Our culture appears to be enthusiastic about sex. According to pollsters most people enjoy lovemaking and do it regularly. Almost every currently popular woman’s magazine prominently features the word “sex” on the cover. Novels, television shows, and movies explore the nuances of erotic life. Sex saturates the internet. Explicit entertainment is a billion-dollar industry. Sex-positive attitudes seem prevalent in modern western society.
But appearances are deceiving. I contend that most people in our culture are highly ambivalent about sex. Opposing our in-born erotic hedonism are powerful irrational fears about our own sexuality and that of other people. Social scientists call such fear erotophobia. This book examines this largely unrecognized condition, its impact on our lives and culture, and the fascinating political system that imprints it in our minds.
Examine almost any dimension of human sexuality in our culture and you will find this sexual fear. Consider the widespread discomfort many people experience even speaking about sex. Though the media relentlessly reports sensational details of the intimate sex lives of celebrities, most of us have enormous difficulty talking openly about the subject. We suffer from a “sexual language barrier,” according to Steven Carter and Julia Coopersmith, authors of the book What Really Happens In Bed.[i] Most people feel more comfortable sharing body fluids than words about the event.
Children soon learn of adult discomfort with sexual discourse. As sex researcher John Money puts it: “In the world in which we live today, no child can grow up without becoming acquainted with the taboo on talking about sex. No matter how open the conversation may be at home, or among age-mates, every child discovers sooner or later that certain everyday sexual words are absolutely forbidden in school, at church, on television and elsewhere.”[ii]
Most parents feel uncomfortable giving their children even rudimentary sex education.[iii] Most children come of age without knowing the correct names for human erotic organs. In a society which values intelligence and learning, almost every female will reach adulthood without knowing the name of her erotic pleasure center, the clitoris.[iv] Similarly, most teenaged boys masturbate regularly yet hear not a word from their parents about this critically important early sexual behavior.[v] Most parents I know would feel more comfortable jumping off a bridge than openly discussing autoerotic pleasure with their children.
The focus of sex education in our culture is on avoiding disease and pregnancy; learning about creative ways to experience pleasure is completely unknown. Our schools teach our children how to paint, make music, play sports, and learn about their bodies in countless non-erotic ways, but neglect erotic education. The result is that most people reach adulthood profoundly ignorant about sex, especially its pleasure potential.
Erotophobia also prompts the exclusion of genital imagery out of the mainstream media and into pornographic ghettos. A similar phobic attitude prohibits any sort of live sex in public areas. Wrestlers are free to beat each other senseless in vast public spectacles, but no one is allowed to make love in a quiet corner of a park.
Irrational sexual fears also restrain our enjoyment of erotic pleasure. Consider the widespread aversion to masturbation. Autoeroticism risks no sexual disease or unwanted pregnancy, yet tens of millions of people in our culture are uncomfortable with it. The most comprehensive survey of American sexual behavior reports that half of the people who masturbate feel guilty about it. The researchers believe this figure underestimates the amount of masturbation negativity, because those who are highly uncomfortable with the act stop performing it.[vi]
Our behavior with our sexual partners also reveals our sexual ambivalence. The average sexual encounter is quick and routine. Sexual surveys indicate that, as sex researcher Seymour Fisher reports: “Although relatively unlimited opportunities for coitus are available, couples level off at about 1 hour a week, 4 hours a month, or the equivalent of about six 8-hour days a year. This is not a picture of much sexual action.”[vii]
Most of us have a very narrow erotic repertoire, a short sequence of erotic acts that varies minimally from day to day, partner to partner. We fear any form of sexual experimentalism or originality. While we seek out the new in movies, books, food, travel, fashion, computers, and so on, our sexual expression remains bland and repetitive. Further, while the deliberate and disciplined cultivation of non-erotic sensuality is very popular in our culture — evident in the proliferation of cooking schools, dance classes, music lessons, and other sensual projects — rare is the individual who devotes much attention to the erotic arts.
While young people today are less erotophobic than their baby-boomer parents, who are far less fearful about sex than the generation born prior to World War II, the idea that a “sexual revolution” in modern North America (or western Europe) has swept away all primitive inhibitions is often expressed, but is false.[viii]
Dr. Bernie Zilbergeld, author of a leading work on male sexuality, says, “I have yet to meet a man or a woman who I think is totally comfortable with sex, and that of course includes myself. We all seem to have hang-ups of one kind or another.”[ix] Children suffer the same anxieties, according to Dr. Elaine Yates. “In my many years as a pediatrician and child psychiatrist, I have come to understand that virtually every child in my country [the United States] over the age of five has already concluded that sex is dirty, that genitals are shameful and eroticism a patent ‘no-no’.”[x]
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[i] Steven Carter and Julia Sokol Coopersmith, What Really Happens In Bed: A Demystification Of Sex (New York, Evans and Company, 1989) 37.
[ii] John Money, The Destroying Angel: Sex, Fitness And Food In The Legacy Of Degeneracy Theory, Graham Crackers, Kellogg's Corn Flakes And American Health History (Buffalo, Prometheus, 1985) 132.
[iii] Floyd Martinson, The Sexual Life Of Children (Westport, CT, Bergin & Garvey, 1994) Chapter 7, “Sexuality Education.”
[iv] See “Clitoris: Still A Forbidden Word,” in Contemporary Sexuality (1989) 21(2) 3; Margaret Leroy, Pleasure: The Truth About Female Sexuality (London, HarperCollins, 1993) 36-38.
[v] Martinson, 32.
[vi] Edward O. Laumann et al., The Social Organization Of Sexuality (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1994) 85.
[vii] Seymour Fisher, Sexual Images Of The Self: The Psychology Of Erotic Sensations And Illusions (Hillisdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989) 41.
[viii] For example, author Wendy Shalit contends that most people are now free of sex insecurities. See A Return to Modesty: Discovering The Lost Virtue (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999) 26.
[ix] Bernie Zilbergeld, The New Male Sexuality (New York, Bantam, 1992) 43.
[x] Elaine Yates, in Jean-Marc Samson, Childhood and Sexuality: Proceedings Of The International Symposium (Montreal, Editions Etudes, 1980) 368.
ALL CONTENTS OF THIS SECTION ARE COPYRIGHT © 2003 John G. Ince