FEATURE: Under the Puffy Coat

By on December 13, 2016

Exploring the sex lives of locals in a ski town.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – You may not know from its buttoned-up (flannel) appearance, but Jackson Hole is brimming with sexual energy. It is an intense community, comprised of people dedicated to flying down mountains with boards on their feet, climbing peaks, and eating up dirt trails on two wheels. People play with unparalleled vigor, and this translates to sexual exploits as well. For younger, unmarried folks, the transient nature of community means lots of short-term connections, or hooking up for one night. For those in long-term relationships, sex and its trials and tribulations don’t disappear with the pledges of commitment.

There may be a lot of nookie going on in the Tetons, but for such a hyper-physical place, folks here don’t talk much about sex. This area is behind the times when compared to other progressive cities that have public discourse about sexual health and sex education. It seems only when, say, a controversial speaker comes to the high school does this community have a conversation about sex.

Meanwhile, in places like San Francisco, the mecca for sexuality of all kinds, you can take classes in everything from pole dancing to how to find your P-spot (prostate). In Jackson, these kinds of conversations take place in hushed tones behind closed doors, if they take place at all. For the party crowd, it’s more about getting drunk and bumbling into bed together.

Luckily, if you dig a little deeper, you can find some sexual health advocates and sexuality-positive individuals who have good advice. PJH has gathered a few of those voices here to talk about everything from casual dating to raising teenagers to forays into polyamory.

If you thought Jackson was tame when it comes to sexuality, think again. There’s a plurality of perspective sizzling here, inviting you to broaden your mind and empower yourself sexually.

Sex-positivity

Some people say what Jackson could use is an injection of sex positive culture. What does sex positive mean? According to San Francisco Bay Area erotica blogger BD Swain, sex positivity “starts as an awareness that sexuality encompasses a nearly limitless diversity of expression.”

“It requires a steadfast commitment to consent,” Swain said. “Sex positivity embraces curiosity of the sort that enables learning about sexuality, sexual expression, and the body (your own and other’s) in a way that actively rejects any kind of shame or judgment, and instead promotes acceptance.”

This echoes what one local “sexpert” has found in her dating life. PJH talked to a number of forthright individuals willing to share their opinions and experiences for this article. Some wished to remain anonymous, but their insights are helpful all the same. Thirty-year-old Jennifer* said that the key to a fulfilling dating life lies in communication.

“My dating experience has fallen into two categories, depending on how well I communicate,” Jennifer said. “Category 1 is in the ski bum scene, just partying and hooking up. If I’m in that situation and I don’t communicate what I want and how I want to be treated, the guys have acted like they had license to treat me however they wanted.”

“Category 2,” Jennifer continued, “is when I communicate what I want and how I want to be treated. That way I get more respect. The guys either rise to the occasion or bow out.”

But for some people, talking about sex kills the moment.

“It’s more awkward to propose sex with words,” said Frederick Reimers, 46.

Instead, Reimers uses body language to gauge his partner’s interest in going from talking to kissing. And that good ole social lubricant, alcohol, can be a helper.

“In almost every case when I’m on a date and cross the line from being acquaintances to something physical, there’s drinking involved,” Reimers said. “That’s just American life.”

“Drinking makes everyone’s body language a lot more accentuated,” he continued. “You don’t have to say the stuff. Your eyes can say a lot.”

Reimers acknowledges that at some point it is wise to “say the stuff.” As a heterosexual man, he uses the moment when the issue of birth control needs to be addressed to also ensure that both parties are still consenting.

“I usually ask, ‘What do you use for birth control?’ That’s going to tell me whether we are going there or not.”

But for many, the problem with fumbling around drunk in the dark after a night of partying is that even the subtle and necessary conversations about safe sex and birth control may not take place. A number of people interviewed said they’ve had the experience of waking up next to someone after a night of drinking and not remembering exactly how they got there or what happened.

Though sexual exploitation is an age-old danger, Jennifer noted the complexity social media now adds to the mix. “We live in an age when we have an endless amount of potential partners, with our phones and Tindr and dating sites. People can take their own actions a lot less seriously, and not necessarily see the consequences.”

Part of the challenge about forthright sexual communication may stem from inadequate sex education earlier in life.

Dr. Neil Cannon, a Denver sex therapist, says that adults too often received negative messages about sex during their youth.

“If you could hear some of the things my clients tell me that their parents and churches taught them about sex it would blow your mind,” Cannon said. “Things like, ‘sex is dirty, women don’t enjoy sex, sex is a sin, nice girls don’t have sex, masturbation will cause you to become homosexual, masturbation will give you zits.’”

Cannon stresses the importance of comprehensive, non-judgmental sex education for people of all ages.

“We need this generation to be educated so they can enjoy the sexual part of their lives, and also so they can educate the next generation to be sex positive and embrace their sexuality, not fear it or run from it,” Cannon said.

Jim Jenkins teaches physical education and health education at Jackson Hole High School and he is the de facto sex educator as well.

“All teenagers need to have a comprehensive, research-based sex ed curriculum,” Jenkins said. “ The curriculum should talk about abstinence, but also talk about how to protect yourself if you choose not to abstain.”

Jenkins says communication is a life skill that teenagers need to learn, just like anything else.

“If you’re old enough to be doing these things, you’re old enough to have a conversation about it,” he said. “Young people need to learn to listen to their partners and respect each other’s boundaries. This is especially true with young men in heterosexual relationships.”

Incoming school board member Annie Band has been an outspoken voice in support of comprehensive sex ed for teens. “If we want to move the actual metrics on teen pregnancy, disease transmission, delay onset of sexual activity, and support confident decision making by teens regarding their sexuality, comprehensive sex education is the only way to truly achieve this,” she said.

The facts support Band’s stance. Researcher Douglas Kirby, of the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, found that the majority of comprehensive sex ed programs for teens had positive results, including 40 percent of teens delaying sexual initiation, reducing the number of sexual partners, and increasing condom or contraception use because of the education they received.

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Carrie Kirkpatrick, program director of the nonprofit Raising Girls, says that talking to teens about sex takes finesse. “What most parents, myself included, tend to do is talk almost exclusively about the dangers of sex rather than it’s lusciousness. When we leave this information out, we are not giving them the full picture and then the entire message becomes suspect.”

With adults like Kirkpatrick, Band and Jenkins at the helm, the next generation of adults will likely be better equipped to communicate about sex and sexuality. For the rest of us, whose education and modeling may have been a bit lacking, there are ways to fill in the gaps.

Artist and educator Valerie Seaberg says the ancient Hindu practice of tantra can be a path for many couples to add more sensuality and pleasure to their sex lives. She holds a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology and has studied tantra.

“Tantra involves conscious practices that can hold polarities and opposites,” Seaberg said. “It cultivates an attitude of experimentation.”

Seaberg says that tantra can help people achieve a “flow” state, that feeling of oneness or ultimate aliveness that Jacksonites may associate with skiing, climbing or hiking.

“Tantra can make us like a tuning fork,” Seaberg said. “It gives full body sensual pleasure. Being in those states can put us in a deep state of union with our partner and the divine.”

Partnering up

In order to practice any tantric full body orgasms, however, it helps to have a partner. Jackson can be a tricky place to find one, according to people interviewed for this story.

Reimers has lived in Jackson off and on since 1991, and is now in a long-distance relationship with someone he met last year when she was on a ski trip in Jackson. The valley’s limited dating pool and transient population can lead to long distance relationships like this.

Thirty-year-old Anne Marie Wells has had her fair share of relationships that started here and then fizzled when a love interest moved. Now she thinks the relationship market is pretty bleak.

“In terms of looking for a partner, this town isn’t it,” Wells lamented. “Casual dating is all you are going to find.”

Wells pointed to the lack of affordable housing as being a factor in the transient nature of many younger people’s lives. When people can’t count on stable housing, it’s hard to put down roots and invest in a long-term relationship.

“I know personally for me now, my nanny position is over in June,” Wells said. “I’m not planning on staying around.”

Wells also expressed frustration with the kind of masculinity espoused in the ski-town scene.

“It’s this lumberjack, hunter, bro athleticism and I’m not into it, literally at all,” she said. “I don’t like being mansplained to or not taken seriously. It’s hard to find men who don’t follow that toxic masculinity.”

Erica*, 23, has a theory about Jackson masculinity. “Many people come to Jackson for individualistic pursuits,” she said. “So they practice loving themselves. They are not interested in reciprocal love or learning about themselves.”

Erica is apparently not alone. Thirty-four-year-old Rachel* says she is done trying to find a partner in Jackson. After 11 years here she is taking a Jackson hiatus, in part to widen her dating pool. “I’m traveling the next six months and one of the reasons I’m branching out is that I’m concerned I won’t find a suitable male companion in Jackson.”

But men also reported frustrations trying to find a suitable partner in Jackson. Artist Aaron Wallis has lived in the valley for 10 years and he says he has had his fair share of dating highs and lows. Because he doesn’t fit the Jackson dude stereotype of a backcountry athlete with a closet full of plaid shirts, he feels that women don’t always know what to make of his artistic persona. From his perspective, Jackson women fall prey to age-old hetero stereotypes too—wanting to find a man to provide for them. Without a house or gallery representation to keep him in Jackson, Wallis is moving to Detroit next month and hoping to have better chances at finding a mate there as well.

“In a decade of being single in Jackson, you invariabley end up asking out all the single women.” he said. “They all talk about how much they love art and want intelligent men. But none of the women here read books and they all end up dating the same three kind of guys: the mountain jock, the entrepreneur, and the guy with family money.”

From Wallis’ perspective, if you don’t have money to take someone on vacation, you’re not going to be dating for long. “Jackson women expect to keep up with the Jackson lifestyle of traveling constantly to exotic locales. There is nothing that makes a man more pedestrian or undesirable than actually living in Jackson through the off-season.”

161214coverfeat-3_origFor Charles*, who has lived in Jackson for 16 years, the pursuit of outdoor adventures is a factor in his dating life. A 45-year-old single guy with a full-tilt profession and a passion for hunting, cycling, skiing and hiking, Charles finds himself trying to, perhaps unsuccessfully, juggle time for everything.

“I think the valley attracts people who have intense passions and that can be a plus and a barrier in dating,” he said. “The local culture complicates things with dating and trying to find a partner that is in sync with my hobbies and schedule.”

The Jackson obsession with hanging onto youth and being uber-fit, coupled with the valley’s iconoclastic bent, creates an interesting brew in the dating pool. All the hyper-individuality can make finding a mate challenging.

“Many folks here are the ones in their families who have broken the norms and rebelled,” Charles said. “I know I’m a weirdo and this valley is full of them, both male and female.”

Meanwhile, LGBTQ identified single people face the dilemma of an even more limited pool of potential partners. Wells identifies as queer, but just because she’s open to having a relationship with a woman that doesn’t mean she has an increased number of potential partners.

“There aren’t a lot of queer people who aren’t already in relationships,” she said.

On top of that, folks in the LGBTQ community do not have a designated place, or even a designated night at a local haunt where they can go to meet one another here.

Slow moves, slow talk

Once you’re in an established partnership, the concern shifts over time from how to talk about sex to how to keep things sexually vibrant. One married Jackson woman, Kim*, offered her advice to men, including married men: “Slow down.”

“My main piece of advice would be for guys to take their time,” she said. “Women love foreplay. However much you think you are doing foreplay, triple that time.”

From Kim’s perspective, the hardest thing to do is to tell your partner what you like or don’t like in a way that doesn’t make them defensive. She opts for having those conversations when she and her husband are not in bed.

However, Seaberg says you can structure those talks in the bedroom, with the right approach. She suggests trying an “exploration date.”

“Setting aside conscious time to be a couple is really important,” she said. “Put a time limit on the exploration date. Maybe an hour. Bring curiosity and openness, and a sense of safety and sensuality. The conversation might begin with ‘What feels good to you?’”

According to Cannon, nontraditional practices are cropping up more in couples’ lives. He says consensual nonmonogamy is on the rise as a way to keep things spicy in a marriage.

“An increasing number of people are open to the idea of open relationships,” he said. “A good example of this is in Denver, where there is an adult lifestyle club called Scarlett Ranch. Fifteen years ago it was a tiny place in the mountains. Today it is a large, posh facility that attracts thousands of upscale guests and members.”

One Jackson resident Jeff*, said that his open marriage has been a boon to his relationship with his wife.

“It reinforces the sense of security, trust and commitment in our relationship,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, my marriage is based on two principles: communication and allowing the other person to be themselves.”

More than one intimate relationship takes the pressure off of a primary relationship, according to Sue, 35. She has practiced polyamory for years.

“The idea that you have a finite amount of love to give is kind of bizarre,” she said. “It’s not like we have three kids and say, ‘too bad for those last two, I just don’t have enough love for them.’”

But the lifestyle isn’t easy, and Sue says it makes some people uncomfortable. “They don’t understand that it’s ethical non-monogamy, not just sleeping with a bunch of different people.”

Cannon says that couples looking to improve communication and develop a more sex positive attitude in their relationships have many options.

“People can go to an event at Scarlett Ranch and just watch,” he said. “Or go to a tantra workshop or a snuggle party. You can create your own boundaries and see what you see. These events offer a great opportunity to talk to other sex positive folks and feel safe and sexy.”

However, while it’s great to know you can be a sex tourist in Denver, Jackson is a long way off from having this kind of cultural expansion. The kerfuffle over where to house a strip club in Jackson could point to the community’s general squeamishness over sex. However, sweeping sex under the rug leads to other problems. As any LGBTQ person can attest: being forced into the closet does not make a person’s sexual appetite go away. As Sue opined, “If we look at the number of affairs, clearly sexual desire is there and people’s needs are not being met in some way.”

The other kind of safety meeting

All this talk about sex would be incomplete without discussing the risks involved. According to the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, the rate of chlamydia in Teton County is increasing. In fact the rate of sexually transmitted infections statewide are a “troubling” public health concern, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. Chlamydia rates are associated with unsafe sexual activity and are used as indicators for other STIs.

According to the 2015 Community Health Needs Assessment conducted by St. John’s Medical Center, Teton County’s rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is 209 per 100,000. This is lower than state and national rates. However, the prevalence of STIs in the county is rising.

The gonorrhea rate for Teton County is 16.9 per 100,000, HIV is less than 5, hepatitis B is at 7.5, hepatitis C is at 36.7, and syphilis is less than 5.

Younger people are particularly at risk.

“We know STDs are more common in Wyoming among younger people, which was illustrated in the same report,” said Courtney Smith, a manager of the Communicable Disease Surveillance program with the Wyoming Department of Health. “Nearly two-thirds of chlamydia cases and half of gonorrhea cases nationally involved people between the ages of 15 to 24.”

If you’re sexually active and you want to decrease your chance of getting or passing an STI, condoms are of course your best friend. Condoms help with safer sex, regardless of sex or gender, or who puts what where. Free condoms are available through the website KnoWyo.org, which also provides a voucher for free HIV testing.

While it goes without saying, reminders from organizations like Planned Parenthood never hurt: “Latex condoms are great safer sex tools for anal, vaginal, or oral sex. They’re easy to get at a pharmacy, grocery store, or at a Planned Parenthood health center. They’re cheap. And they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures.”

Perhaps a symptom of the party nature of a ski town, many of the men interviewed for this story admitted they weren’t apt to whip out a condom at a moment’s notice, but rather only in response to a woman’s request. One female respondent, Kate*, said that in Jackson she has never had a man offer to put on a condom. “If I don’t insist, it doesn’t happen and is never brought up,” she said.

But that’s not true of all men here. Forty-five-year-old Derek* said he always uses condoms. “Unless I’m in a committed relationship and then only after we’ve both been tested for STDs and she is on the pill,” he said.

If you’re not in a long-term monogamous relationship—and even if you are—it’s a good idea to get tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections. It’s cheap and easy to do. The current fee schedule at Teton County Public health is $10 for the office visit, $14 for a chlamydia and gonorrhea test, $15 for an HIV rapid test, $45 for a hepatitis B marker test, and $20 for a hepatitis C test. Again, the cost of these tests may be lowered or waived with an anonymous voucher from KnoWyo.org.

Once you’re armed with safer sex practices and good communication tips, remember these closing words from two local sexperts:

Jennifer says take time to know thyself. “It’s about listening to myself on how I want to be treated by a partner, and not trying to be accommodating to them at my own expense. Life is a lot better when you figure that out.”

Listening to oneself coupled with listening to one’s partner makes for heightened experiences. Seaberg says Jackson residents are already well-versed in attaining a flow state in their recreational pursuits and only need a little practice to translate that kind of elevated attention to the bedroom.

“If we devoted even a fraction of the time, energy and social currency we put into the mountains toward communicating with our loved ones … we’d be the most [sexually] aware town on the planet.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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