Our Weird Cultural Portrayal Of Sex

Much can be learned about a culture from the way it portrays (or outright refuses to portray) sexuality.

In the west, porn is a polarizing issue. So is sex in the media. So much so that some reading this already probably like or dislike this post.

If you lean conservative, you might say porn is harmful because sex was meant to be a private act, i.e. one to be shared between partners and not put on display. You might also add that the over-sexualization of the media is harmful because it is breaking important social norms around sex that serve constructive social functions such as controlling teenage pregnancies and regulating cultural expectations around sex. Moreover, you might complain about what you see as a modern crisis of meaningless hook-ups and the consequent devaluation of the body and its sexuality. You might link porn to the failure of relationships and marriages and the objectification of sex and the human body. Ultimately, you might add, porn is simply inauthentic — real life sex just isn’t what it is portrayed as.

Of course, many disagree — some quite vehemently in fact. While for conservatives sex is something to be guarded, for many others it is something to be celebrated or at the very least acknowledged and widely discussed. In this view, the ever more open public conversation about sex is not evidence for the over-sexualization of the media. And porn is good because it depicts what is naturally a source of much pleasure for all humans. Moreover, it is also a kind of social service — one that few wish to openly acknowledge — that prevents sexual frustration from building up and erupting in much more harmful and violent ways. Seen in a more liberal light, porn is hardly doing any damage to the culture. In fact, some might argue that porn does the job many adults simply refuse to do — speak openly about sex, how it is done and what can be done in the first place. That porn is inauthentic is acknowledged but only as a minor point — anyone who has sex quickly realizes this fact and is able to calibrate their expectations and behavior accordingly.

As for the hook-up culture and the objectification of the human body, the opponents of the conservative view would likely say there is no need for the paranoia. After all, what is one man’s objectification is another man’s appreciation. Besides, who has the right to tell others how to have sex and enjoy their sexual freedoms? 

To be honest, I think when liberals hear conservative arguments (and by the way, when I use these words I am only talking w.r.t. to sex and not politics, philosophy or anything else although there are probably going to be the obvious correlations) there is an underlying level of suspicion that often prevents any rational discussion. What I mean is, while some liberals are likely to acknowledge problems with the current culture amongst themselves, they are unlikely to do so in front of conservatives because the latter frequently give the vibe off that they are partaking in the conversation merely so they could ultimately shut it down.

Frankly, there is some sense to that suspicion. Sexual freedom has been hard-contested over the centuries and if it was up to the more extreme conservatives, there would likely be little open discussion about sex at all. After all, those who believe sex unleashed out in the public to be harmful are much more likely to also believe that sex should therefore not be in the public arena at all — even if that means state and media censorship. (it’s hard to tell the authoritarian who would rather limit sexual freedom from the person who honestly considers all arguments and finds the conservative ones more persuasive)

It’s a weird dance then between conservatives and liberals. A dance that is frankly quite antagonistic at times. So much so that discussion is often impossible between the two camps — conservatives have their own suspicions about liberal motives too, after all. (e.g. that they are paving the way for normalization of pedophilia, etc. besides the multitude of other social harms already committed)

As it usually happens in these cases, the result is a one-sided view of sexuality for both sides. Liberals become blind to the dangers of sex while conservatives are likely to feel guilty about it and try to restrict it only to within the bounds of marriage. On one fringe, any suggestion that sex only within the exclusive bounds of marriage might not be suited for everyone is considered a heresy, while on the other, open relationships and polyamory are the solution to most sexual problems. Few of us go as far as any of these two directions, but the cultural pull is certainly there.

***

I initially began thinking about this topic after listening to a podcast interview with the filmmaker behind the movie Marriage 2.0. It’s an attempt at combining porn with actual discussions that are currently taking place in western societies — is monogamy natural, are open relationships a possible solution, is traditional marriage outdated and can it work for anyone (e.g. for the extreme nymphomaniacs to the most asexual alike)?

Although I am far from a (sexual) conservative, on the topic of porn I tend to share some concerns with them. Like them, I have for a long time found porn rather inauthentic and empty. And while I have no problem with sexuality out in the public arena (I tend to be in the it’s-natural-get-over-it camp), I think the porn the west produces is definitely somehow off. Not always because of what it portrays, mind you. Sometimes, what’s missing is just as strange.

Of course, most people know that sex as depicted on camera is far from reality. There are so many things that could be listed here: the strange sequence of the act, the often missing or extremely unrealistic plot-line, the weird angles, the fake breasts, the almost complete lack of feelings, the pathetic dialogues, etc. (to speak nothing of the demeaning language used throughout movies and the overtly racial vibe of US porn… yuck)

Naturally, some of these come with the territory and are often dictated by the market. For example, the angles are down to the need for the camera to shoot, whereas the lack of plots and the fake bodies are supposedly what gets people turned on. 

And yet, it’s all too easy an explanation to attribute everything to the market. Especially when movies like Marriage 2.0 are successful (i.e. in demand) or when amateur porn is its own separate niche and when many people would clearly prefer a more artistic and classy touch to the whole thing. At times it seems like the porn industry is its own worst enemy — having banished the artistic and the erotic from the sexual, the result often feels artificial and empty. 

Besides, even small fun things like people discussing recipes or video games in the comments under porn videos (it does happen, yes..) suggest people are quite willing to integrate sex more fully into their lives and interests.

In fact, I think that gives an inkling of what is missing in our modern cultural depiction of sex. Mainstream movies shy away from sex (considering it too much of a taboo) while porn shies away from life (taking sexuality out of its proper everyday context). There is clearly a gap in the market for movies that are properly acted out, that have a plot-line and which discuss sex and related topics while unafraid to actually show some of it on camera.

The arguments that porn is education are sometimes rightly mocked — porn hardly teaches anything but anatomy and a few creative positions and acts. But real sex doesn’t stop with just these. And it rarely involves the demeaning and fake names in titles and scenes. (and though I realize some scenes are simply supposed to be rough and dirty, are all scenes supposed to be like that? not to even mention whether or not dirty necessarily means demeaning…)

***

When I wrote my previous post, Sexuality beyond the Act, I discussed my view that sex is far more than the act itself. In a way, I see sex not as an occasional act, but as a layer to reality that, once honestly acknowledged, is seen to influence how we live much more fundamentally than how we have sex, flirt, or even date. In this sense, sex is a lot more all-encompassing and shows itself in many small things such the kindness of hugs and conversation post-intercourse, the dinner date before, the massage that initially built the tension, and even the exercising that went into achieving the perfect body so the spark flared up in the first place…

I think that’s what’s missing from the cultural depiction of sex. There are no role sexual role-models, at least not widely available ones. In this regard, porn is no good, nor is Sunday school. And thus, many still walk in the dark when it comes to sex.

I see no reason why. Especially when the cost of ignorance is so great. The debate about sexual education is closely related, although it definitely goes deeper than simply educating teenagers about sexuality (e.g. why is the school system the one to determine when, what and how to teach teenager about sexuality?). Instead of delving into that thorny issue, I’d rather stay focused on the world of adults who have their own (more sophisticated) questions about sexuality which have no answer — both in public policy and in the wider culture. 

I think this is where a better kind of porn or erotic media could make a difference. When conservatives speak against over-sexualization of the media, they sometimes mean simply the fact that e.g. burgers have nothing to do with breasts, yet they are unnecessarily linked in advertisements. And fair enough. If the problem is with the gratuitous linkage between sex and other elements of life (rather than with the nudity and sexuality itself), then I could get behind this complaint.

But it’s not just the gratuity, it’s also the lack of aesthetics in the media. Frankly, it’s more than the media. Even in the most hardcore of porn, sexuality can still be ugly. And while tastes are clearly different (and beauty might be truly in the eyes of the beholder), it’s nonetheless a fact that the link between sex and its beauty is being lost in the media. Bodies are beautiful, but they are not everything about sex. There is grace, desire, and charged up emotions too, to name just a few…

Of course, there are many other sides to sex which could be explored — the philosophical (e.g. what is sex good for), the existential (e.g. how does sex make people feel, the normal human worry of pregnancy, STDs, etc.). I think European cinema is generally better at exploring these topics, but I don’t see why Americans don’t join in. There is no reason why every portrayal of porn should be simply a caricature of a teenage boy’s mind (although that too has its place). 

Overall, it’s the lack of eroticism that is most striking about western art. The polarized culture has mostly led us to a place where sex in the public arena is either non-existent or only available in its most graphic and narrow element. Popular music tries to rebel against the perceived conservatism of the status-quo to only end up presenting an equally caricatured view of human sexuality. In any case, the result is that most public personas either downplay or overstate the role of sex while mostly ignoring the erotic — some because it is too sexual and other because it is not sexual enough. There should be a middle way between these two extremes. For all it’s worth, I think the demand for it is already here…

***

In conclusion, if I had to summarize my point, it’d be this: the answer to some of the more reasonable conservative arguments is not that they make no sense, but that their proposed solutions are just as unworkable as the status-quo. In other words, we should acknowledge the fact that the way we currently do things is  indeed incomplete and it could be better, but the answer is not a return to restrictive sexuality, but a move ahead towards a more enlightened one. 

We have tried the “hush-hush, but tolerate” approach to sexuality already. It doesn’t work. It leaves no side happy and satisfied. I think it’d be better if we embraced the conversation of sex more and allowed it to evolve naturally with people’s problems and desires. (*)

(*) This doesn’t necessarily imply a liberalization of attitudes in real life — people could have the discussions and conclude that traditional relationships are good enough, for example. It does, however, imply a willingness to have the conversation in the first place — and that’s unsettling for many.

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  1. Lizziesrestlessfeet February 12, 2018 @ 11:00 PM

    Really interesting essay! I find myself coming down on both sides of the fence, depending on my mood of the day! It really is such a polarising topic!

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