Sex education in the United States has traditionally focused on abstinence-only-until-marriage scare tactics, reproduction, and heteronormative scripts for sexual behavior that ignore both queerness and pleasure. Many states lack inclusive curricular standards or have legislation restricting them from promoting queerness at all. And in some states, teachers are required to include negative information about queer sexuality. Alabama State Code dictates that, “Classes must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
In that context, many people –– and queer people especially –– are not taught tools for safer sex. And templates for queer sex end up being acquired outside of a public school environment –– either through word-of-mouth, digital interventions, and the limited representations of queer sex in media. But what exactly is queer sex?
We all get to determine what counts as sex for us individually and in the context of our relationships. For some people, only genital intercourse (think: penis-in-vagina) counts as sex –– although often, this speaks to a heterosexist understanding of sex and sexuality. For other people, manual stimulation, oral sex, and penetration are all distinct forms of sex. And there are various perspectives on what counts and doesn’t count as sex that fall somewhere in-between. Settling on one definition of sex, much less queer sex, is hard. However, if sex can be considered a spectrum of behaviors that people do to express their sexuality, queer sex is that same spectrum with one (or more) queer people involved.
Settling on one definition of sex, much less queer sex, is hard.
Traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine behaviors often get sorted into boxes that inform what we do and expect sexually. This is a problem with the gender binary which unfortunately, sorts people into those very same boxes. But gender has nothing to do with the type of behaviors we find pleasurable or consent to. What does matter is consent –– or the process of actively negotiating if and how sex will happen with a partner (or partners).
We should seek partners who are capable of engaging in that negotiation with us, meaning they aren’t underage, heavily intoxicated, unconscious, or asleep. We should consider the power dynamics involved in our sexual relationships. And we should seek affirmative, enthusiastic consent from our partners. Someone consenting to oral sex, for example, doesn’t necessarily want to have strap-on sex. Consent should also be informed. What strategies do you plan to use to make sex safer? Does anyone involved have a sexually transmitted infection? For someone to provide consent, they must have all of the information they need to successfully make that decision.
We should also allow people to consent to the language being used to describe their bodies and what’s being done with their bodies. If the point of sex is to feel good, and to hopefully make someone else feel good, then using language that is positive and affirming matters. How do our partners enjoy referring to their genitals? What compliments do they like? What names do they want to be called? What roles are they enthusiastic about playing? Queer and trans people often have unique relationships to their bodies and language about their bodies that must be considered.
Using language that is positive and affirming matters.
Consent is expansive and ongoing, and requires us to communicate about desires, boundaries, and limits. This might mean thinking about what those are in advance of any sexual activity. What do we want? What do we not want? What makes us feel good?
Queer sex often involves toys, although it doesn’t have to. Queer people may use dildos, strap-ons, vibrators, sleeves, plugs, and other items to stimulate themselves or their partner(s). Don’t forget to use them in combination with lube, to reduce friction and prevent microtears! Some toys are specifically designed for intersex people or people on hormone therapy. There are also tools that people use to affirm their gender identity, like packers or dilators. People should look for products that are body-safe. Typically, this means an item made out of a non-porous material, such as silicone, glass, or stainless steel. When an item is porous, it can store sexually transmitted infections or bacteria that can cause infections, even after it’s been washed. If a toy is porous, you can use condoms to protect yourself and your partners. But even if it isn’t, you should have ongoing discussions with your partners about toy sharing, as the fluids on toys may lead to STI transmission. In between uses, you can clean them by using toy cleaners or mild (unscented) soap and water. Non-mechanical toys can also be boiled to sterilize them.
Finally, creating a shame-free environment to discuss sexually transmitted infections is crucial. This often means having an awareness of the STIs that exist and coming up with strategies for prevention. There is no such thing as safe sex –– but there are ways to make sex safer for the people involved, such as using barrier methods or regularly getting tested. When it comes to highly stigmatized STIs like HIV and herpes, it’s important to note that people with those diagnoses have full, pleasurable sex lives. People with HIV who take daily medication can get their viral load to undetectable levels, which means they cannot transmit the disease. And people with herpes –– which research suggests is a massive part of the global population –– can reduce the risk of transmitting herpes by 48% through suppressive medication. Of course, using condoms and dental dams are essential ways to reduce the risk of transmission.
Whether you’re new to queer sex, or you’ve been having queer sex for some time, it’s all about finding and creating pleasure. We are always learning new ways to communicate, remain safe, and feel good. The key to navigating that is staying curious and asking questions, even if doing so is awkward or uncomfortable at first. In fact, these are things to keep in mind no matter what type of sex you’re having.