What is compulsory sexuality and why is it making us feel like crap?

You know when you go on a date and your friends immediately ask whether the sex was good? Or you share the last time you did the nasty and the person in front of you is shocked at how long ago it was? I’ve spoken to Relate sex therapist Ammanda Major who works with groups, couples and single people in her practice.  “There’s an enormous pressure to be completely sexually functioning, whatever that means,” she says, “societally, we are shamed if we don’t live up to certain expectations of what sex is.” 

Why is sex so important in our culture? 

Our culture and media is obsessed with sex, in implicit and explicit ways. With the number of stories on tv, in advertising, books and music about sex and romance, it’s easy to feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t desire and have the right amount of sex. The so-called sex recession announced by the Atlantic was one of the first in a slew of media articles proclaiming that young people were having less and less sex. The tone of these pieces are often doom and gloom, the term itself implying that less sex is objectively worse. As soon as one starts to dig deeper into this research, however, there’s a whole myriad of factors that go into these conclusions. The first is that what we define as sex can have changed. The second assumption is that more sex equals more happiness.  

What is compulsory sexuality anyway? 

The second factor is what’s known as compulsory sexuality. Writer Shorronda J. Brown, author of Compulsory Sexuality, defines the topic as: “the societal belief that sexuality is something that we are obligated to participate in, that everyone desires sex and that it is normal and healthy and required to have sex.” In an interview with the podcast Inner Hoe Uprising, Shorronda argues that this belief “creates sexual shame for people who don’t have that desire or don’t have a desire that aligns with what society considers to be a normal and healthy amount of sex.” It is rooted in an idea of sexuality which proposes that people should be having sex the right way, usually meaning penis-in-vagina sex between straight men and women. Ammanda further contextualises this in her work with clients: “In therapy, there’s often work to be done about how narrowly we define sex, usually as a penetrative action which is just a fraction of what sex can be.”  


When people come to therapy, we want to support them to find their own direction. Let’s abandon what’s out there and let’s just think about what’s important to you.
Ammanda Major

What is asexuality? 

Ace is short for asexual, a broad and complex queer identity. Roughly, it’s a term used by those who experience little or no sexual desire for themselves or others. Acephobia conversely is the set of beliefs or norms that stigmatise asexual people based primarily on the belief that the lack of sexual desire makes you deficient as a human. You can read more about ace identity here and prejudice against ace people here.  

So, what’s the deal with compulsory sexuality? 

Thus, compulsory sexuality hurts people on the ace spectrum in particular and creates problems for everyone, no matter what your orientation happens to be. It’s the reason we might feel like we have to perform sex in a certain way or have a certain amount of it in order to be considered “fulfilled”. Shorronda posits that compulsory sexuality is a close cousin to rape culture, the set of norms that allow for sexual violence to seem normal or desirable. The logic goes that if people must have sex, they cannot reasonably refuse it. This leads to all sorts of harmful ideas about what we should or shouldn’t do with our bodies. “There’s an imperative for men, in particular, to be having lots of sex. It’s there for women too, but societally we often still look at things in this gendered format,” explains Ammanda, “When people come to therapy, we want to support them to find their own direction. Let’s abandon what’s out there and let’s just think about what’s important to you.” 

What transpires from my research and conversation with Ammanda is that acephobia, or in this case compulsory sexuality, hurts everyone.  On the flip side, the liberation of ace identities opens up the possibility for all people to live their sexual lives without shame We don’t have to go through this process alone and others have paved the way for us to lead lives that we feel comfortable with. Societal values can be shifted slowly but we owe it to ourselves first and foremost to tune into what we really need. Therapy can help us unpack our sexual desires or lack thereof, and honour who we are. 

Want to know more about this topic? Here are some resources to help you on your way.  

Refusing Compulsory Sexuality by Shorranda J Brown 

Shorrondas interview with the Inner Hoe Uprising podcast 

Ace by Angela Chen 


A photo of blog author Rosel Jackson Stern
This blog was authored by Rosel Jackson Stern, a journalist and artist whose work primarily covers culture, politics and art. They are currently based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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