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“Sexual” Does Not Necessarily Mean “Boisterous”

Despite What You’ve Heard, “Sexual” Does Not Necessarily Mean “Boisterous”

For years I have joked that, upon moving here in 2013, I almost immediately became a huge disappointment to the city of Portland, OR. When I first arrived in Portland I was excited about the sex positive culture. The events, the classes, the general open-mindedness (seriously, in my last city telling dates that I wrote about sex resulted, not infrequently, in responses like “So, what does that mean? You’re like a huge slut?”) and at first people seemed just as excited about me, the new sex writer in town. Then we hit an impasse.

It’s not really anyone’s fault — well, it’s kind of society’s fault in general but we’ll get there in a minute. I am, and always have been, a quiet person prone to spending lots of time alone, not enjoying super-loud places or people, and being incredibly sensitive to the comfort of those around me (for better or worse). For a long time, I actually believed these qualities precluded me from being part of what I will now refer to as “sex world”, the place where I got to be a sexual being. It certainly felt like it did in Portland where people expected “sex positive” people to go to play parties, which I don’t (I don’t even like restaurants that want me to share my table with other people so, you know…), to be overtly sexual at all times, which I’m generally not (sex is a loaded topic for a lot of people and I don’t like assuming that everyone around me is comfortable hearing about my sex life), and — the one I have the least patience for — to make everything into a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge tee hee hee” sex joke (yes, my latte has foam on it… I guess foam kind of looks like ejaculate but, seriously?) In a lot of ways Portland reinforced my ideas about what being a sexual person meant (loud and proud, emphasis on the “loud” and performing sexuality at all times) and made me more certain that it didn’t mean me.

This was by no means the first time I encountered this feeling. You see, in my younger days the people I knew who proclaimed themselves “very sexual” people were also, well, fairly loud and almost completely without boundaries; likely to be the center of attention at any given moment. Infusing any and all conversations with innuendo and double entendres aplenty. I was not like that. At all. I found these people intimidating, but before I knew what I know now about personality types, introversion, sensitivity, etc., I assumed how they were “right” and how I was “wrong”. They got to be part of “sex world” because, clearly they were so sexual (just look at how loudly, overtly sexual they were being!), and I did not. Consequently, for years I assumed that I just wasn’t sexual and that people who were “sexual” were governed by a whole different set of rules. I suspect I’m not the only person to feel this way. Over the years I’ve had countless readers, class attendees, and even friends and family say things to me like:

“Oh, I’m not all that sexual, I feel like that stuff is private”

“I could never get up in front of people and make a big deal about sex. I guess I’m just boring”

“I’m just not a sexual person, I think I’m just too shy”

I can’t speak for the people others encounter in their day to day lives but I know that even the media propagates the “sexual = boisterous” idea. I’m guessing you are probably familiar with the “wacky sexual girl” trope that movies LOVE to use but just in case, allow me to explain: the “wacky sexual girl” is usually introduced via a scene in which she walks through a room that contains at least one uptight male character, changing her clothes in front of him, blithely unaware of how uncomfortable he is. This scene is designed to let us know in advance that this woman’s unbridled sexuality will, over the next 90 minutes turn the uptight man’s world upside down. She will be wacky and boisterous and exactly what he needs to get him out of his shell and, lest we ever forget, SO SEXUAL. She laughs in the face of boundaries and everyone ends up better off for it.

The people I knew who fell in line with this trope often wore it like a badge of honor as well as a license to behave in any way they wanted at all times. You see, they couldn’t be expected to conform to society’s ideas of when clothes should be worn, why it’s generally frowned upon to take up all of the space at a party with your impromptu striptease, or why being overtly sexual towards someone you know is in a monogamous relationship is a bad idea. They couldn’t help it because, they were SO SEXUAL. To be clear, my quibble here is not with sexuality, it’s with the, oddly ubiquitous, idea that being sexual comes with a certain personality type, volume level, and frankly, disregard for the comfort of others and if you don’t meet those criteria you must not be into sex.

So, what of these boisterous people? Are they wrong? No, no they aren’t. They are just being who they are… for the most part. I do believe that there is an inherent flaw in our society that rewards the loudest among us and can make those boisterous people think they are the ones who are doing things right or even that they are the only ones who feel the way they do, propagating the notion that “sexual” = “loud about being sexual”. Some folks are just louder and some folks genuinely enjoy public sexual/sensual expression but it seems that some folks feel the pressure to be performative and oblige (regardless of their own preferences). Those folks may be getting tripped up by society’s flaws just like a lot of us are.

Where does all of this that leave someone like me? A typically quiet person who spends a lot of time (perhaps too much time but that’s another story for another day) concerned about the comfort of others? I couldn’t be the “wacky sexual girl” and frankly, apart from some points in life when I thought I had to do that to be part of “sex world”, I haven’t wanted to.

Well, the good news is, sexuality is universal and it’s not something you have to hit a certain milestone to be a part of. Sure some folks are more into sex than others (and that’s fine, everyone gets to be where they are) and some folks are even asexual but you don’t lose your right to life as a sexual being because you are also a wallflower; because you didn’t talk about it loud enough. It’s not a legitimate course of action to dismiss people for not taking up as much space as possible. So many of us have been hit with the “I am quieter so I am less” stick (have you ever had someone, in the midst of a gathering bellow “WHAT?!! Why are you being so quiet?! AREN’T YOU HAVING FUN?!?!”, yeah, me too) and it’s not only not fun but it’s actuality a bit dehumanizing. There’s not a right way to be a person.

As for being a “sexual” person with admission to “sex world”, over my years as a sex writer (and resident of my city) I found that quiet sex folks exist, it just takes us a bit longer to find each other (because, quiet). I’ve also found that those boisterous folks can be quite warm, welcoming, and understanding of my need to not dance on banquettes. In fact some of my most in-your-face sexual friends are the same ones who now ask me questions like “are you coming out tonight or do you need to ‘introvert’?”. Finally, I’ve found that folks who want to play gatekeeper of “sex world”, demanding that others perform their sexuality for admission as well as people who insist “real” sexuality comes with no boundaries don’t have a very long shelf life. It turns out even the more boisterous folks aren’t into that behavior.

At the end of the day, it comes down to being who you are, as quiet or loud as suits you, whether you dance on bar tables or cuddle on the couch with your dog AND enjoy your sexuality. You see being “sexual” is not a costume (or bullhorn) that you put on or take off; it’s an inherent part of who you are. Your sexuality is not more valid because more people can see it; it’s always there. Finally, sexuality doesn’t look a certain way (no matter what or brains or media tropes tell us). You can be as sexual in sweatpants watching Netflix as you can in pasties on a stage. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.  

JoEllen Notte is a writer, speaker, researcher and mental health advocate whose work explores the impact of depression on sex and relationships. Since 2012 she has written about sex, mental health, and how none of us are broken on her award-winning site The Redhead Bedhead as well as for Glamour, The BBC, Bitch, PsychCentral, and more. JoEllen has toured sex shops, spoken at length on dildos, and even started a sex school but she is happiest and most effective when writing and speaking on behalf of quiet people who have sex. Check out her video series on attending conferences as an introvert and her extensive writing on sex and depression. JoEllen has spoken at Clark College, University of Chicago, University of Tennessee, Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, Guelph Sexuality Conference, and the Playground Conference. You can read her blog at redheadbedhead.com, follow her on Twitter at @JoEllen Notte, and support her work at patreon.com/JoEllenNotte.

 

JoEllen’s book The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression & The Conversation We Aren’t Having will be published in 2020. Sign up now to be informed when it is available.

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