An Electronic Newsletter
Written and published by Marty Klein, Ph.D.
Issue #65 -- July 2005
1. A Bulgaria Issue?
2. Sex: Universal Questions & Answers
3. Bulgarian Sexologist Working Wonders
4. The Church Is/Isn't The Problem
5. Topless Beaches: (Successful) Social Laboratory
6. Safety vs. Feeling Safer
7. Step 1: Publishing In Their Own Language
1. A Bulgaria Issue?
As some of you know, I recently returned from two weeks working and vacationing in Bulgaria. About the size of New York, Bulgaria is north of Greece & Turkey, east of the former Yugoslavia, and bathed by the western shore of the Black Sea. The Ottoman Empire brutally occupied it and the entire Balkan peninsula from the 14th-19th centuries. It was a repressive Soviet satellite from 1946-1989.
I don't have much to say about Bulgarians' sexuality, but traveling around the country for two weeks did provide an intriguing perspective on American/Western culture. That's the context for our pieces this month.
The food was boring, the people delightful, the architecture fascinating, the countryside gorgeous, and yes, I would recommend it as a tourist destination.
2. Sex: Universal Questions
My first stop was Graz, Austria, where I trained health professionals for three days. I was the only non-German speaker in the room, and everyone was very courteous and spoke English, even if that made it harder for them to communicate. I felt terribly uneducated and demanding, since it wasn't even my country.
Even though I didn't understand German, I did understand the concerns of my trainees and their patients quite easily. Whether expressed in perfect English or halting half-sentences, it was the same old thing: how men can last longer, how women can climax more easily, how people can increase their partner's desire, how people can have better sex without learning those pesky communication skills. I gave the same answers as I've given in Turkey, Morocco, and Russia (to summarize: "we need to change people's thinking, not their bodies"), and they fit perfectly.
This isn't to say that various countries don't face special sexuality-related challenges: arranged marriages, jailing and torture of homosexuals, mandatory veiling of women, clitoridectomy, the criminalization of contraception or abortion.
Nevertheless, in countries around the globe, in cultures both like and unlike ours, the sexual issues are almost always the same. Sexuality is an international concern, and in many ways an international language. Unfortunately, it's also the international focus of misinformation, taboos, and anxiety. There isn't a country on earth whose adults and children wouldn't benefit from more sexual information and options. Sexual ignorance and repression is an enormous, unspoken human rights tragedy, from Texas to Thailand, Kansas to Kinshasa.
3. Bulgarian Sexologist
I was met at the Sofia airport by Dr. Roumen Bostandjiev, Bulgaria's pre-eminent sexologist. We'd first corresponded last year after he became a subscriber to SI, making Bulgaria the 48th country we go to (issue #51, #52).
Although Roumen is the soul of modesty, I was blown away as he described what he's doing:
Roumen described the political obstacles, hypocritical posturing,
and social prejudices he continues to navigate (sound familiar?) as he attempts
to bring sexual literacy to the country he loves. In a nation with a highly
religious population, very traditional gender roles, and insufficient number
of computers and fax machines, this is no small thing.
Roumen is a true hero: in a time of social disruption, he is helping to steer his country away from sexual ignorance and fear, and toward information and empowered decision-making. We could use a few hundred of him here in the culturally-backward U.S.--where we have plenty of computers, but insufficient political/social courage.
4. The Church Is/Isn't
From large cities to small towns, Bulgaria boasts gorgeous Byzantine, Renaissance, and National Revival Orthodox churches and monasteries. Wherever I visited them, they were filled with people of all ages. Young and old alike lit candles, crossed themselves, and kissed icons.
It was a little confusing to me, because Bulgaria is also a country with a mostly low birthrate (exceptions are the Roma and Islamic groups), and a youth movement committed to wearing mini-skirts and surfing the web (females and males, respectively).
Seeing all this church-going, knowing Bulgaria is a very religious country, I asked Roumen how the Church was interfering with his work to expand sexual knowledge and choices. Not much, he said. I figured we were having a language problem, so I asked again: surely the Church was teaching that sex is sinful, birth control is wrong, etc. But again he said that the Church mostly stayed out of political conflict about sex education, contraception, and homosexuality. "People expect the Church to talk about God, not their private lives," he said pragmatically.
You can find pockets of this phenomenon around the world. As David Brooks reported recently in the New York Times, "There's a church in southern Mozambique, with a tin roof and walls made of sticks. When you ask their pastor what they tell people to prevent the spread of AIDS, the first thing they say is that it's important to use condoms." He also reported on various U.S. churches saying the same thing.
While there are plenty of religious leaders who would rather see their flock die than care for their health, Brooks--and Roumen--remind us that many churches are truly life-affirming, carrying out Jesus' self-described mission to empower people and teach them to live ethically and lovingly.
So add Bulgaria to the list of countries that are religious, but able to make practical, spiritually-buoyant decisions about sex regardless (issue #54, #56). Again, religion doesn't have to create sexual problems--it's all in how it's conceptualized and implemented.
Bulgarian Christians, unlike millions of American Christians, aren't preparing for the end of the world. They understand there's work to be done here, first. And pleasure to be had along the way.
5. Topless Beaches: (Successful)
After a week of traveling, I spent three days at the Black Sea, former playground of Warsaw Pact bosses. Now favored by German, British, and Bulgarian tourists, the lovely beach was, of course, topless.
On a warm summer afternoon, everywhere I looked I saw them--big ones, small ones, proud ones, and droopy ones. Children, that is. Splashing in the waves, eating ice cream, crying, listening to iPods, resisting sunblock, just doing all the kid things that kids do. They seemed completely oblivious to the uncovered breasts in front of them, beside them, all around them.
What a contrast to the breast-obsessed, country-bumpkin U.S.: where you can't show breasts on TV, can't wear too-revealing swimsuits in many places, can't go to topless bars without threat of arrest, can't get too close to the strippers if you do. And, of course, where you can't take off your top at the beach.
Too many Americans believe that tits--real ones or their images--are little round Medusas, turning all who view them to stone. Policy makers and millions of their constituents tell us that seeing real or pictured breasts damages adults, causes sex crimes, and destroys families. But mostly, they say that seeing bare breasts is dangerous for children. Here's how L.B. Bozell, President of the Parents Television Council, described Janet Jackson's one-second Superbowl breast-baring: "Grandpa and eight-year-old Johnny are trying to process why they have to be infected with this communicable disease, this vile programming."
Fortunately, there are well-established topless beaches on every continent except Antarctica (if any reader knows of a South Pole topless beach, of course, please drop us a note), and bare breasts and children coexist peacefully on all of them. So the experiment's been done, and the data's in from around the globe: clearly, bare breasts aren't dangerous to children or adults.
As usual, we challenge those who fear sex (in this case, breasts) to start spreading the good news. Paradoxically, sadly, those who fear sex only find it worth discussing when it seems destructive.
6. Safety vs. Feeling Safer
Taking off my shoes at one more airport, watching grandmas and schoolkids being frisked, I naturally thought about safety. According to articles in Harper's and elsewhere, it's clear that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to insure our safety from air terrorism is not making us safer; in fact, by diverting money from programs that could make us safer (such as enhanced inspection of incoming container ships), Transportation Safety Administration programs are actually making us less safe.
If you ask airport passengers, however, many say these security programs are making them feel safer--or at least like something's being done.
That's what drives public policy around sexuality in the U.S.--making people feel safer, rather than actually making them safer.
Concerned about teen pregnancy? Eliminate fact-based sex education. This leads to more unprotected sex, but it makes people feel better. Concerned about sexual exploitation of kids? Increase the definition of "molestation" to the point where no sane male would dare teach in public school. The resulting lack of adult male contact or role models undermines some kids' growth, but it makes people feel better. Afraid of the influence of kiddie porn? Prevent all scientific research on it and its users. This obviously prevents any increase in our knowledge of the problem or effective solutions, but it makes people feel better.
Sexually repressive public policies are designed to reduce anxiety, not solve real problems. Unfortunately they accomplish their goal. But they leave real problems in their wake--with less money or political will to solve them.
7. Step 1: Publishing
In Their Own Language
In Plovdiv I visited the museum/home of Hristo Danov, who started the first Bulgarian-language publishing venture in the 1840s. He had to do it in Vienna, because the Ottoman Empire forbade any publishing in Bulgarian or other local languages. Danov eventually became central to the movement for independence in the 1860s, and when the Ottomans relented and let him publish in Bulgaria, he was ready with schoolbooks, maps, and other materials to support Bulgarians' burgeoning national consciousness. I'm not much for nationalism, but to see the nuts and bolts of self-determination in their historical context was deeply moving.
If you live in a sexual world, here in America, your nation is occupied by sexual Ottomans. They won't let us publish in our language. They won't let us have our preferred school materials, our vernacular in the media, our subjects funded for scientific research, or our maps (of sex clubs in our towns, or of accurate anatomy in schools). There's a virtual media embargo on the research data on criminal effects of porn (none) and of the consequences of adult-child sexual interactions (not all negative or damaging). Clitoris and orgasm are words you won't hear in public school health or biology classes.
America's sexual nation has no burgeoning group consciousness. No one's running a political campaign to represent porn users, or parents who demand real sex ed. No one's proposing that Johns pay a 1% self-tax to a legal fund for arrested prostitutes. No group supporting the rights of consumers of adult materials is trying to take over zoning boards across the country the way the Religious Right has meticulously taken over America's school boards.
Sure, we have MTV and other consumer-oriented crap, just as 19th-century Bulgarians had plenty to read in Turkish, while their kids learned about how the Ottomans "protected" them. But there's almost nothing real about sex in America's media, schools, or training programs for doctors or psychologists. We've always said that American teens are a sexually repressed minority. So are American adults who want control of their own sexual lives. Now we have a metaphoric model for the oppressor.
You may quote anything herein, with the
"Reprinted from Sexual Intelligence, copyright © Marty Klein, Ph.D. (www.SexEd.org)."