People in the media ask me all the time—sexually, is the country getting more liberal or more conservative?
This is similar to the question George Lakoff discusses about politics, most recently in his article in Truthout. In it, he says there are no “centrists,” because “There is no left-to-right linear spectrum in American political life.” Instead, Lakoff talks about “biconceptuals”—“progressive on certain issue areas and conservative on others.”
The importance of this, says Lakoff, is that progressive values—“protection and empowerment”—are simply American values. The idea that there is a ‘center,’ he says, “marginalizes progressives and sees them as extremists, when they simply share fundamental American values.”
We can say the same about Americans and their sexuality. What people do, how people feel about what they do, and how people feel about what others do are three separate issues for many Americans.
And so while there’s an enormous increase in the number of people who have oral sex or use sex toys, there’s also a huge increase in the number of people complaining about sex on TV. More Americans have sex before marriage than ever before, but support for teaching abstinence-only in school is at an all-time high. Americans are watching more porn, going to more swing parties, and engaging in more anal sex than ever before. At the same time, groups like Morality in Media, Parents TV Council, and Focus on the Family are at their most influential, and municipalities are spending more than ever attempting to shut down strip clubs and adult bookstores.
Some people are consistently conservative or progressive on sexual issues across the spectrum, but many, many people are not. They want to keep doing what they do, while limiting what others can do.
Hypocrites like Ted Haggard, David Vitter, Randall Tobias, Mark Foley, Bill O’Reilly, and Newt Gingrich are not, it turns out, anomalous. Rather, they represent something very American about sex—discomfort with who they are, an apparent refusal to admit and accept their sexuality, and a desire to limit others’ sexual expression while struggling with their own.
The profound unfairness is un-American. The sexual ambivalence, sadly, is not.
And so it’s a mistake to ponder whether America is moving left or right sexually. The answer is both and neither. As lovers, we’re becoming less inhibited, more experimental, and using more gadgets, games, and social institutions. But as citizens, we’re becoming more frightened, more angry, and more repressive.
This surely reflects neither personal growth nor spiritual development. It represents torment. And many tormented Americans are saying they wish the whole sex thing would just go away—no eroticism on TV, no porn on the internet. Lock up predators for life plus 1 year, and destroy everyone’s constitutional rights to buy a lap dance or naughty magazine in their own town.
So the question isn’t how to get Americans to be more liberal about sex. Americans are plenty liberal about licking and spanking each other while telling hot stories. The question is how to get Americans less frightened and angry about other people’s sexuality. In this project, the media, most religious organizations, and government at all levels are part of the problem, when they’re desperately needed as part of the solution.