Between the Pages: 'Good Sex: Transforming America' Looks at a New Era
Catherine Roach, Ph.D., has been teaching sexuality, gender and American cultural studies courses at the University of Alabama for the past 25 years.
Six years ago, Roach decided to create a "Sexuality and Society" lecture class so she could reach a broader audience across the university in hopes of making a greater impact on campus conversations surrounding issues of sexual health, sexual assault and sexual diversity. A few years into the course, Roach realized it could be a book project, the result of which is the recently released, "Good Sex: Transforming America Through the New Gender and Sexual Revolution," published by Indiana University Press.
Roach collected insightful comments from students who agreed to have their work quoted anonymously in the book.
"It's really just chock-full of student comments," Roach explained, adding that the book functions as a window into her classroom. "It provides a vision of the Gen Z demographic in America today. The students are at the University of Alabama, but they come from all over the country."
Roach calls the book a five-step manifesto—or "manisexto"—on sexuality: a declaration of core principles of the new gender and sexual revolution, largely driven by young adults. "Good Sex" is structured into five parts, with each explaining one of the commitments of this revolution working its way through the culture.
In this interview with Giddy, Roach delves deeper into the themes of the book.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Please briefly explain the five 'manisextos.' Why did you choose those particular topics?
Roach: The first one is positive sexuality, which is sometimes called sex positivity. It's the sense that people have the right to their sexual choices as long as these choices are consensual and uphold partners' best interests. [Within it,] sexuality is a normal, natural, healthy part of being human, instead of a sex-negative approach that would frame sexuality more in terms of taboo and shame, guilt, anxiety and fear.
The second point is about equity and inclusion. They're normalizing gender and sexual diversity; seeing gender identity and sexual identity, and taking on many forms of diversity as the norm. And linking that to intersectional justice, racial justice, disability justice and advocacy against all forms of discrimination, and seeing that as central to any strong and democratic civil society.
The third point is body positivity, referred to as body acceptance. This is a movement we see a lot more of in popular culture and social media; less shaming or bullying about not having the perfect body. Not that we live in a body-positive utopia, but there's more conversation about this, more body diversity, and more discussion about redefining narrow cultural ideals as what counts as beauty and sexiness.
The fourth point is about consent, very much linked to the #MeToo movement, which has exploded in the last decade; full consent—informed, affirmative consent—as fundamental to all sexual activity, and new scripts about masculinity and femininity. So [we're] thinking about slut shaming and double standards and rules about masculinity, problems with toxic masculinity, and the new inclusive masculinity that's feeding into issues of consent.
The last point is shared pleasure or reciprocity, seeing good sex as mutually respectful and pleasurable. I talk about concepts of closing the orgasm gap and learning about "cliteracy," literacy about the clitoris and female sexual pleasure. Porn literacy is an important part of this commitment also, so inclusive narratives about egalitarian sex and love and romance and mutuality are essential to any healthy intimate relationship.
You write that there are misunderstandings surrounding 'sex positive.' How would you define what it means to be sex positive?
The central misconception would be that there's any requirement for people to be sexually active at all or to be more sexually active. It's not that there needs to be more sexuality, but that there should be better and wider narratives about sexuality. In many ways, it feels like the culture is already very sex-saturated. That's a criticism and a complaint. You look everywhere. There's very sexualized imagery in advertising, for example. We live in this "pornofied" sex culture.
Sex positivity doesn't mean more sex. There's no imperative that you have to live some wild, hot, sexy life in order to be hip in the 21st century. It's about respect for people's sexual choices and for comprehensive sex education that underlines responsible decision-making in line with people's desires and individuality and informed consent. So not more, but better, I would say.
What are the main problems with sex ed today? And how do you think sex ed could be improved?
There tends to be quite poor-quality sex education in the United States. It's very inconsistent: good in some places but not in other places. We need comprehensive, high-quality sexuality education and relationship education. In the United Kingdom, for example, they call it "relationship and sexuality education." I think that would be so fundamental in so many ways. There's a long final section in the book about the importance of comprehensive sex ed.
Ideally, sex ed is very wide-ranging and addresses issues like affirmative consent, an embrace of gender and sexual diversity, and the importance of egalitarian gender norms. But also, things like communication skills and sex advocacy: how to say no and how to speak up for oneself; skills that are not transferable, that aren't just about intimacy and sexuality, but are also about relationship skills in general.
There's a lot of research showing the far-reaching value of such comprehensive sex ed. Sometimes it's feared that if you teach sex ed, kids are going to go wild in the streets and have sex everywhere. Decades of research show this is not the case. In fact, young people are asking for better, more comprehensive sex ed. And when they receive it, it lowers rates of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. It can have wide-ranging, positive cultural effects like reducing domestic violence, reducing violence in relationships and reducing rates of poverty.
That's part of what I aim for in the classroom, to compensate for some of the lack of sex ed in K-12 schooling that our students bring to campus.
The third manisexto is on body positivity. You write that body positivity is about holistic well-being. What do you mean by that?
Body positivity is a really important component of this new gender and sexual revolution. I'm not just talking about sexuality per se, but what it means to have a body and to feel good about the body you have. There are connections between disability justice and racial justice. White supremacy means beauty standards have tended toward white skin and Caucasian features.
There's colorism within communities of color where there's a bias toward lighter skin and more Caucasian-looking features. When you start thinking about [where] our notions of a good, beautiful and sexy body come from, there are discriminatory notions. It's linked to racism, ageism and ableism. The good body is the young body, the unwrinkled body. In that way, it becomes a very holistic understanding of what it means to be human that intersects with a lot of these other social justice forms of advocacy.
The students really respond to this element. It's very hard to grow up without feeling bad about your body in some way, without having been bullied or ashamed about your body. Your body was too big or too little or too ugly. It was not the right size, shape or color. You didn't dress your body properly. You didn't use your body to enact masculinity or femininity well enough.
There's also genital positivity. There's a lot of pressure for your genitals to look a certain way because porn is so ubiquitous. The guys, they see these guys with huge penises that are endlessly erect. They end up feeling bad about their own genitals. And girls see the constantly shaved and very trim-looking vulva, so labiaplasty surgery is on the rise to produce a more Barbie clamshell vulva. I would say all vulvas are good vulvas.
This is not something we need to encourage teenagers to feel bad about. There's a lot of shaming and anxiety around genitals.
What is your main hope for the book?
This is the first book I've done in pure trade style with lots of color, pictures, line drawings, pull quotes and sidebars. I wrote it with the goal that it would reach a wide audience. Not that I think I'm a brilliant writer; it's the ideas that matter to me.
It's a really important cultural conversation that is happening and it needs to happen more. I see a wave of sexual and gender justice slowly rolling through American society. I think this is a really important moment in American culture, and my hope for the book is that it contributes to this conversation and helps it keep moving forward.