Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Puritan Sex

Sex sells. (The sun also rises every day.) This marketing and journalistic mantra has infiltrated all elements of society. The outfits (or lack thereof) on many of the local news’ Weather and Traffic women leave little to the imagination. Suggestive models and seductive music are used to promote everything from hamburgers to insurance. Americans’ relationship with sex is complicated. On the one hand that sex entices people is good because it draws viewers, attention and dollars. But on the other hand there is a prurient attitude that suggests issues of sex, sexuality and sexual expression should not public. That inherent conflict is bound to cause problems.

Anybody who has had even the most remote interaction with children knows that there is a delicate balance between setting boundaries and creating an invitation to naughtiness. So it is not surprising that using the allure of sex is impactful – since it’s considered a no-no in polite society. Just like telling the little tyke not to do something or to do something distasteful in order to build strong ‘character.’

Institutions and individuals that hold themselves to a ‘high moral standard’ are often those who are later discovered engaging in the very thing which they purport to condemn. The most recent exhibit: Germany’s largest bookseller (after Amazon) is wholly owned by the Catholic Church and sells thousands of pornographic titles (Call Me Slut!, Take Me Here, Take Me Now! and Lawyer's Whore) and lingerie.

Creating and selling erotic materials is not illegal. It is, in fact, an industry that generates billions of dollars each year. The disclosure about the German publisher is only interesting and compelling because of the apparent hypocrisy of its owner, the Catholic Church.  Three days after the public disclosure the Church issued a statement condemning pornography “saying the practice denigrates women and represents ‘a serious lack of humanity.’" Prior to this particular discovery the Catholic Church has a long history of stringent statements and behavior restrictions on human sexuality.

Closer to home sex has derailed plenty of political careers. From Representative Anthony Weiner sending pictures of himself to others to former Presidential Candidate Gary Hart’s extramarital affair there are example and example of individuals doing things with others that they don’t want to be public. Herman Cain is the latest to have an accusation hurled at him for inappropriate behavior. It seems almost a guarantee that if a politician claims ‘strong family values’ that there will inevitably be some claim that disproves the concept. Maybe it’s time that the role of sex in American life no longer be considered private, but rather public and OK to talk about.  (Cue fire & brimstone.)

It is vital that we distinguish what a sex scandal is, though. Too often incidents fall under the ‘sex scandal’ umbrella when they, in fact, having nothing to do with sex. Accusations such as rape, assault and molestation of children do not belong in the more palatable ‘scandal’ descriptor. If somebody has consensual sex with another person outside of their marriage commitment, that might be a ‘sex scandal’ and is certainly amusing to peep into.  If somebody attacks another – that is a crime.  The media must accurately report on newsworthy items, but it is not appropriate for the media to decide what is a scandal and what is a crime.

Religion and government have been arbiters of what is permissible between people since the dawn of humankind. Societies have different standards on the same issue. Look at the age of consent for sexual relations. Angola’s age of consent is 12. China it’s 14. In the US it’s anywhere from 16 to 18 depending on the state.

How can one society determine that a 12-year old can have sex while in another country that same 12-year old would be a victim? The simplistic answer is that each of these communities has made determinations based on what works for them. Tradition, education and communal expectations are all contributors to how an individual’s sexual expression and guide the rules of that society.

We only need to look at the issue of homosexuality in America for an example. The past 30+ years of the modern gay rights movement has had an impact on people’s opinions. Gallup shows that support for consenting adults to engage in gay/lesbian relations has gone from 43% approving in 1978 to 64% approving in 2010. This shift has occurred because of visibility of LGBT people and experiences in the media, ongoing political discussion and legions of people coming out. And there’s more to go.

Issues around sex could use the same open airing as LGBT issues have had. Our politics should be about the policy and not the policy-maker. Na├»ve? Probably. Likely to change? Not any time soon.  Puritan sex wins.

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