Posted at the Friendly Atheist, Darrel Ray has a review of the work America’s War on Sex by Dr. Marty Klein. According to Ray, Klien is arguing that many of the Culture War arguments over sexuality, birth control and sex education can be traced back to “erotophobia”:
Dr. Klein traces much of this back to erotophobia (fear of or negative attitudes about sex). If I am afraid of my sexuality then I am also afraid of yours. Because I am uncomfortable with your sexuality, I have the right to legislate your sexuality to reduce my discomfort. It’s a great way to justify legislation: “The law must conform to my religious beliefs.” This justification is used in Iran and Saudi Arabia with great success and is what the Catholic Church and Focus on the Family seek to enforce in the United States.
I think the sociologist Kristin Lurker gets a little more in depth in her work When Sex Goes to School, an examination of the arguments about sex education in public schools. Here’s a section where she discusses her interview with a woman opposed to public sex education, whom she calls “Mrs. Boland”:
Her voice was flat, depressed, drained of all emotion. She was opposed to sex education, she said, because her husband was a rapist; he had in fact raped their daughter, and she thought that sex education was at the root of it all. Not directly, of course, because he was well into his adult years before the kind of sex education Mrs. Boland objected to was being offered in the schools. Rather, she thought that sex education in its modern incarnation had had a baleful indirect effect on her husband. The way sex is taught nowadays, she said, takes the “thou shalt nots” out of it and validates personal preferences over right and wrong in sexual decision-making. It embodies and legitimates a morality based on selfish pleasure, and in her husband’s case, the pleasure involved was the most selfish of all, that built on the pain of another person.
Though the connection may be obscure to others, for Mrs. Boland, the link between rape and sex education was all too real. The only way to keep people like her husband from harming others was to reestablish the rules that were overthrown in the 1960s, and sex education was the logical place to start. (When Mrs. Boland said “the sixties”—which she did often—her face contorted into a grimace of disgust.) She said that she opposed sex education unless it was taught in the context of morality, and for her the word “morality” was shorthand for the norms that once ruled American sexual behavior—that the only moral sex is between a man and a woman and within holy wedlock. Perhaps it was too late to save her daughter from men like her husband, she said, but most of her waking hours were spent trying to save the next generation.
As we spoke, I felt my world tip subtly off-balance. In Mrs. Boland’s life, sex was a powerful and often destructive force of nature that could sweep otherwise reasonable men and women over their heads into something they could not control, try as they might. My own thinking over the years had been based on the assumption that sexuality was mostly benign, a source of pleasure rather than of danger and harm. It’s not that I hadn’t heard horror stories about sexual abuse and exploitation, but somehow I had always assumed that these examples were the exceptions, the disturbed acts of disturbed people, rather than at the heart of what sex was. What I was hearing from Mrs. Boland, backed up with terrible details, was the belief that sexuality, especially for men, was by its very nature destructive and needed to be contained. Mrs. Boland believed, and believed deeply, that the only way this powerful disruptive force could be controlled was to channel it into marriage and to marshal every resource—legal, moral, and emotional—to keep it there.
These two competing visions of sex—sex as pleasure versus sex as danger, sex as something that reasonable humans can handle versus sex as something that needs all the help it can get to keep from running amok—have long histories in American thinking.
A couple of points. Klein’s “erotophobia” is more than just a feeling that sex is icky. It’s a feeling that sex is a disruptive and dangerous thing that can tear apart relationships and institutions and thus upset the society. To the Mrs. Bolands of the world, constant vigilance is required to keep this insidious force in check.
This is not a new or uniquely Christian idea. In The Body and Society, Peter Brown shows how even ancient Greeks and Romans believed that an excess of sex was like an excess of wine or an excess of anger in terms of disrupting society. Since these excesses made a person unfit for the responsibilities of citizenship, there was a political dimension before Christianity appeared on the scene.
That said, these ideas have found a home in Christianity, and in particular the Calvinist influenced Christianity that is so prominent in America. Sexual desire makes a good example of how humans are totally depraved, and how our corrupt impulses can overcome us and lead us into sin. As Lurker points out, we’ve been having the debate for a long time.