Here’s something we don’t talk about enough: sexual pleasure after infertility! But thankfully Katy, aka The Pleasure Anarchist, is changing that. (And not a minute too soon!) I loved meeting Katy. Her work explores the nuance of sex after infertility in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else. What happens when the “goal” of sex isn’t a baby? How does sex intersect grief? Is anything “normal”? Is everything “normal”? And my personal fave: What is a sexual snack? I’ve gone down rabbit holes of all of these topics on her insta page, and to say that it’s changed certain aspects of my life would be … very true!
A note from Katy: Instagram is a tricky place for a sex educator, so I hope people sign up for the newsletter. Sex education sites often go missing, or get censored, so my newsletter is a great place to find me!
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Where to start?! I turned 40 last year. Being childless after infertility doesn’t feel so raw anymore, but turning 40 definitely brought up some feelings about moving into a different phase of life without children. Being 34 and childless feels distinctly different than being 40 and childless. I’m still processing those new feelings and making sense of them.
My partner and I tried to conceive for about three to four years, and I kind of always suspected it would be challenging. My grandmother went through 6 years of infertility before conceiving my mom. We didn’t talk about it as a family very often, but I knew that it was part of my grandmother’s story. Infertility was something that I was aware of. I knew it wasn’t just a given that everyone could easily have children.
About 8 months into actively trying, we started seeing doctors. We didn’t do IVF, but we did multiple rounds of IUI, and all the stuff that a lot of people do- doctors, tests, meds, etc. It took a while, but ultimately it was diagnosed as unexplained infertility.
It was tough, but after four years I decided that I couldn’t be someone who continued to try and try forever. I respect that choice for other women, but I didn’t have it in me.
I started to think about what would be next. I definitely felt the pressure of “You have to do something extraordinary with your life!” I thought, if I’m not going to be a mother, then I better be amazing. It wasn’t a conscious thought, but I had definitely internalized the message that if I wasn’t a mother, certainly I couldn’t just carry on with my life as it is. We’re taught that if we’re not mothers, we have to be spectacular. I know now, in retrospect, that there’s nothing wrong with just continuing to live a normal life but like I said, at the time, I really felt the internalized pressure to do something bigger than myself.
I always knew that I wanted to go back to school. I wasn’t looking for a career change, but I really wanted to study philosophy. Making the decision to stop fertility treatments was difficult and I knew I needed something to help me along the way. I needed something that was just for myself. Studying philosophy was my lifeline. It started off just as a personal goal, and very quickly it turned into something much bigger. I took a “Philosophy of Sex and Love” class and about half way through, I was like, “Oh wow! Ok now I have to do this.” I felt utterly compelled to continue studying sex after that philosophy class. It’s funny though because the work I’m doing now with childlessness and infertility was never on my radar. At the time, I was still working through my own stuff- my own sexuality and body image and relationship. I was just fascinated by the study of sexuality and totally dug into that. I did that for 5 years.
Once I graduated and processed it all, I thought, “Ok who do i want to work with?” and this community was top of mind.
What made you decide to share your story?
When my husband and I were going through it, I had a small community that I found which was invaluable at the time. But once we decided that we weren’t going to pursue fertility treatments anymore, there was nowhere for me to go.
It was 2014 or 2015, and I couldn’t find community, even on Instagram. So I just had to figure it out for myself. (Well, myself, my partner, my therapist and all the incredible philosophers that I was studying)
Once I finished my degree, I knew I wanted to work in sexuality. I was looking for what was missing in the field, and realized it was my story. The impact that infertility has on the relationships that we have with our bodies and how that impacts sexuality, well, no one was talking about that.
So I thought, if no one’s gonna talk about it, I guess I have to!
Coming into this community online, I realized that it wasn’t just the “actively trying to conceive” community, but that there was so much more. I didn’t know that the ‘childless after infertility’ community even existed until practically last June!
I feel like I went through exploring what it means to be childless and how it impacts our sexual selves without any substantial guidance and community, so if I can offer that to anybody then I want to be able to do that.
How was your experience sharing with people in your life?
Going through the infertility process brought out the best of some relationships, and the worst of some relationships.
So much of the decision to start to try for a baby was because our friends were starting to go down that path. I wanted a child too, of course, but I also didn’t want to be left out of the club.
I had a handful of girlfriends get pregnant right away. They were either pregnant or new moms while we were in the real thick of it. It was so hard. We couldn’t have been in more different places. Living in two different worlds.
At times it brought out the worst in all of us. I was trying to be supportive, and I’m sure I did an awful job. They were trying to be supportive, and not doing a great job either. We were just all sort of fumbling in the dark and some friendships were fractured beyond repair.
On the positive side, it did bring me much closer to my dad. He was a person I could talk to about anything. (except sex, even as a sex-educator, I’m not that evolved) He would let me talk, and cry, and vent. He was never trying to fix me or give me suggestions. There was no pity. He would just let me be who I was, and let me feel everything I was feeling.
To be honest, being childfree has become way more top of mind for me in the last year. It’s not something I think about a lot anymore. At first I questioned doing sexuality work in this space, wondering “Does it need to be fresher for me to be here in this online world?” But ultimately I have a perspective of someone whos’ a little more removed from the acute pain of infertility. And that’s what I was seeking while I was making the transition into living childfree. I wanted somebody to show me the way, and model what life after infertility could look like. I’m not in that heavy sadness anymore and that’s a good thing. That’s part of why I’m here online. To show that it’s possible to live a happy, fulfilled life again.
How has your work with sex and infertily affected your personal experience? I couldn’t have imagined that there would be a day that I wouldn’t know what cycle day I was on. Or that the thought of having sex wouldn’t also bring up the thought of, “Could this result in pregnancy?” Untangling those two things, sex and baby making, was really difficult. It felt like sex wasn’t my own anymore, but was always for the goal of making a baby.
But now, I have NO idea what cycle day I’m on! And it’s fantastic! I wish I could tell my younger self that I no longer spend time reading every little clue inside my body, and trying to interpret what it meant.
When you’re in a goal oriented mindset for so long, you begin to relate to your partner in a different way. Sex becomes a thing that you do to make a baby. But in reality, if there’s a “goal” of sex, it should be to enjoy ourselves and feel good. The goal shouldn’t even be to have an orgasm! It’s all about pleasure. You don’t have to do anything in any particular way, there are no sexual scripts to follow. But unlearning all the harmful things we’ve internalized about sex and our bodies and the value of womanhood isn’t easy work.
How has your journey impacted the way you view your body? When we were first going through infertility, I definitely felt like my body wasn’t working right. We’re taught that pregnancy is a thing that female bodies are made to do. So then how do you not internalize the notion that something is wrong, or something is broken when pregnancy doesn’t happen?
I felt broken. I don’t feel as acutely anymore, but as I touched on earlier, turning 40 really hit me differently. My periods have been irregular, and I can feel my body changing. It’s brought up a lot of feelings. I talk about body trust and body acceptance, and I feel that a lot of the time, but I don’t feel trust and acceptance all of the time.
If you haven’t already gotten the awful message that your body is a thing that needs to be controlled, or that you can’t quite trust it, infertility will really bring that out. It’s still something that I struggle with at times – the feeling that I am OK and that I’m not broken in some fundamental way. My body just didn’t do this thing (getting pregnant), but I am still ok.
Bodies change! What we think of as “optimal health” is a moving target. It’s a constant re-evaluation, and tuning in to ourselves. I’m trying to get away from the feeling that every change means that something is wrong. Change can be neutral and normal.
Yes! I’ve often thought about the concept of “optimal health.” It’s clear to me now that infertility may actually have been “optimal health” for my body.
Right! I recently applied that same mindset to sexual desire. We, as women, tend to pathologize having “low” sexual desire – but low compared to what?!
We can say that we trust our bodies, but when it comes to certain things, such as desire, we think “Oh this is a problem!” But what if actually it’s not?
What if the experience of not being able to have a child doesn’t mean you’re broken, it means that your body is working optimally? And what if your desire levels are fine the way they are? I don’t mean to suggest that infertility or low desire is never a problem that needs medical intervention, but for me, personally, I’m trying to get better at having more trust in my body and less suspicion and blame.
Sure, my desire levels aren’t the same as when I was 18. Does that mean it needs to be fixed? No! It’s just different. We have these expectations of our bodies to behave in
certain ways for the rest of our lives, and often those ways are from when we were in our 20s.
If you could change something about the way society views women without children, what would it be?
That we’re all sad. That we’re secretly sad, and lonely and longing to be surrounded by babies.
That’s never been my reality. Sure, I was sad that I couldn’t get pregnant and couldn’t have a child. But I was actually sad for other reasons pertaining to infertility.
I was sad that my friendships were changing. I was sad because I wanted to be a mother and couldn’t, but I was also never the kind of woman who felt like my identity was totally wrapped up in motherhood.
I don’t mean to diminish my own grief. It was hard. But it was never the only thing about me.
Once I was able to really process that, which took a while, I realized I was still all of these other things. I am still a whole person, with a full life, even though this one thing didn’t happen for me. I’m not continually walking around in that grief. There’s nothing to pity about me.
The further you get from the decision to live childfree, the less it becomes a part of your everyday life.
There was definitely a point when I was in the thick of infertility treatments where it switched for me. It became more about achieving the goal of having a baby so the pain would end, and less about actually having a baby. That’s when I first started to think about stopping treatments and living childfree.
When you’re going through infertility, you have to re-evaluate every single month how badly you want a baby. I had to admit to myself, that I did want a child, but also, that it was very much influenced by the fact that, as a woman, it’s what the world told me I should want.
We think desires are completely organic experiences that emerge from us, but we don’t live in a vacuum. Our desires are shaped by all sorts of things. The desire to be a mother is no different.
What lights you up?
Well, my tulip bulbs are poking through! I’m looking at my star magnolia tree which is in full bloom, and my neighbor’s magnolia tree, which is a Jane magnolia is also blooming. Now that it’s starting to warm up, I’m really excited about gardening! Plus I get to wear my overalls and sit in my hammock without 30 blankets
Where can we find you?
Instagram is the only social media space I’m on.
I have a website! The Pleasure Anarchist
Instagram is a tricky place for a sex educator, so I hope people sign up for the newsletter. Sex education sites often go missing, or get censored, so the newsletter is a great place to find me!