What is Modern Sexuality?
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Attitudes towards intimacy, self-pleasure and sex have shifted in recent years, and the sexual wellness industry has become noticeably more sophisticated and female oriented. We now have easy access to authentic sex toys, sex blogs and sex podcasts, and female porn. None of which are considered dirty or taboo.
Alongside the sexual wellness revolution, fashion, art and music trends have changed as well. Just like porn and sexuality, creative expression is about testing the limits and trying out new, sometimes radical ideas. Regardless of sexual orientation or body type, being comfortable in your own skin is creating a positive movement for people to own and celebrate their sexuality.
Although we’d be in trouble if we relied on Hollywood for our sex education, popular TV shows and movies such as Netflix’s Sex Education, Sex/Life, and Sexify have helped normalise sex, masturbating and sex toys.
Where in the past we were presented with stereotypes of what is sexy, we’re now finally seeing more of what represents sexuality and sex as it really is in pop culture. That’s hugely positive, as glamourisation of sex and sexy didn’t encourage anyone to embrace and love our (and our partners’) bodies the way they are.
While you can argue all you want if it is about liberation or objectification, sex and sexuality is inextricably linked to art, music and performance. Today’s artists and creators are increasingly open about their sexuality and freely express what makes them feel empowered.
Cardi B, Arianna Grande, Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj, and P!nk aren’t shy about telling the world exactly what they want and how they want it. The list goes on, but Madonna was the real trailblazer for women to express their sexuality through music.
She was undoubtedly sexy from the moment she crashed onto the pop music scene back in 1982, but do you remember how she completely reinvented herself with the album Erotica in 1992? If Madonna’s earlier work was a celebration of sexuality without shame, with Erotica she really owned it. By taking on the identity of 1930s French film star Dita Parlo, Madonna created an unashamed, unflinching dominatrix persona and made a stand against society's sexual taboos.
Picasso claimed that ‘sex and art are the same thing’ and Freud’s Sublimation Theory suggested that true artists made artwork out of an excess of sexual energy. Painting nudes and erotica as a subject matter in art is nothing new, of course, but platforms such as Instagram are giving a new generation of artists a space to explore sexuality on their own terms.
Questioning gender norms, celebrating diversity, and unapologetic expression of the female sexuality is prominent in contemporary art. Sydney-based artist Kim Leutwyler is known for her colourful paintings of LGBTQ+ identified and allied people. She pushes and pulls the boundary between realism and abstraction, highlighting the layers and complexity of identity, gender and beauty. In 2020, she made the 100 voices, 100 artists list of Saatchi Art presenting the top 100 women artists from around the world.
Jeff Burton, an American photographer who draws from his experience working on adult film sets, focusses on details such as sweating actors and discarded underwear in his work. His photographs leave almost everything to the imagination, but the sexual content is obvious. His work has been published in many international fashion and lifestyle magazines and featured at famous galleries and museums, including the Guggenheim and Sadie Coles HQ in London.
Ceramic dildos created by Mexican artist Iza Lozano caused controversy in New Zealand last year, as Nicole Gaston, then President of the Wellington Potters Association, resigned over it. She unsuccessfully tried to organise workshops where club members could learn how to create sex toys using mixed techniques such as wheel-throwing and hand-building.
“As a thermal, hypoallergenic, easy-to-sterilise and resistant material, ceramic sex toys are fun, beautiful, safe and suitable for all bodies,” an advertisement for the event said. However, several senior members of the committee objected and said the workshop was too “provocative” or “inappropriate” for a pottery club. The event was cancelled, and Nicole quit as she believed the workshop was intended to be a safe space to be body and sex positive.
Speaking of dildos, have you heard of contemporary artist Jen Stein from Los Angeles, who turns dildos into political art? She turns everything from cocktails to cupcakes into a statement against centuries of female objectification in art. According to Jen, saying that a woman has nice tits or a great ass is normalised, but anything besides “what the straight man wants” is still not commonly accepted. Turning dildos into art displays is her way to balance that disparity.
You could say the traditional definitions of sexuality are on the way out, as the younger generation embraces a ‘never say never’ approach to sex and gender. “Pansexual” was the online dictionary Merriam-Webster’s most searched word of the day after American singer, CoverGirl model and movie star Janelle Monáe defined herself as pansexual and a “free-ass motherfucker” in a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone.
Pansexuality offers people an opportunity not to rule out anyone solely because of their sex or gender, and it explodes traditional categorical identities such as straight, bisexual, and gay. Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Sia, Brendon Urie and Aussie TV personality Angie Kent also identify as pan, where singer Demi Lovato identifies as “sexually fluid”, or “having a shifting gender preference”. Other labels for being neither exclusively straight nor gay include “heteroflexible” and “questioning”.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Straight, Transgender, Queer, Fluid, there are many labels to describe sexuality. Labels can make people feel empowered and part of a community that can provide safety and acceptance, but in both the heterosexual and LGBTQ+ communities, there is a tendency to invalidate or question the legitimacy of someone when it comes to switching up that label.
Canadian stand-up comedian Mae Martin is an artist who is leading the way in championing a non-binary approach to sexuality. Her book Could Everyone Please Calm Down? A Guide To 21st Century Sexuality is a funny, non-preachy sex and relationships primer for young adults that aims to take the pressure off young people when it comes to defining themselves. It’s her mission to ensure that in a world that's full of things to worry about, who we choose to kiss and have sex with should not be one of them.
by Katie Montgomery