Friday, June 13, 2014

A Nation of Prudes

Conventional wisdom in terms of America’s attitude toward sexuality seems to go something like this: “Back in the ‘50s, sex was kept in the bedroom and people were very reserved about even discussing it—but today, we’ve gone in the complete opposite direction, to the point that almost anything goes.” It’s no surprise to see conservatives pining for the “good old days” before the so-called Sexual Revolution, but even some progressives seem to think we may have taken “sexual openness” too far (as when The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur pondered whether Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs meant we would eventually tolerate anal sex onstage in public events).

But it’s not just inappropriate to be pondering whether we’re entering into some age of sexual amorality—it’s wrongheaded to even think we’ve achieved “sexual openness” in any meaningful fashion. Progress has been made, yes, but the progress is shockingly minimal, all things considered. The reaction to Cyrus’s performance is a good example. Her “shocking” antics included twerking and pretending to masturbate with a foam finger. The performance was classless and had no artistic merit, but are we really in an age where this is still seen as anything other than a lame grab for attention? Apparently so, since it was a very successful grab for attention.

If we think what we tolerate from performers (tolerate being used loosely) is somehow indicative of societal attitudes, we’ve learned nothing. In the ‘90s, Marilyn Manson tore up Bibles onstage and declared himself the Antichrist Superstar. The next president was an evangelical creationist committed to continuing Reagan’s legacy of fascist theocracy, to borrow Frank Zappa’s term. The fact that an anti-Christian Nietzsche-admirer enjoyed considerable record sales and put on shows around the nation did not mean that America had actually begun to realize the stupidity encompassed in a lot of fundamentalist Christian doctrines; likewise, the fact that entertainers get away with sexually charged performances is no indication that we’ve actually abandoned our long-held but utterly senseless mores about sexuality.

We still view anything sexual as “inappropriate”—we’d prefer children not even know sexuality existed. Why? Are children really going to have their minds corrupted by the very knowledge of what sex is? That doctrine sounds like something the Puritans might have believed, but is that really the attitude of twenty-first century America? In 1936, Bertrand Russell published the essay “On Sexual Ethics,” where he wrote: “When I say that children should be told about sex, I do not mean that they should be told only the bare physiological facts; they should be told whatever they wish to know.” Almost eighty years later, this idea is still unthinkable to most Americans, apparently.

But, of course, sexuality isn’t just viewed as inappropriate for children—excessive amounts can hurt adults, too, depending on who you ask. Rick Santorum ended up being a viable presidential candidate, while openly proposing a ban on pornography. That was a stance he championed, too—not one he snuck into his platform and avoided mentioning at public events. Imagine if, on the contrary, there had been a presidential who not only supported legality for porn, but argued it should be distributed as widely as possible, and publicly funded (this wouldn’t even be a completely absurd position, either—it has been theorized that easier access to porn has helped decrease the amount of rapes that occur). How far would that candidate have gotten?

And all this time, I’ve just been talking about “normal” sexuality. There are still sodomy laws on the books in several states (though they’ve been prevented from enforcing them by the Supreme Court). The military still has a ban on sodomy which it has not been prevented from enforcing. And, in spite of studies saying that it is not only harmless but even healthy, BDSM is still viewed as some kind of weird, perverted ritual for sickos by wide swaths of the population. We’re still in the process of even viewing homosexuality as acceptable, despite the obvious evidence against claims that it’s “unnatural” or “unhealthy.”

These are not the signs of a society approaching sexual amorality. These are not even the signs of a society that is sexually open, or anything like it. These are the signs of a society that continues to stubbornly cling to its puritanical views of sexuality well after they’ve stopped being even vaguely justifiable. We’re nation full of prudes, and we have to remind ourselves how prudish we are by getting outraged every once in a while about something completely inane. Rumors of our progress have been greatly exaggerated.  

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