Can Sex Save a Divided America?

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In 2018, sex is the only thing left that people do without ear buds or a screen. This makes sex one of the last havens of actual human-human contact.

Sex is the last place left where Amazon isn’t telling you “If you like this thing, we think you’ll like that thing.” Perhaps it’s a matter of time before we’ll be told “People who enjoyed your wife also enjoyed this…”

Sex is the last place left that Waze isn’t telling you how to get there faster. Siri isn’t helpful, either (“Siri, does my husband like his nipples pulled or pinched?”). Someday virtual reality will enable you to feel like you’re having sex with, say, Eleanor Roosevelt or Attila the Hun. But VR will never replace the thrill of an actual woman agreeing to have actual sex with you for the first time.

Paradoxically, sex can be revolutionary precisely because it can be a place without politics. Assertive women can ask (demand?) to be dominated. Men can lose erections and still be men. People of different races can get together without having to negotiate racial issues. People can state “I am not a category, I am not a demographic, I am not a social class. I am, for 10 or 20 or 90 minutes, a sexual being not bounded by any ideology or cultural imperative.”

Some people can actually enact this utopian vision. Most of us inhibit ourselves, rejecting the revolutionary potential of sex. I see it in my patients all the time: Not care about orgasm? Not worry if they drool or wet the bed? Not keep track of whose leg is whose? It’s too scary. People say “what if I drown?” I think what they really fear is “what if I don’t drown? What if I fly?”

The Church, of course, mistrusts sex (well, when non-priests do it). They have two thousand years of scary stories why, but it comes down to this: sex is the place where humans can experience actual autonomy. In sex, no one’s watching (unless that’s your thing), no one can insist you’re ineligible, no one can critique you or deduct points for style or preference (or degree of difficulty).

Sexual autonomy is exactly what the Church hates. If people actually experience their bodies as lush rather than unclean, and a-la-carte sex as emotionally nourishing rather than spiritually debilitating, what other parts of Church ontology might they reconsider? Life-affirming, self-directed sexuality on a large scale could upend centuries of consensus about the nature of sin.

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While Americans become ever-more adventurous in their bedrooms (and swinger cruises and raves), the war on sex rages in the rest of America.

Birth control, sex education, strip clubs, porn, the morning-after pill, HPV vaccine, sexual health information on government websites, transgender rights—Congress, state legislatures, and influential religious lobbyists have limited our access to each one. As I said in my 2006 book America’s War On Sex, the Religious Right has created a powerful political issue out of regulating ordinary sexual expression. The ruling Republican party is fulfilling its 1973 post-Roe sacred vow to strangle Americans’ sexuality as profoundly as possible.

And so sex is more politically subversive than ever. Italians understand this in their classic saying “bed is the poor man’s opera.” They mean that it is a form of self-expression no less available to the poor, the talentless, the powerless, and the ordinary as it is to the rich, the beautiful, and the powerful. Maybe all that wine and pasta are a great equalizer.

Has there ever been a single Italian film that did not have sex in it?

Meanwhile, Amazon and Walmart have accomplished their goal of putting a vibrator in every middle-class home in America. Parents still hide the things from their kids, fearful that they’d have to actually explain that mom and dad actually pursue sexual pleasure a few minutes per month. Or that they pleasure themselves once a week. Explaining these things would be revolutionary, would lead to empowered, healthier kids, and would put a real dent in the incomes of psychotherapists 20 years from now.

Instead, parents complain that their kids are getting their sex education from porn. The typical parents’ solution is to try to limit porn. You might as well try to stop the tides. Better to learn how to swim, no?

So not only is sex revolutionary right now—sexual information is, too. It’s a pity that most parents collaborate with the government and the Church to keep their kids as sexually ignorant as possible. Sorry, you don’t get to call yourself liberal or progressive if you hide the lube.

In the book 1984, George Orwell wrote about a totalitarian society in which sex is forbidden. Why? Because it “creates private loyalties apart from the government.” Sexual desire competes with loyalty to the State. And so when protagonists Winston and Julia make love they think of it as a political act, “a blow struck against the Party.”

Ah, if only Americans would take sex that seriously.

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If you enjoyed this, check out my post Underpants In a Painting—Always About Sex?

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