I recently was asked some questions about Pleasure Pie and the Sex Letters Project. Here are my answers! - Nicole
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
A: I've always made zines. As a kid I would make DIY magazines where I interviewed our family pets and gave updates on household happenings. Then when I was in college I started to become fascinated by sex-positivity. I had had some bad experiences with sex, and I was really under-informed about sexuality. So, in an attempt to get over my anxieties and embarrassment about sex, and to learn more about it, I started reading about it online — a lot. I read about sex-positivity, sex education, and gender equality, and took some college classes on human sexuality and LGBT topics.
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I recently had sex with a new person, and it was really physically painful. I tried to pretend that it didn’t hurt that much, and we kept having sex until I couldn’t stand it anymore.
After it was over, I felt depressed. I realized that I have all of this emotional baggage around sex that was coming to the surface.
I didn’t want to talk about my emotional reaction with the guy I just had sex with, because we were hanging out to have a friendly, sexy time, not to share our deepest feelings and insecurities.
I want sexual freedom. I want to be sexual with whoever I choose (consensually, of course), regardless of whether we have a deep emotional connection.
But it’s awkward to stop sex in the middle of sex and not explain why. And if I explain why, I am likely to start crying. And I don’t always want to go there!
So I decided to write all the difficult feelings down so I can do my best to work through them.
Here is what my sexual baggage consists of right now:
• It’s often hard to experience physical sexual pleasure.
I try to relax and not overthink it, which works sometimes. I’ve been trying to “relax and not overthink it” for years now though, and it has not been a quick-fix type of solution. I have made progress over time though. Addressing the rest of my baggage also helps.
• I’m afraid of focusing on my pleasure during sex.
I’m afraid of indulging in my pleasure. I’m afraid of asking for things that might increase my pleasure. Plus, I don’t always know what those things are, and asking might make me more nervous, which makes it harder for me to experience sexual pleasure. I know it’s not true, but I feel like it is more appropriate and desirable and attractive for me to cater solely to my partner’s pleasure, rather than paying attention to my own pleasure. It makes me feel aggressive and unfeminine and needy to bring up my own pleasure.
• I’m worried that if I ask for things that would feel good for me, my sex partner will expect that I should orgasm.
And I’m worried that if it starts feeling really good for me, I will start wanting to orgasm, and if an orgasm doesn’t happen (which is likely for me) it could be frustrating.
• I am not worried about my body. It is hot! :)
• I’m worried that I won’t be “good” at sex.
I’m worried that I won’t please my partner, or that I’ll ruin the mood. I’m worried that I’ll be laughably awkward/uncoordinated, or that I won’t move enough/be engaged/engaging enough. On the flip side of that, I’m worried that I will take charge too much.
[This article is the antidote for this insecurity.]
• I’m worried that I don’t even know what sex is supposed to look like! I’m worried that I’m doing it wrong. I haven’t seen much video porn, and what I’ve seen hasn’t really spoken to me. I’m worried that my partner will have expectations of what sex is supposed to be/look like that come from watching porn, and that I won’t live up to them.
I wish sex felt more creative. Like it would be okay to color outside the lines – to re-envision what sex looks like/consists of, and to choose what the tone will be!
Like it could be,
and like we desperately need to touch each other
and like we’re 100% turned on all of the time
I worry that it could totally kill the mood/ruin everything/crush their self-esteem if I am honest about the fact that how turned on/into it I am can fluctuate (and that might not mean I want to stop).
• I’m afraid to say when sex hurts because it could kill the mood/the sexiness of it. And sometimes it hurts a lot. And it makes me feel freaked out and devalued to have someone continue forward with sex that is hurting me and pleasuring them. But they might not know it’s hurting me, or how much it’s hurting me, because I don’t tell them in a straightforward way; I just make gasping sounds that could potentially be interpreted as pleasure, and say things like, “Sorry, your penis is really big.” I think it’s really likely that someone would not realize how painful it is for me, even if they can tell that I’m experiencing some pain, they might assume that I am experiencing at least as much pleasure as pain.
My plan for this article is to match each insecurity with an antidote article that explains a more sex-positive way to think about it. If you know of any articles, stories, illustrations, quotes, etc. that would work for any of the insecurities above, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
“Condoms will break, but I can assure you that vows of abstinence will break more easily than condoms.”
I made this plate for an event that a local nonprofit called The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health had this month to celebrate their fifth birthday. They had an art exhibit called A Place at the Table to honor the history of sex educators who helped move our culture in the direction of sexual acceptance. The installation was inspired by feminist artist Judy Chicago’s exhibit, The Dinner Party.
Chicago pioneered the Feminist Art Movement in the 70’s, and she created The Dinner Party to pay tribute to influential women throughout history. The Dinner Party was originally banned as pornographic and Chicago had to fight to exhibit her work. Through emulating Chicago’s concept, A Place at the Table intends to acknowledge the historical relevance of her contribution to eliminating sexual shame.
On Abstinence Vows
By Nicole Mazzeo
“Condoms will break, but I can assure you that vows of abstinence will break more easily than condoms.” -Joycelyn Elders
As a teenager, I believed that strict abstinence was my ownly acceptable option. This led me to internalize a lot of shame around the fact that I sometimes masturbated, was turned on by taboo things, and had sexual feelings at all. When I finally gave myself permission to experiment sexually, anytime I tried to engage sexually with a partner my mind would flood with anxious thoughts about whether I was doing it “right”, deadlines I had missed, etc. – anything and everything I could possibly be anxious about came to mind when I tried to be sexual. I usually couldn’t relax enough (physically or emotionally) to feel much sexual pleasure, and orgasms were often unattainable.
For the past six years, I’ve been on a journey of reclaiming my sexuality and my right to pleasure.
My experience of sexual repression has led me to care deeply about encouraging young people to make their own choices about sex. People of all ages deserve to have power over their own bodies and their own sexual expression. Educators and caregivers have the responsibility to support young people in their efforts to find healthy, fulfilling ways of relating to the sexual aspects of who they are (unless they find that sexuality is not a part of their experience – then they deserve support in embracing their non-sexual identity). Rather than pressuring young people to make vows of abstinence, let’s give them all their options, and all the information they need to make responsible decisions about sexual expression.
Jocelyn Elders is the former US Surgeon General who was fired by President Clinton in 1994 for her controversial remarks about contraception, masturbation, and abortion, among other things. She is currently a professor in Arkansas.
This piece was made by gluing magazine clippings to a ceramic plate. The text was written with a typewriter, glued to repurposed cardboard, and then glued to the plate.
Photos from A Place at the Table
Is sex dirty? Is enjoying sex a bad thing? Is it only okay if you always do it with the same person? Or if you’ve made a forever commitment with them?
Why do we have so many restrictions on our sexual enjoyment? What are we afraid might happen if we embrace sexual pleasure?
I got really into religion when I was thirteen. At that time I also happened to be going through puberty and becoming very interested in the possibility of interacting sexually with another person. But my religious role models were sending me some firm messages about the need to control one’s sexuality in order to live a moral life. And I took all the values they taught me very seriously.
So I tried not to masturbate. That usually worked until just before my period each month when my hormones would go wild. But I didn’t know anything about hormones, so every time I masturbated and then got my period the next day, I thought god was punishing me for what I had done.
I determined that I needed to stop giving into my sexual (and sinful) urges. I thought that if I could make myself feel ashamed enough, this tower of shame would serve as a self control replacement when self control didn’t cut it. When this method didn’t work, I just kept adding shame to the top of the shame tower every time I slipped up.
Luckily for my young faith, I was never intimate with a person (other than myself) who knew how to make my genitals feel good (what, was I going to tell them what felt good? Ha!). So for that and other reasons (i.e. I was uncool) my sexual interactions with other people were rare.
But that stretch of clueless boyfriends/no boyfriends ended when I was 17. By this time, I was adamantly against the idea of experiencing any kind of sexual pleasure until I was married. But this one guy pressured me endlessly and eventually I gave in.
In my attempts to switch from demonizing sex to having a satisfying sex life, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t orgasm when I was with another person. During sexy times, I found myself having terrible anxiety. I worried about all sorts of things: whether or not I was pleasing my partner, the smell of my genitals, my heaps of overdue homework assignments, etc. And I wasn’t thinking at all about what I wanted or how I could enjoy what we were doing.
I was also afraid to seem like I was enjoying it, even when I kind of was. I know now that whoever I’m hooking up with wants me to enjoy the things we’re doing together, and would probably even be turned off if they thought I wasn’t. But at the time it didn’t even occur to me that part of the point was for me to enjoy it. I thought I would seem gross and porn-y if I expressed that I had any sort of sexual inclinations. I was beyond terrified of putting my true sexual feelings out there for others to see.
My boyfriend would ask me for a lap dance and I would freeze. I had taught myself to hide any trace of my sexuality from my self expression (and I was especially intentional about hiding it from my dancing, since I always heard people lamenting the hyper-sexualized music videos of the world today). Now I was supposed to just switch that off? I imagine this is how many couples who wait until they’re married to have sex feel once they try to embrace sex in the context of their marriage.
So I began a journey of reclaiming my sexuality. I read articles upon articles about sex positivity. I came out as queer*. I visited sex shops and bought a vibrator. I sampled many kinds of erotic media. The list goes on.
Now, eight years later, I’m still unlearning my internalized shame. And I’m up against a culture that has taught me that women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy sex. But I’ve finally learned to ask myself: What do I want? What would feel good or be fun for me?
I indulge in cozy blankets with an erotic story (tailed to my interests!) and have great sexy time with myself. I communicate my desires and sexual fantasies to my partner and – get this – we try them out! I give myself room to experiment with things that I don’t know whether or not I’ll like.
These simple practices are what embracing pleasure looks like for me. It’s appreciating the sexual aspect of who I am. It’s unapologetically saying that I’m horny**. It’s believing that my experience of pleasure is a good thing – something to be celebrated, not something to repent or hate myself for, not something to see as less important than my partner’s pleasure.
I like sexual pleasure. And that’s okay.
*Well, I still haven’t come out to everyone.
**It took me years to be able to use that word without just dying on the spot.
As a teenager, I was really confused about the concept of a “tease.” I heard some of my male peers say, more or less, that teases were the worst and they hated them. I weeded out from their comments that the basic definition of a tease was a girl who fooled around with a guy, but didn’t have sex with him. Wait, did that mean I was a tease?
I would often have long, steamy make out sessions with whichever lucky guy was my boyfriend at any given moment (wink), and these make out sessions would never turn into sex. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t want to have sex with these guys, it was that they never initiated sex (and at the time I felt that, as a female, it wasn’t my place to initiate it). When I heard my guy friends lamenting the existence of “teases,” I started to worry that all this making out with no sex might make guys hate me (my worst nightmare as a boy-crazy teenage girl*).
To add to my confusion, the things I heard about sex weren’t lining up with what was happening in my own sexual experiences.
Here’s a brief sampling of the messages about sex I received from the media, adults, and peers (with commentary):
If guys only care about sex, and don’t value relationships or foreplay, why weren’t my boyfriends trying to have sex with me**? They all seemed to be in less of a rush to get to sex than I was, and I was (according to what I had noticed people expected of me as a female) the one who was supposed to be in charge of withholding sex until an appropriate time.
But wait, doesn’t withholding sex make me a tease? And doesn’t having sex as soon as a guy wants to make me a slut? So many conflicting messages!
Let me set some things straight.
Guys care about more than just sex.
To my surprise, the guys I dated appeared to have feelings about sex other than Must Have Sex ASAP — feelings that probably included wanting to feel ready, caring about not making me uncomfortable, wanting to live up to their religious beliefs and family’s standards (which sometimes told them to wait until marriage), being nervous about how to initiate sex, how to know what I wanted, and how to have good sex, and even (get this!) enjoying our lengthy make out sessions. And those were just their feelings about sex. They also had all sorts of other feelings about all sorts of other things, unrelated to sex. They were at times sentimental, shy, creative, caring, romantic, anxious, etc. They wrote songs, loved their pets, tried to help me through my issues, cared about school, cared about our relationship — all the cares and concerns any multifaceted person might have.
These guys, while their brains might have been flooded with hormones and they might have been thinking about sex much of the time, also had real thoughts, feelings, and priorities other than “Must deflower girlfriend NOW.”
Guys don’t always want sex.
I know what you’re thinking: “But every sitcom I’ve ever watched has told me otherwise!” These sitcoms are exaggerating. While many men want to have sex frequently, many others prefer occasional sex or no sex at all. Even the men who crave sex frequently have plenty of moments when they’re, say, stressed about work, on the phone with their mom, or really into a good movie. I’ve tried to initiate sex in these moments. It was through being rejected that I learned that these moments of preferring not to have sex exist.
Girls and women sometimes do want sex.
Why else would lesbians have sex?
This also applies to straight and bi+ girls and women, many of whom want to have sex more often than their male partners do. It is perfectly okay for a person of any gender to want to have sex very frequently, or never at all.
Which brings me to my next point…
Not wanting to have sex is always okay.
While our culture teaches that sex is dirty and secret, it is also widely believed that a lack of desire for sex (especially in the context of a committed relationship) means that something’s wrong, either with the individual or with the relationship. This is often not the case! Many people’s sex drives naturally fluctuate. Many others prefer never to have sex. This doesn’t mean that they don’t experience love, intimacy, joy, satisfaction, relaxation, or any other emotion.
Gender roles and rape culture
Our culture teaches guys that they’re supposed to keep pushing to get as far as they can in any sexual encounter. We also teach girls and women that they’re supposed to say no a certain number of times before “giving in” to sex, because being hesitant makes you less “slutty.” Because of these teachings, when a girl/woman says no to sex with a guy:
And what happens when a guy is sexually assaulted? People’s responses tend to line up with the dominant cultural teachings about guys and sex:
What about when a woman is sexually assaulted by another woman? Again, cultural understandings of gender tend to add to this problem. Many people don’t take it as seriously as sexual assault perpetrated by a male because we’ve been taught that women don’t have the same capacity for violence and aggression as men do. This leads to many survivors not getting the support they need to address the emotional effects of the assault.
As a culture, our dominant messages about sex should include that:
The psychological effects of gender roles
The simplistic and often unrealistic messages our society teaches about what to expect from girls/women and guys/men have clearly caused me a lot of unnecessary confusion, but the negative effects of this misinformation don’t end there. For instance, a rigid view of gender roles tends to go along with lower self esteem and prevents people from expressing themselves fully. Many people feel stuck expressing their gender in a way that fits with their gender role in order to gain approval from a partner, or from society in gen(d)eral. This leads to less sexual satisfaction in relationships and more sexual repression.
Transgender people and gender roles
While rejecting gender roles can be hard for anyone, it may be especially difficult for many transgender people who, already marginalized for their gender identity, are more likely to face harsh discrimination and even violence for challenging cultural norms. Though many trans people adhere to gender roles in their relationships, buying into the idea of gender roles tends to go along with higher levels of internalized transphobia. It isn’t uncommon for a trans person to feel afraid of talking with their partner about their trans identity, or to prefer sex in the dark so their bodies are less visible to their partners. If we, as a society, had a more fluid understanding of gender, less common gender expressions wouldn’t be seen as such a problem.
I wasn’t a “tease” for having dozens of make out sessions that didn’t end in sex. Why?
The whole concept of a tease is unhelpful and often inaccurate. It’s tied to the male pushing, female withholding model of sexual progression, which can be harmful in heterosexual encounters and fails to acknowledge same sex encounters. The idea of a tease wouldn’t be so prevalent in a world where sexual activity is thought of as something people engage in and move forward with together for their mutual enjoyment.
*Not all teenage girls are boy-crazy, but I was.
**Shout out to all my teenage boyfriends, now in your mid 20s: Thanks for not getting me pregnant, xoxo.
This article was written by Nicole Mazzeo for Fabulously Feminist Magazine.