See Magazine


Whose on top?
Author John Ince blames cultural hierarchies for sexual anxiety

By John Ince
(Pivotal Press)
$24.95/320 pages

John Ince, a B.C. lawyer and writer professionally involved with sex issues for the past 20 years, first came to public attention in 1985 when he successfully challenged Canada Customs’ practice of seizing erotic material at the border and preventing its entry into Canada. Since then, he has continued to stir up controversy as co-founder of the Art of Loving store/gallery in Vancouver and as producer of such performances as "Public Sex, Art and Democracy." His book, The Politics of Lust, was published in March 2003.

What was your impetus for writing the book?

It started 20 years ago when, through my law practice, I received a complaint from one of my clients that the government was opening his mail and seizing images of sex just because they were sexual. Not because they were violent or involved children, but just because sex was depicted. I got intrigued why images of violence were freely able to cross the border, but not images of consensual lovemaking. So, I just got really curious about this institutional hostility towards sex. As I investigated it, it was like peeling the skin of an onion. I would come up with one layer of answers, which begged questions and imposed more problems–and another and another. It took a long time for me to figure out why our culture is frightened about sexuality at the same time that it appears to be really enthusiastic about sex.

Was there anything that you found especially surprising about what you call the "toxic system" surrounding people’s reaction to sexuality?

I was surprised how pervasive the system is–how it operates in families and churches, schools and the media, and so on. I found it first in the legal institutions, but to figure it out I had to look at the whole range of social structures and the family figured in that. I was surprised as well at my own erotophobic reactions. One example of it happened recently. I co-own a store called the Art of Loving, which features erotic art and sex toys and such. My partner, who is a woman, had said, "I would like to start selling toys for boys, most of our products are for women. Why don’t we sell toys for male masturbation?" So she went and bought some replica vaginas, we call them pocket pussies. She said, "Here, take this home and jerk off with it." My first reaction was, "That’s disgusting." Those words came out of my mouth. Like, I got to fuck this little plastic thing? I went: "Wait a minute, where did that come from?" It was like what I write about in my book, so much of our reaction to sexuality is reflexive. It’s unthinking. If we look at the way we respond, we will find that many people respond the way I did to that little toy. After that I took it home and played with it and am now a big fan of it. After 35 years of using my hand, I have found something even more exciting.

One of the things I found interesting was how you implicate non-religious cultural institutions. I thought that was really interesting because many people don’t talk about that. A lot of people just blame fundamentalists.

A very good observation. I’m impressed that you zeroed in on that point. Even academics who have looked at the erototoxic systems, in not nearly the detail that I have. They often have this idea that our sexual anxieties are a product of religion. My argument is that religion plays a role. Sexual anxiety is intense in a totally secular country like China. There is no Christianity in China, yet they are really uptight about sex. The question would always loom large, well then what is the cause? If it isn’t religion, and if it is religion then how did religion get erotophobic? My macro conclusion, my main theme of the book is the deep cause of sexual fear in a culture is something totally unrelated to sex, and that is the degree to which the culture is structured in a top-down pecking order, in a hierarchy. My argument is that if you look at a family or religion or school or a culture as a whole and give some rough assessment to its degree of hierarchy. For example, the greater the inequality between males and females, the more men are on top. What is the role of children? Can they be beaten? In many cultures you can beat a child and in our culture, until very recently, you could beat a child as long as you weren’t causing permanent damage. It was an accepted part of discipline. That is a very hierarchical behavior to beat children. You look at the degree of human rights–all sorts of measures–and you get an assessment of the degree of pecking-orderism in the culture. The amazing discovery I made was that the more top down the systems are, the more they fear sex. It doesn’t matter what institution we are talking about.


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