Today’s Boston Globe (April 22, 2006), reports that Massachusetts is giving $1 million to a faith-based organization to teach abstinence in the schools. The same school kids, meanwhile, are subjected to multi-million dollar ad campaigns that positively scream at them about sex, presenting mostly passive sex objects whose cleavages, crotches, and botox-injected lips reduce sex and sexuality to the sum total of certain consumable body parts.
Alternatively, if these same kids read deep into the same newspaper, they’d see a “Dear Ann” column consoling a teenager that s/he shouldn’t feel ashamed of masturbating. The piece reads like an excerpt from a medical text book, referring to blood rushing and muscles spasming, etc., delivering potentially useful information, but not much of an affirmation of sexuality or what a person might be feeling in the course of the blood rushing.
Then there’s the radio. Flip it on, and you might hear the low rumble of Bruce Springsteen’s voice. “I got a bad desire. I’m on fire,” he sings, in a way that is tuneful, but also pretty close to a purely sexual moan. What’s the “fire” like for him? He explains it, “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley through the middle of my soul. At night I wake up with my sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head.” And he implores his lover, “Cool my desire.”
Or check out Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, who shares the many ways she plans to make her lover happy. “Gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs, gonna use my style, gonna use my sidestep, gonna use my fingers, gonna use my-my-my imagination.” She’s not just there to please him (or her), however. She is as demanding as Bruce is, though a good bit more playful. “I’ve got to have some of your attention. Give it to me!”
The radio waves are full of sexually explicit lyrics. Some are hateful, homophobic, and/or derogatory toward women But you can find many of them are positive, playful, and passionate. Marvin Gaye calls for “sexual healing.” Marianne Faithful reminds us, “It’s not the meat, it’s the motion.” John Prine laughs about “getting rug burns on his knees.”
With all the negative, sexist, racist, exploitative images of sexuality in the popular media, it’s pleasantly surprising sometimes to notice that some music (even popular rock and roll music) can be a place where sexuality is expressed in a more or less healthy way. (I’m not too familiar with rap, country, and other music styles, but Iâ€™m sure it has a similar mix of positive and not-so-positive sex lyrics.) It’s pleasantly surprising to notice halfway decent message getting airtime in the otherwise barren cultural context of a) the deafening noise of corporate-sponsored, sexist objectification of sex and sexuality harnessed for buying power competing with b) the deafening silence of abstinence-only and/or one-dimensional body-part oriented approaches that explain sex and sexuality as the functioning of genitalia.
Some radio stations bill themselves as avoiding the racier lyrics so as “not to embarrass you in front of your kids.” But what’s really embarrassing is how much we’ve let corporations and the right-wing dominate any public conversation about sex.
We give kids (and ourselves) a few dots of information — the medical text book excerpt, the moralistic abstinence lesson, the onslaught of objectified women in advertising — and expect them to connect them and fill in the enormous remaining white space in the picture. This is how they’re supposed to grow into a healthy sexuality?
What if progressives were to renew our efforts (admirably initiated by the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement) to put healthy sex and sexuality at the forefront of our movements? What would say about it? What is a healthy sexuality? Taking a hint from regular old commercial radio — which, while dominated by corporate interests, seems to have elements of it that escape that particular stranglehold — we could start by trying to simply and unabashedly celebrate passionate, non-oppressive, joy-inducing, “healing” sexuality that embraces the whole body plus the imagination.
Sexuality makes up a major part of what people think about and act on in their daily lives. Despite having to function in a corporate-dominated, profit-driven, sexist, racist, anti-participatory environment, positive aspects of sexuality still manage to surface.
Sex and sexuality are fundamental to who we are. Although they are spheres of life where people have experienced enormous pain and victimization, they also have found many powerful and beautiful expressions. Unlike economic and political structures, which are harder to imagine, we could actually fairly easily access some decent ideas about sexuality just by looking around, seeing what we like, noticing our own desires, noticing what others like, and caring enough to imagine what it would take to cause these things to thrive in a way that felt fun, freeing, rewarding, and non-oppressive.
What is healthy sexuality?
1. Healthy sexuality is a powerful and necessary form of expression in which we act independently and inter-dependently, and which is fundamental for every human being.
Sex is both a need and a want. It doesn’t enrich anyone; it doesn’t impoverish anyone; it doesn’t create ownership or disenfranchisement. Instead, it’s a place you go to just be or to experiment with your being or to experiment with what it means to be close to another being. Often, it’s a process more than an event, but maybe sometimes it is just an event. In any case, sex is where you claim your needs/wants either alone or in conjunction with others. In the process, you express some part of your deepest self — partly because you have to and partly because you *want* to, and claiming that want is empowering and life-affirming.
2. Healthy sexuality includes a wide spectrum of behaviors and feelings — from genital-oriented sex acts to other activities that are erotic, sensual, or sexual, such as dancing, singing, touching, and playing.
If sex and sexuality are where we pursue pleasure, a sense of self, and a sense of belonging and connection to others, then we must put a lot of care into the forums where it is carried out and where it is learned. It is a precious part of ourselves and an integral part of being human, so it deserves utmost care and attention. Parents and families must get great quantities of support so that they can pass on great quantities of the same to their children who will need it so that they can be loved unconditionally, their bodies treasured and kept safe, their minds allowed to roam but also seek guidance, their desires affirmed, reflected on, and never shamed. Schools and community centers must offer engaging, empowering education around sex and sexuality. Adults must have access to a wide range of cultural venues and supports for diverse sexuality and wide-ranging emotions and issues connected to sexuality, such as gender identity, etc.
3. Healthy sexuality is powerful, but it does not victimize. It is always safe, even if it sometimes causes pain.
When I was in college, my politically correct lesbian friends used to joke about how they tried to have politically correct sex. They took turns, each getting five minutes “on top.” But sex isn’t like a political meeting, where everyone should have an equal opportunity to talk or a balanced job complex where everyone does similar amounts of empowering and disempowering work. It seems to me, sex is a place you go to work out deep, pleasurable, and even painful feelings about vulnerability, power, being in control and not.
Maybe you’re a lifelong “bottom” who’s found a devoted “top” as a soul mate, and you discarded the stop-watches a long time ago. Maybe hovering along the line between pleasure and pain is exactly what turns you on the most, and you and your partner have communicated well about this and so sometimes you feel pain (exquisitely), but you are not a victim.
4. Healthy sexuality is learned in families and in societies and cultures that embrace diverse feelings and expressions, but also constantly reinforce the need to balance rights and responsibilities.
We could do a lot to nurture healthy sexuality by having a more caring, less cutthroat political, economic, and cultural climate. What if our society threaded solidarity and support through its institutions? I imagine that practicing and experiencing those qualities in public would translate into private renditions of the same. You wouldn’t need to go to your sex life to find ways to act out (or work through) the harshest elements of what you experience publicly — shame, oppression of various sorts, etc.
5. Healthy sexuality takes a certain amount of work (for lack of a better word). Or let’s call it intentionality.
I think we live with a certain myth that sex and sexuality spring unbidden from deep biological urges (mostly) in men or are tied to romantic swoons (mostly) in women. Sure, sex has something to do with biology and sexual pleasure can be tied to love, but it’s okay to be a little more *intentional* about it as well! (Maybe that’s why these myths persist — to *save* us from being intentional about our sexuality.) Chrissie Hynde sings about her intentions, leaving us all wondering exactly what she plans to do with her imagination.
For progressives to start trying to define, celebrate, and go after healthy sexuality, the imagination is not a bad place to start.