If you’ve seen 500 Days of Summer , you will likely recall with some relish the scene where Summer and Tom scream, “PENIS!!!” in public. It’s hilariously inappropriate, and yet it captures precisely how liberating it can be to do something so obviously taboo.
It is these seemingly contradictory sentiments that highlight the culture of shame that still exists around sex and the language we use to discuss it.
Closer to home, most of us are familiar with the phrase “do stuff”—two words frequently used to describe intimate, sexual acts that may or may not amount to vaginal intercourse.
While ambiguous-sounding, we know exactly what someone means when they say, “We didn’t have sex but we did stuff.” Without much prompting, our imaginations take us on a steamy journey that starts at making out and ends at blowjobs, hand jobs, and naked, non-penetrative grinding.
It’s a bewildering phrase that’s been used by everyone from adolescents to working professionals. And I can’t help but wonder, how did we get here?
As it turns out, no one I ask has any clue. Just a few days ago, I stopped a friend mid-conversation when she said, “We matched on Tinder and did stuff, but that’s about it.” After some prying, she reveals that by “stuff” she meant oral sex.
“Why didn’t you just say that then?” I asked.
This pattern repeats itself among friends and acquaintances whom I prompt to elaborate on the “stuff” they did. Most of them hesitate—occasionally blushing—and fumble for the right words before reluctantly diving into specifics. It’s not shame exactly that they exhibit, but a kind of profound and unexplainable discomfort with using words referring to either genitalia or specific sexual acts.
“I just don’t really know how to talk about this stuff,” many of them concede.
Some may not see this as a big deal. But whether or not we realise it, language shapes our ability and willingness to understand things that should otherwise be a perfectly normal part of our daily lives.
Erin Chen, a sex and relationship counsellor and sexual wellness advocate, shares that there’s a more practical consequence of not being able to use the language that suits the subject.
For instance, in the unfortunate circumstances where young children are victims of sexual assault, not knowing the right words to refer to their sexual organs can sometimes impede on the speediness adults with which can help—often because the pain “down there” is sometimes referred to as stomach aches when they are unable to articulate where the actual pain is.
Even for those who are not victims of sexual assault, the reluctance to discuss anything sexual in precise terms can have consequences.
Particularly in Singapore, where sex education leaves much to be desired, many couples end up not knowing how to ask for what they want in the bedroom. And when they do end up trying to have sexual intercourse, the anxiety of not knowing what to do or what to expect can result in extremely painful experiences.
One manifestation of this is vaginismus, also known as “Locked Vagina Syndrome”.
This is seen more frequently in Asian women, Erin tells me, which is really no surprise given the culture we’ve created around sex and sexuality.
All of the above results in a whole host of problems. Men feel inadequate when they are unable to please their partners, and women feel guilty for not being able to respond in the ways they’re expected to. Basically, misery on all sides.
One of the questions Erin gets most frequently from parents is this: How exactly can I start talking to my kids about sex?
“Well, you can start by normalising it,” she says, “Use the right names that match the body part.”
When she says this, I’m reminded of a story that recently circulated on Facebook. It starts with a boy who sees two men holding hands, who then asks his parents, “Why are the two men holding hands?” In turn, they reply, “They’re in love, just like Mummy and Daddy are.” The boy says, “Oh, okay. Can I have a cookie?”
Regardless of whether this actually happened, the story illustrates the reality that as adults, we project a lot of our own insecurities towards such subjects onto those younger than us. We think that we’re able to decide what they’re “old enough” to know, but don’t realise that they’re possibly more open-minded than we are.
The fascinating thing is also that Singaporean society isn’t quite as conservative as we might think. While young adults might not be open to discussing the details of their orgasms, most have positive attitudes towards premarital sex, abortion, and LGBTQ issues.
All this hints at the fact that we need to find a new way to think about sex, to go beyond seeing it as fodder for sensational tabloid headlines or something to be embarrassed about.
Instead, we should be addressing things like the insecurities that men have about their bodies, the pressure they feel to perform like porn actors, or the fact that a woman who is open about her sexuality is not necessarily DTF.
The first step towards being upfront about all this lies in realising that sex and human sexuality are so much more than what we see in internet pornography. Sex tech, for instance, is a burgeoning industry that is helping us see that our bodies are not just vehicles of either pleasure or shame.
On one hand, there are companies like Dame Products that are re-designing conventional sex toys to be more inclusive of people who are disabled. On the other, there are companies like this app developer who are making it possible to measure your sperm count with your smartphone.
The possibilities of sex tech are endless. And while a good chunk of the industry revolves around sex robots and VR pornography, all these developments also aim to better understand the connections between sex and our bodies (nutrition, fertility, etc). In other words, it’s not all just about getting laid.
This coming weekend, SPARK Fest 2018: Asia’s First Sexual Wellness Festival, which was founded by Erin and Yoga Instructor Sinnead Ali, aims to tackle these issues.
Given the central role that sex plays in all of our lives, we’d think that we would be better prepared to discuss the issues that matter. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and we still gravitate to either sensationalist narratives or ignorant diatribes.
So the next time the topic of sex comes up in conversation, and you begin to feel that familiar uneasiness setting in, remember to take a deep breath and just scream, “PENIS.”
Want to learn how to talk to your kids about sex? Find out more about SPARK Fest 2018 here .
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