Popular Posts

07 October, 2009

American Tail

America has a bizarre relationship with sex. Our colonial ancestors shipped over here after the Great Reformation and during the Counter-Reformation, the period during which the confession became a more important part of daily life and sexuality became a more important element of sin.1 The Mayflower contingent were protestants of an unusually ascetic stripe (rumor has it that the first man to carry my family name here moved to what would later be Connecticut just to get away from those nuts!), but they were protestants, and so is a central factor in U.S. culture. We've been host to a couple of "Great Awakenings", not to mention some sexual revolutions.It's well known (pdf) that states voting for conservative Presidential candidates tend to have more online porn subscriptions, and according to the New Scientist report on that article, "Residents of 27 states that passed laws banning gay marriages boasted 11% more porn subscribers than states that don't explicitly restrict gay marriage." Hot damn, kids. What's the haps?

So, there are a couple of major trends in U.S. culture that seem relevant. I've tipped my hand a little here (I'm crap at poker); the first is Protestantism. The Reformation took Christianity and cut out the middleman, emphasizing an individual relationship between God and each worshiper. As I remember vividly from Durkheim's Suicide, which I read for an otherwise tragic sociology class, predominately Catholic regions have lower suicide rates than predominately Protestant regions; Durkheim's analysis led him to conclude that one of the main factors was not the religion itself but the greater individuation in Protestant nations. That item has stuck in my mind, and when I started to consider this issue, the individualism in the U.S., owing to the Protestant culture that informed its founders, struck me as a critical component of the American Sex Paradox (wouldn't that be a GNFARB?)
The emphasis that the U.S. places on individual rights and self-determination has lead us to a number of advances; we weren't the first country to enfranchise women as voters, but we were by no means far behind the curve. I'd say the sweet spot for that advancement was around 1910 - 1920, and we just made that range. We've also had some time periods with striking upsurges in our emphasis on self-determination: our colonial days are often seen in those terms, the "Roaring Twenties" were filled with hedonic self-interest, including Virginia Woolf's poly sister, and everyone remembers the Sixties (except the people who were there). But what of the floor show? Crap, wrong movie -- I mean, but what of the Puritans?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our friendly neighborhood Puritans were off fervently cutting holes in sheets. I'd like to imagine that, since they hailed from the UK, they had a little time to pick up on the confessional culture before heading over. The church joined back up with Catholicism for a brief period between Henry and Elizabeth, and confession to an intermediate priest is in practice today. Likewise, there's apparently some practice among Protestants of personal confessions to God, and I somehow can't imagine the Puritans missing out on a chance to count their sins. The important element here is that, with the emphasis on confession and on confession of sexual acts and thoughts, specifically, people ruminated more on their sexual failings (where, in this context, winning is failure) and internalized guilt over their naughty, naughty actions.

Now, take a peek at contemporary U.S. sexuality (Oh, close the curtains!). We're downloading porn left and right, it's almost impossible to be a pop star without being attractive (at least, if you're a woman it's impossible), there are strip joints all across the nation, and on every corner there are GODLESS HOMOS faggin' up the joint (and of all these, which is bemoaned?).2 Wow. God bless America, but despite all this interest in hardcore patriot-on-patriot action, we still have some kinks to work out. It's easy to see the resistance show up if one looks at political discussions of, say, pornography, sex work, and the like, but remember that someone voted for those old white dudes. In fact, a whole lot of someones ... someones who subscribe to more online porn than the someones who voted for the Dems who kind of keep quiet and try to pretend they weren't in that free love commune back in '68. (I do sometimes wonder whether the red state pr0n phenom only tells us that Republican voters are less likely to hit the /rs/ board on 4chan.) And let's not forget Twilight.

Oh, Twilight: in which an entire series of books is fueled by sexual tension, as the protagonist cannot shag her undead beau for fear that the sex will literally kill her. He spends hundreds of pages warning her; she, similar hundreds trying to get in his pants anyway. That's right, kids. Sex is death. But let's not forget how fun it is!

Similarly, if you are or have ever fucked a kinky person (please, give it a try!), you've probably heard someone ask to be "used" or "punished". That's a story that captures my imagination. Some quite consciously, explicitly, get off on being punished for their sexual transgressions. Some folk enjoy the thought that they're being used for sex - that the other person (or people, if you're awesome like me) is (are) using his or her body for sexual pleasure, as if anyone with the right holes would do. My thought, of course, is that this is a manifestation of the Great American Sex Paradox. Sex is no good ... but if someone else is just taking over your body and using it (how many people have a rape fantasy? Answer: lots.), then you can relax! Likewise with the punishment: how great is it to get your sin and your punishment wrapped up in one package? Think of the time you'll save! Yes, I realize how silly that might sound, but remember that we're dealing with emotions. Emotions don't stop to ask whether they make sense, they just hang out and motivate behavior.

Beside that, there's the simple reality of kink acquisition (see Holloway, Cornil & Balthazart's "Effects of central administration of naloxone during the extinction of appetitive sexual responses"). Once a connection between some arbitrary stimulus (say, high-heeled stripper boots or spanking) and sexual reward is established, according to folks like our man Holloway, it's practically impossible to extinguish that association. When the previously arbitrary stimulus appears, one gets turned on. Obviously, humans are as complex as can be, and the way in which those kinks get established is, I imagine, more complex than it is for lab animals. Nevertheless, the point of the unkillable association stands. If something becomes part of one's sexual experience, it will probably continue to be a turn-on (though not a necessary element for enjoyment).

So, the hypothesis here is that there's a trend among U.S. citizens to establish an emotional link between sex and guilt (or the feelings of breaking rules and needing punishment or an excuse). That's right, lads and lasses, to excuse our naughty behavior we've created a delightful cycle. We think about sex, and that makes us feel guilt; the guilt turns us on, so we think about sex, so we feel guilty, so eventually you just have to shag the preacher! One nation under God, baby. Or under Edward Cullen, evidently. Sex is death; therefore death is sexy.
There are open questions, though, even if this analysis is on the right track. Fro Instance: does framing sex in terms of punishment or being used allow one to enjoy what would otherwise just make one feel sinful, or does the guilt itself serve as a source of pleasure? The answer might depend on the mechanism of sexual conditioning, if that explanation has merit; and one could actually test to see whether the answer predicted by sexual conditioning theory (if that's a term) is the result we see in real live sexy people. OHO! That's right, everyone: sure, this hypothesis is thrown together from the odds and sods of half a dozen liberal arts classes and a few tipsy nights in bed with the right people, but we can still do science to it!

1The line of thinking I'll pursue here owes a lot to Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, a great read. Pick it up sometime; it's great stuff. I wanted to smack him until I started to agree with him.

2Being an atheist who's pressed his hetero self as far as Kinsey'll let him, I hope you understand me when I insist that some of my best friends are godless homos. Let freedom ring, baby.


  1. Oh man... this reminds me of a recent column by Ross Douthat that made a number of silly overgeneralizations about what we sexually-permissive libruls are like in our private lives. Thankfully you're a little saner than that. :-P

  2. @Mickey

    "A little"? You cut me to the quick! Seriously, though, the libruls in question should get their acts together. Life need not be lame just because your husband knows how to cook. But, isn't it interesting that the individuals in question do fit the curve predicted by the proscription/desire pattern?

    My writing this post, by the way, is the context for our earlier conversation about how I'm jealous of the relatively relaxed attitude about sex in Judaism.

  3. And those of us who feel guilty for NOT having sex?

    *sigh* One of these days I'll figure out where I fit in with this whole debate.