Sexually Active ≠ Unprincipled

Sexually Active ≠ Unprincipled April 9, 2016
Our Puritan forebears. Image from Wikimedia (under Creative Commons).

One of the ways American culture gets sex wrong is by linking sexual activity with assumptions of being unprincipled, unethical, and perhaps even immoral.

Historically, yes, we can somewhat blame the Puritans for upholding an atmosphere of sexual vigilance, wherein any deviation from heterosexual marital intimacy was violently punished. People who had affairs, or performed bestial acts, were often fined or whipped, or occasionally put to death. But, as John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman point out in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, it was still considered normal to want sex within marriage. And people who transgressed societal norms were brought back into the fold once they’d been taken to task.

Fast forward to today, when thanks to a number of other cultural shifts, we have more public discourse about sex and less flogging people for stepping outside the lines… but we still have an emphasis on heterosexual monogamous procreative marital sex as the only acceptable sex. And even within those confines, there’s such a thing as too much sexual desire, too much masturbation, too much consumption of erotic materials.

We can trace some of this to the ways in which ideas about sex percolated into public awareness. D’Emilio and Freedman document how “The writings of Sigmund Freud best symbolize the new direction that sexual theorizing took in the twentieth century…Above all, Americans absorbed a version of Freudianism that presented the sexual impulse as an insistent force demanding expression” (223). This impulse could of course be suppressed, but not without consequences, both psychological and physiological. And the proper, moral thing to do in the eyes of many is to sublimate or channel more productively the sexual impulse, because letting it simply have its way could wreak havoc and chaos.

This concept is still with us today, I’d argue, though of course it’s not the only way to perceive sexuality. Rather than viewing sexual desire as a raging force of nature that’s potentially destructive, it’s possible to view sexual desire as a natural part of humanity that deserves healthy expression. To take one example, this occurred around 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and was known as the “glass of water” theory. Jonathan Zimmerman explains in Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education: “Just as people drank a glass of water to quench their thirst, the theory went, so should they have sex to satisfy a different kind of urge; there was no need to complicate the matter with romance or love” (24). This theory didn’t last very long, since Lenin didn’t like it, but it’s an example of how there are many ways to view sexual urges, not all of them negative.

Thanks to the rise of Freudian thought as well as other historical factors, today in America being sexually active or sexually engaged is seen as suspect. Worse, there’s a stigma that being sexually active carries somehow taints the rest of a person, making it seem that because they’re so interested in sex, they’re somehow incapable of upholding their other agreements or obligations. I discuss this taint as a form of sympathetic magic in a blog post over at, referring to the whole thing as the adjancency effect.

This is why we end up with awful things like slut-shaming sexual assault survivors, or saying once you’ve consented to one outside-the-box thing you’ve consented to them all. For example, an MMA fighter sexually assaulted his girlfriend… and his lawyer is claiming that because she’s been an adult entertainer, she might’ve pre-consented to those violent activities. Specifically, he said that due to her line of work, she already had “the desire, the preference, the acceptability towards a particular form of sex activities that were outside of the norm.”

Just… ugh.

Apart from how it’s obviously terrible to say that because someone consented to one outside-the-box sexual act they must’ve consented to another (because consent is an ongoing conversation, not a universal declaration), we also need to combat the notion that sexuality is this awful dark drive that taints your whole person. We need to be aware of, and actively fight, the implication that once someone has engaged in (consensual) sexual activity, they can no longer be trusted to be reliable in other areas of their lives, such as accurately communicating consent, acting like a professional at work, or being a good parent or a generally principled human being.

Basically, it comes down to this: no amount of sexual desire or sexual activity is inherently unprincipled or immoral, unless the way you go about it involves non-consent or coercion.

And this is a huge part of my sex positivity: promoting views of sex that encourage us to dig a little deeper, to ask why someone doing XYZ Thing Outside The Norm supposedly reflects back on their personality in such a detrimental way. In my sex-positive view of the world, none of what you’re into sexually impacts how I view you, so long as you’re going about it consensually. It might not be my jam, I might not always want to hear about it, but I wouldn’t judge you for it.

I know that we’re conditioned to view sexuality according to how our culture perceives it, and I know that cultural norms don’t change overnight. But if we get enough people to join the conversation, hopefully we can start to make progress in a more sex-positive, less needlessly judgmental direction.

Originally posted at my Sex Ed with Dr. Jeana blog.

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  • Til

    It’s interesting- in horror films produced by our culture, you can pretty much guarantee that any character who engages in sexual activity is going to be punished for it by the script writers before the film is over.

    • Ah, that’s true… I don’t watch a lot of horror, but that comment really does go to show how engrained the anti-sex attitude can be. I’d never noticed that before. It reiterates itself like a meme, even though much of the culture is becoming post-Christian.

    • TheRoseHipster

      Oh yes. I’m a huge horror fan, and while some (generally but not always newer) films subvert that, it’s generally a given that if someone has sex (or, in the case of women characters in general, takes her clothes off for any reason), by the next scene, they’ll be dead.

      Horror isn’t exactly subtle in rendering what’s believed in the cultures that produce it.

      • I really like that the original ‘Halloween’ movie has Laurie Strode openly smoking weed (In public! In a car!) while talking frankly about sex and relationships, yet she’s the audience co-protragonist and heroine.

        Just goes to show that you can work within a genre with its tropes while still doing your own thing.

        Also very much worth mentioning: ‘Terminator 2’ and ‘The Terminator’. Sarah Connor is such a fantastic character in both. Morally conflicted, uncertain, growing, intelligent, able to have relationships and have sex, etc.

  • Sophia Sadek

    All things in moderation, even porn.

  • I don’t shave my legs actually, despite being a cyclist. And why would it matter if I did? My genitalia have nothing to do with my worth; why on earth would it matter if I were a woman? And I don’t think anyone here besides yourself cares what I happen to do or don’t do in the bedroom. As you can see, I do indeed have someone lovely and wonderful as my life partner. I also happen to have respect, both for myself and for others. 🙂

    If you’re going to spend your time mindlessly abusing those you don’t even know via the internet, please find another hobby. What is your point in even writing that? To convince me that the author is wrong? To persuade me to become a Christian?

  • Thank you for mentioning how notions of consent are not a ‘one time, one word’ thing at all. It’s horrible and disgusting how many social conservatives use weasel words such as ‘wifely duty’ to justify one person forcing themselves on another person, just because of the fig leaf that if someone consented to sex before a long time ago obviously they’re always for up (*gags*)

  • Leyla1001nights


    • Cheers – I do the same when I see others get trolled. Seemingly happened *loads* recently…? I reckon it’s multiple accounts. But I’ll continue being as polite as my stereotypical Britishness can muster up! I just find the troll hilarious… I can confirm each of those particular allegations to be rather false… and meaningless if they were true… 😛 😛