The Religious Right's been warning us for decades. A Supreme Court justice warned us in Lawrence v Texas. Various institutions have been warning us for centuries—about the sexual, and therefore social, impact of Boccaccio and Chaucer and of women on the theatrical stage, of mixed-gender schools, cheap mass "literature," talking movies, and of legalizing "rubbers."
Today they're warning us about the increasing social acceptance of same-gender sex, non-monogamy, and S/M.
And they're right. We're approaching the end of normal sex.
Socially-defined "normal sex," in contrast to socially-defined "abnormal sex." With a clear bright line between them.
Historically, "normal sex" has always been about defining and imposing boundaries. Various sexual activities, thoughts, and ideas were demonized, even criminalized. Most people really did fear, condemn, and stay away from whatever forms of eroticism they learned were abnormal. The adventurous—Oscar Wilde, Marquis de Sade, Margaret Sanger, Hester Prynne—were punished.
Much of this was about controlling procreation. Some of it was about ignorance toward female pleasure, and hostility toward female enthusiasm. Some of it was about dividing the body into clean and dirty areas, hence clean and dirty activities. Some of it was about managing virginity, which was valuable family property.
Beyond all this, a key reason religion and repressive government have always wanted to control sexuality is because it's a place where people can experience profound autonomy. Since the beginning of time, even the poorest, least intelligent, least attractive people have been able to feel powerful during sex. Even when you have absolutely no power over the important circumstances of your life, you can, if not instructed against it, still do and imagine whatever you want in bed. What powerful social institution would NOT want to control this bottomless well of personal power?
Therapists find that when people become empowered around their sexuality, they often keep growing: "If I can be uninhibited in bed, where else can I express myself? If I can make up my own rules in bed, why not in my relationship, my family, my community, or even with my God?"
So defining and patrolling normal sex is an important political tool. Every religion and every government knows that.
And although politically our country is deep into a 21st century Dark Ages—abortion virtually criminalized, sex offender registries now used as throwaway gulags, pornography relentlessly demonized as causing violence and addiction—in bed, fortunately, Americans are increasingly out of control. Utah homemakers reading 50 Shades of Grey. Men and women waxing pubic hair. Everyone under 40 trying anal sex at least once. Straight college students self-identifying as queer. From Wal-Marts to Amazon, vibrators unbuckling the Bible Belt.
So is this, in fact, the end of the world?
Depending on what your world's based on, the answer is yes. Those who say that "morality" is about restricting sexual expression rather than living by a humanistic code of ethics are clearly on the wrong side of history. Virtually all Americans have sex by age 21, and they're not going back. Most people who have genital sex have oral sex, and over a third have tried (or still do) anal sex. Virtually all American Catholics use "artificial" birth control. And this is clearly a Golden Age for both sex toys and swing clubs in every one of our 50 states.
Oh sure, millions of today's politically conservative young people loudly demand that politicians continue to criminalize alternative sexualities, but many of them privately do those very things. The really religious ones (often home-schooled) talk about virginity until marriage, the unreliability of condoms, the horrors of commercial sex, masturbation as infidelity, and strict heterosexuality in thought, deed, and fantasy.
Until, of course, they get drunk, those blissful few hours when they love strip clubs, premarital blowjobs, and watching girls make out with girls.
They'll support a narrow, punitive vision of normal sex once again when they sober up. But for the rest of us, no matter how ordinary our sex lives are, the days of normal sex are just about over.
And it's about time.
You've probably heard that Ohio ultra-conservative Senator Rob Portman has changed his position and now supports same-gender marriage—because, he says, his son is gay.
That's great for progressives. But…
Wanting equal rights for your son is a poor reason to support equal rights for a class of people. It reflects exactly the kind of tribalism that's preventing most of the Arab world and Africa from ever creating secular democracies. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, "voting" is simple: Sunnis vote for Sunnis, Shia for Shia, Kurds for Kurds, etc.. This isn't voting, its tribal warfare brought indoors.
There are still no civic institutions knitting together the "countries" of Iraq or Afghanistan, or of Syria, Lebanon, Albania, Rwanda, Azerbaijan, and other places where ethnicity and family history are more important than national identity.
Senator Portman sees public policy as a way of comforting HIS family, not of nourishing the American people. His statements this week showed no recognition of any actual principle of fairness. He acknowledges that his past opposition to civil rights for gay people is rooted in his faith tradition—itself a bizarre (if too-common) abdication of his legislative responsibility. He now says that he sees gay couples' desire to marry as a tribute to marriage rather than a threat (recalling the old fear that giving Blacks civil rights would endanger the rights of Whites). He also says his new position is rooted in the Biblical value of compassion.
But as inappropriate as it is to reference his nouveau interpretation of the Bible for a legislative position, he isn't extending this "compassion" to any other Americans in any other situations.
So this is a mind that has NOT opened. Because as Portman himself said, he's "had a change of heart based upon a personal experience"—not social science, not Constitutional analysis, not a desire to extend America's sweet promises to all its inhabitants.
In order to implement this Biblical "compassion" among the rest of his eleven million non-gay constituents, does Portman require a daughter who needs an abortion, a son who marries outside his race, a grandchild with a mental illness, an elderly parent who can't afford medical care? For the good of the nation, should we hope that Portman's brother is swept up in an FBI sting while enjoying age-play fantasies in an adult chat room?
Our government confers dozens of civil rights on everyone who marries. Thus, all adults should be eligible to marry, or the government should stop privileging married people and simply go out of the marriage business.
And so I'm glad to have Portman's support for extending the option of marriage to non-heterosexual Americans. But this support is just a kinder, gentler version of political opportunism. Instead of voting in a way that lines his pocket, he's now voting to enrich his son's life. Other gay men and women will benefit. But anyone else who needs "compassion"—or as I call it, civil rights—will have to wait until the next development in Portman's private life.
We know there's porn and we know there are gay people. But is there "gay porn?" Or is it simply porn featuring people of the same gender having sex together?
If it's "gay porn," then we would be surprised to find straight people looking at it. If it's porn featuring same-gender sex, however, then we'd be surprised if there weren't straight people watching it.
It's the latter, of course. Adults find all sorts of fantasies and images sexy—and they don't necessarily have anything to do with their real-life desires. That is, enjoying scenes of two men having oral sex doesn't make a man gay. Similarly, enjoying looking at fictional scenes of sexual coercion (or fantasizing being raped) doesn't mean a person wants that in real life.
To put it another way, what arouses us is only a small part of our sexual orientation. If you want to know if someone's gay, straight, or bi, ask them who they have sex with (and who they want to have sex with in real life), not what videos they like to watch.
The question came up in a professional conversation the other day, when an inexperienced therapist asked why some straight men were attracted to websites featuring pre-operative transsexuals (typically advertised as "tranny" or "she-male")—that is, images of people with women's breasts and a penis.
Why wouldn't they? Talk about having your cake and eating it too! Most straight men enjoy women's breasts, and most straight men are fascinated with penises. This porn allows the viewer to enjoy both at the same time. And the arithmetical possibilities—whether the performer is onscreen with one other person or several—are increased geometrically. Fellatio, anyone? Domination-submission-domination-submission anyone?
That's why I discourage my straight patients from using the expression "gay fantasy," and discourage my gay patients from saying "straight fantasy" (unless they're fantasies ABOUT being gay or straight, which is a different matter). These expressions actually cloud things, because they suggest that the enjoyment of cross-orientation fantasies needs explanation. An investigation can be valuable, of course, especially if people have trouble thinking about or acknowledging their interests or curiosity. Sometimes the content of a favorite fantasy is a metaphor or an indirect expression of interest. A same-gender fantasy may excite a straight person because of, say, power dynamics. A mixed-gender fantasy may excite a gay person because of, say, a sense of belonging.
It turns out that sexuality is more complicated than gay-or-straight. In 1948 Alfred Kinsey presented data showing that "the world is not simply divided "into sheep and goats," and presented his 7-point Kinsey Scale of sexual orientation. These days, expressions like GLBTQQI remind us that a person's sexual orientation is a movie, not a photograph—behavior can change over time. Curiosity and experimentation can take us in unexpected (even, sometimes, boring!) directions. In that sense, we're all "queer," and potentially or actually "questioning."
Ultimately, it's more important to enjoy our fantasies than to understand or decode them. Most of us enjoy mainstream entertainment—such as violent video games, syrupy romance novels, detailed historical documentaries, or utopian science fiction films—without wondering what our preferences for these things "mean." We all know perfectly gentle people who enjoy the brutal weekly mayhem on CSI or Bones or whatever the latest adrenalin-pumper is. We may criticize their taste, but we don't need to fear their violent impulses.
Unless, of course, we try to change the channel.