While philosophers have long recognized the existence of negative attitudes towards sex, and words such as “prudery,” “puritanism,” and others have been used to describe such feelings, the subject of sexual fear has attracted little serious thought. Only a handful of mostly American social scientists have studied the condition.[i] But their body of work is small and lacks much of a perspective on the complex political process that produces erotophobia. The term itself is largely unknown; it does not appear in any popular dictionary nor in the standard psychiatric texts.
Though sexual fear is prevalent, it is hard to detect for several reasons. First, it usually coexists with positive attitudes towards sex. Only a very few extremely erotophobic individuals see all sex in a negative light. Most of us enjoy eroticism in specific contexts. In the same way that some anti-Semites deny that they could be racist because “some of my best friends are Jewish,” most of us cannot see our erotophobia because we know we have some positive sexual feelings. Hence I often hear statements like: “I couldn’t be erotophobic; I’ve had so many lovers I’ve lost count,” or “How could I fear sex? I’m doing it all the time.”
Second, the process by which erotophobia is learned is often highly unconscious. We acquire this fear in much the same way we acquire the accent in our speech. We absorb it subliminally in our early years through countless social interactions that are so normal and pervasive that everyone takes them for granted. Adult experience defuses some of our irrational sexual fears, but reinforces others. Schools, religion, the media, and the legal system set policies that imprint senseless sexual fears in millions of minds, yet are completely ignorant of this effect.
Third, many irrational sexual ideas are so deeply entrenched in the culture that they are difficult to recognize as nonsensical. For example, a widespread phobic belief is that the sight of adult recreational nudity harms children. Such an idea is regularly propounded but has no empirical basis. A delusion that is often expressed and rarely disputed is largely immune from rational challenge. That is why few whites in colonial America could recognize that their ideas about black genetic inferiority lacked any sense.
Human events that occur repeatedly and imprint baseless sexual fears in millions of minds are not random or accidental. They recur because powerful political forces drive them. Describing the complex but fascinating system that produces erotophobia is another key task of this book.
As all systems that generate mass irrationality are somewhat similar, throughout the book I borrow from the study of racism and sexism to gain insight into erotophobia. Reciprocally, our study of irrational sexual fear casts light on the traditional forms of prejudice. When you become aware of the subtle political processes that make you fear your own sexuality, you will become more sensitive to the way in which anyone can acquire delusional attitudes towards Jews, blacks, women, or Americans.
To understand erotophobia we must be familiar with its closely linked causes and effects. This book is organized around the causes of the condition, and a brief overview of them will give you an idea of the path ahead.
By far the most important cause is a group of behaviors that I label antisexualism. It consists of any negative response directed at sex organs and at harmless sex expression. Antisexualism has much in common with intolerant behavior aimed at racial or religious minorities. In the same way that racism promotes racial prejudice, antisexualism breeds erotophobia.
For example, I show how a very specific type of antisexualism, parental hostility towards nudity in the home, virtually ensures that a child will acquire specific phobic beliefs about genitals. A related type of antisexual conduct, the constant censorship of genital imagery by the mainstream media, reinforces the child’s embarrassment and shame in relation to genitals. The law’s prohibition of recreational nudity in all public space is yet another type of antisexualism that further supports phobic attitudes towards sexual body parts. In the same way that the effect of countless small acts of racial discrimination in racist cultures helps breed widespread racial prejudice, the cumulative impact of many single antisexual events produces irrational sexual fear throughout our community.
Further, like other types of irrationality, sexual fear is contagious. Erotophobia in the mind of one person motivates antisexual action, which in turn causes more erotophobia. For example, a parent anxious about masturbation will likely discourage a child from autoerotic play. Through exposure to the parent’s phobia-inspired antisexualism the child internalizes similar phobic attitudes towards masturbation. Similarly, a school teacher who falsely believes that no teen can engage in responsible sex will favor an antisexual education program that teaches only about sexual abstinence and nothing about healthy erotic play. Such educational policy in turn helps teens learn phobic attitudes toward harmless sexual exploration. This infection cycle is a key reason for the prevalence of sexual fear in our world today.
The next thirteen chapters – the bulk of the book – examine the common varieties of antisexualism aimed at: nudity, nudity images, non-marital sex, contraception, masturbation, oral and anal sex, childhood sexuality, sex education, sexual fantasy, adultery, sexual discourse, visible live sex, pornography, prostitution, and homosexuality.
The second cause of erotophobia consists of harmful sexual acts that I label nasty sex, such as rape, violent pornography, unhappy sexual initiation, and sexual conduct causing disease or unwanted pregnancy. Sadly, despite medical technology and improved education, nasty sexual expression is still prevalent in modern culture, and it promotes phobic anxieties about sex, as Chapter 14 discusses.
A specific type of personality trait is the third cause of erotophobia, and it is the subject of Chapter 15. Through genetic predisposition and specific lifestyles, some individuals acquire a condition called rigidity, characterized by chronic physical tension, personal insecurity, and the inability to enjoy playful, spontaneous experience. Rigid personality traits produce a phobic aversion to the normally pleasurable physical sensations of sex. The rigid individual perceives sexual charge as physically uncomfortable or emotionally threatening, or both. Another reason erotophobia is prevalent in our community is because many people possess such traits.
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[i] The best introduction to the subject is William Fisher et al, “Erotophobia-Erotophilia As A Dimension Of Personality,” Journal of Sex Research 25 (1988) 123-151. See also the important 1984 essay (updated in 1992) by Gayle S. Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes For A Radical Theory Of The Politics Of Sexuality,” in H. Abelove et al (eds.), The Lesbian And Gay Studies Reader (New York, Routledge, 1993) 3-44.
ALL CONTENTS OF THIS SECTION ARE COPYRIGHT © 2003 John G. Ince