Singing, Dancing--and Eroticism, Around the World
I'm teaching this week in Buenos Aries, Argentina.
It's still warm here (it's their autumn), and the streets of this cosmopolitan metropolis (13,000,000 people) are filled, day and night. The Portenyos (residents) are both passionate and physical; for starters, men and women walk with a casual, confident air, moving their hips, tossing their hair about. They hug and kiss each other on the street. No matter where you go, there's always several couples making out.
The habits of the locals here are very, very different from those in Vietnam.
If you followed my trip there in January, you'll recall how much I enjoyed the country. You'll also recall that the Vietnamese people are rather modest: the women rarely show any cleavage, and outside of Saigon, not much of anything else, either.
In three weeks in Vietnam, I never saw a single couple kiss. The only people holding hands were tourists. The Vietnamese walk with quiet bodies. Nobody's flaunting anything, even when they're courting.
Although it's begun to change in the big cities, the Vietnamese are still committed to no-sex-before-marriage. In Argentina, on the other hand, less than 20% of the brides are virgins. Quite a difference.
Here's the clincher. What do the Argentines do after hours and on weekends? Tango. The women dress to kill, showing their legs (and backs and shoulders) with fierce pride. The men must hold the women very, very close, and the women are expected to lean into the embrace. And I'm not just talking about couples who have been together for a while. Seven nights per week, single Argentines go to Milanga--night clubs where strangers meet to tango together. And do they tango! As my uncle used to say, a vertical expression of a horizontal intention.
There's no excess drinking there either--you can't tango when you're wasted.
And what do they do in Vietnam at night and on weekends? Large groups of people (often men only) go to karaoke. The drink heavily (especially the men), and passionately croon out pop songs. As the evening continues, so does the drinking, and so does the passion--for the songs, and for one's pals. At evening's end, everyone goes home to their own apartment.
In Argentina, some people go home alone, others go home with a new partner. Either way, they've spent the evening dancing the tango. Living the tango.
It's not better, it's just different.
Sexting has come of age--it's on the front page of today's New York Times.
The good news is that our judiciary has finally told prosecutors enough is enough. A U.S. Appeals Court just upheld a preliminary injunction barring local prosecutors from filing felony child-porn charges against a teenage girl who took a topless photo of herself with her cellphone.
Eighteen months ago, sexy shots of three Pennsylvania teen girls--one showing her breasts, the others in bra or bathing suit--were taken and sent to some friends via cell phone. School officials busted them and 13 other students who had the pictures on their phones.
Sex-obsessed, insanely punitive District Attorney George Skumanick then threatened the 16 kids with felony child-porn prosecutions. Facing the possibility that their kids could be on sex offender registries for life, the parents of 13 kids caved, advising the teens to accept a lesser charge, probation, and other punishments.
But the heroic parents of the three girls fought back. This week they were vindicated.
And that's what parents need to do--protect their kids rather than panic. See teen sexuality in a proportioned, rather than demonized, way. These parents are heroes for insisting that the government doesn't own their kids' bodies or sexuality. It's bad enough millions of teens aren't legally allowed to ask a friend to touch their breasts. But tens of millions of teens aren't allowed to own a photo of their own breasts, because such photos are considered dangerous. What kind of crazy adult is frightened by a picture of a teen tit?
I keep hearing about the "dangers" of sexting. Specifically, I hear that these pictures could fall into the hands of predators. Without in any way dismissing the harm that actual predators do, I don't see the connection.
* Why assume predators would get the photos? These pictures are typically shared within teen networks. Until, of course, school officials grab kids' private cellphones and hungrily search them.
* How would having a teen's nude photo make a predator somewhere more dangerous? Oh, they salivate over the picture and decide to target the kid? C'mon, it doesn't work that way. Predators are sick, often obsessive, cranking up their motivation without any outside help.
* And by the way, who are these "predators"--drooling strangers going after kids whose naked pictures are floating around? No. They're swim coaches. Priests. The boyfriends of single mothers. Strangers? Hardly ever. If, of course, you believe science and the FBI.
I've been writing about this latest wrinkle in America's War On Sex for over a year. Let's enjoy some greatest hits:
Kids' sexuality being so much scarier to American society than adults', we again show that when necessary, we will destroy teens' lives to save them.
"To prove that sexting can ruin your life, we're going to ruin your life for sexting."
The primary reason most parents and all decency groups want to 'protect' kids from sexual material isn't kids' welfare, but adults' anxiety. It's adults acting out that anxiety that is the biggest sexual danger most kids face.
How should we deal with kids sexting? The way we would deal with it if we could see beyond its sexual aspect: by talking about trust, power, privacy, and fairness, and respect.
Honorable mention for Hero of the Sexting Non-Prosecution are Pittsburgh attorney Witold J. Walczak and the people who paid the enormous legal bills: the ACLU. Once again, they protected not just "liberals," but every American.
Can atheists have a code of sexual morality?
With the publication of recent books about atheism, the simultaneous attempts to blur the separation of church and state promised in our Constitution, and Americans' unending obsession with matters sexual, the question arises:
Can atheists have a code of sexual morality?
This question is at once hilarious, insulting, pathetic,
and revealing. It only makes sense if you believe in two things:
1. Moral thought and behavior are essentially determined by the fear of punishment;
2. The definition of "morality" regarding sex is different than it is for other human endeavors.
And indeed, young children and emotionally under-developed adults do make moral choices based on the fear of punishment. Organized religion relies on and promotes this style of personality organization: "Do the right thing or God will punish you."
And what is the right thing regarding sex? Every organized religion has highly specific answers to this question. They mostly involve "God doesn't want you to do sex this way; God strongly prefers you do sex that way." And if you disagree with God about your sexual expression, see rule #1.
Organized religion typically imagines sexual "morality" as involving limitations. In most cases, the less sex you have the better God likes it; God, apparently, also wants you to limit the number of sexual partners with whom you do the right or wrong sexual acts.
So religiously-oriented people ask, in all sincerity, "if you're not afraid of being punished for doing the wrong sexual acts, how and why do you keep from doing them? And if you don't follow God's rules about which sex acts are allowed and forbidden (as interpreted by a priesthood or sacred commentary), how do you know you're making moral choices?"
So here is the adult version of atheist sexual ethics: Do not do unto others as you would not have others do unto you.
(Memo to religious people--does this sound familiar?)
In more contemporary and pragmatic language, atheists operationalize
sexual ethics this way:
Of course, implementing this requires some thought. Are both people in a position to consent (consider alcohol, age, the pressure of status differences, etc.)? Does honesty cover not just telling the truth, but also not leaving things out? And do both parties have the knowledge, insight, and self-awareness to be able to take responsibility for their decisions?
Grownup atheists don't need to fear some metaphysical being in order to prefer doing what's right--all clear-thinking adults prefer doing what's right. And grownup atheists don't need a one-size-fits-all menu of sexual acts. They know that doing only the sexual acts on God's Preferred List is no guarantee of moral decision-making or ethical behavior. And they have experienced the deep satisfaction of ethical decision-making while rockin' the house with taboo sexual acts that would make seraphim and cherubim blush.
Is every atheist morally upright? Of course not. Does every atheist follow an honorable code of sexual morality? Definitely not.
But the question--can atheists have a code of sexual morality?--is very much like asking if blacks can really be good parents, or if gays can be expected to keep their hands off their fellow soldiers while showering or sleeping.
Just substitute the word "Baptist" or "Jew" for the word "atheist" to get a sense of how offensive and absurd the question is.
If I'm trapped in a foxhole--or a shower, slumber party, or abandoned farmhouse--give me someone who celebrates the human capacity for understanding and choosing what's right, rather than someone who needs to be told what's right, and then chooses it to avoid punishment.
As far as sexual decision-making being different from other kinds of decision-making? That sounds like something made up by people who believe that our sexuality is dangerous, and isn't really ours, and that our bodies are dirty. If I thought that, I'd also believe that less sex is better than more sex.
No, making choices regarding sex is like making other choices.
Some people want to maximize human respect.
Other people just want to stay out of hell. They're the ones who trivialize the majesty of sex.
(Note: Thanks to Greta
Christina for her years of work in this area, and for
supporting me in mine.)
Before he even sat down, my new patient blurted out why he had come. "My wife says I'm a sex addict, and she demands I get treated immediately," he said.
I've been a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist for 30 years. That's some 30,000 sessions with men, women, and couples--a ringside seat at the human circus.
The guy was yet another supposed "sex addict." I listened to his story carefully, and told him I sympathized with how he had damaged his life and hurt people with bad sexual decisions.
"But I don't treat 'sex addiction,'" I said. I think it's a bogus concept.
"But you have to treat my sex addiction," the guy pleaded.
Since the day I opened my practice, I've seen people going to massage parlors, strip clubs, and hookers. I'm always working with several men and women having affairs, or dealing with the aftermath of one. And every few months someone brings in their mate because their constant flirting is way, way over the top.
But until about three years ago no one ever came in claiming to be a sex addict, or saying that his partner told him he was one. The number of these people has grown tremendously. Not the number of people acting out sexually--just the number of people using the magic words "sex addict" or "sex addiction."
The poor guy looked like a lot of Silicon Valley engineers: light blue button-down shirt, khaki pants, shoes that desperately needed a shine. He had started going to a massage parlor a few months after his baby was born. After about eight or nine desultory hand jobs in the course of a year, he'd confessed to his wife.
I told him I might work with him, but why did he need this specific approach?
"Because Maria said that either I'm a sex addict and I couldn't help it and I need treatment, or I'm just a selfish bastard and she wants a divorce."
He wanted to keep his marriage and kid. To do so, he had to admit he had a disease and get it treated. He was desperate. He would do anything. I told him I might be able to help him deal with the power struggle in his marriage, and help him stop avoiding conflict (his wife happily abandoned him when she had the much-wanted baby, then unilaterally invited her mother to move in with them for a year--and he couldn't confront her because "I love her so much"). I said I could probably help him feel better about himself, and help him feel less guilty about masturbating.
But I couldn't treat his sex addiction because I didn't believe he had such an ailment. In tears, he left. The town's best-known sex therapist had failed him.
I saw a guy last fall in an even more extreme situation. His wife had caught him seeing out-of-town prostitutes. Not only did she decide he was a sex addict (and porn addict), she demanded he begin treatment at an in-patient facility. He asked what I thought of that.
"Is your wife a psychologist or an addictionologist?"
"Well, I don't find 'sex addiction' a clinically meaningful or useful term," I said. "But if I did--if I were a professional who claims to be a serious sex addiction specialist--I would probably say you had some symptoms of this disorder. I would then give you some tests, interview you, and evaluate you. Then I'd prescribe a treatment program, which might include attending 12-step meetings, reading books, being in a group, or even going into a hospital."
"But since your wife isn't a psychologist or an addiction specialist," I continued, "I wonder why she feels qualified to not only diagnose you, but to prescribe an extremely complex treatment program."
He hadn't looked at it that way. He asked what I would suggest.
I don't treat sex addiction. The concept is superficial. It isn't clearly defined or clinically validated, and it's completely pathology-oriented. It presents no healthy model of non-monogamy, pornography use, or stuff like S/M. Some programs eliminate masturbation, which is inhumane, naïve, and crazy.
Oh, I observe people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and a few other exotic states. That accounts for some of what laypeople call "sex addiction."
What I mostly see instead of "sex addicts" is people who are neurotic or narcissistic. They can't quite believe that the normal rules of life ("tell the truth," "all behavior has consequences") apply to them. They make promises they intend to keep--but then they want relief from frustration, or loneliness, or anxiety so much, they are unwilling to keep their promises, even promises to themselves. And some "sex addicts" just can't come to terms with having one, relatively brief, life. They want several lives, so they can have everything.
"So tell your wife the truth," I said. "Tell her you're concerned about your behavior just like she is. Tell her you want to change it just like she wants. Tell her you're concerned about your ability to do that just like she is. And tell her that you understand she's in a lot of pain, that you caused it, and that you feel great regret."
While all that consensus should provide her some relief, and maybe even create some intimacy, it still doesn't give her the credentials to diagnose and specify her husband's treatment. Her pain is valid. Her proposed solution isn't. She wants to regain a sense of control. Telling him what's wrong with him and demanding a particular treatment isn't.
"I think you're the one to help me," said the would-be patient. "But let me talk to my wife about your approach. If she agrees, I'll call for another appointment."