I was an accidental sex columnist from the ages of 19 to 24 for a now-defunct Australian website, and in consequence I have heard everything. STDs, revenge porn, polyamory difficulties, sex toy disasters, latex allergies, fetishes from the benign to the seriously taboo: I am not capable of being shocked by any aspect of anybody's sexual life. I don't care if you get off by erotic interaction with a giant block of butter. But the education it gave me extended far beyond the peculiar nooks and crannies of human sexual fantasies; it also gave me genuine understanding about relationships, trust, intimacy, shame, feminism, and many other aspects of modern life.
I was originally meant to be a dating columnist, but the questions asked of me, by editors and people who wrote in, became more and more intimate as it emerged that I was up for talking about anything. I'm not squeamish, I do my research, and I am always kind. (If you're thinking of going into the sex advice world, you need all three.) The odd part of this situation is that I was actually seriously sexually inexperienced when I took on the role; it taught me that you can find out a lot about good sexual practice, compassion, eroticism, and kink without ever needing to step into the bedroom. Self-education, y'all. (It also made me weirdly formidable once I started getting some on the regular, because I was not taking any sh*t from anybody.)
Here are the 11 biggest lessons I learned in my years on the job.
1. If There's Consent, You Should Never Judge Anybody
The variety of human sexual behavior and proclivity is vast. There is no room, in that huge landscape of desires, to tell anybody off for wanting something legal and consensual. If everybody involved is capable of consenting, and does, then it's nobody else's damn business and they can do as they like. Who the hell are we to judge the person who wants to have sex in a horse costume? What does it have to do with us?
2. Inner Lives Don't Often Match Exterior Presentations
My inbox was full of the secrets of many people, wanting help and advice and understanding, and a common theme was a sense of disconnection between their "everyday" life and their private wants. We are all complex beings with a lot going on under the surface, from fetishes to unexpressed problems to difficulties and hang-ups.
There is no way to tell a person's sexual history, desires, or needs by outer appearance. This is a lesson we still appear to have to learn over and over again, particularly when it comes to women and what they wear, but it's also true of inner life in general.
3. Sexuality Is Too Accompanied By Guilt And Shame
"I want to do XYZ; does that make me a bad person or twisted?" was one of the most common questions I had. The amount of repression and nonsense about sexuality in the world in general still gives me a headache, and I stopped writing the column three years ago. The fact that many people needed to write to an anonymous early-twenties girl about their serious sexual queries because they couldn't find anybody in their own lives to discuss these things saddened, and still saddens, me.
4. Many Sexual Problems Can Be Solved By Talking
One of the ways in which I was able to give good sexual advice despite being sexually inexperienced was a fundamental truth about human relationships: better things come if you're able to communicate.
Not having enough sex? Don't like what your partner's doing? Worried their libido's falling away? Insecure about your body? Want to try a new thing and are worried they're going to dump you? Questioning monogamy, sexuality, or any other part of your identity? The answer is always, always talk about it, and I know that's not a simple bit of advice. Developing the skills to talk about sex successfully is one of the hardest bits of adult life in general. But things get so much better if you can.
5. You're Never Too Old To Discover New Things About Yourself
The 50 Shades Of Grey phenomenon revealed this in full, blinding detail: many people don't discover aspects of their sexuality or personality until long past their supposed "prime". The parts of our lives when we look our best and are shiny and un-wrinkled are often the bits where we have no bloody idea what the hell we're doing 90 percent of the time.
People wrote to me about exploring new relationships post-divorce, trying out new fetishes in their '70s, coming out as gay or lesbians after several kids. We keep developing.
6. Senior Sex Is Real And Great
One of the most popular columns I ever wrote was about the rise of STDs in senior homes, because people assumed that after menopause there was no point in condoms. False. It seemed to shock a lot of people: despite The Golden Girls, which made it quite clear that twilight years are hardly sitting by the fire and knitting, the concept of knocking boots when you've got a hip replacement was pretty confronting to my readers. Yes, your grandparents might actually still get off. Yes, that is a good thing.
7. Many Things Are Making Women Sexually Disempowered
A huge amount of influences in our lives give women terrible ideas about sexuality, their own sexual worth, and how to have a good sexual relationship. The Madonna/Whore complex, over-sexualized video games, advertising about lingerie and make-up, cultural forces intent on making us passive rather than active, the slut-shaming that descends like a load of bricks on any sexual lady: it's a wonder we ever manage to do anything other than missionary with the lights off. It's important to appreciate how these things might be affecting your attitude to other women and to yourself.
8. There Is A Divide Between Sexual Life And Everyday Life
Women can be strident feminists, consent activists, and enjoy playing out rape fantasies in bed. There is absolutely no contradiction in this, no violation of values, nothing that should cause guilt. Sexual fantasies are not the same as everyday life; they are role-playing, consensual spaces where everybody is enjoying themselves voluntarily, and many different taboos can be explored in a healthy, natural way. You can enjoy being submissive or tied up or beaten (or beating), and be a completely whole, rounded, moral human being.
9. It Is Seriously Useful To Be Impossible To Shock
A good quality to cultivate in yourself? Not being shocked or squeamish about anything. Why? It makes you very good in a crisis or when a friend needs a hand with something intimate. You become able to help when other avenues of advice, like GPs or family members, are off-limits because of cultural taboos or privacy. I am reliably able to discuss anything, from full-on STDs to sex positions with chronic illness to pelvic pain.
It's also a good quality in general: when faced with shocking news like "I left my husband!" or "I'm moving to Arizona to join a commune!" or "I made a spectacularly bad decision and I now need to get my underpants out of Facebook HQ!", it helps to just say "Ah, OK. So what can we do?"
10. Disgusting Stuff Always Happens
People present their lives as gleaming, Instagram-ready pieces of polished performance art. It is, however, all a lie, and nobody knows that better than sex columnists, who face everything from the hygiene of anal douching to why vaginal deodorants are a con. The human body is a messy, gushing, peculiar thing and it can be very confronting, but it's extremely normal.
This is a good thing to remember; it's just a body. Don't be embarrassed about it.
11. Misinformation Is A Real, Dangerous Enemy
My real job, as I saw it, wasn't really handing out advice. It was education, which often involved fixing the bad advice given by other people: sex educators, friends, idiots in the playground, parents, religious figures. Yes, you can get pregnant standing up or in water. Yes, asexuality is a thing. No, you are not a slut if you decide to have sex on the first date. Yes, pornography can be empowering. No, lesbianism is not a lifestyle choice. Yes, you are still a virgin if your hymen breaks while doing the splits. Yes, you can do BDSM without being a deviant. No, you cannot fix an STD with yogurt and hope. And so on, and so forth, forever.
This stuff matters. Bad information about STD protection and birth control options means that women can't be in full control of their bodies. Bad information about proper sexual practice and healthy intimate relationships means that people may go through life too scared or unable to talk about what they really want and need. Bad information about consent may lead to tragedy. This is not a drill.
Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Check out our new podcast, I Want It That Way, which delves into the difficult and downright dirty parts of a relationship, and find more on our Soundcloud page.