A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sex and American Values

I am about to embark on a topic I revisit at least once a year, saying much of the same things in different ways. This may offend some people, and it may bore others. Read at your own risk.

Long ago I had a fiancee. We dated for four years, and over the course of the last year our relationship broke down irreparably. We were both in college at the time, and while the distance between Troy, NY and the capital wasn't that great, it represented a lot of time by bus. She went through the year having a series of nervous breakdowns over her major, which she changed twice. I went into a steady decline until I simply stopped going to classes altogether due to stress and spending too much time in Troy helping her. We were fighting too much, going through the motions too much, and neither of us were getting what we wanted out of it. Still, the breakup was traumatic for me. It's a hell of a way to say "happy birthday" to someone.

I mention this because it bears directly on my opinions regarding sex, monogamy and commitment. This woman was my first long-term sexual partner (both our mothers had fits when our secret was discovered). She wasn't my first, although I was hers. She was deeply conservative about such matters, so fidelity and monogamy were paramount. I wronged her by not admitting my previous partners, and I didn't truly accept that until much later. But it wasn't the sex that concerned me. It was love.

After she broke up with me, I had to decide what I was going to do about it. I realized that I still loved her, and always would. But how could I move on if I couldn't stop loving her? How could I possibly love anyone else with that in the way? My conclusion was that if I couldn't be with her and couldn't stop loving her, then I was going to have to learn to love more than one person at a time. That was the point when I accepted that the human heart can grow to encompass as much love as you can manage.

Since then I've had both open relationships and monogamous relationships. Curiously, the monogamous relationships were always the most difficult. Not because I couldn't be faithful, but because I discovered I can't stand being treated as a possession. I am mine. I may choose to give myself to another, but that doesn't give them property rights over me. Likewise, if I dally with another person it does not mean that I have no love left for the person I'm with. In my mind, monogamy is like restricting yourself to only one friend: it sounds romantic, but it's hardly natural. Sexual fidelity is a social construct, not a biological one.

However, monogamy is ingrained into Western culture, and American culture in particular. We impeached a President over the kind of sexual infidelity that would have gotten a French or Italian leader re-elected. We're horrified by the thought that our sexual property might ever be sullied by someone else. Our religions scream at us that sex is only proper between a man and woman who have been given the official religious blessing.

This morning I ran across a quote from an online novel called Tales of Mu that phrases the issue more succinctly than I've ever known: "You were taught that sex is the most degrading, depraved, disgusting, disturbing, nasty, noxious, filthy, foul, venal, evil, sinful and just plain wrong thing in this plane of existence, and you should only share it with the person you love most?"

That pretty much sums it up for American culture. Oh, there are always variations and people embrace it to greater and lesser degrees, but I can think of no better way to summarize the American attitude toward sex. It's dirty, horrible, sinful and shameful. The fact that we're inundated by it in our media and entertainment doesn't diminish that summary at all; it just makes it more exciting.

I'm keenly interested in demystifying sex in our culture. There are cultures in the world where children grow up knowing exactly what sex looks and sounds like because their parents do it with each other with them in the room. Somehow, these cultures still manage to avoid more than their fair share of sexual predators. Bill Clinton got a blowjob and outside of the US, the world opinion was largely unanimous: so what?

Do I think everyone should abandon all sexual restraint and engage in a massive sexual orgy? No, although that would make for some interesting evening news. Do I think monogamy is wrong? No, but I know it's wrong for me. What I think is that we need to wean ourselves away from our puritan attitudes and accept that sex is what we make of it. It can be pure physical gratification, it can be a powerful expression of intimacy and it can be abused as a tool of dominance. We need to decide for ourselves, as individuals, what sex means to us. What it means to everybody else is entirely up to them, and it's not our place to dictate to them.

My ex-wife and I talked about this extensively before we were married, and while I thought we had a good understanding it turned out we didn't. As soon as I put that ring on her finger, I was transformed from a person into property. It was inevitable that our marriage didn't last.

My lady and I have also talked about this extensively, and we still re-visit the issue on occasion. So far we're still in perfect harmony over the issue, and I know I'm insanely lucky to have found her. We've managed to maintain a remarkable state of bliss for the time we've been together, and there is every indication that we'll keep it up a lot longer. So ironically, we've achieved the classically romantic ideal without conforming to classically romantic rules.

Sex. Love. They're so much better when we stop obsessing about them and start embracing them.


denis bider said...

While we disagree completely on economy and I'll fight you to death to prove that the free market is the bringer of prosperity and that government intervention is the bringer of evil, ;) ...

... I agree with you completely on this topic. My wife and I are swingers with an open mind to polyamory. She has friends she cares about a lot, and with whom she might have sex, and I would let her. Likewise, she imposes no restraints when I start to feel amorous about any of my female friends. We rarely actually have sex outside of the relationship; but when we do, it helps to invigorate our relationship even more.

Insultingly, I just recently found a prejudiced Australian site with a whole bunch of people spewing preconceptions that any kind of open relationship cannot be anything but a bad step towards an eventual break-up. As far as we're concerned, people who actually believe that are closed-minded jerks whose comprehension is limited by their own immaturities. :-/

denis bider said...

And I agree with you completely about "protecting kids" from any reference to sex, as well. That's just brain-damaged.