Sex is important. We know this because our society is obsessed with it. In many ways, it’s the biggest driving force behind our actions; sometimes even bigger than money, which is another thing our society is obsessed with. We spend a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, having it, regulating it, exposing it. We’ve revolutionized it–revolutionized our sexual rhetoric, that is. Or we thought we did. The thing is, sex has come out of the bedroom and onto the debate floor politically and socially.
You’d think that being more open about sex would lead to a kind of camaraderie. Like, “Oh hey. We all enjoy having sex and haven’t been able to talk about it before. Now we can. Hooray, sex is great and you think so too and I’m so glad I don’t have to be ashamed of this anymore.” And in general, I think that a lot of Americans do feel that way, even if they don’t necessarily want to publicize their sex lives. That’s totally fine. But when you look at the media–news, TV, movies, and music–it’s easy to see that there are two clear sexual camps: sex is ubiquitous and free and sex is a sinful and shameful necessary evil.
The tension between these two ideas is extremely harmful to the fabric of our society. It affects our political discourse and distracts from responsible and relevant governance. It irreparably damages our children psychologically. It hurts our relationships, with friends and with lovers, by foisting contradictory expectations on all of us.
I’d like to go ahead and clarify that I am speaking in general terms in this post, and am perfectly aware of all kinds of exceptions. We’re looking at overarching societal trends rather than specific scenarios.
Sex is Ubiquitous and Free
This sounds like a good-time hippie love fest at first, but stop for a moment and think about it. Sex is a natural and healthy part of our lives; but mainstream movies, music and television often treat sex lightly. Blockbuster movies have scenes which technically qualify as softcore porn. TV shows like True Blood, Sex and the City, and Grey’s Anatomy have people running around having sex all over the place. Shows for teenagers can get just as bad. These shows often overlook the consequences of frequent hook-ups. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single True Blood couple stop to grab a condom, and not all of them include one partner who can’t reproduce. No one ever stops to ask “Have you been tested lately?”
But I’m not just talking about pregnancy and STDs. Sex is not so easy to brush off in the real world–at least, not for everyone. And that’s part of the problem. Sex, especially recreational sex, has become an integral part of much of our entertainment and because of that, an integral part of our lives. The people who are negatively affected by this the most are the youth; like I’ve written before, kids see and absorb all these depictions of sex, often without getting a good framework in which to understand them. This leads to much higher rates of teen pregnancy, STDs, and broken hearts. We are taught simultaneously and sometimes conflictingly that sex should be loving, meaningful, recreational, and immediately forthcoming. It usually works out for adults; not so much for teenagers.
Women often get the short end of the stick in this situation because of another dichotomy that exists within the sex dichotomy: the prude v. slut idea, which implies that a woman can only be a prude or a slut with no middle ground for healthy sexual activity. The “sex is ubiquitous and free” idea places expectations of sexual willingness and availability on women and girls that they may not necessarily be interested in fulfilling. Women are categorized in two ways on this side of the argument: the girl who won’t put out, or the girl who never says no. Neither are respected by men, and both are judged by their female peers.
The thing is, society expects that a woman who has consented to sex once has consented to any sex that might be requested of her after that. This argument is usually used by the other side of the sex dichotomy, but it’s present on this side too. It’s in the “Oh come on, baby, that’s not what you said before.” The expectation of a woman’s sexual availability also contributes heavily to rape culture. There is definitely an underlying current of thought that assumes that women overreact to getting raped, or that she was “asking for it,” or that women will use accusations of rape as a weapon, etc. This is because sex is not always seen as emotionally significant, so the consequences of forceful or coercive sex are also downplayed. This is wrong, damaging, and offensive.
Sex is a Sinful and Shameful Necessary Evil
This is what we hear coming from the right wing a lot lately, especially with all the anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage bills. Sex is only okay when it’s between one man and one woman in the covenant of marriage, and some take it even further with the idea that even a husband and wife should only have sex for procreation rather than pleasure. You’ve heard it all before. Premarital sex is a sin. Using birth control is a sin. Women who use birth control must be sluts who have loads and loads of sex. Women use abortion as another kind of birth control. Women who have abortions are heartless sluts. There are endless permutations of these kinds of statements and I certainly don’t need to list them all here.
Much of this condemnation seems to come from religious groups who are so focused on their souls that they neglect their bodies entirely. They recognize procreation as a human imperative, and understand that sex is necessary for procreation (although with artificial insemination technology, you’d think that they’d now be thrilled that they can avoid even that necessary sexual sin). In their minds, for whatever reason, any sex outside marriage and/or not for the purposes of reproduction is sinful. I’m not really sure what the logical basis for that statement is, but it is the core of so much hate and judgment in our society. Again, women especially are targeted by the fundamentalists, who seem to consider men incapable of controlling themselves and place the responsibility for this on the shoulders of women. Sierra at The Phoenix and Olive Branch has written on this topic a number of times, with greater authority than me.
Perpetuating the Dichotomy
In many ways, it’s the fundamentalists who have created the sex dichotomy by dumping sex into one of two mutually exclusive categories: sex as sin and sex as sacrosanct. The sexual revolution was paralleled by an equally voracious movement to keep sex under wraps. There are those who don’t talk about it or only talk about it to condemn it. Abstinence-only education is still common in schools despite statistics that suggest its ineffectiveness.
The problem is that these are the loudest voices we hear on the subject. I know that the majority of Americans are not so polar in their opinions on sex. Most people practice safe sex with one partner in the context of some intimate relationship. Most people aren’t ashamed of sex, and most people don’t care about the sex other people have. But those people aren’t the ones talking, and they certainly aren’t the ones legislating bills meant to take away our sexual rights. I’ve said before that the biggest problem with sex is that we aren’t communicating about it with kids in a way that is healthy. Most parents don’t communicate about sex with their kids at all. So where do they turn for answers? To the internet, where there are blogs and news stories about trashy sex-mongering AND fundamentalist condemnation. What are they supposed to make of all of that?
Silent majority: it’s time to wake up, quiet the crazies, and talk to your children. That’s the only way we can get these raging contradictions under control.