Interested in sex? Then you're interested in politics, whether you like it or not.
There are literally thousands of laws that regulate our sexual expression—who we can have sex with, what we can do, the products and pharmaceuticals we can use, the ways in which we can control our reproduction, and the ways we can share what we do with others. Who makes these laws? Politicians—from mighty senators to self-righteous state legislators to friendly city council members.
A few of these people can be bought. Others want to do good, or to leave a legacy. Almost all of them want to get reelected or reappointed. All can be influenced—many by you.
Think you're not interested politics? Think again. If you're involved in sex, here are a few ways you're involved in politics, whether you know it or not:
* Mental health
Your psychologist, marriage counselor, and psychiatrist receive almost no training in human sexuality. Many programs still use the language of perversion, frigidity, and shame. Many therapists have never seen a vibrator, felt some lube, or used the word "pussy" in a sentence.
Training and licensing programs are overseen by states—meaning state legislatures. In most states it's still legal for therapists to "treat" gay teens with the goal of making them straight.
* Sex education
What kind of sex education does your kid get? At least half of all kids in America are still exposed to the toxic propaganda called Abstinence-only sex ed, funded by school boards across the country. It's easy enough to find out if your taxes are being used to indoctrinate your kid into the idea that good people don't have sex before marriage, and therefore don't need information or decision-making skills to deal with sex until then.
Congress has consistently refused to pass a law requiring that all sex education be medically accurate. A pretty low bar, but apparently still too high for Congress.
* Reproductive rights
In 1973, Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion in America. Since then, thousands of laws passed by every single state have made getting an abortion as difficult and emotionally painful as possible. And although abortion is statistically safer than childbirth, Utah has now made abortion more dangerous by requiring that patients 20 or more weeks pregnant get anesthesia, whether they want it or not. Texas has forced the closure of more than half of its remaining abortion clinics by requiring expensive and unnecessary retrofitting of buildings. Five states have only a single part-time abortion facility.
In addition, states have tried to prevent consumer access to RU-486 (pregnancy termination drug), female sterilization, and the morning-after pill. And religious organizations have sued the federal government to get a special exemption from the Affordable Healthcare Act regarding contraception.
In the U.S. it is illegal to create, possess, or distribute a sexual image of a minor. And "sexual image" is now defined to include clothed images that a jury decides has a sexual intent.
When minors themselves take naked selfies, they are creating child pornography. When they send or receive on, they are sending or receiving child pornography. In most states this is a felony for which someone can be jailed until the end of time.
In 40 states, the age of consent is 16 or 17, but the age that determines "child pornography" is 18. Thus, it can be legal for two 17-year-olds to have sexual intercourse, but be jailed for creating a photo of that sex—even if they only share the photo with each other.
* Sex Offender Registration
In no way do I trivialize the damage caused by adults who sexually exploit children or other adults. Such people need treatment (which they rarely get after conviction), which may involve medication or long-term supervision.
Sex offender registries were set up nation-wide to help parents protect their kids from known predators. In reality, they protect almost no one, while destroying the lives of virtually everyone they register. And unfortunately, it's incredibly easy to be placed on such a registry.
Crimes for which such registration can be a punishment include public urination, unwanted adult-adult kissing, sex between underage teens, receiving unsolicited and unwanted images of child sexuality, a drunk male having consensual (or non-coercive, if you prefer) sex with a drunk female, photo-shopping a picture of a nude adult onto the head of a minor, and non-contact exhibitionism. If you think this couldn't happen to you in a thousand years, you're wrong. You don't have to be a sex offender to become a Registered Sex Offender.
* Sex Work
Except for a few counties in Nevada, exchanging money (or other valuables) for sexual services (with or without orgasm) is illegal in the U.S.. Lap dances, hand jobs, massages with happy endings, sacred temple prostitution, being whipped while covered in cream cheese—if you find it sexy, and money has changed hands, you've broken the law.
Sex is the only kind of labor adults are not free to sell or barter. Of course, those who sell sexual labor are subject to a fierce public relations campaign to persuade the public that all sex workers are exploited and/or damaged. Conservative feminists can be cruelest of all, accusing adult women who claim full agency when selling their own sexual labor of being delusional and in need of rescue. Crusaders like Melissa Farley and Gail Dines classify anyone who sells sexual labor as a victim of human trafficking.
Somehow, our intercourse-obsessed culture has managed to criminalized outercourse activities such as BDSM and kinky sex. Local and state governments seem to feel that any physical activity that provides pleasure is suspect.
And so if you're interested in sex of ANY kind, you're involved in politics.
A number of people have come into my office this past month inquiring about various forms of non-monogamy. Of course there's the traditional one-sided clandestine affair, in which one person thinks the couple is monogamous while the other person knows that isn't true (because he or she isn't).
For people who want a consensual arrangement, two of the more common ones are:
* Open relationship: Each person has one or more sexual partners outside the couple, which they freely acknowledge to each other;
* Polyamory: The couple finds other people (usually one or more couples) with whom to have a non-casual sexual relationship.
Given all the media attention to various forms of consensual non-monogamy, some of my patients are now considering some kind of arrangement. Unfortunately, many popular misconceptions lead to insufficiently thoughtful decisions. So here are a handful of quick tips about "open" or "poly" relationships. To make things easy, I'll use the expression open/poly to refer to features the two have in common.
The facts, please:
1. Poly and Open are different.
Poly couples are typically involved with other people together. Open couples often have relationships or adventures separate from each other. While Open couples may be interested in only sex with others, Poly couples are oriented toward longer-term emotional involvement with others. Clearly the two arrangements require different (if overlapping) sets of emotional skills.
2. Both Poly and Open are about communication as much as they are about sex.
Couples who don't talk to each other about complicated things save a lot of time—and, some would argue, heartache. Open/Poly couples, however, are committed to processing their feelings about their own and each other's behavior and experiences. That can be especially complicated if two partners are having very different experiences.
If you don't like relationship conversations, Open/Poly is NOT for you.
3. Open/Poly is not for everyone.
Indeed, there's a long list of reasons people DON'T enjoy Open/Poly: jealousy, anger about other things, concerns about abandonment, difficulty trusting each other, feeling much less attractive than one's partner, feeling much less comfortable with others than one's partner, and a rigid sense of how things "should" be.
4. Open/Poly doesn't solve all of life's problems.
Such an arrangement may improve life in a lot of ways, but it won't lower your cholesterol, reduce chronic pain, make your kids study more, or make your boss less manipulative. It may make some of life's irritations more tolerable, and your enhanced self-esteem may help you navigate some tricky people problems. But not all. And it certainly can't fix that ailing shoulder you hurt mountain biking.
5. One person can't unilaterally declare that a relationship is Open/Poly.
Depending on your attitude, doing so is either called cheating or jumping the gun. Handing your partner a done deal—"We're now in an Open/Poly arrangement, I predict you're gonna love it"—is rude, thoughtless, and simply impractical. How is one person supposed to trust another to do a delicate, collaborative project like Open/Poly when they can't even begin it as a conscious partnership?
6. When you're Open/Poly, your partner's satisfaction IS your concern.
Ethical, consensual non-monogamy doesn't mean you stop caring about your partner, nor does it mean your partner's well-being no longer affects you. To make Open/Poly work, you have to listen to their concerns, help them think through periodic dilemmas or feelings, and genuinely care about how the arrangement is working for him/her. If you don't, it won't.
7. Don't be surprised if you develop more feelings in Open/Poly than you expected.
There seems to be something about taking off your clothes with someone, and putting a part of their body inside yours (or yours in theirs) that often leads to emotions—whether of vulnerability, bonding, belonging, affection, yearning, or something else.
8. Don't rely on gender stereotypes with Open/Poly.
That old idea that men want sex and women want relationships? Hello, it's 1959 calling—they want their stereotypes back. Both men and women can be dissatisfied with monogamy. Both men and women in Open/Poly can experiment with sexual adventures as well as emotional ones. Both men and women can talk about complex relationship issues. And yes, both men and women can become disenchanted with Open/Poly. Don't think of the people you meet as "women" or "men"—think of them as unique individuals.
9. Open/Poly isn't easier or better than monogamy.
It's just different. There are NO simple sexual arrangements!
I don't think this is a very helpful question.
Porn is a compendium of human fantasies about sexuality—and, therefore, about power, pleasure, connection, anger, fear, gender, desire, beauty, comfort, and the exotic, and many other things.
Of course, human sexuality involves enormous doses of imagination. That's part of what gives it so much impact in our lives.
So when some people criticize that "porn demeans women" I wonder if they're objecting to men's and women's sexual imaginations, or men's and women's sexual behavior, or to some hypothesized interaction between the two.
A small amount of porn depicts male characters committing violent acts against female characters who seem to be suffering. Watching this appears to be erotic for some men (and more than a few women). Some people don't like this fact—a fact that shouldn't be blamed on porn. Do these depictions "demean women?" No. They are fictional portrayals that many people find distasteful, which is a quite different thing. They show situations, emotions, behaviors—and yes, sometimes cruelty—drawn from the human sexual imagination.
This material represents a very small amount of pornography, precisely because most consumers do not find such things erotically engaging—which is the whole point of watching porn.
On the other hand, some amount of porn depicts characters engaged in erotic power play: teasing, spanking, constraining, controlling, pretend coercion. Men and women have found stories, music, or pictures of such things exciting throughout history. And many lovers do these or related activities in real life. In the world of human sexuality, power is a primary currency, so our sexual imagination is rich with it.
This power dynamic in consenting relationships is paradoxical: two people cooperatively agree to divide up power in an asymmetrical way for a specified time period (the asymmetrical arrangement typically ends when the sex is finished, sometimes even sooner). For erotic purposes, they then pretend this division of power is real and not under their control. So regardless of handcuffs or stern words or candle wax, this dynamic really exists only in the imagination. Depicting this visually is an artistic challenge, whether for pornography or Sharon Stone, for Andy Warhol or Fellini.
So does porn demean women?
(There's overt violence in mainstream TV, films, and video games. The vast majority of it is directed toward men. While there are voices decrying violence in media, I don't hear anyone claiming that that violence "demeans men.")
Overt violence in porn (NOT the pretend coercion of sexual games common in both porn and real-life sex) is of interest to a very small number of consumers. Aside from that, what else does porn typically depict that activists such as Gail Dines, Pamela Paul, and Melissa Farley critique as demeaning to women?
Fictional depictions of female lust. Female sexual desire. Female exhibitionism. Female submission. Female domination. Women flaunting their bodies. Woman-woman sex. Women taking joy in their sexual pleasure. Women taking joy in their partner's pleasure. Women enjoying sex without being in love. Women valued as sexual partners without reference to their intelligence or sensitivity—and women valuing men in exactly the same way.
Why would anyone object to any of these fictional depictions? If those things are demeaning to women, how wholesome, how puerile, how stripped of eroticism does a woman's sexuality need to be before activists like John Stoltenberg, Rebecca Whisnant, Catherine MacKinnon say it is not "demeaning" to her?
* * *
To say that porn demeans women is to deny the reality of some women's passion, lust, and desire. It's to say that women never enjoy what men enjoy. It's to say that women don't enjoy playing games with their sexuality, including power games. It's to say that women shouldn't be who they are or enjoy who they are, but that they can only enjoy "authentic" sexuality within limited (and historically stereotypical) bounds.
This is NOT feminism.
Saying that men are exploiting women when men are enjoying female eroticism is what demeans women. It objectifies women and cheapens the erotic world they create. To say that women are being exploited when a male gaze is enjoying their pleasure or enjoying images of female eroticism is to rip the partners' collaboration out of sex. It actually says that female sexuality is defined by the male gaze, that the male gaze trivializes female eroticism. No, female eroticism has its own authenticity and integrity whether men are observing or not—meaning yes, it has authenticity even when men are observing.
Exactly what version of (1) female sexuality and of (2) male-female erotic interaction is being promoted by pathologizing female passion, and the male enjoyment of it?
Does this mean a woman can't dress sexy for her lover? Can't dance for her lover? That a woman can't give her body to her lover? Does it mean that women have to control their eroticism lest it excite men too much? Does it mean men and women can't play power games in bed? That they can't use sex to pretend they are different creatures than they actually are?
If—if—in the act of watching a porn film a man reduces the actress to a body, to an object, why is this bad? If it is, why then is it OK to watch Meryl Streep work—with her fake accents, wig, and scripted lines, who is merely a vessel for the ideas of the playwright and director? And why then is it OK to watch professional athletes, dancers, and singers, who indeed sacrifice their health and comfort to train and then perform for us? If the answer is, "because our objectification of athletes and other performers takes place within a specific space," the same is true for pornography.
Do we care about the person inside of LeBron James, Serena Williams, Miley Cyrus? Do we really care when Kobe Bryant says his abused knees won't let him get on the floor to play with his kids, or that Britney Spears or Bristol Palin make a series of bad life choices—as long as they entertain us? For that matter, do I care about my letter carrier as a person, or do I only care that she does her job, no matter how much her feet hurt, or her back's being injured?
The issue of relating to people merely as impersonal entities performing a task is a fundamental critique of capitalism, and it's worth a discussion. But porn didn't invent this problem. And if this dynamic seems "worse" because sex is involved, that reflects our attitude about sexuality rather than a sophisticated analysis. It does NOT represent some special kind of compassion for people who perform in adult films—who, by the way, aren't asking for anyone's special compassion. They want what the cashiers at Wal-Mart want—a raise, better health insurance, and the flexibility to leave work early when their kid gets sick.
If men get inaccurate ideas about women from porn, does it mean that porn demeans women? Virtually all media products depend on exaggerated or selective portrayals of human beings—from Euripedes' Medea 2500 years ago to the Bronte Sisters, the Merchant of Venice, Sherlock Holmes, the Supremes, and John Wayne, for starters. The National Football League provides inaccurate ideas about men every Sunday.
Should we stop watching movies, professional sports, video games, Broadway productions? Stop listening to music, stop looking at paintings? No. To best enrich our lives by consuming the creations of imaginary worlds by artists or performers we value, we simply need a bit of media literacy—not to stop watching or listening.
Although a small amount of pornography depicts gruesome behavior, not only does porn not demean women, it celebrates female sexuality—typically without the culturally redemptive context of love, relationship, intimacy, etc.. This is what people from across the political spectrum find so upsetting. Demeaning to women—that women are imagined as truly sexual beings? Really?