Thursday, August 1, 2013

Echo Chamber

I'm still reading lots of more and less fascinating articles at The Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality. Here is a quote from one such paper about fidelity and sexual ethics. Some of the author's conclusions are a bit conservative for my tastes, but it is otherwise a good read. And he argues masterfully the absurdity of the dominant view of sex as an activity whose primary purpose is procreation. Allow me to paraphrase for impact and clarity:

"The sex life of a typical person involves thousands of erotic episodes (including masturbation), frequently leading to orgasm. Of these, it would be very unusual if more than half a dozen of these events were reproductive. Thus, the notion that human sexuality is to be explained by its reproductive function is simply based on an ignorance of human sexuality."

I really liked this review of the book America's War on Sex, which clearly articulates the problems America has with sex, and exactly the reason I am so frustrated with the American view of sexuality. We are positively obsessed with sex (as is the human condition), but as an erotophile, this doesn't comfort me, because our attitudes toward sex are so poisoned by shame and hypocrisy. You're not actually allowed to enjoy sex, you just indulge in it (because you can't help yourself), and are then supposed to feel bad about it afterward.

On that note, here's a brief discussion of sex-positivity, by Charlie Glickman. Also, in Glickman's dissertation on Sex and Shame: Authenticity in Adult Education (which is very long, and has more to say about adult education than sexual shame), he touches on Rubin's five ideas that feed into the social construct of sexual shame, that are so exciting, I have to introduce you to them here:

(These are discussed, with citations, in Chapter 5 of Glickman's dissertation).

1. "Sex-negativity is the assumption that sex is inherently degrading and sinful. While it may be redeemed through procreation, ideally without pleasure, sex is still damaging. This concept rests in part on the belief that the sexual organs are less holy than the heart and mind, much less the soul, and in part on the belief that anything that involves them is guilty until proven innocent. As Rubin points out, 'such notions have by now acquired a life of their own and no longer depend solely on religion for their perseverance.'"

Simply put, the pursuit of sexual pleasure is either viewed as a sin (if you're religious), or a vice (if you're not). It's not socially acceptable to view it as a virtue, much less an activity with divine significance.

2. "The fallacy of misplaced scale is a corollary of sex-negativity. When transgressions of sex 'standards' and laws are considered as deserving particularly harsh punishments, sexual acts become burdened with an excess of significance. Not only are many consensual sexual acts punishable as felonies in the United States, but outside legal contexts, differences in sexuality frequently provoke anxiety, fear and rage to a degree that differences in diet, hobbies or clothing do not."

This is quite vividly expressed by the attitude that sex is "different", not to be treated like other aspects of human experience, and specifically to be considered more grave and serious than other activities. It's the reason sex offenses carry more stigma than murder, and why gay people get disowned by their parents more frequently than vegetarians.

3. "The hierarchical system of sexual value refers to the pyramid of possible sexual acts in which married, reproductive heterosexuals are given erotic privilege. People who engage in non-reproductive sex, are unmarried, or deviate from this standard in any other way occupy lower positions. The closer one is to the apex, the more one is rewarded as mentally healthy, and given respectability, legality, physical and social mobility, material benefits and institutional support."

Inevitably, when you mention sex-negativity, you'll get some people claiming to view sex in a positive light, but with the caveat that only certain kinds of sex are good (like, straight, married sex). This absolutely feeds into a system of discrimination against sexual minorities and those who practice alternative sexual lifestyles.

4. "As a result of these tenets, United States society also believes in a domino theory of sexual peril. Only through constant vigilance can one climb up the pyramid of sexual value, much less remain at the peak. Any deviation from allowable sex can cause one to slide down to the unregenerate depths."

On the topic of the "slippery slope" argument, have you heard the one about the man who starts watching porn on the internet, only to become utterly addicted to the point of completely ignoring his wife, resulting in their divorce, who then seeks out more and more extreme erotic stimuli to satisfy his perverse hunger, until he finally gets arrested for soliciting a minor for sexual activities involving handcuffs, a leather whip, and a dog?

5. "The last facet of United States sexual beliefs that Rubin traces is the lack of a concept of benign sexual variation. As she describes, 'most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere.' Further, United States society 'discriminates against diversity' in general and with respect to sexual diversity in particular."

Along with sex-negativity, I think this is the most important of the five concepts. We insist upon this model of sexual normality, to the point that any variation is viewed as an undesirable aberration, and frequently a mental illness. Seriously, why can't we just accept that different people have different tastes in sex and leave it at that?

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