Friday, January 3, 2014

On Our Continued Sexual Repression

Sherlock & John
I watched the first episode of the new season of Sherlock last night.  There's a sub-plot with NO spoilers here:  John Watson gets engaged to Mary.  Mrs. Hudson, the landlady, is shocked that he's engaged to a woman since he and Sherlock were obviously so "close" - and so soon after his passing and all.   John vehemently objects to the insinuation that he is now, or ever was, gay.  

In class before the break I read a bit about Montaigne's affection for La Boétie, and the very first comment I got from a pretty enlightened group was, "He was obviously gay."

Montaigne and La Boétie, BFFs

And then one of the essays I marked contained a discussion of the openness of sexual ethics today compared to historic restrictiveness.  And I commented on the paper that I don't think we've come nearly as far as we think we have, even if we just focus on this part of the world.

Our sexual ethics have changed, for sure - over the relative short term in particular.  I've lived long enough to see an unbelievable change in our respect for same-sex relationships, from killing them to revering them in my short lifetime.  Now homosexuality is in fashion to the point that some people want a gay friend or two to make them more interesting by association.  The same goes in some circles for polyandry.  But we're still messed up about sex.  And we don't understand our history on this enough to see our trajectory.

R. & Julie
Romance as the end all and be all of relationships is a relatively new idea - maybe 200-years-old or so.  Previously, passion towards one person was seen as a social problem - look what it did to Romeo and Juliet.  That wasn't written as a romance to emulate - the way most remakes will have it, but as a cautionary tale.  It's a tragedy after all.  

For centuries, people could bond with the same sex without an assumption of sexual tension.  Now that homosexuality is accepted in these parts, it seems to be a looming perception in the background of close friendships.  This is part and parcel of a view that a relationship with sex is the ideal - an accumulative view - which is the real problem.  As long as a sexual relationship trumps any other kind of dynamic, we have a greater potential to lose a variety of connections with others.  

Why is it so hard to believe that Montaigne and La Boétie loved each other but didn't have sexual feelings for each other?  I think it's because we can no longer imagine closeness without sexuality - which is repressive.  It restrains our freedom to have close, non-sexual relationships.  It's legal and overtly acceptable, but there's a subtle social pressure that suggests it's not quite right.  

Friends can be close, but not too close.  If any two people spend too much time together, they must be having sex - or they should be; they need to take it to the next level (as if it's a sign of progress).  Or, if they shouldn't be having sex, then they shouldn't be spending so much time together!  We've lost the idea of best friend, of companion without a sexual flavour.  Everything is coated in nuance.

I had a 15-year friendship with a guy that ended because of the number of people who insisted either we should be getting it on, or we actually were.  His girlfriend couldn't take it and gave him an ultimatum.  He picked her.  And lengthy conversations with men at parties are always suspect.  I have to stick with the women in the kitchen to avoid provoking the stink-eye (and that kitchen-thing still happens too).

We still approach love and connection fearfully and possessively.  

We've created a new normal that's no less constricting our experiences.   It seems that it's not the case that restrictions leave as we become more accepting, but that they just change and become less physically harsh.  Nobody is beaten for their desires (except pedophiles, that's still right out), but coersive social forces are no less a barrier to living comfortably with who we are and what we like.  There's a subtle social means of encouragement to stay within unnecessary and nonsensical boundaries.  

And that's not the only bit of sexual repressiveness of our times.  

It's blue because it's so cold!
I recently saw Blue is the Warmest Color and was surprised to see, in full detail, that women shave or wax their pubic hair right off even in France.  In the U.S. one study found that 60% of women 18-24 get rid of everything - and that it's really harmful!   Beyond that, the rise in labioplasty convinces women that natural isn't beautiful unless it's perfect.  Looking the way we do naturally has always been an issue, but now it's gone further to include the bits that almost nobody ever sees.

Fetishes are still taboo.  People can talk about them on sensationalist TV shows, but, however kindly the host speaks to them, that they're there reveals them as freaks.  It's still not a conversation for social settings where other sex tales might be parlayed.  And, similarly, people who just aren't into sex that much keep it to themselves.  Any talk of either is met with concern and doctor suggestions.  It's seen as unhealthy not to desire sex with another person.  

Liking it too much or too varied is also a problem particularly for women.  Slut shaming isn't going away.  And the fact that people feel shameful about sexual encounters makes rape that much easier to get away with since victims are loathe to report.    

What keeps it all going, also, is the notion that talking about sex is somehow beneath us as intelligent people.  It's trivial and base.  So these issues aren't getting the attention they deserve.  As Freud said almost a century ago in Civilization and its Discontents
The demand for a uniform sexual life for all, which is proclaimed in all these prohibitions, disregards all the disparities, innate and acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings, thereby depriving fairly large numbers of sexual enjoyment and becoming a source of grave injustice.
There's no evidence that Montaigne was gay, something he makes clear in "Of Friendship," but the suggestion of such is evidence that we still haven't grown enough as a culture to completely accept a variety of relationships including strong and lasting non-sexual friendships.  That's a shame.

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