existing as a sexual object (rather than a human being).
Sexual freedom can be a lot of different things, depending on where we are coming from and through what lens we are viewing freedom. There is “freedom to” and “freedom from,” and cultivating those things takes different kind of work and different kind of energy. I am, in so many
ways, more “free” now than I was at previous points in my life- and I think that’s good. It is a sign, to me, that I am continuing to shift and change and allow myself to be transformed. Yet I am finding, as I consider and explore the idea of sexual freedom, that as I allow myself the “freedom to…” (explore aspects of BDSM, be in healthy non-monogamous relationships, tackle old trauma and demons, etc.), I find myself in the position of seeking “freedom from…” (objectification, harassment, erasure, etc.) In short: “freedom to” feels like the ability to make an informed choice or decision about ourselves as sexual people, whereas “freedom from” feels like a systematic oppression we are seeking to escape or remove. And I think both are crucial and vital: we cannot impact systematic oppression without allowing a shift in ourselves, and we cannot shift in ourselves until we have an understanding of the options available to us. We must find a way to cultivate both.
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What do you think? What is your idea of, or relationship with, sexual freedom? Please share below (or at the combined site for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.