Today marks the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the New Year and the Day of Atonement). Elul is considered a month of teshuvah, which means “repentance” or “turning.” It is a time for deep self-reflection and honesty as we ready ourselves for Yom Kippur and turn ourselves more firmly toward our values. Whatever your formal or informal practices are this month, don’t leave your sex life behind.
Let’s start by talking about sexual FOMO—“fear of missing out.” I was at dinner with a friend last week, and she expressed some major sexual FOMO; she and her spouse have never had sex with anyone else besides each other. She feels a tiny ounce of regret that maybe she was “supposed to” have “taken advantage” of her time in college by having sex with several people. Instead, she feels she has only this “boring” past and a future completely committed to just one person. Is that a problem?
Their situation reminds me of a common critique of sex positivity. Sex-positive educators and advocates (such as myself) may spend a lot of time trying to say that sexual pleasure is important, that casual sex can be great, that we should talk about sex more and more, and other messages that attempt to show support for many forms of sexual experiences and many ways to celebrate and enhance those experiences. But these messages must be understood in context; a context in which sex-positive educators are trying to respond to sex negativity in the dominant culture. We emphasize strong counter-messages in an attempt to balance the scales. But in the end, what we really need is not counter-balance but rather deep transformation of how we think and talk about sex.
Not all people want to or can experience all types of sexual pleasure. Many people don’t want to experience any sexual pleasure at all. But I don’t want this post to end up saying, “Figure out what’s right for you,” partly because I’m not an advocate of simplistic “choose your choice feminism,” but mostly because I’m trying to engage in teshuvah.
If we think about teshuvah as “turning,” we are called to an examination. We need to interrogate where our choices come from and—perhaps even more—where the FOMO comes from. All of our sexual choices, from the choice to enter a monogamous marriage, to the choice to open up a relationship, to the choice to engage in casual sex, come from a complex combination of our own desires mixed with all the sex-negative messages we’ve been internalizing since birth and all the sex-positive messages we’ve been trying to learn in addition. I can’t imagine that any of our choices were only about exactly what we “wanted” at the time. It’s hard to admit; to see that we ourselves are implicated in the systems we are working to critique, but we are.
Turning and repentance, however, are not finished when we look back on how we’ve shaped our own lives. We must also consider how we have impacted others. My own internalized sex negativity, even if it’s something I’m trying to be aware of and working to purge, might have been expressed in a way that hurt other people. My own enthusiastic sex-positive feminism, for as much effort as I put into careful communication, might have come across as pressuring other people to be sexual in a way that’s not good for them. My own joy in my monogamous relationship, even though I value and support so many other forms of sexual interaction, might have incited some bummed out FOMO in someone else. Not on purpose, and not because I think there’s any one “right” or “better” way to be a sexual person, but just because we’re all messy and insecure and complicated and implicated in some pretty unhealthy systems. If I have done any of these things to you, made you feel bad about your own sexuality, or made you feel sexual FOMO in any way, I apologize. I’m sorry. I welcome your feedback and commit myself to continued reflection and analysis of the sexual messages I send, both intentionally and unintentionally. Let Elul begin.