The Editors are pleased to bring you this guest post from Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic. The subject matter necessitates a more explicit treatment than our usual PG-rated content.
Our culture is sexually schizophrenic.
On the one hand, it has become acceptable to purchase torture porn at Barnes & Noble. On the other, as the Daily Mail reports, “around one per cent of the world’s population [approximately 70 million people] are ‘asexuals’ who feel no sexual attraction at all,” a growing group seeking recognition as the fourth sexual orientation.
On the one hand, anal sex is more popular than ever, sex shops are reporting massive increases in the sale of nipple clamps, and the average age a boy is exposed to hardcore pornography is 14, all to which we applaud: Sexy stuff indeed. But on the other — as a 2011 article published in Psychology Today concluded — the use of internet pornography has created a generation of men who cannot be aroused by their actual, real life partners, and that “many are becoming convinced that [erectile dysfunction] at twenty-something is normal.” Not so sexy.
We talk more and more about the marvelous act of coitus, and we’re happily exposed to every arousing portion of the human body that can be used to sell us beer, cars, and deodorant — yet sex itself seems to be less and less fun. Only 64 percent of women report having an orgasm in their last sexual encounter (despite 85 percent of men thinking their partner had an orgasm), and in a recent survey, it was shown that 63 percent of married women would rather “do something else” than have sex with their husbands — watching a movie being the most popular alternative.
All in all, we cannot make up our minds between getting our freak on and collapsing into an armchair, bored and dissatisfied.
There is a parallel we might draw with this phenomenon of both inaction and action, of the simultaneous whittling of sex into an boring, unimportant non-thing and the hyping up of sex into an ultra-eroticized idol: Death.
In their death throes, humans fade into nothingness while flailing in fits of energy. At the end of all action, there is a panic of action. This saddens me to no end, for sex is awesome, beautiful, unifying, and life-giving, and yet we see mirrored in our sexual culture what we see in death — grotesque action on the way to final inaction. Is sex dying?
Read an interview by The Guardian entitled “Why sex could be history,” and you’ll find that the answer — for some — is a happy affirmative. Here author Aarathi Prasad points out that science has made it possible to divorce sex from reproduction, and that we should no longer view the two as intertwined. Sex is no longer strictly necessary to human beings.
Or look at the general “Christian” response to the sexual culture, incarnated in abstinence-education programs: Sex is dirty thing, a dangerous thing, an evil thing. Perhaps this is not intention of those running such programs, but it is another affirmative response to the death of sex.
If we are witnessing the cultural death of sex, I — for one — am unsurprised. Farming unsustainably kills the land. Running a business with unsustainable resources kills the business. Sustainability is the capacity to endure, and our current sexual culture is unsustainable.
Pornography and subsequent masturbation have set an impossibly high standard for women. Men have seen hundreds of fake-breasted, airbrushed, aroused-to-the-point-of-myocardial-infarction pixels, all contorted into positions that would make an Olympic gymnast proud — before they have lain with an actual, warm-blooded woman. As Naomi Wolf noted in her article “The Porn Myth”:
Here is what young women tell me on college campuses when the subject comes up: They can’t compete, and they know it. For how can a real woman—with pores and her own breasts and even sexual needs of her own (let alone with speech that goes beyond “More, more, you big stud!”)—possibly compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the consumer’s least specification?
For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.
Worse, the practice of masturbation releases oxytocin into the male system, a chemical that facilitates human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear. All the joy, comfort and unity that sex brings are being sold to pornography, and a psychological attachment is made — not to a woman — but to a screen. It’s no wonder that we’re witnessing a generation of men addicted to pixels but unable to perform with an actual person. Our current sexual culture is fed by pornography (which it seems to be, given that approximately 70 percent of men ages 18-24 regularly visit porn sites), which supplies us with demands of sex that cannot be met in reality. It is unsustainable.
As is our contraceptive mentality. We’ve made our sex depend on contraception, but contraception cannot provide. Contraception offers us freedom from unwanted pregnancy, but despite the near universal use of contraception, one out of every two American pregnancies are unplanned, and two thirds of unplanned pregnancies — representing about two million annual pregnancies — are unwanted. Sixty percent of abortions are performed on women who were using contraception at the time they conceived a child. Contraception offers us protection against STDs, but again, despite universal access, 1 in 4 Americans will contract an STD in their lifetime, and it won’t be the penicillin-treatable gonorrhea or syphilis that our Land Before Condoms enjoyed. It’ll be one of approximately twenty-five unique and exciting STDs that exploded out of the sexual revolution — most likely incurable.
Whether this failure could be turned around by even more education and access to contraception is doubtful, but ultimately not the point. Our contraceptive mentality is currently unsustainable, for it claims as its own a goal it does not meet: Consequence-free sex.
Unsustainability leads to death, and death is characterized by a paradoxical meeting of grotesque action on its way to final inaction. We can see the unsustainability. Whether we are desperately crying for increased comprehensive sex education and access to birth control, or just as desperately for the return of sacredness to the act of sex, we are united in desperation, united over the fact that the sexual culture is not as it should be. We can see the grotesque action, whether in the hundreds of thousands of child pornography sites accessed daily or the sudden chic of torture porn. And we can see the final inaction, the paling of sex, the sexual dysfunction.
All I’m suggesting is that these things are not unrelated: Our culture is experiencing the untimely death of sex.
But we are not our culture. We, individual human beings, can do whatever we want. We can respectfully give the middle finger to the culture and walk away, in a fashion not unlike a man walking from an exploding building without looking over his shoulder. There is a growing movement of people advocating what I’ll broadly term as “sustainable sex”: Sex that endures. Sex that leads neither to its own destruction, nor the hurt and destruction of those enjoying it. Sex that makes no unrealistic demands of the pornographic variety, nor the unrealistic demand of total freedom from consequence.
Sex that seeks to be healthy, free from the chemicals of contraception that harm the human body and the environment, and avoiding the multiple-partner lifestyle that brings with it the high risk of STDs.
Sex that seeks to be responsible, acknowledging the power of intercourse to create new life, and instead of desperately trying to suppress it — which only works for so long — actually planning a family, using a woman’s natural indicators of fertility to effectively choose when and when not to have children.
It’s an awesome thing, watching more and more people turn to a holistic understanding of sex, to beautiful, life-giving marriages, and to the use of natural methods of family planning. It’s as awesome as it is necessary, this revolution of the heart, for our sexual culture will either embrace sustainability or die.