American society is frequently described by liberals as being too sexually repressed, and by conservatives as being sexually immoral and amoral. From what I have observed among the newest up-and-coming citizens (the 16-22 set), both sides are completely correct in ways that neither fully realize.
The mainstream media talks about teenage and young-adult sexuality in two standard modes, both equally silly and psychologically shallow --- you have the faux-serious soft-porn"20/20" news segments about rampant oral sex among middle-schoolers with pompous commentary from some "adolescent sex therapist expert" and general hand-wringing over how the young'uns are hooking up like monkeys in a zoo, and then you have the shoulder-shrugging liberals who advocate for better sex-ed in school because kids are "going to do it anyway" due to the totally inescapable and all-powerful influence of the Big Bad Media.
[If you are offended by sexual topics, Constant Reader, feel free to stop here.]
A typical conversation among average, secular females in the 16-22 age group will involve extensive details about who one has hooked up with (that's a casual sexual encounter ranging from kissing to intercourse for all you people who missed the 60's, 70's and 90's). However, they almost never supply certain crucial facts, and I always ask them the same simple question: "So, how did that feel?"
Stunned, shocked silence. A puzzled expression from the girl who was describing her adventures. The other girls look at me as if I am from another planet and are vaguely scandalized. A typical reply from the queried one will be a hesitant and confused "uh . . . I dunno. It felt ok, I guess. Yeah." It usually becomes apparent through more questioning that her sexual encounter afforded her little or no physical pleasure and 99% of the time did not result in the Cosmo Magazine Holy Grail. With a bit more coaxing, she will typically admit to never having experienced an orgasm either alone or with her various partners.
What is wrong with this picture?
If asked, these girls will say unequivocally that premarital sex is morally acceptable and that to believe otherwise is prudish and old-fashioned. Any religious person would describe their behavior as sexually immodest. And yet, a bizarre form of prudishness and modesty remains --- in the form of not experiencing the kind of wild abandon and sexual pleasure that a worldview not constricted by traditional values should supposedly yield. They still take on the typically-feminine submissive attitude towards males and do not expect pleasure, because frankly it is not their top concern. They care what the guy thinks of them and if he
is having a good time, because they remain emotionally vulnerable --- something which ties in quite directly with their inability to enjoy what they are doing with him.
“Why are you doing that if you’re not feeling anything?” is the question that no one is asking these girls. Religious people tend to think it is scandalous to ask in the first place, and it makes liberals sweat to think that their marvelous social freedom isn’t resulting in their supposed goals. I have asked girls this question many times, and it makes them quite uncomfortable. They have no idea why they are doing these things, and they certainly don’t espouse any kind of traditional feminism that might explain their motivations (at least in their own minds). Saying things like “how about next time you have him do X to you before you even think about doing Y to him, and if X doesn’t work, try Z
” makes it quite clear they are not comfortable taking on a dominant or assertive role during sex, and they have neither the courage nor the will to speak up. They remain intensely prudish when talking about actual sexual things despite their constant chatter on the peripheral concerns of the topic.
Real sexuality remains terrifying for the majority of them. They have left behind traditional values but their natures refuse to let them fully acclimate to the new attitudes, and thus they are stuck in a dismal limbo of uncertainty and frustration without the slightest idea of how they got there or what they ought to do about it. Since they no longer have any context for understanding sexuality, their main strategy for coping is to make themselves numb to it by engaging in acts that make them feel nothing and reduce it all to a casual handshake. It is neither the repression of sexuality for the means of elevating it, nor is it an actual indulgence in true pleasure --- the respective goals of the religious and secular camps. The average female has more emotion bound up in sexuality than the average male, and that means the average female will remain incapable of really enjoying being a libertine. Thus, going in the secular direction of making everything more casual will not
result in the ultimate goal of unbridled pleasure for the typical female.
This is the worst possible combination of Puritanism and excess --- young women are too paralyzed to enjoy their sexuality while at the same time having lots of sexual contacts for dubious reasons. Despite millions of magazine articles about how to have them, I have met few young women who approach "achieving" orgasms as a sport. Sexual knowledge of any real significance remains woefully lacking despite all the gyrating booty on MTV. Truthfully, many of them seem not to care at all if they are enjoying a sexual encounter as long as they are having one that they can dissect with their friends later (while males can be accused of this as well, they typically enjoy what they are doing).
The religious conservatives equate media images of barely-clad bodies in advertising with sexual immorality and the over-sexualization of the culture. Feminists and other far-left types equate this with sexism, and the fact is that both have missed the mark when it comes to what this all means. The fact is that Americans are not at all obsessed with sex, but merely the image of it, and the saturation of our visual universe with shallow mock-ups of the act only belie our discomfort with sexuality. We are trying very hard to convince ourselves that we’re so cool and modern that we can have sexual images everywhere and have it be normal. Sex is the new wallpaper, and instead of being titillating or scandalous is has merely become incredibly boring (at least visually). How many people even bother to notice such ads and television shows anymore?
When you make something ubiquitous, it loses both its value and its allure. When you make something casual, you numb yourself to its intensity. When you remove any framework for viewing something in, you become uncertain and insecure in your dealings with it.
Of course, this all looks different once a person has found G-d. It takes time, effort, and discipline to re-learn sex as something that isn’t purely recreational and a power trip over others. That does not mean going back to some uptight model where you see sex solely as a method of procreation, to be done guiltily and quickly to get it over with! I know that the Christian view on sex can vary widely according to sect and country (and I would be happy to hear some input from my readers), but my scholarly inquiries into orthodox Judaism’s view of it have been instructive and fascinating.
Everyone knows that Judaism only sanctions sex within a monogamous marriage, but far fewer people know just how concerned they are about making sex holy and enjoyable for all concerned. Every time I hear people clucking their tongues about how patriarchal and repressive Orthodoxy is, I have to laugh --- thousands of years before the word “feminism” was invented, Jews declared sexual pleasure a wife’s right and a husband’s duty. According to the ancient marriage contract (which survives today but with far less literal language), a husband must provide food, clothing, and satisfying sexual relations to his wife and is legally prohibited from reducing the quantity or quality of any of these things. It is forbidden to force your wife to have sex, and it is forbidden for either spouse to withhold sex as a punishment --- either action results in an automatic divorce (with monetary punishment for the offending person) because holiness and trust have departed from the relationship. The Talmud (which was written down in medieval times!) says that “to have intercourse with one’s wife without foreplay is cruel” and that one “should use soft words and caresses to arouse her.”
There is an entire subset of ritual law regarding sex between husband and wife which is still practiced today, and although it seems bizarre at first, the benefits of it become apparent with further investigation: taharat ha’mishpaha
(the laws of family purity). This basically means that for the duration of a woman’s menstrual period and for seven full days after it ends, the couple must abstain from sexual contact; this period of separation ends when she immerses in a ritual bath called the mikvah. When I read the classical commentaries on these laws, which were written thousands of years ago, I was positively shocked to hear how “modern” they were. These laws have many purposes, some important ones being: 1. So that the couple must build an emotional and intellectual connection apart from their physical attraction, 2. So that the man does not come to think of his wife as a slave or a piece of property only there for his enjoyment, 3. To keep the spark of passion alive by forcing the two to yearn for each other periodically, and 4. To give each partner an official “break” so that neither will feel inadequate if they have differing levels of libido.
Contrast this structured system, with its legal protections and rules to ensure the sexual and emotional well-being of wives, with the haphazard and frequently miserable sexual encounters of the girls mentioned above. When you control your basic urges and give them a proper outlet, they are made holy and are ultimately more pleasurable to experience. This is not an idea that finds much of a mainstream audience these days because people are mistakenly convinced that religion offers only insufferable restrictions and that to restrict sexuality is to deny that it exists.
It is apparent to perceptive observers that “the media” and all objectionable themes found therein are not the cause of immoral sexual behavior among young people but a symptom of a very bizarre cultural relationship to sexuality that embraces the most backwards aspects of religion and secular humanism. There is no “middle ground” between humanism and real religion (humanism just steals the warm-and-fuzzy stuff from monotheism and leaves out the responsibility and Divine origin), nor does there need to be in this case. People --- especially young people --- simply need to be exposed to the idea that religion has a sane, exciting, and psychologically acute solution to the problems that sex without structure often presents. That might be the only thing that will put those annoying and clueless sex therapist "experts" out of business for good.