Is seeking wellbeing selfish and individualistic? Does it imply placing one’s own interests above those of others? In the context of sexuality, does it mean prioritising one’s pursuit and attainment of pleasure above all else? Or is it that wellbeing is a state that cannot be experienced in a cocoon of self-centredness?
What is wellbeing after all? It is a subjective state that includes feeling happy, comfortable in oneself, productive, connected, and ‘in the flow’, as it were. Wellbeing is not predicated solely on physical health or the absence of disease. Not having aches and pains or an illness or impairment helps, but even with these one can still have a sense of wellbeing. There are many kinds of wellbeing – physical, emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual, sexual, and so on – and, apparently, scales to measure them (as if wellbeing can be quantified!).
Sexual wellbeing includes sexual health but goes way beyond it, traversing the lands of passion, connection, pleasure, fulfillment, and safety, to name some. Can one enjoy sexual wellbeing without a partner? Yes. Without physical acts of sex? Why not? Even when not in an emotional relationship with another person? Of course. So one can be on one’s own, not have sex, and still experience sexual wellbeing? Why ever not? But doesn’t that contradict saying that wellbeing is also about passion and connection? Not at all, to my mind, and from my not inextensive personal and professional experience, unless of course one limits one’s understanding of ‘passion’ to feelings of sexual desire for another person, and of ‘connection’ to only being in an intimate relationship. We have become so conditioned to thinking in narrow ways, ways dictated by popular culture and Big Mac consumerism, to thinking of ourselves as the centre of the universe, the hub around which all else revolves, to placing ourselves first and to wanting to have the ‘biggest’ or the ‘best’, that we have forgotten that alone, we are not very much, and that it is the collective that sustains as well as crushes us.
We live in a web of relationships. A relationship with ourselves, relationships with the physical and social environment, with other people, and with systems (like education, health services, legal provisions, social benefits, etc) that include or exclude us. These relationships may be hostile or debilitating or even toxic, or they may be supportive, loving and empowering. Or we may experience them as an amalgam of all of these, and more. We experience and express our sexuality within these systems, whether we are aware of them or not.
Most likely, the more privileged we, are the more unaware. In case you wonder what I mean, allow me to elaborate. To give an example, heterosexual people, comfortable in the gender role assigned to them, are not likely to experience the discrimination that someone who does not conform to gender and sexual norms imposed by society might experience. And so they can go blithely along their way unaware of bullying or discrimination in school, the feeling of always having to be vigilant and guard one’s sexuality at home and with friends, to have to ‘pass’ at work, and so on. For those who do not conform to the norms of gender and sexuality, life is more challenging. Think of an adolescent who is gay or believes that they were assigned the wrong gender. Think of the internal battles and the external wars – at home, in school, on the streets, etc. And now add another factor to the mix. Let’s say this person is economically disadvantaged (fancy way of saying poor). This adds another layer of barriers to their having access to resources and opportunities. And so what should rightfully be available to all, becomes available only to some, and so becomes a privilege which ironically, the privileged do not realise! With each additional layer of barriers in the form of religion or disability or sexual orientation or gender identification or race or class or even the colour of their skin, people get pushed to the margins, to the fringes. For those who are at the fringes, life is even more difficult – they are locked out of many systems, not given equal opportunities, and punished for being or being perceived as different – and that is precisely why they get pushed further and further outwards, and sometimes even pushed right off. Privileged or not, our place in the web of relationships and systems is determined by a multitude of factors, many not of our own choosing.
While we live in a web of relationships, we also weave our own webs. Speaking of webs, did you know that the female Darwin’s Bark Spider, a species of a tiny spider, can weave a web 25 metres wide? 25 metres is 75 feet, or the span of a river, or more than four times the height of a fully-grown male giraffe or the height of 12 adult men standing on each other’s heads! And the spider is no bigger than a human’s thumbnail. Interesting factlets, but what do they have to do with wellbeing? Wait, here’s the most interesting thing. Scientists have discovered that this tiny spider’s vast web is spun with a silk that is the toughest natural fibre in the world, tougher even than steel. Steel is strong, this fibre is tough. As the article about the spider’s web explains, strength is the ability to resist stress, while toughness is the ability to stretch and absorb more energy before breaking.
Wellbeing is not a promise of unending joy. It is not a place that one arrives at and stays in permanently. Life brings surprise and stress as well as serendipity. How stretchy are the strands that we weave? How much stress can they absorb before snapping? Even when some strands do break, the interweaving and interlocking of the silken skeins keeps the web intact.
Sexual wellbeing, like the spider’s web, is woven of many strands, but unlike those of a spider’s web, their purpose is not to ensnare prey. Are the strands of our web strong? What do they include in their embrace? Are we able to look outside of ourselves and see what affects other people? When someone is treated badly or unfairly, do we see it or are we unaware the injustice committed? As long as there is injustice, none of us can ever be free. If you think that is being too abstract and it has nothing to do with you, think of it in a more selfish way: if today one person’s rights are allowed to be violated, tomorrow it can be done to me, and the day after, to you. We are all connected.
Do we realise that when we do not have good quality access to information or health services or that when the law criminalises adult consensual sex, or does not give two people of the same sex the right to marry, or a person the right to freely change their gender and gender identity, or guarantee the right to seek an abortion, or provide comprehensive sexuality education in and out of school, we are all getting a bad deal? Or that if a freedom is upheld, it is upheld for all. Or at least that’s what I think.
Sexual wellbeing is not something that comes only from what we experience between our legs in the confines of our bedrooms, but is a composite of how we – meaning all of us, and not just a chosen few – feel in the way we hold ourselves, in the ways we are free to dress, to walk, to laugh, to play, and to name ourselves, at home, on the streets, in our offices, on our playgrounds, wherever we are. It may not be obvious to us because we are used to thinking about sexuality as being personal and private, but in fact because sexuality is also public and political, my sexual wellbeing is tied to yours.
Cover Image: Flickr