Why Is Sex a Problem at All? The Poison of Puritanism

Why don’t human beings just have sex whenever they feel like it, which is usually, just for the pleasure of it? One can speculate that perhaps we did, at some point in our physical and social evolution, tens of thousands of years ago, but direct evidence about that is not possible.

Fear of pregnancy was the old excuse, but after 1963, the Year of the Pill, when I was in my final year at San Francisco State, that excuse is no longer viable. STDs became another reason, narrowing that window on Paradise by about the mid-1980s, but the Aphrodiphobes (see my previous blogs) have used STDs irrationally to perpetuate their pathological fear and hatred of sexuality.

The pendulum has swung far back from the Enlightenment of the 1960s toward medieval mental illness. In the late 60 and the 70s, it was normal for a college professor (at least in San Francisco and environs) to have a romance with a woman student. As long as they were both consenting adults, no one cared. And teenagers were not prosecuted as sex offenders. These days I could be fired if I had a cup of coffee with a woman student off campus in order to offer some counseling advice. (I’m 73. My libido has subsided to what I suppose many people would consider normal.)

Americans rarely grasp how Puritanical our various cultures are compared to those of Europe. Many Europeans, especially Italians and Scandinavians, think we are psychotic about sexuality in general. There are many historical reasons why this pattern developed. One is that most of the northern European Catholics who migrated to America in the nineteenth century were infected with Jansenism (look it up), which was declared to be a heresy by the Roman church, long after it had lost its ability to enforce such a ruling in most of Europe. Even in New Orleans, Carnival does not mean what it means in Bavaria or points south.

Consider the news. A six-year-old boy has been charged with sexual harassment for kissing a six-year-old girl on the cheek. A teenager has been suspended from school for a year for hugging a teacher. And obviously there are batshit Tea Party Evangelicals still trying to recriminalize both abortion and birth control. These are just a few of the symptoms of what Wilhelm Reich called the Emotional Plague and that I have named Aphrodiphobia: fear of having sex, an endemic mental illness, as serious as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, that a majority of our population suffers from and therefore thinks is normal. I have not read through the latest version of the DSM, the Bible of psychiatry, but I know much of modern psychiatry has been vitiated by the unexamined assumption that an active and uninhibited sex life is always a symptom of mental illness. That’s simply wrong.

Having been raised Catholic by a narcissistic mother, I thought as a teenager that Christianity was inherently antisexual. It was about 1963, reading Alan Watts, that I learned better and began the process of discovering that Jesus originally taught that our sexuality is sacred and our greatest gift.  The Christian movement absorbed the heresy of believing that sex is evil from the pagan Greeks, not from its Jewish roots. In Jewish law, adultery could be committed only by a married man with another man’s wife—because it violated the other man’s property rights. Of course, in that sexist society, that rule was enforced only on married women. Nevertheless, sex was not considered to be inherently wrong; it was not, as far as I have found, illegal for two unmarried people to have sex.

Many of the other Christian writings found in 1948, buried in a jar in Egypt, assert explicitly or implicitly that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers; that’s explicit in the Gospel of Philip. Were they married? I have decided, probably not. Marrying Mary would have made her his property. Given that he taught and practiced the absolute equality of men and women, I cannot believe he would have done that. He even set forth a commandment, lost from the gospels but preserved in Gittin: “The son and the daughter shall inherit equally.” “Shall” meant “must.” Does that derail your theology?  I hope so. Deal with it.

I find comfort and inspiration from thinking of Jesus and Mary as avatars of the Divine Lovers, of the Lord and Lady of the Craft, of Shiva and Shakti, of Zeus and Hera. Surely that is healthier than the blasphemy of describing Jesus as sexless and Mary as a whore. I know of several churches whose members believe that Jesus and Mary were married, although they mostly do not advertise that fact.

We are mammals. As Reich realized, our inhibitions about sex are cultural and psychological, not biological. Males and females are biologically equal in their desire for and enjoyment of sex. Inhibitions of our ability to enjoy sex result from cultural brainwashing. We have historical records of cultures in which women had the absolute right to have sex and children with whomever they pleased to.

I have had the blessing of knowing at least half a dozen women in my life who could indulge in sex freely, without inhibitions, guilt, or remorse. I think of them as Priestesses of Aphrodite, or as Alpha Females. Puritans and many psychiatrists would insist these women must have been psychotic, dysfunctional, anything but healthy. That is not what I observed. We have no common terminology for them that is not pejorative. One once said to me, “I am not promiscuous. I am very choosy.” I know these women were sane, functional, compassionate, and stubborn. True, they were not undamaged. How could they have avoided all damage in this society? Nevertheless, I propose that their perseverance points toward an ideal of mental health that is almost incomprehensible to the vast majority of people in our Puritanical society.

Naming the illness is the first step toward curing it. I do not expect that to be accomplished within what is left of my lifetime, but there are signs of progress. Same-sex marriage is legal. An official has recently issued a marriage license to a triad. People are becoming conscious of the diversity of gender identities. Consensual nonmonogamy is becoming acceptable. Polygamy is no longer illegal in Utah. Praise the Lord—and the Lady.

It is Sunday morning. I did not listen to a sermon. As you can see, I instead wrote one—or, at least, a Pagan equivalent.



Prologue to a Story of Jesus and Mary
Trekking Toward Nineveh, Mile One
Nostalgia as a Root of Reactionary Politics
“I Fell in Love with a Witch”: The Vision of Gerald Gardner
  • sacredblasphemies

    Your student/professor example seems a bit off to me. I mean, the reason it’s frowned upon now isn’t due to some sort of neopuritanist attitude about sex, but because there’s a huge power differential there and, as such, this could lead to sexual harassment or other forms of moral impropriety.

    As for the little boy who got accused of ‘sexual harassment’, I think that’s an extreme example being overblown by the media in order to decry so-called ‘political correctness’.

    Children, boy children in particular, should indeed be taught not to kiss or touch females (or express physical affection to them) without their permission. Not learning that could indeed lead to sexual harassment in the future, but a kiss is not ‘sexual harassment’.

    That’s not a puritanical thing. That’s not an anti-sex thing. That’s a “Hey, we’re living in a patriarchal world where many men feel it’s OK to comment on or touch women’s bodies without their permission” harassment thing.

    • Robert Mathiesen

      To the best of my memory (I’m about as old as Aidan, and have been a professor all my adult life), hardly anyone was thinking much about the “power differential” between professors and students (or male professors and female students) back in the ’60s and ’70s. Sex between students and professors was fairly common at the time, whether casual or purposeful. Indeed, it often led to long-lasting relationships, and even to good solid marriages. If people thought much about avoiding professor-student at all in those days, it was to prevent being stigmatized as having traded sex for good grades. Now, of course, things are different. That’s because our culture has changed, as cultures constantly do. Culture change (in and of itself) is just change, not evolution, and certainly not evolution toward some better state of affairs. Whatever changes for the better take place are accidental, and they may even be reversed if enough centuries pass.

      • Deborah Bender

        My alma mater discarded in loco parentis between my freshman (1966) and junior years. Those of us who had arrived with intact maidenheads never doubted that we were capable of making our own decisions about preserving them, or not.

        Most of my classes at Enormous State U were in vast lecture halls where I doubt the professor could have picked me out of a lineup. The only personal contact was in the sections with the teaching assistants, a mostly unattractive lot (to me). I did get to know a dashing young professor outside my area of study who made himself available for zipless sex with comely students. I considered the opportunity, but I’d met his wife and had sympathy for her situation. I was very aware of power differentials between the sexes, but it seemed to me that she was the one having to contend with male privilege.

        A couple of decades later one of my younger relatives had an affair with a slightly older unmarried faculty member while she was his student. She has the firmer personality of the two, so I’m confident it was consensual. They married, had children and are still together.

        • Robert Mathiesen

          One of my (male) relatives was courted by one of his (female) students in college, back in the early ’70s, and they are still happily married. Having recognized their mutual attraction, they did not date until after the semester was over and she was no longer his student. This was out of respect for the proprieties, as they were viewed at the time.

    • aidanakelly

      Interesting argument, very currently PC, but ask yourself whether you are making excuses to avoid recognizing that these events ARE symptoms of Puritanism

      • Aine

        If you do not think or understand that a man (or anyone) is not allowed to touch a woman (or anyone) without their consent, there is a serious problem.

        • wordaddict

          And that is why the behavior of that six-year-old boy, who had actually done it multiple times and been asked to stop, actually IS a problem.

      • Sunweaver

        Not wanting to your professor to come on to you is not Puritanism. Harassment policies exist because some individuals abuse that power differential. I like sex as much as the next Pagan, but gender discrimination and sexual harassment are still very real problems, especially in STEM fields.
        While we have more gender equality than in the ’70′s, we still don’t have a truly egalitarian society. That has to be part of any conversation on “free love.” Understanding how to be respectful of others is one of the most important things to mention when we talk about sex. Acknowledging past inequality (which you have not done), is one of the ways in which we can move forward toward a sex-positive society that is safe for all genders.
        Would this be a different article if you were a woman? My money’s on “yes.”

  • KateGladstone

    “. An official has recently issued a marriage license to a triad. … Polygamy is no longer illegal in Utah.”

    Could you please post links documenting those two? I may find them handy to have around, and I hadn’t heard about these events.

    • aidanakelly

      I think you can find those links on my FB page.

    • Deborah Bender

      The Utah decision legalizes cohabitation, not bigamy

  • 12StepWitch

    The male privilege in this post is pretty blinding.

    Isn’t it interesting that in this entire post about sex that there is *no* discussion about the effect that sexual violence, of which women are by far the main victims of, has on our culture or of the way in which women experience their sexuality or are able to hold their sexuality (not discounting the experience that men and boys go through, it is *just as heinous* when they are abused or assaulted, but the prevalence of abuse and assault is not nearly the same and as such its hold and drag on culture is likely going to be less).

    Your idea of a pastoral past in which men and women had sex whenever they wanted to is amusing to me. Maybe men did that…but likely it was not so for women.

    I find your assertion that a society in which women do not want to be sexualized in their professional spheres is a society that is terrified of sex to be an aggressive and violent assertion that accuses women of being “frigid” simply because they desire to have spheres where they are not sexualized. This is where your privilege is blinding you. You have *no idea* what it is to walk in this world as a woman and how much of our experience has been sexualized and how it feels when that is against your desire and will. There is nothing wrong with us wanting to remove sex from some spheres when sex has been, likely for the vast majority of human history and pre-history, a violent tool used to oppress and suppress our gender (and still is being used in this manner in the world today). This is not theorizing, this is reality. I’m very glad that sex and sexuality is so much simpler for you. But open your eyes and listen to your sisters. We have been raped, assaulted, harassed….and now this slap in the face of a blog post telling us that we should all just lighten up and stop being so puritanical and politically correct and just enjoy ourselves and have some sex? Wow. Gee, thanks. Didn’t realize it was so easy!

    • aidanakelly

      Well, yeah, you did not understand what I was saying, and you’re talking about all kinds of issues that I was not talking about. And making all kinds of assumptions. I understand the pathology; it is all symptoms of Reich’s Emotional Plague.

      • 12StepWitch

        Wow. TEXTBOOK response, and exactly what I predicted below. I am almost speechless. Classic derailing. So it’s not that there was maybe something WRONG or problematic with that you said (despite the fact that a LOT of people here seemed to have a problem with it). It’s that I failed to understand and because I am brainwashed by a cultural pathology. Huh. Well thank Goodness you are here to mansplain to me how women REALLY feel and think.

        Yes, Aidan, I understood exactly the point you were trying to make. Problem was, I think you’re mistaken about some key elements. And yes, I was talking about issues you were not talking about, such as the effect of sexual violence on how women think and feel about sex. Your failure to discuss those issues delegitimized your entire post.

      • Alley Valkyrie

        She understood what you were saying perfectly, and her response to you sums it up better than I ever could have. Your privilege is absolutely blinding you, and the amount of unexamined privilege that you demonstrate in this piece is rather painful to witness. I think you really need to re-read what 12StepWitch wrote, and pull yourself out of your defensive stance before you do so.

        To be blunt, you’ve spun a rather delusional theory here that painfully highlights your own misogynistic baggage here while coming off as righteously convinced that you’re operating from from a liberated perspective. And in trying to defend it you only embarrass yourself further. There’s no “pathology” here, only a complete and utter lack of consciousness on your part as to how deeply our overly sexualized society and pervasive rape culture has affected and traumatized women.

  • Aine

    “Woman student” Really? You couldn’t think of any other term that was less…gross?

    “Alpha Females” Good job perpetuating the divide between Good/Healthy Girl and Bad/Unhealthy Girls. You’re not actually helping fight this ‘problem with sex’ you’re writing about. You’re coming at it from the position of a man who has clearly never had to deal with sexual violence or sexualization in the workplace, nor have you had to deal with the ‘good girl/slut’ problem most women (and vagina-carrying people) experience in our lives.

    If a man told me that because I could have enjoyable sex with him and communicate freely about it that I was some ‘special female’ I would slap him and tell all my friends to stay away from him. Because that’s gross, he’s gross, and he’s idealizing women rather than acknowledging them as fellow human beings.

    “Pagans are becoming conscious of the diversity of gender identities” That’s why your post was constantly binary ‘male and female’, yes? Because of that ‘consciousness of diversity’? I didn’t see any mention of non-binary people. I didn’t see any mention of asexual or demisexual people.

    12StepWitch pretty much already said everything I could concerning your unexamined privileged.

    • 12StepWitch

      Thank you. And why do I feel looming a post or response about how really we just failed to understand his point. ugh. Mansplaining.

    • wordaddict

      Right. There’s nothing wrong with being like those women, but I felt like that framing set them up as the only women who were worthwhile.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    Oh, good gods….
    I’m just gonna chime in here that I, as an incredibly uninhibited queer male who’s had many (many, many) configurations of sexual relationships and stand by such things, find the way you speak of this as incredibly misogynistic and nauseating.

    There is something very wrong with your conception, and I think that, despite believing yourself to be quite liberated, you are actually not liberated enough.

    That is, while proposing a liberation of sexuality from puritanical restraints, you’re keeping patriarchal notions fully intact and re-inscribing them into pagan sexuality.

    No thank you.

  • Abba Thoniah

    Is that you Ron Burgundy?”. Maybe you should read this and gain a little bit of perspective. http://www.salon.com/2013/02/15/my_deep_dark_secret/

  • wordaddict

    In addition to the erasure of GLB and Asexual people in this post, the ableist mental health language Mr. Kelly uses against people who happen to disagree with him is pretty breathtaking.

    • Jonathan Kuperberg

      Amen. I am an ultra-conservative evangelical Christian who would never use such language for the opposition (including “retard”) but they deny me the same respect.

  • Guest

    In which we learn that devotees of Aphrodite and devotees of Artemis or Athena or Persephone are mutually hostile. And this is news because… nobody here is pagan?

  • Jonathan Kuperberg

    I believe in NO sex outside an exclusive man/woman marriage symbolizing God’s exclusive love, and I am NOT a “phobe”. Militantly sensualist Europeans who reject purity can believe sexual conservatism is “psychotic” all they want: that is just a wicked stigmatizing lie from the enemies of Christ, continence and chastity.