in my internet wanderings today, i discovered a post on a discussion board questioning whether or not sex[uality] in america is treated as a taboo subject. i have a lot of thoughts on this subject, so this blog will probably be my word vomit in terms of discourse. pardon any incoherence or subject skipping.
first of all, i find that sexuality in american culture is subject to a dichotomy. it’s hard to throw a stick without hitting an innuendo or a scantily clad human bean, but at the same time, sexuality is viewed as a source of controversy–which, in my eyes, indicates that there is at least some level of taboo that goes with it.
for instance–teen sexuality. during the bush years, millions of dollars were poured into abstinence-only sex ed programs on the very basis of making sexuality a taboo subject for teens. after all, the point of those programs is to simply tell teens not to do it. that they don’t have to know about it because they’re just supposed to say no. i could get into a whole long thing here about the morality of teenagers having sex, but i’m gonna save that for a later date.
onto adults (ie: people past the arbitrary 18-year disambiguation mark). i feel like american adult sexuality is getting more open, more progressive, etc., but at the same time, there are a lot of conflicting attitudes. i think that part of this is because of america’s very religious roots–primarily the puritan influence, which could explain why europe is different. they dumped all their puritans here. nudity in this remaining vestiges of the puritan mindset is dirty and inherently sexual. the naked body is not a sexual image in and of itself.
for instance, take janet jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction at the super bowl a few years ago. her breast was shown across america for a split second. and instant uproar ensued. why?
breasts are secondary sex characteristics. their primary physiological function is to fulfill mammary capabilities, not to titillate (pardon the pun) anyone with a y chromosome or double-x inclined females. the first experience people have with breasts is feeding. nurturing. mother association. so why the fuss? because nudity has been so sexualized in american culture, and because sex has been portrayed in the context of immorality for so long that nudity is almost automatically put directly into the “immoral”* column.
i think this is unhealthy. our bodies are beautiful and are nothing to be ashamed of. men, women–we’re beautiful beings. sex is something natural, pleasurable, and ultimately not shameful. i believe that sex itself is morally neutral–it’s what you do with it that determines the connotation. consensual sex between adults is perfectly permissable in my eyes. i know that many people disagree, but whatever. to each their own. act according to your own moral inclinations.
i will say, however, that i think the extreme emphasis in religious cultures upon sexual “purity” (which is an odd choice of word, i think) is the source of a lot of unhealthy actions and mindsets, as well as a troubling dichotomy. before marriage, sex is deemed as a sin (the biblical basis of this is highly debatable, and the premise that fornication is a sin is tremulous at best–but again, that’s a subject for a later date), but sex after marriage is deemed to be good. the act itself does not change–it is the same on either side of the arbitrary line (marriage). this complete 180 in mindset causes a lot of problems for newlyweds who have waited. in my human sexuality course at my christian university, all of the married students (without exception) and many of the engaged/committed students expressed that they had a very hard time with this switch in mindset. the married students said unequivocably that they felt horribly guilty, and that it took them months to stop feeling like they were doing something dirty by having sex with their spouse.
in committed relationships, this can cause problems as well. a friend recently told me that her ex was so afraid they might have sex that he would stop touching her entirely whenever he got scared, causing her to feel rejected. the subconscious patriarchal message here is that she was seen as the source of temptation, something to be avoided when he felt like he might give in. instead of confronting his lust, he pushed her away. that’s worrying. there are many other ways he could have dealt with his fear. in other situations, couples try to get around the “virginity” clause by taking that to the very letter of the widely accepted definition of the word–that “virginity” applies only to heterosexual vaginal intercourse. this means that many couples perform oral, manual, and anal sex in an attempt to remain “pure.”
and i’m sorry, but that’s just ridiculous.
i really do think that it’s unhealthy to perceive premarital sex as sinful if that thinking leads to harming your partner, whether that is coercing him or her into sexual acts aside from vaginal intercourse or causing psychological pain by treating your partner like a leper when you feel tempted. and i think that this basis of “morality” is more harmful in the long run. but that’s me. i’m sure a lot of people disagree with that, too.
i think that sex is definitely a taboo subject for the underlying religious reasons. it’s not like that in europe–something which the religious types often cite as evidence of europeans being wanton sex fiends. i find it fascinating that it’s usually religious people who insist that abstinence-only sex ed is the way to go and that their ideal of sex being only within heterosexual marriage is what is best for people.
america’s teen pregnancy rate is outrageously higher than europe’s–and, strange coincidence, it is highest by far in states where abstinence only sex ed is the primary form of sexual education. america’s abortion rate also takes the cake in terms of astronomically high numbers. and americans generally report that they are less satisfied with their lives than their european counterparts.
i think america needs a new sexual revolution.
i’m not saying that we should go back to the free love ideals of the 60s and 70s–merely that we ought to foster a sense of openness about sexuality that treats human sexuality with the dignity and respect it deserves, whether we choose to have multiple partners or one, regardless of their sex. i believe that sexuality is beautiful, and a vital, vivid part of the human experience. as such, i believe that it is worthy of our frank attention and honesty–as adults and for what we teach our children.
a note on women’s sexuality before i’m done–in terms of taboo, women’s sexuality is second only to the sexuality of minors (and actually, probably to the sexuality of homosexuals as well–their sexuality is shunted aside or deemed immoral by definition). there are still huge amounts of double standards. a man with multiple partners is a player, while a woman is a slut or a whore. women in religious subculture are expected to be “pure,” while men are told to be “pure,” but they’re expected to “mess up.” i can’t count the number of times i heard people ramble on about how men were sexual/visual creatures, while women were emotional. and it was just taken in stride. as a very visual, sexual female, i take offense to that. it’s an impossible battle to win–the madonna/whore complex is still fairly rampant in society, though i grant it’s gotten heaps better in the last few decades.
part of this is the emphasis on how women dress–and always in relation to how men act when women dress a certain way. a recent study in scotland showed that an astounding one in five people said a woman was partially to blame for her rape if she was wearing skimpy clothes, or if she was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. let me say this once: if you look at someone and treat her (or him) differently because her/his appearance triggers something in your brain, you are still responsible for your own thoughts, words, and actions. period.
women are no more responsible for ensuring men stay away from lustful thoughts than jewelry stores are responsible for ensuring that no one is tempted to steal that diamond ring. that’s about the level of ridiculousness that this mindset holds. it would be absolutely laughable if someone were to blame a jeweler for his or her thieving impulses. can you imagine? “but all those jewels were so shiny and sparkly and pretty…i couldn’t help myself.”
okay, i lied. one more thing on the topic of sexism. sexism is by no means relegated to only anti-female bullshit–men suffer because of it as well. the patriarchal traditional mindset that men are the big strong protectors is damaging to men as well as women. men who find themselves in situations where they are abused–be it physically, emotionally, or psychologically–are extremely unlikely to report it. rape cases in which the victims are men are almost never reported or prosecuted. the concepts that men “always want sex” play into the rape issues–many people don’t think it’s even possible for men to be raped.
sexual taboo comes into play here, as well. while sex is splashed about in the media, what is generally seen is the portrayal of studly men and women who are often either the madonna or the whore. while there are other genres of “media men,” such as the chaste nerds, men who fit the “studly” description are glorified, whereas women who are sexual are demeaned.
the bottom line is that i really think sexuality does need a revolution–a revolution of openness, authenticity, and candor, in which men and women are partners, with neither sex being subordinate. this holds true in homosexual relationships as well–i stand by my previous statement that homesexual sexuality is often marginalized at best, outright condemned at worst. i think that our society needs to be given the information it requires to make healthy choices–whether that means staying abstinent until marriage or having informed, responsible sex before marriage. regardless of your personal beliefs, i think most of us can agree that right now, that’s not the case.
*some notes on quotes: i used quotes around “purity” and “morality” because these are relative terms that are defined by one’s own personal belief system–often, but not always, this pertains to religion, and in this post specifically, i used those words in religious context almost exclusively.
my own personal belief on the matter is that purity is not a matter of how much sexual activity one has had. i consider myself a secular humanist. my morality is based upon the premise that we only get one life here–all of us–so i want to live my life in a way that i can pursue my own happiness and better the lives of others. if my actions damage another human being, they therefore go against my code of ethics. i think it’s our job to improve the lot of others when we have the chance.