What do a fetus and a corporation now have in common?
Legally, they're both people. And in some situations, their rights take precedence over those of actual people.
I hope you won't turn off to the upcoming Hobby Lobby Supreme Court battle thinking it's just a boring, incomprehensible conversation about that distant thing called the Constitution.
To summarize the case: Hobby Lobby's owner (remember, Hobby Lobby is a corporation, not an actual person) says the company shouldn't have to follow the new federal requirement to include no-cost birth control in employee health-care insurance. Note that Hobby Lobby doesn't have to dispense or encourage birth control, and employees are not required to use it.
But the company's owner says the company has a right to not follow the law if doing so would violate his religious beliefs. "Freedom of religion, free of government interference," is the rallying cry.
You don't see companies refusing to provide legally-required handicap parking or accessible bathrooms because of religious beliefs. You don't see companies refusing to obey food safety regulations in company cafeterias or worker safety regulations on factory floors because of religious beliefs.
No, "religious beliefs" are always about sex.
The Religious Right says the Hobby Lobby case is about freedom of religion. Their deliberate misinterpretation of our Constitution is shameful.
The Bill of Rights guarantees that government will let PEOPLE worship however they wish, and won't force PEOPLE to worship in ways they don't want. It's the most radical promise of its kind in human history, of which every American (including atheists) should be proud.
But under the guise of religious freedom, Hobby Lobby and other "conscience clause" believers want to opt out of government regulations that have nothing to do with worship.
Contraception is not about worshipping. You want to worship, go ahead. You want to preach against contraception, go ahead. You want to try to dissuade others from contracepting, go ahead.
You want your company to be exempt from a law that allows other people to do things you disapprove of? No. That's how they run things in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, not in a modern democracy.
Hobby Lobby says it can't obey the law because it would be helping others behave in ways it finds unacceptable. That's like saying you can't stop at a red light in front of a mosque because you'd be enabling people to pray to Allah. Or that your taxi company can't pick up people in Black neighborhoods and take them to White neighborhoods because you'd be helping the races mix.
Religious beliefs should not give anyone—or any corporation—an exemption from following civil laws.
And consider: What about companies with all white employees who want to discourage contraception not because of religious belief, but because they fear people of color are taking over the country? Is one reason really better than another?
Privileging religious belief over other "sincerely held beliefs" is anti-democratic at its core. It suggests that some people's beliefs are more important than others. I think Napoleon says I shouldn't provide clean bathrooms for my employees, the law says I'm wrong. I think Jesus wants me to reject America's new health insurance regulations, that should be OK?
And let's talk about those bathrooms. It apparently says right there in the Bible (as well as the Koran) that women should not be too damn uppity (I'm paraphrasing here). So what if an employer decides to provide bathrooms for male employees but not for female employees, who really should stay home? Or if an employer decides that pregnant women shouldn't work, and claims the right to fire a woman as soon as she becomes pregnant? Or if an employer decides that the Bible demands obedience in children, and insists on hiring 13-year-olds despite child labor laws?
Once you let "sincerely felt beliefs" exempt people, there's no limit to how much they can challenge a democracy's laws.
And that affects all of us. That's why the "freedom of religion" argument is bogus. This isn't about challenging a law that prevents people from worshipping or believing as they will. It's about challenging a law whose democratic, scientific ideology they reject—and hiding behind Mary's skirts to do so.
A year of living in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria might help these people understand what it really means to lose freedom of religion.
Hobby Lobby is dishonest. Jesus wouldn't like that. But then again, very little of the Religious Right's behavior is about what Jesus would like. It's mostly about economic and political power—which Jesus apparently understood quite well.
I cover this issue extensively in my book America's War On Sex: The Attack on Law, Lust, & Liberty, recently released in an updated edition.
Among the complaints I repeatedly hear about porn is that it features perfect female bodies, which supposedly makes male consumers lose interest in normal, imperfect bodies. Normal imperfect bodies, of course, are what most men are limited to in real life.
People who watch a lot of porn don't say this. Only those unfamiliar with actual porn say it, because it simply isn't true.
Sure, many porn consumers seek out and enjoy conventionally perfect bodies—young, blemish- and wrinkle-free, incredibly round where they're round, as smooth and firm as polished teak where they're smooth and firm.
But an enormous percentage of internet porn features adult bodies different from that altogether. If you don't watch porn you wouldn't know this. But if you watch adult porn, you know what's out there, including:
~ Amateur porn: Porn posted by non-professionals, usually made in their homes or hotel rooms. These men and women look like you and me—unless, of course, you look like Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson.
Amateur porn not only features the non-gorgeous, it sometimes features the downright average-looking. And that's what consumers of amateur porn want—regular people looking regular, doing really hot things. It's the genuine enthusiasm that the consumer loves, combined with the idea that the film could have been made by neighbors just down the street. Now if only we could get those neighbors to vacuum the living room before making their next video.
~ Non-silicone, often non-perky: Critics who claim that every porn actress is puffed up with silicone are full of, um, hot air. While the eerily perfect silicone look has lots of fans, so does the natural look.
And so many of the top models feature exactly what they developed on their own, glorious imperfections and all. And some have less than they were born with—whether they're called hangers, droopers, suckers, or saggers, there's an audience for breasts that are definitely not youthfully perky. What a great country—whatever breast type you like (even flat-chested), there's porn made exactly for you.
~ Fetish: While many porn sites feature videos for the mainstream, others cater to niche markets. Fetish sites aren't for everyone, but one by one they feature everything you can imagine, and plenty you don't: women on their periods, women who don't shave their legs, women with giant clitorises, women with bald heads, women amputees, women who are lactating, women wearing diapers, women a little overweight, a lot overweight, and so overweight they have trouble navigating a doorway.
No Emma Watson look-alikes need apply here.
Why do some consumers like to wank to pictures of pregnant women or women finger-painting with their menstrual blood? People who enjoy it answer exactly the same as everyone else describing their favorite visual arousal: "I dunno, it just works for me." That's the same answer you give when asked why you prefer the flavor of ice cream that you do, right?
~ Old: There's mommy porn, granny porn, grandpa porn, in-law porn, mature porn. That's a lot of gray hair.
Some crusaders say that watching videos of old people being sexual is even more disgusting than watching "normal" (albeit objectionable) porn. But these days we all believe it's OK for older people to be sexual, right? So how are videos of their sexuality any more perverted than videos of young adults having sex?
The decency critics want to have it both ways—they demonize porn for featuring unrealistically beautiful young actresses, and then they cringe when porn features more normal-looking middle-aged actors and actresses.
* * * [Reminder: in this piece we're discussing legal adult porn. Don't change the subject and talk about illegal child porn, whose viewership is a tiny fraction of the audience for legal adult porn.] * * *
So what does this all mean?
First, people who don't know porn should stop talking about what porn shows. For critics who say, "But I don't want to watch that crap," fine, don't watch it—but then you don't get to be a critic. If you insist on being an ignorant critic, at least preface every third sentence you say with, "Of course, I don't know what actual porn is like, because I haven't really seen any."
Second, people surprised with the real content of porn should ask themselves—if it isn't just the perfect bodies, what else do people want from porn? Why do they watch stuff that I wouldn't watch in a million years if I wanted to be aroused?
That's where things get interesting, because people watch and get excited by an incredibly wide range of sexually explicit material.
Many anti-porn crusaders (and even smart people like the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts) make the mistake of assuming that what arouses people on video indicates what they want to do in real life. But that's wrong: people watch Matrix or The Terminator and don't go crashing their cars; people watch RoboCop or Natural Born Killers and don't go out and kill; heck, people watch Olympic curling and they don't go out and curl.
So why does our human family love watching images of things they don't want to do themselves? Consider common video choices: straight men like to watch men fellating men. Inhibited people like to watch orgies. Assertive women like to watch submissive women.
We are a perverse species.
Different people watch porn for different reasons. We shouldn't be surprised that different people like different kinds of porn, including porn that you or I might find boring, disgusting, stupid, or way too much like our first marriage.
If we thought of porn the way we think of everything else—TV, novels, clothes, kitchen appliances—we would have predicted this. In porn, as in everything else, American consumers have a wide range of choices, and vote with their eyeballs. Every eyeball likes perfect images. Intriguingly, every person with eyeballs imagines perfection differently.
If a decency crusader doesn't watch porn, and thinks that people engage with porn differently than they engage with everything else in their lives, he or she wouldn't—couldn't—imagine this.
And if a decency crusader knows nothing about everyday life, he or she could easily overlook the simple fact that all of us are surrounded by gorgeous bodies—at work, at the grocery store, in the airport, at the gym, on the street—and have to figure out how to stay interested in our imperfectly-bodied mate at home. Porn is the least of that problem, which has existed in the West since the Greeks and Romans.
I know you really want to know. And I know how hard it is to find out. We search the web, we look at porn, we read self-help books and listen to podcasts. If we're bold we ask our best friend.
Almost everyone wants to know what sex is like for other people. Or to put it another way, what is sexually normal? How often, how many minutes, how many orgasms, how many inches, how many partners, how much, where, when? And how?
I've spent decades not answering the "normal" question—from patients, the media, from my readers, radio listeners, lecture audiences.
Why? Because people inevitably use the information in terribly non-helpful ways. Both men and women want to compare themselves to some "average," and judge themselves: either "I'm/we're like other people, so I'm/we're OK," or "I'm/we're not like other people, so I'm/we're not OK." Worst of all is "I told you you're not normal."
Those are all mistakes. If a sex life works for those involved, it's fine. If it doesn't, it isn't. What others do is irrelevant.
Nevertheless, after 35 years of refusing to answer the question, today I'm going to tell you—although not with numbers. In America, here's what's sexually normal:
~ Adults have sex when they're tired.
After the first blush of horniness wears off, most people save sex for when they're too tired to do anything productive. Very few grownups (again, after the first 6-18 months of a relationship) say, "Honey, let's spend Saturday night making love," or "Oh, your parents are taking the kids tomorrow night? Let's have sex instead of going out."
When we're tired the sex is more likely to be short, perfunctory, goal-oriented, and mechanical. Little energy for kissing. No patience for stroking, nibbling, or whispering. And if something goes a little unplanned—a foot cramp, an erection that comes and goes, an uncooperative condom package—we're more likely to say "You know what? Let's just forget it."
~ Many people are not sober during (or before) sex.
That's usually because they're nervous, or they want to reduce their partner's inhibitions (or simply calm them down) by inviting them to drink. Or because sex is physically or emotionally uncomfortable.
When people are under-the-influence, of course, their decision-making is compromised. They're less likely to use birth control, and less likely to communicate clearly. And they have less of that fine-motor coordination that makes touching and kissing gentle, graceful, and pleasant. Being clumsy in bed (and not realizing it) doesn't exactly motivate one's partner.
And it can be harder to climax, too. It depends on which drug, and how much.
~ Even intimates are often unsure what their partner likes.
It's quite interesting that after five or six months together, two people know each other's preferences in food, music, movies, driving styles, and Operating Systems. But sex? Many people hesitate to say ("I like to climax from oral sex more than from intercourse"), hesitate to show ("see, softer, like this"), hesitate to ask ("like this, or like that?").
And some people are so nervous that even after they're told repeatedly, they still forget. They squeeze their partner's balls too hard time after time. Or they still use rough language when they've been told it's a turn-off.
~ Many people using Viagra hide it from their partner.
I first predicted men would do this in 1999, and they've been doing it ever since. Partly it's a pride thing ("I don't want her to know I'm not man enough without it"), but partly it's self-defense ("So Joe, I don't turn you on enough?" "Sam, maybe you don't really love me?").
It's true that a substantial percentage of erection problems are about the guy's emotions or the relationship (or both). Even if that's true, the way to explore this is not with accusations, mind-reading, or defensiveness. And if an erection problem has organic causes, recriminations are completely pointless.
I don't say that everyone who takes Viagra has to tell their mate. But most relationships don't need one more secret.
I'm seeing this couple, John & Mary. Very nice people.
They came in last summer because he'd hardly ever have sex with her. Periodically she would get so depressed or angry that she'd get blind drunk and behave poorly—humiliate him in public, black out at parties, spend a few days in bed eating donuts.
"I wouldn't do this if you'd have sex with me," she'd say. "You can't expect me to have sex with you when you periodically behave so badly," he'd say.
They'd been doing this for over two years. Lots of anger, almost no sex.
But after six months of therapy, Mary changed: she stopped drinking. She treated him respectfully. No more blackouts, no more rages, no more days in bed with Krispy Kreme.
John changed, too: he became more relaxed, more complimentary, and he started discussing their future together. But one thing didn't change: he still wasn't interested in sex.
Mary didn't know what to do. Neither did John, although she was in far more pain about this than he. John started individual therapy. For the first month he neglected to tell his therapist he wasn't having sex with Mary. They're finally talking about it.
Recently, Mary's therapist called me for our monthly check-in. At the end of the call, she said "By the way, Mary's planning to get a boob job." It was the common couples therapy whack-a-mole—you take care of one thing here, another issue pops up there. Every couple really is a system, its elements all connected.
A few days later Mary & John came in, and we had a friendly, productive session. When we came to a natural stopping place about 10 minutes before the end, I said "So, I guess we need to talk about Mary's breasts?" "You talked to my therapist," she said, "Right?" Right.
Mary gave the usual reasons—wanting her clothes to fit differently ("and I get to buy new stuff, too!"), wanting to look like some of the other women in her gym, and then what she thought was the clincher: "Besides, he's always been a big boob man."
I asked him what he thought of her surgery idea. He was lukewarm. I asked why he hadn't expressed that more clearly by trying to discourage her. "It's her body," he said weakly. And it is, of course. But I told John that as part of her decision-making process, Mary needed a clearer picture of how he feels. Even at age 40, John was still getting the hang of this relationship thing.
Turning to Mary, I gently said, "Many women get their breasts surgically changed because they assume it will increase their mate's sexual desire. Is that a reason you want to do this?" She protested weakly, but reminded him, "You told me you've always loved busty women." "Yes, I generally have," he said. "But your breasts are fine, more than fine. Really," he said.
"Mary," I said, "When you were drinking and being mean, John could blame his low desire on that. And you did something about it. Now that you don't drink or act out, how can we explain his lack of sexual interest in you? If his low desire turns out to be about him, and not you, there won't be anything you can do about it. That must very scary. Is that perhaps what this breast surgery might be about—you trying to do something, anything, rather than just sit there and maybe nothing changes?"
Tears, meaningful looks, awkward silence.
"John, do you think if Mary has a bigger chest you'll be more interested in sex with her?"
"She's already beautiful. Don't you think so, Doc?"
Indeed, she actually is very attractive.
"Mary, what do you hear John saying?"
"I hear him," she sniffled. "It isn't me…OK, then what is it? What should I do? Did I change for nothing? Are we ever going to have sex?"
We were already over time, and this was a good place to stop. They had a lot to talk about. The next part of the therapy—and more importantly, of their relationship—had just started.