I have read quite a few books on sex and sexuality. One of the most interesting remains Julie Peakman’s The Pleasure’s all Mine, which retraces the history of “deviancies” while uncovering many surprising information – such as the social acceptance of cross-dressing in North America in the 1700s, or the fact that many nineteenth-century “therapies” against homosexuality were knowingly nonsense, created only to avoid patients the alternative of ending up in jail or asylums.
However, the most important concept I read there is another one. Data shows that in the last millennium, tolerance towards free sexuality followed extremely rapid cycles. Roughly every sixty years, societies go from the most severe repression of passions and pleasure to embracing them with open arms. Sometimes even too open, so much so as to incite a return to various forms of censorship and obscurantism.
Now let’s do some math. Eroticism as we understand it today is, for better or worse, the child of the Sexual Revolution of the early 1970s. Simplifying to a fault, at the end of World War II the priority had necessarily been to physically and morally rebuild entire nations devastated by the conflict. Societies came out of this greatly changed; so much so, in fact, as to question even the concept of relationships between the genders and different generations, the legitimization of pleasure, and – essentially – even what sexuality itself was.
Over time, the ideas of erotic experimentation, free love, pornography for the masses, self-determination, feminism, diversity, Pride, etc., grew legitimized. Despite devastating catastrophes such as the still ongoing HIV epidemic or the rise of fundamentalist and repressive regimes, we have gradually arrived at a golden age of sexual freedom supported by unprecedented awareness. Pity then for a small problem still lingering, namely that pendulums tend to oscillate in both directions.
Checking the calendar, we are now on the verge of those sixty years I mentioned earlier, and the cycle threatens to reverse its direction. If things go as they always have, from now until 2090 we risk a descent into an abyss somewhat like The Handmaid’s Tale feat. the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, times have changed though: we have the Internet, globalization, and many beautiful things that will surely prevent the horrors of the past… don’t we?
The case of Rethinking Sex
Well, at the moment I’d go for «maybe», especially considering the news popping up from all over the world. To look at the trends in global politics would be enough to get scared, but what struck me was a New York Times article from March 2022, which a year later is increasingly being shared on social networks and has finally caught my eye too. The key point is the authority of the planet’s most influential newspaper, which is being used as proof that «if they printed it, it must be true» – only that in this case, it is the (positive, albeit with reservations) review of a very particular book.
Again: I read quite a few works on sex and sexuality, and when I picked up the one mentioned in the article, I had a… different reaction than with Peakman’s book. Rethinking Sex: a Provocation was written by Christine Emba, a contributor to The Washington Post‘s “ideas and society” column. She used to be a fervent evangelical Christian, who converted to Catholicism during university. I think it is important to take this background into account, as it is remembering that the author lives in the United States, where “normalcy” also includes daily shootings, 483 bills against sexual freedom, widespread sexual violence, and other inconceivable phenomena for those living in more civilized countries.
That being said, Emba’s thesis is that it’s time to fight the culture of sex positivity, as it harmed everyone already and especially women. Take a deep breath, stop swearing against her for a moment, and let’s try to understand what’s happening.
Her reasoning goes like this: by glorifying sex positivity, it has become normal to try strange explorations, live non-normative relationships, have occasional sex, and suspend judgment on anyone’s bedroom tastes. However, some tastes should indeed be judged, stable relationships do offer more serenity, and at some point, it is better to stop exploring and be content with whatever you have. Also, if we go on like this, no one will know how to start a family anymore: people are having less sex already, and the number of singles is unprecedented. Women in particular are suffering from an excess of sexual freedom, since their modicum of newfanlged better gender equality is countered by the “use and dispose” attitude caused by the ease to “replace them with someone new”.
The key example cited in the book concerns a stranger she met at an event, who suddenly confessed her desperation: «My man likes to strangle me while we have sex, and I feel bad about denying him the opportunity to express his sexuality just because I don’t like being choked!» Emba also proposes a solution, which consists of following the suggestions of St. Thomas Aquinas, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, and philosopher Roger Scruton when they preached putting the well-being of partners before one’s own.
Standing ovation from the audience, more clicks than you can count, skyrocketing sales, and – here’s the point – a orgy of social network shares by conservatives and fundamentalists of all kinds, who can’t believe they can wave an article in which none other than the NY Times appreciates a young woman who is intelligent, pretty, and black to boot condemning the libertinism of these disastrous times.
Big reactionary misunderstandings
Since history tends to repeat itself, it is worth remembering the case of Jordan Peterson’s bestseller 12 Rules for Life. At first, it was simply a very presumptuous book in which a rigid philosophy professor climbed onto the pulpit to straighten the back of a world sick with too much wokeness. Then it became an essential text for the US far right; then many analyses showed the fragility and inaccuracy of his concepts; then the New York Times (again!) glorified him along with other «renegade intellectuals who must hide in the shadows»; finally, the author became a superstar for incels and conspiracy theorists alike, who today blindly unleash themselves against every “target” indicated in his frequent media deliriums.
I may be wrong, but I am under the impression that we are witnessing a replay of that script – and it worries me a bit. I can tolerate one obscurantism bible; two with Rethinking Sex, not so much. I wouldn’t want – but I wouldn’t be surprised – that by continuing to accept the charade at face value, a critical mass of furious moralists could be activated, capable of crushing the placid sex positivists, distracted by having better things to do than squabbling online.
Especially because mrs. Emba’s theories are built on deeply flawed foundations.
The most egregious is to think that ‘sex positivity’ means «jump on anything that moves and fuck it like horny scolopenders» rather than being an ethical approach to sexuality. Christine Emba is absolutely right when she takes on Tinder, its approach of «anything goes, as long as you get laid» and the social consequences it and other dating apps engendered along with hookup culture. She obviously has every reason to condemn all kinds of sexual violence… Yet all of this has absolutely nothing to do with real sex positivity, which instead does everything to combat abuse and promote relational awareness!
Even her great discovery of ‘preferring the good of others rather than mindlessly unleashing one’s instincts’ is precisely what, along with many people all over the world, I also strive to promote – without even having to bring up high-sounding names.
Because, if you look closely, Saint Thomas also declared masturbation, homosexuality, and oral sex ‘against nature’. Dworkin hoped for the destruction of every erotic publication, encouraged physically attacking lesbians and anyone practicing alternative sexualities. Scruton argued that the Enlightenment had ruined the world with its ideals of freedom and equality. Perhaps these are not the best examples to flaunt, are they?
In fact, the awfulness that rightly disturb the author and her fans is born precisely on the opposite front, that of toxic sexual models of religious fundamentalism that exalt abstinence, ignorance, and repression of physiological and emotional needs. To write that «it was better before» is a very effective trick to signal the same nostalgics who wish for the return of regimes they know nothing about, but it remains an obvious nonsense for anyone who remembers how women really lived during the last century.
What should we really rethink?
At the end of this long but hopefully useful overview, an important question remains to ask ourselves. Even if the cause of the problem is not the one described in the book, isn’t it really time to ‘rethink sex’? After all, rape and sexual abuse actually are a serious issue, and relationships really are in a crisis. Perhaps the alarm should not be directed towards “excessively respecting others’ perversions”, but towards such a poor awareness of what a healthy relationship between adults is that self-esteem, dignity, and security just plummet away. In any case, however, we all should make an effort to improve things.
I believe the first step is… well, yes: to continue spreading the philosophy of sex positivity – the real one. The Sexual Explorers Manifesto is designed for this purpose. However, that is only a part of the solution.
A second and equally important part is, at this point, learning to recognize the signs of ideological backlash that can endanger decades of essential achievements. Anyone who studied history (even recent history!) knows well that the worst regimes have always arisen from both the ultra-conservatives and the inertia of progressives. In other words: if you just let what for years seems a laughable absurdity to happen, suddenly you end up with the Russian army at your doorstep and half of the United States in the hands of psychopathic conspiracists.
Is it paranoid to worry about a rambling book? Of course it is. And when you discover that bizarre theories like hers are being used as a justification to remove basic civil rights? Hmm…
Maybe it makes more sense to raise the alarm when you find out that the author grew up in a cult that wishes for a nuclear apocalypse to resurrect Jesus Christ?
Learning to recognize media manipulations can change lives. Think about how things would be if, instead of laughing for years at the populist propaganda of certain politicians, there had been a real organization to counteract it with at least the same firepower: I have the impression that today the children of gay families would still have all the rights of other children. Imagine if instead of sighing in our cozy homes about the misinformation on nonexistent abuses used for electoral purposes, we had mobilized to demand the convictions of real serial molesters.
Since we think about it so often anyway, since it constitutes a fundamental part of our lives, let’s try this: let’s rethink sex as a treasure to be protected. From the first signs of danger, so maybe we ‘ll be able to stop the cycle of repression once and for all.