It’s hard to write about youth and freedom while staying silent on the topic of sexuality…
Now, everyone sees sexuality in their own particular ways. Some might try to ignore it or keep it secured away from others. Others, however, as is clear from the media, perceive of their sexuality as a key ingredient to freedom.
Indeed, judging from the newspapers and the TV shows around us, one could imagine that sexuality would also be a key ingredient to our day to day conversations too.
Yet, the opposite has always seemed true to me. The topic of sexuality is still in the high-trust zone of sacred ideas we only ever dare talk through with a few select others. That the topic is in the media might only demonstrate the bottled up demand for a conversation that is otherwise too difficult to have.
Clearly, it is not that like we have no desire to talk about the many problems which sexuality presents us with. And it’s not like there are no problems at all. Ever since the decline of religion in the west, sexual norms have lost their firm foundations. No matter the bubble each of us lives in, one knows of religious folks still trying to save their virginity for marriage as well as radical feminists proudly branding an defining themselves as sluts.
Now, both of those extremes ring somehow unhealthy, but they are good at demonstrating how confused our societal attitude towards sex can be.
Much like our society, I also went through a journey from the conservatism of Christianity to the confusion-infused liberalism of a sexuality unguided by religion. This change of beliefs and perspectives has allowed me to better understand the western attitudes towards sex. However, it has also made it that much more frustrating to see a secular world still hurting from the cultural legacy of Christianity.
The modern western reality is that many, including Christians themselves, have long ago deviated from the ideal of waiting until marriage. In fact, if we are honest, today there seem to be two main modes of sexuality: the promiscuous, in-between relationships one and the one practiced within a relationship.
Now, what confuses me is the awkwardness with which those two modes interact with each other. We might have found Christianity too strict in requiring marriage, but we have basically adopted the very same framework when it comes to relationships. In other words, sex in relationships is good, sex outside is bad. Or at least undesirable and somehow shameful, a thing to be tolerated for the sake of freedom, but nothing beyond.
It might be simply my personal experience, but I find this phenomenon perplexing. After I left the faith, I had to confront the fact that without Christianity, everything about sex had to be rethought anew. It was foolish to simply adopt the Christian framework by merely substituting relationship for marriage and claim the problem solved.
The problem wasn’t solved. What’s the proper use of sexuality? What is it good for? And in what context? These questions were just as relevant to life as before, but God no longer had a say in answering them. As one would expect, the death of God reverberated in that corner of life too..
To be upfront about it, as of now I am definitely taking almost a radically liberal position. But honestly, it feels hard not to when one looks at the weird failed attempts of our society at moderacy.
What I mean is, for example, the sad psychological self-negotiations many have to go through to justify their sexual desire. This manifests itself best in the famously liberal universities full of liberal students whose sexual “liberalism” only manifests after three or four rounds of drinks.
Indeed, this has always been a great metaphor for the sexual awkwardness I feel has engulfed the west. The supposedly liberal western people avoid any frank discussion about sex, yet they desire and exalt it nonetheless. Sex in the west exists in a strange superposition of both being cool (so the conservatives are mocked for being prudes) and simultaneously being a guilty pleasure; of both something professed as desired and something only possible through a willful loss of inhibitions.
It’s cool, but let’s not talk about it. I want it, but I can only do it drunk.
The “liberal” west for you.
In a way, the west is only liberal when compared to its religious past or the modern Islamic regimes. In other words, hardly a high bar to pass.
But it is not the simply the strange behavior of college students that is baffling. Adults are no better. Our whole attitude and language around sex is just as awkward.
In serious discussion, sex is still mostly talked about in Christian terms, as something to be guarded. We might not wait until marriage anymore, but we wait nevertheless. It’s not uncommon to hear: sex on a first date is a no-go for self-respecting people. But strangely enough, it’s just sex that gets singled out this way.
Clearly, the high value that virginity used to have has now become bestowed upon some sort of relationship-virginity. The idea that we as a society have let go of Christian ideas is therefore a myth.
Of course, fast sex is highly nuanced and its unfortunate association with empty drunken one night stands only helps the conservative case. If liberalization means the loneliness and isolation of hookup culture, why bother with it at all? Why participate in a culture that makes you feel used and unappreciated?
Naturally, there is no good answer. But the automatic response should not be “back to watered-down Christian norms and attitudes then!”. Unless, of course, if the supposed liberalization of the west only manifests itself in the mere tolerance of provocative clothing and the depiction of sex in art; unless that supposed liberalization is more one of a narrative and less of an actual practice.
Over the years, I have gradually learned to see sexuality as most other things in life, i.e. simultaneously good and bad. Thus, if I now find myself on the liberal side of spectrum, it is only because the positives for me have managed to outweigh the negatives or I have succeeded in staying optimistic when others have not.
For a simple example, let’s take the question of sex and emotions. The conservative case for moderation has always run along the lines: sex creates great affinity and attachment, so sex should be moderated and highly limited.
And there’s truth to that. I think those who try to deny this fact are needlessly and hopelessly arguing against neurochemistry.
But I have always seen in the bonding power of sex the promise of a strengthened social fabric and the blossoming of many new relationships. Put differently, lovers deserve the label not simply because of sex. They frequently love each other in more ways than mere sex. I have never seen why we shouldn’t celebrate that.
The above is also connected to another fact. Namely, that touch is an underutilized and often under-appreciated form of communication and that sex is one of the best ways we have to leverage that wonderful sense productively.
In fact, this leads to probably the biggest point of conflict I have encountered so far between conservative and liberal views of sex: how much is sex a form of communication and what shall we do about it?
Now, most people, wether they believe it or not, act as if sex is a form of communication. So, I will ignore the fraction of the population who act the other way (the one night stand people, etc.) and assume that they’re wrong. In other words, I assume from now on that sex builds intimacy and allows two people to communicate in non-verbal ways that mere speech might not always provide.
The conflict then takes the form of a giant “cool, so what?”
Simplifying massively, the Christian (and the religious one in general) answer is roughly “this (sexual) form of communication is too revealing and potentially dangerous; sexuality should therefore stay private and be rarely exercised, if at all (monks and priests are supposed to stay celibate, the laity is allowed to marry just once)”
And simplifying the other side too, the position becomes “the sexual form of communication is a way to further express yourself and connect with others; it makes us vulnerable, but the risk is worth it”.
Clearly, there is a lot going on here. Willingness to risk and satisfaction with verbal forms of communication clearly play a role. So do an embrace of vulnerability and a fundamental sense of optimism, i.e. that everything as potent as sex is ultimately a force for good.
(Incidentally, we can safely suppose that the one night stand crowd are mostly running away from the inherent vulnerability of sex — whether it be by outright denying that sex communicates anything at all, or by artificially restricting relationships down to a night)
My own liberal position was formed through a realization of this conflict and a slow process of thinking through its implications. The intuitive idea of sex as communication appealed to me, but I could not simply ignore the dangers that conservatives were warning me about. After all, in life there are many occasions on which willfully ignoring the warnings leads to peril.
But in the end, I just found that the positives simply outweighed the negatives. Put simply, there are few experiences better than a good sexual connection and a playful outlook on the world.
The awkwardness of our culture shines brightly here too. Our society clearly realizes that this positive side of sex exists. We celebrate playfulness in the media, or at least, we certainly don’t get outraged by it (or at least we didn’t used to until recently…). But in the end we don’t really take this positive view sexuality seriously. We don’t act it out. The result is an awkward inconsistency between ideas and actions which leaves many frustrated and confused in their own search of happiness.
In any case, my desire for consistency has led me to where I am today, i.e. a place of seeing sex as not only a form of communication, but an aesthetic experience intimately connected to art.(hardly news to anyone, but the erotic and the artistic are closely tied)
To be frank, it’s been mostly through a basic playfulness and curiosity that I have discovered so much in drawing, dancing, acting and speaking. For me, this fact alone has justified the risks of vulnerability that sex implies. (and to those who think it’s stupid to embrace vulnerability like this, it’s useful to remember that we all believe that love is worth the vulnerability; why not sex too?)
Moreover, in an age of social media and a constant barrage of visual stimuli, I look at sex as a way of escaping the verbal and pictorial hell that normal speech has created for all of us. But that’s another post all on its own..
In conclusion, it’s good to reflect on the timid way that our culture approaches and acknowledges the positives of sex while ultimately shutting awkwardly the door to them all.
Of course, there are many things left unsaid or unspecified in the above. Maybe I will get back to them later as this conversation further unfolds.
In any case, my basic contention remains that the west is not really sexually liberal; that we’ve been in a strange state of timidly covering all bases — both acknowledging sexuality as important (and its playfulness as healthy) and simultaneously running away from it because as all good things it can be abused.
The sex and the west — an awkward symbiosis, indeed.
Please please, leave a comment if you think this conversation is worth having publicly. (as for me, I clearly do — that’s why I hit publish!)
I’ll be especially delighted to hear thoughts from people on the more conservative side of things. I know there are quite a few bloggers around who are married / Christian / both so their perspectives are especially interesting to hear 🙂
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