The West is apparently sexually liberated. I say apparently because I would argue that on closer examination we have the most bizarre, dangerous hang ups I can think of. The secrecy and shame surrounding sex and sexuality is still alive and well. If not, how would one explain the fact that the following statements are all, for various reasons, controversial?
- People engage in violent rape fantasies and “unusual” sexual practices.
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases exist at a relatively high prevalence.
- Young teenagers engage in sex and sexual practices.
- Most people are unfaithful to their partners at some point in their lives.
- Lifelong monogamy is unusual.
As an anthropology student studying sexuality and primate behaviour, I’m well aware of the ways in which culture and taboo affect what is ‘normal’ in a society. Culture isn’t always a bad thing; if it stops you from acting on a strange sexual attraction towards your brother, it’s probably an adaptive trait. It can also restrict behaviour that we would consider unacceptable or unpleasant, which is also pretty handy for the less sadistic among us. However, it’s not all roses and latex. Sexual taboos often have the negative impact of inadvertently fostering an atmosphere where sexual diseases spread, child abuse goes unnoticed, unreported and often denied, and the ability of individuals to get help if they need it is grossly impeded.
The simple fact is that sexuality is incredibly hard to control, as any fan of Orwell will know only too well. Psychologists and anthropologists agree that it is a complex mix of genetics, experiences and development. With sexual orientation, it’s never as simple as being able to absolutely identify as being gay, being straight or being bisexual. Sexuality, and one’s indulgence of it also functions on preferences, identity, socially constructed factors such as taboos or fetishes, and a hundred other things. Because of this, a single factor that makes someone enjoy Star Wars fantasy sex with Yoda lookalikes is very hard to figure out, or control.
Unlike in films, it’s very rare for psychologists to magically find that moment as a child when you saw that scary clown and became a full-blown lesbian. Sex and sexual arousal is based on a huge range of factors and sensations. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Work with it, get help if what you like is uncomfortable for you (sadism, rape fantasies) and accept that like any other part of your psychology and biology, it is part of you. If you have a painful abnormality in your bone tissue, you get help. Same should go for your psychological health. If you need to discuss it or maybe consider treatment options, that is also an acceptable alternative and may be healthy for one’s sexual growth. But to be honest, what you like might not be that unusual.
For example, a significant number of women, although they won’t admit it (by virtue of cultural impressions of the ideal female being virginal and naive) enjoy rough or faux forced sex. Similarly, a fair number of men are very interested in sex with partners with a significant age difference (although not in a Lolita way, don’t worry.) If you want some statistics on it, feel free to check out the link here. Far from the assumption that 90% of people are enjoying missionary sex in marriage, most people have some level of sexual niche. Oh stop blushing. You are part of the problem.
Unfortunately, Britain is a maze of weird sexual taboos and hang ups. Don’t talk about sex, definitely be terrified of going to the doctor when you really need a sexual health check, don’t have a healthy attitude to discussing sex with your children and whatever you do, don’t openly discuss the most perverse elements of sexual behaviour in society. All of this forces vulnerable people who are at the risk of dying of syphilis, being abused or experiencing anxiety over their sexuality into a corner of shame and silence.
If you aren’t going to tell your son or daughter about the dangers of pedophilia on account of ‘innocence’, you are, quite simply, playing right into the hands of potential abusers. Similarly, by failing to recognise it as a disease or sexual abnormality due to outdated fears of ‘normalising’ or excusing abuse, you let rapists and paedophiles hide in the shadows instead of seeking psychological and medical help. These men, and sometimes women, are not shark like monsters driven by inhuman lust, but people who are sometimes capable of recognising they have a problem and need help in case they act on their fantasies. It may seem dystopian but there are hormonal and psychological treatments for these individuals that they might well be more likely to seek help for if they weren’t at risk of the mob.
Britain needs to get over itself and start tackling our sexual dark side. I’m genuinely concerned at the level of sexualisation schoolgirls face in this country; openly fetishising the uniform of 5 to 15-year-old girls is tantamount to pedophilia. We need to readdress the rationale behind what is considered ‘acceptable’ in our culture and openly discuss what we want to be normalised, what we want to be treated as a medical issue, and what we want to be criticised. It unnerves me that we normalise pornography with women dressed as underage girls, but hound men who act on it: why not nip the problem in the bud and admit that we have a culture fetishisation of young girls? Why not engage with the dark cultural carpet of ideas that soak into our minds?
This is nothing new. In the 1880s, a journalist was arrested for uncovering vast London paedophile rings on trumped-up charges of ‘indecency’, largely due to the embarrassment of London society. We have a really deep problem with accepting sexual problems in this country, stemming from our embarrassment to confront sexuality head on. Having a sexual disease should not be embarrassing. Being abused or assaulted should not be embarrassing.
Not getting treated and dying due to a cultural taboo is embarrassing.
The way we shame and silence victims as ‘damaged’ is embarrassing.
If you have a sexual problem, whether it is psychological, physical or biological, for God’s sake break the circle and see someone or talk to someone who can help. I can promise you, as someone who has professors who watch hours and hours of bonobo group sex without blushing, we won’t judge you. If we can tackle the way we talk about sex, we can tackle the dark side of sexuality too.
Anthropologist, Liberally Jewish, Cat enthusiast, Nuance extremist.