Lifting the veil on the “v-word” – and not the one you think

Books and magazines raised me, or they had a considerable part in my upbringing, at least. For many years, my father had a subscription to Maclean’s, and he tried to read each issue in its entirety before moving on to the next. Copies of the general news magazine could be found throughout our house, and boxes of old National Geographic lined the furnace room. My siblings and I added our own: Sports Illustrated and YM, along with various music magazines purchased at bookstores.

I still scan headlines while checking out groceries and spend most of my time in the Books and Magazines sections of Wal-Mart and Shoppers Drug Mart. Magazines are my impulse item.

This amazes me because, increasingly, I realize this medium I love does not represent me.
Women’s magazines are ubiquitous – predictable but everywhere and, in some respects, appealing. I know about airbrushing, I know about PhotoShop. I know that although I could fit into most of the outfits the women who smile and sulk at me wear; their apparel does not fit into my budget. I recognize this as I flip through the pages and tell my friends about the articles.

It’s a vicious cycle, because I am not one of the women in their target audience.

I have no need to read many of the articles advertised on the covers, with advice about positions and pleasure and… other items that start with “p.” At the risk of being labeled another “p” word, I here confess that I, a fifth-year female university student, have never had sex – a choice I made for myself.

And while attending a school largely populated by females may not have made keeping my virgin status throughout university particularly hard – I have yet to even have that first date, let alone a relationship – I’m happy about my decision.

But I become irritated when various – and seemingly every? – media outlet I encounter acts like I don’t exist when reporting on sex and sexuality.

The truth is, despite never having experienced it I think sex is a good thing. Hey, I wouldn’t be here writing this – and you wouldn’t be reading it – if not for the human reproductive systems. This reproductive system involves more of me than just my body. It includes my brain.

Sexual stimuli cause the brain to release hormones – dopamine and oxytocin (vasopressin, in men), which create bonds and attachments between individuals. People form attachments to what arouses them sexually. It follows, then, that these biochemical reactions can help sustain relationships.

But these hormones aren’t always released in a relational context. And by this, I’m not just talking about one-night stands or vacation flings. I also include images that encourage sexual arousal: porn or even advertisements. As Miriam Grossman points out in her book-length review of American sex education, You’re Teaching My Child What? oxytocin increases attachment and social interaction, while decreasing the ability for critical assessment. It promotes trust – which is great, as long as the object of your desire is trustworthy.

And as I’ve learned while surveying the material designed to teach me about sex, these images can’t always be trusted.

“There is no acting because none of the women are permitted to having what amounts to a personality,” writes Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner. But Hedges is not describing yet another mainstream romantic comedy; he’s describing porn.

“Sex is reduced to a narrow spectrum of sterilized dimensions. It does not include the dank smell of human bodies, the thump of a pulse, taste, breath – or tenderness. Those in the films are puppets, packaged female commodities,” he continues in his 2009 book Empire of Illusion.

Hedges also describes the physical pain those in these films endure and the connections between pornography and cruelty towards women, at times comparing it to war and torture.
Here’s what many articles about sex miss: that it is a beautifully complex with the ability to bind individuals together and seriously damage them when used incorrectly.

I haven’t changed much since I was a child; media still heavily influences me. Television and movies have provided me with most of my sex education where, again, characters like myself are often absent or annoying.

I’ve analyzed sex scenes for my English papers, but my critical thinking skills are dulled when Neil Patrick Harris delivers Barney Stinson’s pick-up lines. Removed from real relationships and real life, sex can become inserted into unrealistic dramas (or, as Hedges notes, in the case of most porn, no plots are required) filled with unrealistic people doing unrealistic things. And these can lead to unrealistic expectations, and unnecessary anxiety.

In 1996, an individual called Disappointed wrote into Columbia University’s “Go Ask Alice!” advice column. The writer had just had sex for the first time, and while their girlfriend enjoyed it, the author did not. The experience had not been painful, but had not been as pleasurable as expected.

Reading this letter fifteen years later, I wonder how many similar questions are asked, how many relationships struggle because of unfulfilled sexual desires – perhaps because those involved desire unattainable things.

But again, you may not read this anywhere else. So while colouring in rainbows of sexual expression, I would appreciate it if you saved a place for us who are choosing to abstain.

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