by Bruce Dunlavy              (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

There, now that the title has gotten your attention, let’s explore what is making modern sexuality so disturbing to so many people.

A few things about the sexual habits of young people have been shocking traditionalists lately:

Sexting – the sending of nude self-photos by phone – has become a common way of flirting.

Fellatio has become about as casual as shaking hands.

Girls are commonly performing oral sex on boys in their junior high school years.

Rough sex, anal sex, and degrading acts are expected by young males to be readily available from their girlfriends.

These and similar fears have a basis in reality. Studies indicate that such things are indeed happening. An Australian study conducted interviews with adolescent girls and found that they think and feel that they must do these sorts of things in order to be popular, in order to have a boyfriend, etc.  Activities in the USA and Europe are similar, with similar attempts at justification.

sex education photo: sex c3f1cad7ca213b396525dd5ac0adbcbc_PL.jpg
Image credit: photobucket.com

Of course, we all remember when we were adolescents, and acted impulsively, not knowing what was in our own best interests. But this is different, primarily because we are in a different time with different technology. Obviously, sexting was unheard of until rather recently because the technology for it had yet to be invented or to become widely available. That is not the only thing that has become widely available.

What has driven this acceleration in practices that were once considered “perverted” is certainly the widespread availability of hard-core pornography. Many years ago, when I was in school, what passed for pornography could be found in two magazines, Playboy and National Geographic. The former featured photo layouts of bare-breasted women in suggestive poses, and the latter featured photo layouts of bare-breasted women in anthropological settings. Every couple of months, National Geographic would have a feature on some primitive tribe whose women did not cover their breasts. Not nearly so titillating as Playboy, but at least you could claim you were “reading it for the articles” without sounding ridiculous.

What has become known as hard-core pornography (graphic depictions of sexual activity showing not only what the people were doing, but also what they were doing it with) was around, but it was difficult to find until you were in college, and it was on reels of film that required a projector and screen to show. And by today’s standards it was usually quite tame, short on violence and hostility. What you saw happening was not far different from what most people did in their private lives.

Two things changed that, starting in the 1970s with reaction to the repeal of pornography laws under free speech justifications. First was the widespread acceptance of explicit depictions of sex and sexual organs. Playboy and its competitor Penthouse “went pink” with then-daring photos of genital labia. The films Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones, and Behind the Green Door made it acceptable for Joe Lunchbucket and Sally Housecoat to go to a mainstream movie theater and watch pornography. Best-selling novels by respected authors (John Updike, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates) were suddenly required to include at least one graphic sex scene.

Then, in the 1990s, the ubiquity of internet porn added both in-home availability and easy access by underage viewers. That changed everything, because it meant much of the pornography was being watched by kids who didn’t understand that what they were seeing was atypical. They were unaware that not every man has a gigantic penis and discharges a huge volume of semen. They were unaware that not every woman enjoys swallowing semen or having it deposited on her face. As porn pushes the boundaries of adventurism seeking to constantly satisfy the increasingly lascivious interests of its viewers, unusual practices become run-of-the-mill fare.

Unfortunately, it seems that most young people – especially young men – obtain all or nearly all of their information about sexual habits and techniques from watching internet porn. And without any other guidance, they assume this is normal behavior, that it’s how real people really act and respond.

One college student told me that she is disappointed and frustrated by the sexual partners she has met on campus. A sexual experience with them, she says, is “almost no foreplay, followed by two minutes of penetration with zero clitoral stimulation, followed by inane questions such as, ‘How many orgasms did you have?’” It is clear that these young men know nothing beyond what they’ve encountered through internet porn.

Alas, as studies such as one in Archives of Sexual Behavior demonstrate, “mainstream pornography” (what a strange term!) has become largely devoted to rough or violent portrayals of behaviors degrading to the female participants. As a result, young males expect it and young females expect to have to provide it. It’s not pretty. A sex educator comments on the injuries she is seeing from rough sex between adolescents by saying, “I would liken the injuries to my days in the police force when I was dealing with a sexual assault or rape victim who had the act forced upon them.”

So what, if anything, should be done about this? The first step is to look at its origins. The USA has a long history of prudishness. Until the 1960s, censorship of anything resembling explicit sex – or even sexual language – was the rule. James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which has topped more than a few lists of “greatest novels of the Twentieth Century,” was banned in this country for over a decade, and it was not until the 1960s that the final barriers to the free publication of sexually explicit material began to crumble.

Ulysses was banned primarily because its characters sometimes had sexual thoughts, and that upset the moral arbiters of the day. To them, sexual thoughts were sinful thoughts and could not be allowed to poison the minds of our people. Yes, people were clearly having sex, because there were pregnant women around. But it was considered best not to speculate how they got pregnant, nor to suggest that sexual intercourse was anything but a reproductive necessity which must offer no enjoyment to the female participant.

The USA has paid dearly for its refusal to acknowledge that sexual feelings and sexual acts are a normal and desirable part of life. The long suppression of any sexual references created a pent-up desire for open acknowledgment of sexual reality. When the courts began to allow the presentation of sexually explicit material, American culture did not have a tradition of rational and realistic portrayals of sex and sexuality. As a result, what exploded onto the scene was an unrestrained conflation of nearly every sexual practice with no template for distinguishing between what was normal or desirable behavior and what was sensationalist and out-of-the-main.

American culture is still reaping the sad harvest of failure to acknowledge and, indeed, to celebrate sexual intimacy. The situation described above, young people gaining their knowledge of sex from pornography, is not something a rational person would wish to have or to continue. However, rational people seem not to be prevailing in the discussion. Sex education in schools is still controversial, and many schools have adopted “abstinence only” programs, which are demonstrably counterproductive. The purveyors of such programs are still hidebound by the antiquated notion, “If you see it or hear about it, you will want to do it.”

The prevalence of modeling sexual behavior on that seen in pornography is unacceptable. The only way to counteract it is to present sexual information in the context of reasonable, rational, and responsible behavior between consenting partners. Deficiencies in society’s attitudes toward normal human development are preventing this from happening, and with that comes an undesirable manifestation of the abnormal, irresponsible, and disrespectful.

I am in no way suggesting that we attempt to declare some pornography “unacceptable” and censor it. That plan is both dangerous and unsuccessful. Let us open the windows and let in fresh air and sunshine. Let young people be made abundantly aware of what constitutes responsible and respectful sexual behavior. They are not stupid; they will learn.

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