Perspectives on sex: sexuality as play
Perspectives on sex: sexuality as play

Perspectives on sex: sexuality as play

Coming to know sex

How did you first learn about sex? Did you read about it in a book, did you talk about it with your parents or friends, did you watch a love scene in a movie or did you learn about it in school? It might be hard to pinpoint, as the ways in which we come to learn about sex are quite diverse. Our personal understandings of sex are not only influenced by what we have individually learned and experienced, but are embedded in the broader socio-cultural context in which sex has gotten meaning. Most of our book-based knowledge about sex probably stems from the medical and the biological realm, which has had quite a dominant voice in answering the question of what sex is and how we do it. In this blogpost, I discuss what the dominant perspectives on sex and sexual education have lacked and focus on one of my favorite propositions of a new understanding of sex: sexuality as play.

Sex as biological function

Sex is oftentimes perceived through the evolutionairy lens, emphasizing its naturalness and necessity for the continuation of our species. However, as sexologists Paul Abramson and Steven Pinkerton (2002:6) remark, even penile–vaginal intercourse is practiced far more often than necessary to ensure the continuation of the species’. In other words: we have far more sex than we have babies. Thus, it might be interesting to look at the functions of sex apart from how the sperm meets the egg. One of the most important aspects of conventional understandings of sex is the focus on non-heterosexual sex, as it can render lesbian, gay or queer sex as ‘useless’. The problem with employing only a biological understanding of sex is the pathologization of all non-hetero or non-functional ways of having sex. Moreover, it contributes to the idea that only penetration counts as sex. This is especially detrimental to the orgasm rate of women in heterosexual sex, as they more often come from oral sex and not from penetration. Even though the study of sex in the biological realm has offered us many understandings of how our body works, how babies are made and how we can prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s), nowadays, there is an increasing interest and wish to find answers to sexological questions in the realm of psychology, sociology and humanities. 

Even penile–vaginal intercourse is practiced far more often than necessary to ensure the continuation of the species’.

Paul Abramson & Steven Pinkerton

Sex and education

Various voices rise to stimulate more comprehensive sex education, as the focus has long been mainly on prevention of pregnancy, STD’s and unwanted intimacies. Moreover, it was focused most on heterosexual sex and the biological processes of fertilization and reproduction. This lacks queer perspectives on sex and sex-positive perspectives that emphasize the joy of sex instead of what there is to fear. A study done in New Zealand (2005) shows how young people are often not fully considered as sexual subjects when receiving sex education, not taken serious as sexual beings. As the researchers point out after investigating the opinions of young people on sex education, ‘through their comments young people are positioned more positively and legitimately as sexual subjects than they are typically constituted in programmes that emphasise reducing negative outcomes of sexual activity.’ Thus, we need more positive takes on sex and on sex education. What better perspective on sex to take than to understand sex as consensual play?

“Sexual play, driven by the quest for pleasure and the intensification of the body, probes and stretches the horizons of what people may imagine themselves as doing, liking and preferring”

Susanna Paasonen

Sexuality as play

Susanna Paasonen, a Finnish feminist scholar, wrote the article ‘Many splendored things; Sexuality, payfulness and play’ in 2017. In this article, she makes a theoretical argument to understand sex as play, going against the dominant discourse of sex as functional. Play, she explains, is not the opposite of serious or merely fun, but as experimentations with what bodies can feel and can do. ‘Playfulness here translates as a mode, a capacity and orientation of sensory openness, curiosity and zest for variation that precipitates improvisation in acts of play […] doing playful things and carrying out playful scenarios under more or less clearly defined set of rules and guidelines.’ (2005, p.537-538). Paasonen proposes to understand sex as play more generally, not only for those participating in adult role play or for child age appropriate sexual explorations, which is more often conceptualized as ‘sexual play.’ What this offers, is a more comprehensive understanding of play as dynamics central to sexuality more generally. Sex, you could say, is how adults play. “Sexual play, driven by the quest for pleasure and the intensification of the body, probes and stretches the horizons of what people may imagine themselves as doing, liking and preferring” (538, 6-8).

Sex is play, we make the rules

When we think of sex as ‘play’, we can imagine how establishing a set of more or less clearly defined rules could help understand the wishes, needs and boundaries of the playing field to make all participators comfortable. What must be noted, here, is that play is not necessarily fun. It is pleasurable, but the pleasure it creates is not always synonymous to enjoyment, happiness or positive traits. “Play can also be pleasurable when it hurts, offends, challenges us and teases us, even when we are not playing. Let’s not talk about play as fun but as pleasurable, opening us to the immense variations of pleasure in this world.” (Sicart, 2014:3). This helps us understand how sexual preferences and fantasies that have been formerly pathologized, such as BDSM, can become just another way of playing. Of course, only when consented by all parties. The purpose of sex, here, becomes the activity itself, not another greater goal such as making babies.

‘When we think of sex as ‘play’, we can imagine how establishing a set of more or less clearly defined rules could help understand the wishes, needs and boundaries of the playing field to make all participators comfortable.’

Not everyone plays nice, and not everyone plays at all

We must note, in line with Paasonen, how the situation could occur that rules are broken. This can have a positive effect, in which you experience something new that you never knew you enjoyed before. However, it can also be a negative experience in which you feel hurt, unheard and violated. Even though the sex was consentual, boundaries of set rules can unfortunately still be crossed. “Like human actions in general, it can be asymmetrical, risky, hurtful, violent and damaging in its reverberations and the pleasures it offers” (Sicart, 2014:2; Stenros, 2015:75-76). As Paasonen stresses: not everyone plays nice, and not everyone plays at all. This perspective does not offer a ‘solution’ to these problems, but can help understand what is going on in play that goes well and play that goes wrong. Want to read more? Check the whole article which we referred to below. Don’t be shy to us if you do not have access to Google Scholar, for instance.

What can we learn from understanding sex as play?

Can you already see how play is part of your sexual life? Or was this perspective completely new to you? For some, understanding sexuality as play opens up a whole new set of possibilities to explore. For others, this perspective might be a bit too theoretical and a far-from-your-bed-show 😉 Which we can both fully understand. Please let us know in the comments what you think of this (new) understanding and whether or not you have learned something today. Check the tips below to explore more on this topic!

References

Abramson PR and Pinkerton SD (2002) With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality (revised edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Allen, L. (2005). ‘Say everything’: Exploring young people’s suggestions for improving sexuality education. Sex Education, 5(4), 389-404.

Many splendored things: Sexuality, playfulness and play

Sicart M (2014) Play Matters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stenros J (2015) Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach. Tampere, Finland: Tampere University Press.

Paasonen, S. (2018). Many splendored things: Thinking sex and play. MIT Press.


Tips on this topic

The Netflix Series Sex, Love and Goop makes way for couples to explore their sexuality in a whole new way. Sexuality as play is one of the perspectives that they take on and embrace. Not only very entertaining, but beautiful, vulnerable and very educational.

Cheex is a very inclusive, queer-friendly erotic platform. It is designed to sexually empower and inspire you with access to erotic films, audio stories, and education for everyone. Note: this is a paid platform.

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