Sex and The Commons II: Uncommon Sex
In this three-part series, I wanted to reflect on the relationship between the erosion of our discourse on the Common Good and our most intimate personal interactions. As I indicated in the previous blog-post, while many factors may have played a role, identity politics has come to trump any wider motivation for seeking a common good. Over and above the “me, first” language of groups separately vying for their piece of the pie, attention to broader common goods have eroded. Our discourse is full of a language of justice, of discrimination, of separate and unequal treatment of different groups. One of the advantages of our form of government over the tyranny of the masses is the protection of minorities or discriminated groups and the encouragement of diversity. However, the language of rights is rarely counterbalanced by the language of responsibility, and of the common good that does not exist without everyone’s contributions. Increasing levels of anxiety, social fragmentation, and loneliness are certainly part of the puzzle, as are fearful and angry responses to perceived unfairness or injustice. Language of violence and extremity has been shared and magnified by the echo-chamber of the “Incels,” the Involuntarily Celibate, which, while initially meant to be gender-inclusive, has come to include primarily powerless and lonely young white males. What I am exploring here is a connection between the erosion of a common good and the likelihood that the personal autonomy necessary to step beyond oneself into an increasingly diverse social world may be crippled by difficulties in learning how to negotiate intimate bodily relations with others.
In my previous blog-post Sex and The Commons I: The Erosion of the Common Good, I tried to illustrate some historical examples, such as the moon landing of 1969, and the struggle for civil rights of the 1960s, to provide some examples of common goods. These included both standard ones like national defense, energy conservation, and public education, as well as contemporary discussions like that of disease control and public immunization, as well as discussions of public health care more generally. I tried to suggest that the social changes which have led to the difficulties of sustaining attention to the common good has been a political discourse of competing group identities, which is too often divisive, fueled not only by those who would use discord and disagreement to their political advantage, but by the tribalism that group differences, unleavened by attention to shared projects and shared goals, all too frequently produce. Our inability to address climate change is probably one of the clearest examples of a common human good for which identity politics provide no purchase and from which they may distract. There is also an ongoing magnification of the safety-ism and identity politics increasingly inescapable in our system of higher education, explored in greater detail in my “Living on Tulsa Time” blog-posts.
Having tried to illustrate the tragedy of the commons and the erosion of our attention to the common good, the next step is to draw clear attention to the sexual recession. The sexual recession is likely to directly reflect our increasing difficulty with negotiating, and for younger generations learning to negotiate, the intimacies of bodily relationships with others. Negotiating bodily intimacy is the primary ground for not only establishing sustaining healthy relationships, but for developing the personal autonomy without which attention to greater goods is difficult to either establish or to expand.
The General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center showed that 23% of American adults went without sex during the entirety of 2018. This is a record high, not just for my aging baby boomers (average adult annual frequency having dropped from 62 to 54 during the early millennium), but for 18% of women and 28% of men between the ages of 19 to 29, double the number in 2008. The 10% gender difference not entirely accounted for by the fact that 35% of men and 29% of women aged 18-34 are living with their parents. This is, as always, likely to be multiply determined. Poorer health is certainly partf the picture, given the increasing prevalence of obesity and diabetes. But the more immediate causes are certainly linked to the lack of face-to-face interactions with potential partners. Research shows that sexual satisfaction and contentment within relationships is strongly associated with the quality of communication between partners, the embodied and emotional components of which are simply absent in communication restricted to social media and smartphones.
In Kate Julia’s article “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” in the December 2018 issue of the Atlantic, she points out that this is all despite our culture being more tolerant of sex in almost every form. This includes moral approval, the availability of birth control, porn, and even casual sex (“sexting” having become statistically normal), down to the re-framing of “perversion” as “kink,” and anal sex to a “fifth base” for which even Teen Vogue ran a guide. Still, in the course of a generation (1991-2017) the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the Center for Disease Control reports that the percentage of high school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent, “from something most high-school students had experienced to something most haven’t.” As Jean Twenge reports in iGen, people in their early 20s are more than twice as likely to be abstinent than Gen Xers were at the same age. The anthropologist Helen Fischer attributes the sex recession to a decline in couplehood, with fewer young people marrying, and marrying later. Sixty percent of those under 35 live without a spouse or partner, which means less sex. Kate Julia suggests that the recession may be symptomatic of “a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood.”
I’ll return to the causes and consequences of this withdrawal in part III of Sex and The Commons, where I will focus on the role of embodiment, and sexuality, in the development of social autonomy. As legal scholar Stephen Winter pointed out at a conference I co-organized on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual,” the legal discourse of the last 50 years, e.g. defending contraception in terms of the constitutional right to privacy, “takes in a surreal quality; after all, when one is alone, one does not need a contraceptive” (2011, p 238). This brings us to the first of five themes that came up repeatedly in the people interviewed and the research reviewed by Kate Julia for the Atlantic: “Sex for One.” The others are the “hookup” culture of sex without intimacy, the mirage of sexual availability on the internet, the avoidance of painfully bad sex, and demographic increases in levels of anxiety and inhibition. To paraphrase an old friend’s more profane language: “There’s nothing so over-rated as bad sex, and nothing so under-rated as a trip to the john.”
1). Masturbation. As a psychology professor for nigh on to 40 years, part of my professional responsibility was to educate young adults about sexuality, particularly the emotional components neglected by the focus on physiology in health class instruction, often left to athletic departments in many secondary schools, if not dropped entirely. It was long a commonplace to acknowledge that only a minority of college-aged males claimed not to have masturbated in the last seven days. The overall proportion of adult males reporting masturbating within the week doubled to 54% from 1992-2014, while that of women more than tripled, to 26%. What used to be called “coeds” often did not develop masturbatory habits until well into their 20s, though that difference may be decreasing. Still, anthropologists refer to the male equivalent of menarche as “spermarche,” usually measured by self-reports of first conscious ejaculation, often produced by manual stimulation. But then penile erection is not only externally obvious (a basic fact with more relevance to gender development than often appreciated), but provides rather straightforward graspability, and menarche tends to come with a quite different set of worries about external visibility.
It’s not just the US. Worldwide surveys report decreases in sexual frequency: In Australia, in Finland, in the Netherlands, in Japan, and even in Sweden, where it is treated as a “political problem,” given declines in birth rates. Many of the surveys also report increases in masturbation, accompanied overall by declines in all sorts of actual bodily contact, even including kissing. One Dutch educator warned that skipping an important phase of development, including flirting and klssing, but also dealing with heartbreak and disappointment, might leave adult development stunted. Japan appears to be particularly challenged, with 43% of people 18-34 being virgins in 2015, up 10% from 2005, and it is almost 2020. Are the demands of embodied, physical relationships less enticing than those of a fantasy enhancing virtual libidinal world? Japan is one of the planet’s greatest producers and consumers of porn, including whole new genres, including masturbatory aids involving direct stimulation, and absent even simulations of sex beyond masturbation. “Putting yourself out there” may increasingly involve more anxiety and vulnerability than practitioners care to negotiate.
While Western civilization has had an antipathy to masturbation going back to the biblical Onan, even nervous titters about it have been declining for a generation. The Archives of Sexual Behavior may suggest that the mental health community is still divided about whether or not Internet pornography is addictive, but major figures in the field of psychology, like Philip Zimbardo, author of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and a major commentator on the psychology of evil and the recent American use of torture at places like Abu Ghraib (The Lucifer Effect), warns that “procrasturbation,” procrastination via masturbation, may well lead too many young men to academic, social, and sexual failure. A TEDX talk by Gary Wilson, running a website called Your Brain on Porn, argues that Internet porn is not only addictive, but produces neuroanatomical changes, and may be producing an epidemic of erectile dysfunction. One wonders whether an epidemic of internet pornography use and masturbation may require a return to active attempts to reduce “fapping” or “wanking” (two slang terms for male masturbation), which may sufficiently “take the edge off their desire,” to substantially reduce the pursuit of real-world intimacy among Millenials and iGens. Of course, if women are reporting that they want more sex than their partners do, it might also be magnified by a “bonfire effect,” in which female masturbation increases libido.
Many young people are single and celibate by choice, but there seem to be increasing numbers who are pretty unhappy with their sex-and-dating lives. Whether or not they see the world of porn as independent from their sex-lives, they may be learning things from porn, which, after all, appeals to fantasies that may normally be quite different across the gender spectrum, and lead to sexual expectations unmet or difficult to negotiate by real-life partners . Whether or not porn is just another digital diversion, like social media or binge-watching TV, the virtual world may reduce the incentives to pursue the difficult to negotiate reciprocation of intimacy between embodied individuals, sometimes referred to disparagingly by internet habitués as the “meat world.” Does the internet give more satisfaction than genuine intimacy? Of course not, but the difficulty is when it gives just enough satisfaction to undercut the motivation to put oneself “out there” into the challenges of seeking out interested others, having face-to-face and body-to-body social intercourse, and negotiating the complexity and richness of actual relationship.
2). Hookup Culture. This brings us to the second of Kate Julia’s themes, where negotiating such intercourse is reduced to “hooking up.” This term refers to putative increases in casual sex on college campuses in the mid-to-late 90’s, shortly after the median age of teenagers having sex had reached its modern low of 16.9, late in the seventeenth year of life. To the liberal and somewhat aging sensibilities of one who was a proto-academic even before matriculating in 1971, I’d always assumed, as it turns out probably falsely, that most college students were no longer virgins, though I have known many who still were. Some of my more interesting discussions about “social construction” were always about what really constituted “having a relationship,” but it almost invariably included physical intimacy of some sort, which, even if promised rather than consummated, normally included sexual intercourse, even if the actual “relationship” status remained in that state of ambiguity it often had before its ritual announcement on Facebook (though “it’s complicated” was not an infrequent qualification even there).
What constituted “hooking up” was even more fraught, however frequent its use. At some point, after a decade or so into the millennium, even this topic became sufficiently likely to make someone “uncomfortable” and therefore to make accusations of “sexual harassment” by a professor encouraging such a discussion. Nevertheless, even well into the first decade of the millennium, such a topic could produce a quite engaging and even popular discussion. Since “hooking up” was not a phrase used during my own development, I could happily feign sufficient professorial ignorance as to make almost everyone in a psychology class happy to disabuse me of my naivete, hence the perfect opportunity for a Socratic dialogue. Apparently, by the first decade of the new millennium, the phrase “hooking up” might refer to no more than having had a few minutes of conversation with a desirable other, perhaps what my baby-boomer generation might have referred to as “chatting someone up,” or even “flirting.” So students could, and did, refer to the procession of such a verbal interchange to what the ancients might have referred to as “making out,” “snogging,” or even “sucking face,” as “hooking up hooking up,” the repetition perhaps evidencing a certain irony about using the phrase to refer to verbal but not actual oral behavior. Indeed, there were often disagreements about whether the former really constituted “hooking up” at all. The latter said that “hooking up hooking up” referred to what my parents might’ve called “heavy petting,” which tended to require more privacy, so usually involved a change of location, as in “get a room.” When I asked whether that might involve actual sex, the answer was yes, but not necessarily, though we agreed that actually “doing it” might be referred to as “hooking up hooking up hooking up,” and I remember more than one student said she’d actually heard that phrase used when someone pressed for full details. Over the years, I have heard the phrase “hooking up” increasingly used to simply refer to casual sex, not requiring any ongoing relationship, but I think there is still some ambiguity. Returning in the morning after having spent the night elsewhere is still referred to, at least in the women’s residence halls, as “the walk of shame,” but there is no male counterpart.
Surveys seem to show that the amount of sexual activity amongst college students is overestimated even by the students themselves. Student services personnel (a growth industry that may have helped to drive both tuition increases and burgeoning student debt) often made some effort to raise student awareness of this, however clumsily. For a time in the early millennium, I used a campus “student sexuality survey” conducted in the late 90’s as a case study in “sampling difficulties” for classes in introductory psychology. Biased samples produce difficulties for generalizing to populations, so in this case it was not even clear how the results might generalize to the population of my “small liberal arts college in the rural area of a large Northeastern state,” indeed, one with a heritage from the Brethren church (the liberal end of the Amish-Mennonite-Brethren continuum), with a historical gender ratio of “three girls for every guy.” The sample was 2/3 female, which may over-represent males at the College, but is clearly a heavily female sample, 85% students from the first two years, with only two percent from outside the residence halls. The crucial finding was that 49% thought students were “very” active sexually. Thirty-five percent were still virgins, but forty-eight percent had “first intercourse” before age 18. Sixty-one percent had not had sex in the last month, and an additional 6% only once. Only 1% had more than one partner in the last month. Of those who were sexually active, only 46% had only one partner. While the data certainly suggests that, if there was an increase in pre-millennium casual sex, it hadn’t reached this little college, or at least hadn’t reached mostly female first and second-year students living in residence halls. So, even if the truth was that students were having less sex than their peers thought they were, the biased sample might’ve made it look like it was even less. Students in introductory psychology should’ve been able to figure this out by the second week of class. Yes, this limited data suggested that there was a high proportion of sexually inactive students, but also reported about a third having sex twice a month or more, and more than 35% who have had more than one partner by early college age (and over 20% with three or more).
In the wider world, the Online College Social Life Survey of 20,000 students from 2005 to 2011 found the median number of hookups over 4 years of college to be five, a third of which involved only kissing and touching, most students wishing they’d had more chances to find a long-term relationship. A 2014 study showed that Millennials weren’t having more sex, or more partners than their predecessors. In The American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Lisa Wade, a sociology professor, looked at detailed journals kept by students at two liberal arts colleges from 2010 to 2015 and interviewed students at 24 other schools. Less than 25% were enthusiastic about “hooking up.” A third of them abstained from the “hookup culture,” a third only hooked up occasionally, and the rest were in long-term relationships. Wade suggests that, in postwar history, young adults have always been more likely to have sex in the context of a longer-term relationships, previously discouraged by parents, but increased under the invention of “going steady,” innovated by young women anxious about a postwar man shortage. The proportion of 17-year-olds who have ever even been in a “romantic relationship” declined from about 70% in 1995, to 46% in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Besides declines in dating in general, there is also a 25-year pattern of decline in other indices of adulthood, like drinking alcohol, working for pay, getting a driver’s license, and engaging in unsupervised activities more generally. Obviously, this puts a damper on sex. As Malcolm Harris put it in Kids These Days: “…sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that time diaries tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents. It takes idle hands to get beyond first base, and today’s kids have a lot to do.” If you have never even asked someone out on a date, your romantic and sexual life is likely to be a bit stunted. No surprise when almost half of Millennial males believe that asking to buy a woman a drink might constitute harassment, and where intimacy is likely to require electronic pre-arrangement.
Students often reflect a kind of puritanism, or even prudishness that may not have existed since the 1950s. Under contemporary circumstances, candid discussions of sexuality might well be experienced as threatening, a consequence of a social stunting that is both a cause and a consequence. “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.” Where relationship sex seems not only unattainable but potentially irresponsible because such relationships might diminish a focus on individual development, education, professional advancement, or the financial independence that seems to come later and later in “emerging adulthood.” Where “hitting on someone” has gone from normal behavior to borderline creepy, and everything is prearranged via electronic communication, there is little of the give and take of face-to-face conversation, where several hundred channels of nonverbal communication are not under your control. Vulnerability is avoided at the cost of much spontaneity, to say nothing of the ambiguities of defining, must less pursuing, a relationship. Teaching first year college students introductory psychology, I finally had to add what I thought of as a “remedial” component, of taking the last ten minutes of class for students to practice face-to-face conversation. It always took a few weeks before those conversations ceased to feel like a class assignment and became more personal “check-ins.”
Despite over a decade of research on embodied cognition, about all the ways that our thoughts and emotions are mediated and influenced by our bodies, too much of text-based and electronic communication has become an encouragement to experience ourselves as disembodied, our heads bent over a screen, communicating only with the tapping of our fingers (or thumbs) on a keyboard. When it comes time for relating bodily, we are at a loss. Longitudinal research shows decrements in the very empathies by which we share experience, having abstracted our bodies out of the equation. Never mind sexual intimacy when we have a hard time even maintaining face-to-face conversation with someone who is bodily present.
3). The App Illusion. A Pois Do Amor, O Vazio, “after love, emptiness,” was one of my longtime favorite pieces of jazz from the saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Unfortunately, when computer software applications, or “apps,” are the only tools you have, it seems like you should “have an app for that.” Unfortunately, smartphone apps like Tinder, Bumble, Match, OKCupid, or even Coffee Meets Bagel, may simply be a way to skip the love and move directly to emptiness. It seems so easy, so efficient to connect electronically, but when even the potential partners who “swipe right” on you are 90% unlikely to follow up even with a text, the “efficiency” starts to look like a diversion, like so much bubble-popping. When hitting on someone in person starts to seem “borderline creepy,” what is the alternative? Tinder logs 1.6 billion “swipes” a day, and just 26 million matches. If the majority of matches don’t even lead to texting, it’s like “howling into the wind for most guys, and like searching for a diamond in a sea of dick pics for most girls,” to quote one of Kate Julia’s interviewees.
If a real-life approach feels awkward or even “boorish,” people not only don’t ask others out, but rarely even talk face-to-face to begin with. When even looking at someone might constitute “micro-aggression,” how do you ever even tell someone you find them attractive or interesting? How do you find out whether they are if you never interact in situ. Talk to a stranger? “Creeper, get away from me.” So just look at your phone in silence, or even fake texting, as if people who are physically present are always lower priorities than those who are not. In doing so, we valorize absence. No wonder we feel empty and lonely. If feeling a little vulnerable is to be avoided, how will you ever find out whether you could be loved and accepted, despite, or even because of your endearing flaws? “Swiping” has become just another diversion, in a culture defined largely by distraction and entertainment. What are you achieving except keeping real people away?
It may be that the apparent plethora of choices also leads to a kind of “option paralysis,” or “fear of a better option,” a sad paradox of having “too many choices for your own youthful good,” as a generation old study of college life Coming of Age in New Jersey once put it. Yes, if you do “pair up,” electronic pre-arrangement certainly reduces the ambiguity of “is this a date?” or worse “is he into me?” So how do you show interest in someone you interact with in the real world? Computer assisted matching may be valuable for those in “thin markets” of minority sexualities, and the sex recession may mostly a problem for “cis-gendered sexuality.” Even there, where well-prepped photographs are the initial attraction, rather than say, having overheard someone say something interesting, or showing animation, or humor, or any non-literal forms of discourse with which the text-dependent have such difficulty. As a college professor, I had to learn to “frame” uses of dramatism, irony, or even what once seemed to me to be obvious sarcasm; it wasn’t to them, confused about what to believe. But when the most physically attractive, or those with the best doctored photographs, get the lions share of messages, and 25% of online daters are pursuing mates who are 25% more attractive than they are, aren’t we going to have a lot of hookups with people whose attractiveness is counterbalanced by limits of intelligence, personality, humor or, let’s be honest, mental health? This may be too sadly true, particularly when direct discourse, and real-life interaction, which might turn such things up promptly, become increasingly non-normative.
Been there done that. I once spent much of a decade pursuing a beautiful, and, sadly, brilliant woman who rarely talked in the phone, and who would accuse me of betrayal when I raised issues in person which she’d only acknowledged in emails, rendering person-to-person interchanges rare and intense. I’d eventually spend more time together in a week with a genuine love than I did with this woman in years. But then, the ambiguities, complexities, and opportunities for projection are notoriously fraught in dealing with borderline personality disorders. Sadly, there is a hell for children, in that nightmarish concentration camp that an abused child can carry, sometimes, unawares, twisted into an emotionally crippled personality, or rendered unable to love. And this can be borne well into the adult life of one who suffered there, affecting not only themselves, but those who try desperately to love them. Without electronic communication, such a relationship might have been severed far more cleanly, preventing years of suffering.
4). No Sex vs Bad Sex. I have no doubt that there are few things more over-rated than bad sex, nor that a retreat from coercive or unwanted sex is a good thing, and being more empowered to say, with Bartleby, “I would prefer not to,” is a healthy development. Still, I do think good sex is learned, which means that there are going to be mistakes made, and less than connubial bliss is likely to be inescapable en route to the “genital paradise” that Erik Erikson referred to as the healthy culmination of human intimacy. I also think that loving, compassionate, and caring sex is going to be far more likely, and easier to learn in the context of a regular pattern of mutual and reciprocal pleasuring that will be more readily found in a developing relationship, than in a series of hookups, however well negotiated. So, the erosion of opportunities for ongoing bodily, physical, and face-to-face social and sexual intercourse, cannot but detract from the healthy development of human intimacy. While the increases in the use of sex toys, and experimentation with anal sex, which, according to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, has increased to about 40% of women in their late 20’s, increases in sexual behavior prevalent in porn may be more likely to scare people off than to encourage them. As Debby Herbenick told Kate Julia, and regularly tells her students at Indiana University (the home of the Kinsey Institute): “If you’re with somebody for the first time, don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These things are just unlikely to go over well.” And while we don’t have comparative data, in 2012, 30% of women said they’d experienced pain during their last vaginal intercourse, and 72% had during anal intercourse, and most don’t tell their partners about their pain. There is research documenting high rates of sexual dysfunction among adolescents and young adults, and at least one university health center reported increasing incidence of vulvar fissures suggesting, if not rape, at least undesired or insufficiently arousing sex. Sudden unlubricated penetration difficult and painful, especially for the recipient; so is the nonconsensual substitution of anal for vaginal sex. This certainly doesn’t sound like a successful avoidance or a decrement in bad sex.
Kate Julia reports hearing too many iterations of “he did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn.” So the electronic availability of pornographic representations of sexual behavior, as well as substantially decreased tendencies to pursue sexual experimentation in the context of the mutual and reciprocal development of bodily intimacy which might otherwise provide a brake on such behavior, means that most sexual learning may be taking place in the context of masturbatory use of pornography rather than in caring intimacy, however passionate. “Spectatoring,” or worrying about how you look and sound while having sex, which Masters and Johnson long ago found bad for sexual functioning. Spectatoring can hardly have more readily available models than pornographic ones, where women are more vocal, orgasm readily from men aggressively thrusting, and participate without much in the way of romantic preludes or even sufficient foreplay to excite more slowly arousing women, (nor, for that matter, with much attention to the female arousal that sustains far longer than it requires for male ejaculation). What’s the best cure for premature ejaculation? Think about her pleasure rather than yours, and you are likely not only to last longer and give her more pleasure but, reciprocally, magnify your own. Why not throw in a little teasing along the way? A little preliminary frustration can drive much higher levels of excitement. Isn’t sex supposed to be “adult play”? To many young people it sounds like a mandatory obligation or worse, a competitive effort. Moreover, casual hookups are not likely to make possible the “partner-specific sexual skills” valuable for more pleasurable sex. A new hookup produces orgasm in only 31% of men and 11% of women. The most recent encounter in an ongoing relationship produces orgasm for 84% of men and 67% of women. If a hookup culture simply produces less pleasure, it should be unsurprising that it inspires less motivation to participate. If young people delay the development of serious relationships, many may pass through much of life with no knowledge of what good sex really feels like, or worse, ask at age 30: “What’s it like to be in love?”
5). Anxiety. Jean Twenge has documented a substantial increase in the level of anxiety reported by adolescents and young adults, such that the levels of anxiety found in contemporary young people are about what they were for psychiatric inpatients of a generation ago. This change precedes the emergence of what she calls the iGen, sometimes called Generation Z, those whose access to social media began with their formative years, but the increases have become precipitous of late. Longstanding problems with exposure to information overload, the erosion of community, and the increase in the proportion of the adult population living alone all contribute. Someone who is a virgin at age 25 may remain that way for decades to come.
I think that the recent growth in the popularity of tattoos, to say nothing of the increased concerns with the boundaries not only of bodies, but of privacy, also marks this concern, exacerbated by the “disembodied” communication on the internet. Perhaps this is what has led to an uncomfortable bodily inhibition, and a new prudishness, anchored in anxieties and insecurities about one’s body. Go to the gym, and people under 30 will stay covered by towels, even during dressing and undressing. Millennials and the subsequent generation prefers individual changing rooms at the beach and have difficulties with group showers. Many will not use them at all, preferring to shower and dress at home. They don’t like being naked, they worry about what they look like, and a growing body of research reports that social media use is correlated with bodily dissatisfaction. A meta-analysis of studies looking at the relationship between women’s body image and sexual behavior suggests a relationship between positive body image and having better sex. Not being comfortable in your own body doesn’t bode well for your sex life. If you don’t want your partner to see you in the bathroom, you’re not going to be very comfortable in the bedroom either. Increasing numbers of women report being uncomfortable with receiving oral sex, often because of inhibitions and self-consciousness about their, well, private parts, unfortunate in that cunnilingus is one of the surest ways for women to have orgasms. For some, “it feels more intimate than penetration.”
If the excitement system is like the accelerator of a car, and the inhibitory system like the brakes, opponent systems which operate best in a balance, heights of excitement can be reached when the braking actions of the inhibitory system are released during growing excitement. If the parking brake is simply left on, you aren’t going to get going very fast, if at all, and in the abstinent, the traumatized, the anxious, and the depressed, desire is dampened, or even eliminated. Unfortunately, some of the treatments for things like depression produce well-known reductions in libido. There really are off switches to desire that may be better predictors of sexual dysfunction. Disgust is a well known one, and even as it is colonized by moral judgments and hyper-sensitivity to offense, it is one of the emotions most difficult to counter-condition. Intense anxiety about making oneself vulnerable, whether socially or sexually, and anxious or panicky responses to sexual approach are likely to produce an ongoing dampening of desire, and a vicious cycle of unhappiness produced by loneliness and abstinence. Having sex does make people happier (up to a point), and there may be dangers in waiting too long. Eighty percent of people who are sexually inexperienced at age 18 will become sexually active by the time they are 25. But of those who are sexually inexperienced in their mid to late 20s, many are likely to simply remain that way for decades. But we live in a culture with any number of other sources of inhibition, from sleep deprivation to a constant onslaught of background distraction. How many people do you know who just leave a television on as background stimulation, whether in their homes, or in any number of public places, from waiting rooms to restaurants? We live in environments which are physically far safer than they have been for generations, yet our autonomic systems code any number of ego- or boundary threats as “danger,” producing anxiety, hyper-alertness, and poor sleep. Danger trumps desire every time.
So, what are the consequences? No one dies of celibacy, and some even choose it. And one can certainly have a fulfilling life without sex. But the hallmark of evolutionary adaptation is not simply living, but reproductive success, and the American birth rate has been falling for a decade, from the “replacement rate” of 2.1, the number of children the average American woman would have to sustain population levels without immigration, to 1.76. Not only are there clear political consequences of loneliness and alienation, but having a life partner is one of the better predictors of well-being, as well as having more straightforward health benefits, including longer life. According to evolutionary psychology, the decisive characteristics of our divergence from the great apes include not only upright posture and brain size (including the relatively explosive growth of our frontal cortex), but our sexuality. The unfortunate and probably horribly sexist “grinding” as a dancing practice among young people (which one of my students once said begins in junior high) mimics the “doggy style” common mammalian copulatory position. For homo sapiens with upright posture, the complex musculature by which our faces have become emotional broadcasting systems (unfortunately abstracted away by text-based electronic communication), and our extended childhoods make us deeply social, and extensively interdependent. Obviously, this also has implications for the emotional and communicative intimacy that comes with face-to-face sexuality.
Moreover, and most importantly of all, we are uncommon among mammals, and even among apes, in having “continuous” sexuality. Most mammals have a kind sexual free-for-all when an ovulating female goes into “heat,” absent much in the way of sexual interaction during the rest of the menstrual cycle. Not us. Why not? Because we bond with significant others, and sex is always the duct tape. In our evolutionary history, we don’t have sex in order to reproduce, we do it because it feels good. If a female keeps the same male coming around, the relationship is stronger, and if he helps with the offspring, so much the better. For most mammals, the males have little to do with provisioning children, almost unique among human mammals. We keep seeing each other because we’re comfortable and familiar, we know and like each other and enjoy each other’s company. As Kate Julia said in The Atlantic, the sexual recession has many sources, probably including the sad state of sex education (where even a psychology professor can get called in the carpet when candidly discussing sex in a course on emotion), a dependency on phones and social media that get in the way of actual face-to-face and embodied relationships, and a culture of “safety-ism” that avoids even college students being “uncomfortable.”
The theologian Stanley Granz points out that the last act of creation in Genesis is gender and sexuality. “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18), so we have Eve, and Adam’s ecstatic cry “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Grenz interprets the imago dei in relational terms, arguing that the nature of personhood is that we cannot be human “by ourselves,” and require mutuality and interdependence. It is sexuality that draws us out of ourselves into communion, and opens the way for the ecclesial self, that allows participation in a new community in which all things are interconnected. This perichoresis “one-in-another” requires a desacralization of the boundaries of self, not as introducing impurity or pollution, but seeing sexuality as the prototypical form of embodied, relational communion, in each other becoming more than each alone. In my next post, I will lay out the difficulties produced when these capacities are delayed or stunted, not only for our personal psychology, but for the development of the social autonomy that makes democracy possible, and may be behind much that has become unhinged in both our political and cultural intercourse.