There’s probably no better time than Valentines Day to assess the state of sex in the US. You know, the sexual activity that raises fear among leaders of the religious right-wing that it might actually be popular even among their own.
Republican right-wing presidential candidate Rick Santorum is the latest political exploiter of this terror of sexuality, pontificating in a January interview that states should regain the right to outlaw birth control. Contraceptives are, he preaches, “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
This is out of touch with the reported ideas and practices of the vast majority of Americans. Even among members of the historically most rabid anti-contraception institution, the Roman Catholic Church, women favoring the expansion of birth control poll around 90 percent.
Yet the rhetoric of erotophobia seems effective. It even upsets enough people who don’t agree with Santorum’s crowd, scaring most into not speaking up to defend their actual private practices. We appear to have made little public progress in spite of what really goes on in our bedrooms.
In 2008, historian Dagmar Herzog in Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics puzzled over why “it has been so hard for Americans loudly to defend sexual rights even if they definitely enjoy having them.” “This,” she observed, “creates an echo chamber in which the bullies get to set the terms of the debate.”
In the U.S. in 2012 sex is still one of the most convoluted topics, and that is because participating in sexual activity doesn’t mean one has developed a healthy sense of what their personal sexuality and its related activities mean to them. The messages that come at all of us from our culture and its authorities are still so mixed, confused, and consumer-driven, that what we’re told is actual sexual activity is buried under widespread distress, guilt, disappointment and fear.
As long as that’s true, attitudes toward sexual activity and our ability to stand up clearly for our sexual practices will be closeted, muted, or embarrassing. Sadly, in spite of the so-called sexual revolution, the freedom of younger generations, and the conservative counter-revolution, as a country we still find it difficult to think effectively about sex.
“Science” has tried to take over the discussion. Instead of morality, the questions posed are about normalcy, adequacy, and health. People want experts to assure them that their sexual fantasies, activities and frequencies are normal, their “failures” at sexuality are curable, their erections are adequate or need blue pills, their bodily parts are the right shape or size, and more.
We still know sex sells, and we practice that salesmanship. We still have media images of what sex should be with actors on the big and small screens who seldom duplicate them at home.
We still believe that sex is a means of getting close to someone, maybe THE means. Yet our actual sexual activities are often distancing or part of desperation to feel close to someone.
We still see people having sex with someone not just because they want to participate in sexual activity or they want to express the closeness they have with that person through sexual activity, but to prove to themselves that they’re still attractive and loveable. There’s nothing new in the use of sexual activity to cloak a negative self-image.
We still have those who use it as slaves to the consumer-culture’s glorification of youth as beauty, to prove that their aging has not diminished their appeal. Youth, after all sells. Products will restore it. Wrinkles don’t; they just happen if you hang around long enough.
We still have a disconnect between what we say is a relationship between sex and love while we hear jokes about and justifications for marriage causing a diminishment of sexual activity between partners.
We still see sexual activity used to express power over another or to participate in the power that another has. Both rape and the attractiveness of the powerful, we know, aren’t about sex.
We still hear pitiful attempts to relieve guilt over being sexual. Sometimes it appears in outward moralisms; sometimes it’s turned inward.
We still have examples of hypocrisy around sexuality among sex’s most vehement critics. It takes little psychology to suspect that those who brandish the loudest anti-sex positions are speaking out of their inability to reconcile with their own practices.
We are still inundated with public efforts to control women’s sexuality. Denying women contraception has historically been the best way to do so, guaranteeing that every sexual encounter could result in pregnancy and, through much of history, the chance of death in childbirth.
We still tell men that sex is THE means for a man to get, express, and experience closeness. If a man prefers substituting any of the hundreds of other means of expressing closeness with someone, we still wonder what’s wrong with him.
We still use words and phrases that have so many other meanings -- intimacy, morality, sleeping with, close to, doing it, getting any, going all the way, scoring, doing the dirty, and cheating on, for example – and know they mean sex.
So, in 2012, we’re still having sex, but we haven’t been able to have conversations about it to discuss what sex is, what it’s for, why we’re having it, what about it scares us, and how for so many it doesn’t seem to do what it’s supposed to do. Instead we respond with obsession, guilt, self-blaming, and bad public policy.
We’re still hearing moralists and preachers condemning sexual activity as they have for millennia. Their rantings still haven’t changed a thing, improved human relationships, or promoted a fully-human, fully-present, fully-sexual understanding of sex and sexuality in the world.
And we still have to struggle to get comprehensive sexual education in our schools. Instead we still have politicians scared to face the fact that statistically “abstinence-only” approaches fail.
Conclusion: in 2012, we still have a long way to go and a lot of courageous, thinking to do.