The New Sex Rules

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About every decade, it seems, Americans somehow become aware of the latest sexual Do’s and Don’t’s. They typically involve the taboos we’re supposed to observe, and the behaviors we’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to substitute for noticing what we like, communicating with our partners, and custom-designing sex so it suits us as we are—today.

My patients are continually telling me how their bodies, or fantasies, or preferences, don’t meet the sexual standards of the moment—and they’re dismayed, embarrassed, apologetic, anxious. They think they have a “dysfunction” because they don’t get aroused by stuff they think “should” arouse them. They worry they’re “kinky” or even broken because they enjoy doing stuff that’s not on Cosmopolitan’s radar of cool sex acts.

Depending on your age, during the last half-century you probably learned things like:
• Men don’t like women to be too sexually assertive
• A real woman climaxes from intercourse
• A straight man who ever fantasizes about men isn’t really straight
• Straight men never enjoy anal or nipple stimulation
• You shouldn’t tell your partner you masturbate

While some people are still stuck trying to live up to (or rather down to) these ideals, for many people they’re passé. Freed from these old instructions, they now simply follow new ones. While the new sex rules—invented and distributed by magazines, bloggers, feminist philosophers, “decency” groups, and even well-meaning psychologists—are supposed to liberate people, the problem is that they’re still rules.

Any rule that suggests there’s a right way to fantasize or enjoy sex, any rule that sets up a standard of how to display or enjoy our body—no matter what the rule says—is oppressive. Sex is one of the few arenas in life where people can create their own (consensual) reality, do what they want—and no one need get hurt, no one need to answer for themselves.

Replacing the old rules of sex, here are some of the contemporary rules of sex that my patients are trying to follow—no matter how frustrating, inconvenient, or unsexy the result:
• After sex, don’t ask a woman if she had an orgasm
• A woman should shave her pubic hair
• A woman shouldn’t shave her pubic hair
• People should have, and enjoy, oral sex
• A woman should be able to climax from oral sex
• People should make a lot of noise during sex
• Everybody should masturbate
• Everybody should look at porn
• Nobody should look at porn
• Everybody should use sex toys
• Everybody should do anal
• Birth control pills are dangerous

There’s no reason to think there was ever some mythical ancient Paradise when life involved unlimited pleasure from unlimited sex. That said, there’s no reason that society—organized religion, capitalism, mass media, anxious parents—has to pursue an agenda of social control around sexual expression. There’s certainly no reason that people have to accept and follow sexual rules that come from outside themselves.

Highway speed limits, yes. Vaccinating all our kids, yes. Sex, no. Sex is an opportunity for personal autonomy and discovery. Following any rules—regardless of content—introduces the possibility of failure, which has no place in sex at all.


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