Sex, Back Rubs, and Socially Constructed Value

Sex, Back Rubs, and Socially Constructed Value February 2, 2012
In a comment on my Purity Myth post, I said the following in response to comment:

As to the “deeply physical, emotional, and spiritual act” you say sex is, I would just point out that there are a LOT of people disagree with you. I personally don’t see anything spiritual about it at all, and I think the only emotional thing about it is what you choose to invest in it. As for it being “deeply physical,” so is a back rub or playing football or wrestling.

I have gotten a lot of flack for saying the part in bold. I have actually deleted some of the comments I have gotten in response because they were crude and offensive. But since so many people have found what I said above incomprehensible and itself offensive, I thought I would explain what I meant by it.

Stripped of all cultural connotations and constructed meaning, sex is simply a physical act like any other physical act. It is two people rubbing their genitals together to obtain physical pleasure. Bonobo monkeys, as an example, use sex as a social bonding tool just as other monkeys groom each other. Dolphins similarly engage in recreational sex (i.e., having sex purely for pleasure), and are not monogamous. When ducks have sex, it is nothing but an annoyance to the female, who either stays still to wait it out or struggles until it is over. At its heart, sex is simply this physical act.

The value we place on sex is socially constructed. The reason that so many people see sex as something incredibly intimate and emotional, something completely different from a back rub or wrestling, is not because sex naturally that has these characteristics but rather because that is the social construction our society has built up around it. As I said above, the only emotional thing about sex is what we choose to invest it with.

In our society, different people and subcultures invest sex with different meanings and value. In the circles in which I grew up, sex is invested with spiritual meaning and extreme intimacy and virginity is invested with incredible value and meaning. And yet, on the other hand, there are people who have casual sex who do not construct sex as something profoundly intimate or invest it with any sort of spiritual meaning. For them, sex is just something to do for fun. There are even people who have open relationships, in which they share an intimate and loving bond with their partner and yet have sex with other individuals. Because they do not see sex as something extremely intimate or spiritual, having sex with other individuals does not hurt their relationships with their partners.

Sex only has whatever meaning you invest in it.

I have a theory on why so many – though not all – cultures have constructed sex as something special, different, and to be highly guarded. Sex is linked to reproduction, and in the past this link could not be severed. Given that sex might lead to unplanned pregnancies, societies built up social and legal codes around sex, limited the sex of virtuous women to marriage (whatever that meant in that society), and carefully guarded the perimeters. It made sense to sanction premarital or extramarital sex if sex could not be separated from reproduction.

As for sex being especially intimate and emotional, that actually is probably a more recent invention. I’m not an expert on the history of sex and sexuality, but I do know that in Ancient Greece men had sex with boys in Ancient Rome men had sex with whoever they owned, whether it be their wives or their slaves, and in Ancient Israel men took multiple wives and had sex with concubines. Oh, and in all of these societies men had sex with female war captives as well. Sex wasn’t seen as something that should necessarily bring pleasure to the female involved, and it wasn’t something necessarily intimate or emotional. Rather, sex was something someone with power took from someone without power.

During the middle ages, women were seen as especially sexual and as therefore especially sinful. This changed in the early nineteenth century when women came to be seen as sexually passive, and therefore especially virtuous and moral. Women used their ascribed virtue to champion a variety of reform issues, and the church became overwhelmingly female as men gravitated toward work outside the home and a political life in the public sphere and women came seen as the keepers of the home, the nurturers of children, and the keeper of the family alter. Care for children’s spiritual state transferred from the father to the mother during this period as well. All of this, though, was predicated on women’s especial purity, which rested upon their sexual passivity. Close your eyes and think of England, anyone?

In her How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz reveals that until recently marriage was based more on economics and family ties than on any special intimacy or feeling between the spouses. The idea we have of marriage today, the “companionate marriage,” actually only rose to prominence in the early twentieth century. It was then that the idea that marriage should be built upon sexual satisfaction and emotional fulfillment and support, rather than on economic or social necessity, was born. During this same period, the first three decades of the twentieth century, a wealth of sex manuals advising couples on finding joint sexual satisfaction flooded the market and women cast off the idea that they should be sexually passive, replacing it with a new idea of mutual sexual satisfaction. I would posit that the prevailing view of sex as especially emotional and intimate, an almost spiritual bond between two equal partners, probably arose in concert with new ideas about marriage that developed during this time.

The first few decades of the twentieth century also saw further challenges to the gender hierarchy with the coming of the “new woman,” who worked outside of the home, cast aside her corsets and donned short skirts, dated, danced, and drank. I think it likely that the opening up of new options for women, which began to pick up speed in the late nineteenth century with the rise of job options for single women in new technologies such as secretarial work or telephone operating, was necessary for the development of the companionate marriage, which uncoupled marriage from economic necessity and instead coupled it to ideas of love between two (relatively) equal partners.

Today, now that sex has been decoupled from reproduction, it no longer needs to be carefully guarded or circumscribed as before. Sex no longer contains the potential threat to society that it used to, and it therefore no longer needs to be contained in the same way. This uncoupling of sex and reproduction also makes the act itself less different from other physical acts. The rise of casual sex should not be a surprise, because for those who don’t view sex with a special degree of intimacy it truly doesn’t have to be all that different from a massage or a playful wrestle. Now of course, plenty of people today continue to ascribe intimacy and emotional value to sex, still influenced by societal norms arising with the emergence of the companionate marriage, and it’s therefore not surprising that even as some people have casual sex most don’t have sex with those who aren’t their partners (whether dating or married).

This entire conversation might be boiled down to one point: In everything beyond the basic physical act itself, sex is a social construct. That social construction of sex has changed over time – and note that this entire post has been discussing constructions of sex in the West, ignoring the rest of the world which adds greater difference and diversity. Sex is not naturally imbued with meaning, with emotion or intimacy – those are things we give it.

But of course, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians do not see their ideas about sex as a social construction. I earlier pointed to bonobos, dolphins, and ducks by way of comparison, but Christians believe that God has set man apart from the animals, giving him a soul and making him special. Given this, evangelicals and fundamentalists hold that sex is naturally and always much, much more than just a physical act – it is, and always will be, a highly intimate, emotional, and spiritual act that should only take place within the bonds of matrimony. And, they contend, this isn’t a construct – it’s simply the natural way of things as set up by God.

This is why I was taught that people who have casual sex will be scarred by it, and that people who have sex with other partners before marriage will live with guilt and shame for the rest of their lives. What I didn’t realize is that this only happens if people act against the social constructions of sex that they have internalized. In other words, if someone who places great value on sex and sees it as something spiritual and intimate that should be saved for marriage has casual sex, they will only naturally be scarred by it. In contrast, if someone who doesn’t think sex is different from any other physical act done to achieve pleasure has casual sex, there will be no scarring at all. The scarring and guilt comes not from the sex or lack of it, but from the disconnect between internal beliefs and outward actions.

This reminds me of two posts I’ve written, one some time ago and one recently. First, I wrote in Sexpectations about how shocked I was when my husband-to-be told me that my saving my virginity as a present for him meant nothing, and that he’d actually prefer that I wasn’t a virgin if given the choice, and concluded that virginity is not naturally valuable. Second, in my recent post about Post Abortion Trauma, I wrote that women will face shame and guilt after their abortion if they believe they have killed a child, but will not face such feelings if they don’t think abortion is murder. I suggested that things like holding signs with bloody pictures of fetuses and forcing women to watch ultrasounds is a way of trying to induce guilt in women who would not otherwise feel it by convincing them that they are murdering their children.

I think sometimes the same thing happens with sex: Those who practice casual sex will only feel guilt or shame if they are convinced that sex is something intimate and emotional and that losing their virginity somehow makes them worth less, and that is just what many sex education programs in high schools across the country are busily trying to convince young people of. If conservatives can convince high schoolers that sex is naturally something intimate and emotional, those young people will be less likely to have premaritial or casual sex, or at least more likely to feel guilty when they do. If they feel guilty for having premarital or casual sex, well, that plays into the conservative agenda as evidence that they are right: sex is something that is naturally intimate and emotional, and having premarital or casual sex does bring about negative consequences including low self esteem and depression. But those feelings are not the natural result of having premarital or casual sex, but rather an induced result brought about by the constant drum of the message that sex is naturally intimate and emotional.

One thing I have found most fascinating about studying society, history, and comparative religion is this idea of social construction. Sex, gender, marriage, and even the family itself are all social constructions. Their constructions have changed over time and vary between societies. The family today is completely different from the family in the colonial period, or the family in Ancient Rome, or the family in Ancient Israel, just as it is completely different from the family in Saudi Arabia or the family in Papau New Guinea. Our constructions of sex and marriage have changed over time and differ between societies just as drastically. I could study these things endlessly and never cease to be fascinated.

But fundamentalists and evangelicals cannot see it this way. For them, sex, gender, marriage, and the family are not social constructions but rather natural orders laid down by God. Sex is intimate, emotional, spiritual, and only for within marriage; men and women are created with different roles to play, the male as protector and provider and the woman as nurturer and homemaker; marriage is a voluntary partnership between a man and a woman in which the two share an intimate emotional bond and the man leads while the woman submits; and the family is composed of a husband, a wife, and children, and has a natural hierarchical order in which the parents train the children in God’s truth and the children obey.

The really ironic thing is that the very social constructions fundamentalists and evangelicals argue are the natural order of sex, gender, marriage, and the family are themselves fairly new, and they are not laid out clearly in the Bible either, but rather read back into it. The Bible was written during a time when sex, gender, marriage, and the family were constructed quite differently from the way they are today, and also from the construction fundamentalists and evangelicals argue is natural. The companionate ideal of marriage, after all, is only about a hundred years old, and the idea that sex is an intimate and emotional thing is, unless I am very much mistaken, not much older. The nuclear ideal of the family is also new, a product of the last two hundred years. Even the idea that the man should provide while the woman should stay at home and nurture the children is only two hundred years old. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have grabbed onto these particular social constructions, constructions developed only in the past few hundred years, and declared them natural and god given.

To bring this post back full circle, if you see sex as especially intimate and emotional, that’s fine. I’m not telling you to change that. What I am telling you is that that is a social construction rather than a natural order, and that you therefore should not expect everyone else to view sex the same way you do. Sex is a physical act that is imbued with meaning by individuals and societies. Now that sex has been uncoupled from reproduction, sex doesn’t have to be different from a good back rub or a wrestle. The reason that, for most people, it is different is that they give it meaning that separates it from those other physical acts. That meaning is constructed, it changes over time, and it varies from person to person, from religion to religion, and from culture to culture. And personally, I find that fascinating.
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