The Trouble With Talking About Sex and Death

I just finished reading Haider Warraich’s new book, Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life (St. Martin’s, 2017) and just as I did after finishing Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (Metropolitan Books, 2015), I was left feeling like there is so much to talk about.

For most of my life I’ve written about sex. When you write about sex, one of the things you notice is how much sex there is in mainstream and popular culture and how inadequate the serious conversations about sex are in many real people’s actual lives. For some of us, serious conversations about sex in relationships, in culture, in society, are common, of course. I just came from Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, where 400 people who are skilled at talking about sex were gathered for four days doing exactly that. Sex is taken much more seriously than it was just a few decades go. There are journals devoted to Porn Studies. There are academic departments devoted to sexuality and gender studies. There are thoughtful, intelligent journalists writing about sex and sexuality. Of course you don’t have to look far to find many people who struggle to talk about sex. Sexual content is censored on many media channels (social or mainstream). Laws like FOSTA further chill sexual speech. Young people in school systems across the country still can’t access comprehensive sexuality and relationship education. Much has changed and there is so much more work to be done.

Recently, I’ve started to write about death, and I’ve noticed that serious conversations about death are also few and far between, but it wasn’t until I read Warraich’s book, and his claim that the US is a society obsessed with death and yet unable to discuss it readily, that I considered the further parallels with sex. Consider the popularity of crime dramas, murder mysteries, and horror movies. Consider the way that news is covered. Our cultural preoccupation with death, just like our cultural preoccupation with sex, is not about the typical experiences of ordinary people. It’s about the extraordinary, the violent, the spectacle.

Meanwhile, just as there has been with sex, there is a push to raise consciousness around death and dying, and it is being driven by public intellectuals with their books and articles on the one hand, and everyday people narrating their experiences through blogs, videos, and tweets shared widely via social media. From books like those by Warraich and Gawande, to Modern Love features in the Sunday New York Times by dying partners and surviving spouses, to the #deathbedlive tweets of Kate Granger, a physician in the UK who live tweeted some of her final hours, people are bringing death back into the parlor, where it used to reside.

One of my personal missions is to open space for people to talk not just about sexuality but also about dying, and specifically about the ways that their end of life plans take sexuality and intimacy into account. Conversations about end of life wishes are incredibly hard for many of us. Conversations about our personal sexual or intimate needs are often also difficult. How can we possibly talk about both at the same time? We can start by talking to ourselves. Just as with sex, one of the first things we need to do in preparing to talk about death is to better understand our own desires. Beginning that process will be the focus of my next blog post. Stay tuned.


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