Censorship and the Fear of Sexuality
Censorship is frequently discussed as a civil liberties issue. As the title of this talk suggests, I want to discuss it in another way, on a more psycho-social level.
Most Americans do not want to discuss sexual issues rationally. Their sexuality poisoned by the culture, they just want their emotional pain taken away. To people afraid of sexuality, censorship looks attractive. It appears to be a solution to the pain. This pain, this fear of sexuality, leads people to support censorship.
Talk of censorship typically leads to thoughts of “pornography.” But that’s only one aspect of sexual censorship. Other targets include sex education, contraceptive advertising, fiction, sex surveys, the Internet, and public nudity. The Color Purple, Our Bodies Ourselves, and Ms. Magazine, for example, have all been banned from various high school libraries in supposedly liberal California. I think it’s important to talk about the availability and restriction of all these aspects of sexuality, not just of pornography. This will help us understand censorship on a deeper level.
I think of “censorship” as a strategy people use to eliminate certain kinds of sexuality-related displays or opportunities from their lives. The forms of sexuality typically censored include one or more of the following:
1) Sex not bounded by love. In our culture, love is supposed to make sex sane and wholesome and controlled. That’s “good” sex. In contrast, “bad” sex gives people “too many” choices–inappropriate partners, hedonistic activities, etc.
2) Sex strictly for pleasure. American culture mistrusts pleasure as a motivation for sex; in fact, many people consider it to be dangerous.
3) Sex that isn’t bounded by arbitrary social rules. The values of honesty, responsibility, and consent are the foundation of democratic, civilized society, and are deemed sufficient criteria for most activities. Many people, however, feel that sex requires additional rules.
4) Sex that honors losing control (within a secure environment). Lust, passion, ego loss, timelessness–while these are qualities some people associate with good sex, they also describe the loss of control during sex that censorship attempts to eliminate.
These factors are missing or underplayed in forms of eroticism that are not typically censored, such as romance novels, slasher films, and football cheerleaders. We’ll return to this point later.
At one time or another, many people in this room have said something like, “if you don’t like porn films, strip clubs, or sex surveys, don’t participate in them. But don’t prevent the rest of us from doing so!” Let’s now examine the emotional context that makes censorship look absolutely essential to many people.
Instead of addressing their personal fears about sexuality directly, many Americans displace them. Sexuality and sexual material itself is seen as the source of problems out in the world; thus, restricting or eliminating sexuality and sexual materials out in the world is seen as the solution to those problems, a solution that will supposedly eliminate the personal fears.
We need to look at the emotional pain people are in about sex, and examine why and how such displacements of this pain occur. Doing so will help explain why censorship is popular, why it feels so good, and how we can address it more effectively. I will now address examples of sexual fear and ways it is displaced.
A. Fear of our own sexuality, projected onto others
We all know the many ways kids learn that sex is bad. This is harmful enough. But what reason are kids given for sex being bad? None: “it just is.” The lack of a reason is crucial, because the belief can’t be refuted or tested. It’s like a religion. Sex is bad: “It just is.”
Children know they’re sexual, so most conclude that they are bad. Unconsciously, kids fear being abandoned or destroyed because of their sexuality. This is not a metaphorical fear–for young children, 100% dependent on the caretaking and good will of their parents, it is a literal fear. In terror, kids learn to hide, deny, repress, and distort their sexuality. Using a familiar process we call internalization or introjection, children soon take over the life-and-death job of scrutinizing their sexuality from their parents.
Freud observed this, but interpreted it incorrectly. He mistakenly believed that during a “latency period” from roughly 6 to 11 years old, kids lost their sexual interest. But this isn’t so; kids just learn to hide their sexuality. And sadly, many continue doing so after they grow up. As a result, many adults feel that trusting their own sexuality is dangerous. Unconsciously, they fear being punished or abandoned for their sexual fantasies, desires, and feelings. Like other therapists, I have heard heart-rending “confessions” about sexuality that patients are sure must never be shared with anyone who loves them. But once you reject your own sexuality, it becomes impossible to imagine others accepting your sexuality. The research for my first book, “Your Sexual Secrets,” revealed how much people were afraid that their partners would reject them if they told the truth about their sexuality. People felt they could handle their partner’s sexual secrets, but feared their partners couldn’t handle theirs.
Developmentally, the dynamic typically goes further: “if my sexuality is so dangerous, yours must be too.” And so people start fearing others’ sexuality. Jimmy Swaggart is a perfect example. He spent an entire career railing against people doing perverted things–and then we found out he was doing them too! Why was he criticizing others’ sexuality–in fact, warning everyone about their dangerous impulses? Because he was afraid of his own. His call to disarm others’ sexuality was a call, in code, about wanting to disarm his own. Progressive people, of course, don’t think Swaggart’s sexual desires were sick. But imagine how terrified he must have been of them.
Rather than talk about these fears on a personal level, our society has developed myths to justify them. These myths include, for example:
Homosexuals want to seduce straight adults and children into homosexual activity; Sex education stimulates sexual interest in adolescents; People can become “addicted” to sex, pornography, prostitution, and masturbation; STDs ruin people’s lives; Sexual experimentation leads to compulsive fetishes and uncontrollable sexual acting out; There is a vast underground industry that kidnaps children for sexual purposes.
Supported by social myths, then, people talk about the fear of their own sexuality primarily in metaphor.
To illustrate, this is one reason the concept of sex addiction has become so popular, and why these people so frequently want to restrict everyone’s sexual options. Feeling victimized by their own sexuality, they want to protect others from being victimized by their sexuality. These 12-steppers want to keep the tools of self-destruction out of people’s hands, like the temperance marchers of 75 years ago did.
Normality Anxiety is another part of Americans’ sexual development. Sheltered from accurate information, prevented from asking meaningful questions, told that our sexuality is bad–without being given criteria we could use to refute the judgment–we learn to worry that our sexuality is not “normal,” and that being sexually normal is very important. Many of my patients have fantasies or desires they believe are unusual. Unaware of anyone else having similar ones, they typically assume they must be abnormal.
This anxiety is reinforced in people by social institutions such as the government, the media, organized religion, and the advertising industry. Having created the anxiety, these institutions then offer to soothe it. The church creates sin, then offers salvation. Advertising creates sexual insecurity, then offers products to make people feel adequate. The government criminalizes victimless behaviors, then offers people the chance to be law-abiding citizens.
Most people walk around oppressed by Normality Anxiety. It reminds me of what physician Harvey Caplan said during my very first sexuality training 20 years ago. “People don’t come to us wanting 2-hour orgasms or help in finding orgies,” he said. “They mostly want their emotional pain taken away.”
And most people will do anything to have the anxiety taken away. For many, 12-step programs serve this purpose. For others it’s organized religion. I have a patient who recently quit being a stripper after 10 years. She’s now heavily involved in Catholicism, which she loves–says she likes the structure and rules, says it makes her feel normal. Says she’s learned masturbation is a sin. She’d rather keep doing it, but she feels that giving it up is a small price to pay for the peace of mind she gets. For the first time in ten years, she isn’t afraid that she’s a pervert.
Pornography and other kinds of publicly acknowledged sexuality (such as condom advertising) increases such people’s anxiety about what’s normal. Declaring pornography, sex education, and homosexuality “bad” is soothing for them. By defining “good sexuality” and “bad sexuality,” they psychologically split, unconsciously putting their bad sexuality “out there” where it can be disowned.
Given that so many people are afraid of their own sexuality, here are some aspects of pornography that will seem scary to them:
Pornography shows people as sex objects. For people who fear they aren’t sexually adequate, this is scary. The social myth covering this personal fear is that consumers of pornography will begin to see all men or women that way. This naive, inaccurate assumption also denies the healthy dynamic of lovers agreeing to objectify each other during their sexual interactions.
Pornography also shows people experimenting via sex. This is a scary concept for those who fear that their experimenting can lead to trouble. In truth, when experimentation is consensual, physically safe, and non-self-destructive, it’s almost impossible for people to do something wrong. The vast majority of American pornography shows legal, fairly vanilla sex. But in depicting people unafraid to experiment, it looks dangerous to those afraid to experiment. By censoring pornography, such people feel they are keeping others out of danger. Pornography invites viewers to get in touch with their fantasies, which are, of course, irrational. And it is used specifically to get aroused–i.e., uncontrolled. It depicts sex where people relinquish control, and where they enjoy sex without the context or boundaries of romantic love. The primitive fear is that getting “too excited” will destroy the ability to defer gratification and to reason in other areas; this is why the concept of “morality” often comes down to controlling sex. Eroticism is a metaphor for being out of control, for compromised decision-making.
So in a culture where people learn to fear their own sexuality, sex appears to require censorship if it is sex for pleasure, healing, or self-expression, and not bounded by love; and if it doesn’t require an institution, ritual, or sanctioned person to approve it. When people have been taught to fear the lack of rigid boundaries in their own sexuality, they fear what appears to be the lack of them in others.
B. The elimination of sexual secrecy, of the public-izing (vs. privatiz-ing) of sex
Who controls our common cultural space with regard to sexuality? This is a political question very much like the question of who controls the public airwaves. Sexologist David Steinberg points out that most of us limit how much we fondle our partners in public, out of “respect” for those uncomfortable with others’ sexuality. But, he asks, why does society agree that we have to accommodate the least erotically comfortable people? This trivializes the discomfort of more erotically comfortable people who are forced to repress themselves in public. Instead, why not have “fondlers” set the standards, and expect others to deal with their discomfort? Our culture assumes that repressed people’s exposure to erotic activity is more painful (and therefore needs more protection) than non-repressed people’s being prevented from expressing themselves erotically. Why?
Because we live in a sex-negative culture, many people want eroticism kept private throughout society. This is their social policy response to their individual discomfort, similar to institutionalizing personal racism via the social policy of apartheid.
By their very nature, some acknowledgments of sexuality are public–let’s call these public-ized sexuality. These include, for example, sex education, contraceptive advertising, gay bars, nude beaches, and the rental availability of X-rated videos. When these exist, they are part of a community’s public consciousness. Such activities declare that aspects of sex such as pleasure, self-expression, and high states of arousal are legitimate, are not shameworthy, and are an integral part of emotional life for one’s fellow citizens.
When sexuality is brought into the public arena in this way, therefore, it threatens sex-negative people. It undermines their illusion of a cultural community’s consensus in which they can feel safe. The very existence of this public-ized sexuality challenges the cherished belief that the community is not a sexual community, a pretense that sex-negative people need. By asserting that “everyone in this community is a sexual being, and that’s OK,” public-ized sex confronts and acknowledges everyone’s desire, not just the desire of the consumers of a particular sexual activity.
For people who unconsciously feel, therefore, that their desire is illicit, public-ized sex makes them outlaws–even though they have not actually participated in the activities. For such people, the existence of public-ized sex by definition means they participate–without their consent. Their psychological defenses pierced, they now feel dirty and unsafe, and want to hide. This shame is a profound existential loss for them. What is indecent about “indecent material” is that it transforms sex from private to public. When people say that sex education should be done only in the home, they mean it should be done without necessarily accepting sexuality, and, more importantly, without participating in any ongoing community acceptance of sex. When people oppose contraceptive advertising on TV–even on stations they don’t watch, like MTV–they say, in effect, they don’t want to live in a place in which people feel comfortable with such images on TV. They don’t want little Jennifer asking questions. So in an erotophobic culture, it’s indecent to provide a vehicle for people–and thus, the community–to accept and honor sexuality.
Some people claim a right to not be discomfited with regard to sex, a right that they don’t claim in other arenas. They justify this on the grounds that since sex “should” be private and intimate, they shouldn’t be forced to deal with the psychological impact of it being in the public sphere. But this is a phony reason. For example, society accepts an ongoing public display/dialogue about money, even though we all say that money is a private matter and that many people are uncomfortable with it.
We get an interesting insight when we see people making the same moral judgments about the depiction or discussion of an activity as they do about the activity itself. Some people equate, for example, pictures of sex=actual sex; a nude beach with sensual bodies=a beach with sexual bodies; ads for contraception=encouragement for non-reproductive sex, i.e., pleasure; enjoying a fantasy of taboo sex=desiring or doing taboo sex.
In fact, many people make worse moral judgments about depictions of sex, because the depiction implies an acceptance of the sexuality that the activity doesn’t necessarily imply. That is, “it’s bad enough that you’re sexual–at least feel guilty about it, and therefore keep it private. Public-ized depictions of sex, on the other hand, mean you feel so good about it that you think it’s OK to acknowledge it in public.”
Censorship is a special case of sex-negativity. While sex-negativity is a judgment primarily applied to the individual’s own life, censorship is an action-oriented, activist stance taking that judgment to a broader plane.
It says that the censor’s sexuality requires a certain kind of cooperation in order to maintain itself in the less-threatening way s/he desires; or, to put it another way, that if others don’t cooperate in creating a certain kind of psycho-socio-sexual environment, the censor will, inevitably, suffer from erotic self-consciousness and self-criticism. The censor fears having to deal with disturbing fantasies, the fear of losing control, sexual shame, and other frightening internal experiences. The censor may express this fear as concern for individual others (“we must help people who risk their health for casual sex”) or for the community (“we must protect our adolescents from sex perverts”); the truth is, these are socially acceptable motivations for what is really self-protection.
In the debate over whether a community, local or national, can allow sex to go public, most sexologists and progressives say that sex should be treated like all other classes of activity in a democracy–i.e., restricted only when there is a clear and present danger to some because of the behavior or options of others. It’s hard to find this clear and present danger in, say, a nude beach or a Playboy channel, particularly if people who don’t want to patronize such things have the option of staying away.
Would-be censors reply that there’s something special about sexuality that requires special rules. But they only say this about certain kinds of eroticism–eroticism that accepts itself on its own terms, without the need to be bounded or redeemed.
Romance novels, for example–women’s pornography, for sale in every supermarket in America–don’t get censored even when sexually explicit. That’s because 1) they make sex mysterious and illicit; 2) they uphold conventional morality by requiring that sex be redeemed by love, and 3) everyone pretends that readers are not having sexual fantasies. To the extent that the romance novel is a category of eroticism, it has the courtesy to not be self-accepting about the sex.
Despite the huge number of readers, romance novels are actually “private-ized” rather than “public-ized” sex because they don’t demand that the community redefine conventional sexuality, and they therefore do not require the community to “participate” in their use. The definition of “participate” is the key issue, because progressive say, ‘you don’t like nude beaches, don’t go to a nude beach.’ Censors say, ‘having one in my town forces my psychological participation’–because its very existence challenges everyone’s definitions of acceptable sexuality.
Censorship is aimed at material that is believed to be unspeakable, too private to be public. This betrays an erotic self-hatred which is not about real practical danger but about felt emotional danger. And that’s why First Amendment or other logical arguments inevitably fail in disputing the appropriateness of censorship. In terms of the private-ized/public-ized dichotomy, sex-negative people are right–without institutionalized restrictions, they are forced to psychologically participate in kinds of sexuality that they don’t like. The real question is, whose problem is that, and what should be considered acceptable solutions to it.
C. The Restimulation of Childhood Sexual Exploitation
We know that many children who are forced into sexual contact with adults suffer psychological and sexual problems. It’s important that our society is finally looking at this reality.
One aspect of childhood sexual exploitation getting too little attention, however, is the residue of fear and anger being displaced onto a demonized sexuality. This internal psychological process is gaining increasing support as a public policy. Too many survivors and professionals are saying that sex is the problem. The enthusiastic support of the anti-sex Right is well-documented.
Many survivors fear pornography and other forms of sexual dialogue will somehow cause other children and adults to be exploited. The scientific data doesn’t support that fear; as Dr. Mickey Diamond has shown, high-pornography-availability societies like Germany, Holland, Sweden, and Japan have much lower molest and rape rates than more restrictive societies like the U.S. and Ireland. Even the Meese Commission Report, on pages 951 and 975, said it could establish no causal link between pornography and anti-social behavior.
But I don’t think truth is the important issue, because there’s more going on here than reasoned judgments about what’s dangerous. Many survivors of sexual exploitation are still in pain about past experiences that are restimulated in the present. And a crucial part of that experience is powerlessness. The residue of feeling is so powerful, and so close to the surface, that many survivors can be catapulted right back into the past simply by being exposed to something that reminds them of sexual powerlessness. I believe that the desire to avoid this experience motivates a great deal of censorship, consciously or unconsciously. Again, this is a public policy response to a private psychological need.
Once we understand the deep desire of survivors to avoid having their pain restimulated, we can see many reasons they would want to censor “unbounded” forms of sexual expression like pornography. Let’s examine a few.
The fantasy depictions of “limitless” sex–i.e., sex without constraints such as love or properness–can restimulate the true powerlessness of being coerced. Pornography actors are shown unprotected from lust, passion, and the urgent drive for satisfaction. To someone who has actually been victimized by irrationality in the past, this can be a painful reminder, even if exploitation is not being depicted.
Pornography sometimes shows voluntary dominance and submission, depictions that can restimulate memories of true powerlessness in survivors of coercion. Would-be censors talk about “sex and violence” as a single category, wanting to eliminate such depictions.
Additionally, many people who have been victimized simply can’t imagine voluntarily submitting to domination, so they assume that any depictions of it are real, not fantasy.
Many survivors still feel shame about having somehow invited the exploitation; seeing pornography actors inviting sex restimulates that shame. In restimulated pain, survivors forget that inviting sexuality can be an act of authentic sexual power and adulthood.
Actors are in control of their decision-making when they invite sex on-screen. Survivors have trouble grasping that, because they did not have such control at the time, and because what’s being invited on-screen seems so much like what has caused so much pain in the past. Many survivors (and others) tend to over-identify with porn actors as human beings; there isn’t enough suspension of disbelief. In contrast, no one talks about actors being exploited in Rambo or slasher films; in “Silence of the Lambs,” was Jodie Foster exploited because she had to deal with really terrifying stuff as part of making the film?
In talking about how these actors are allegedly exploited, survivors (and others) forget that they’re on screen voluntarily, getting paid. Yes, porn actors are objects–they are choosing to be objects. The victim of childhood exploitation did not consent to being an object at the time. Survivors attempt to rid themselves of their shame by ridding actors of it.
We should be very sympathetic about the pain of those sexually exploited as children. Their pain renders living in a sexualized society, in a sexual body, a great challenge. But while we need to support these people in healing themselves, we should not do it by crippling or restricting society and other individuals. Helping people to protect themselves from danger that no longer exists isn’t right, and it isn’t helpful.
I also want to note the large number of professionals who do not help their survivor patients see that sex or lust is not the problem. This keeps the patients stuck as victims forever. Some professionals do this as an unconscious way of acting out their own sexual distress. Others do it as a cheap way of emphasizing that survivors are not to blame for what happened. I have a big quarrel with therapists who say that sexual trauma is the central, defining feature of a person’s life. This does not do any patient a favor. Instead, we need to empower people by reminding each one: “you are bigger than your wound.”
D. A few thoughts on authentic sexuality
Depictions of real eroticism kick up other feelings too, which some people simply don’t want to deal with. Some depictions of lust represent sexuality that has the capacity to be revolutionary–that is, to challenge the personal, social, and political status quo. In this sense, it is rational for some people to fear it, and, therefore, to want to censor it. Thus, expressions of sexuality that are subject to censorship are those which:
challenge gender roles, challenge the primacy of sex for procreation, empower people, undermine authorities who define sexual normality, challenge advertising based on creating sexual insecurity, see sex as a positive force to expand our horizons. Contrast this to forms of sexual expression that are not subject to censorship, because they support society’s status quo:
romance novels, Ken and Barbie dolls, girls’ heartthrob teen idol magazines, titillating yet moralistic TV shows like Dallas and Baywatch, slasher films, the Miss America Pageant, Sears underwear ads–because they’re about being comfortable, not about being sexy.
E. What we should do
Let me end by suggesting what we should do about the psychological dynamics that drive the desire to censor or otherwise restrict sexual material.
When discussing censorship, we need to talk about the fear of sexuality, not only about civil liberties or facts. We need to empower people to identify and deal with their fear of sexuality, and remind them of their inner resources. We should invite pro-censorship people to talk about their personal discomfort with sex. It can be uncomfortable to listen to–upsetting, sad, boring. But the more we can help these people acknowledge their personal pain, the easier it will be for them to listen, and to see that their comfort lies in personal solutions rather than public policy ones.
Remember, most people are less interested in facts than in having their pain taken away. In his books “The Politics of Meaning” and “Surplus Powerlessness,” Michael Lerner has shown how talking about powerlessness can attract the support of people from a wide range of backgrounds and ideas. We can then talk about how fear should not be the basis of public policy.
Demand that those exploited as children, as well as counselors and prosecutors, work through their anger. Confront their subtle or blatant concept that sexuality is the problem.
We should talk about the real sources of childhood exploitation: sexual repression, family power dynamics, alcoholism, poor anger management. As educator Sol Gordon says, “I’ve never heard of a molester with a healthy attitude toward masturbation.” We must fight the idea that sex crimes result from sexual liberalism.
Identify and discuss the difference between being the victim of someone’s sexual acting out, vs. the healthy, voluntary relinquishing of control during sex. Talk about the consensual nature of erotic power play. Underline that temporarily relinquishing control during sex can be an act of power. It isn’t something that a marginalized group of weirdos do–it’s a mainstream sexual activity enjoyed by millions.
Talk about the connection between censorship and opposition to sexuality-enhancing institutions like school sex education and legal contraception.
Talk about how fantasy is not the same as desire. Sources as diverse as Robin Morgan and Bernie Zilbergeld remind us that all fantasy, even a rape fantasy, can be an act of power because we direct the scene, we create ourselves as an object of desire, and we control the access others have to us.
Know the statistics on the large numbers of Americans who participate in sexuality-enhancing activities. For example,
~ Every Gallup Poll since 1980 says that at least 3/4 of Americans approve of school sex education.
~ 500 million X-rated videos were rented last year, 1/2 by couples or women.
~ The majority of American Catholics (and all other American groups) use “artificial” contraception, and favor its availability.
See sexual repression as a form of child abuse: teaching that masturbation is wrong, for example, or refusing to tell kids about menstruation or wet dreams, is as irresponsible as not teaching kids how to take care of their teeth.
See full female sexuality, including lust, as a key part of the women’s movement. Social scientist Leonore Tiefer notes that social restrictions on sexuality are typically aimed at the most culturally deviant expressions, which now include women’s experimentation. Tiefer says censorship will ultimately allow only the most traditional types of sexuality, which will hurt women.
Sexual repression also hurts women by strengthening the Right. As Richard Enrico, the founder of Citizens Against Pornography told me many years ago, “First we eliminate trash like Playboy, tomorrow filth like sex education, and eventually, abominations like homosexuality and birth control.”
Those of us who trust sexuality must not allow ourselves to be controlled by those who fear it.
We couldn’t have chosen a better keynote speaker for Sexploration Week! Your presentation was enlightening, really engaged the audience, and brought in aspects of sexuality that we couldn’t have done ourselves.
- Indiana University Health Center
The therapists here were unanimous in their appreciation: that your unique ability to present meaningful information in a dynamic and humorous way was just what they needed.
- Phoenix Interfaith Counseling Center
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