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 MySexProfessor.com, referring to the whole thing as the adjancency effect.
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.