It seems one can't go two clicks in the online world at present without reading something about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's performance last Sunday night at the MTV Video Music Awards: indeed, I've already written about it elsewhere. The discussion around these issues has highlighted the flaws in the modern American overculture's approaches and assumptions about sexuality. It speaks of the ways in which these tendencies do not serve the rights of women, the possibility of mature sexuality for everyone, and the many connections there are between dominant institutional creedal monotheistic religious viewpoints and the shared cultural neuroses that exist around sexuality.
I will not be able to address all of these matters here, but I hope to touch on at least a few aspects that this latest incident has raised. Modern Paganism and polytheism, while still rooted in the same overculture and thus often espousing (frequently without realizing it) the same kinds of neuroses, can propose a corrective to some of these unhealthy and immature tendencies.
Let me recount an anecdote from my M.A. days at Gonzaga University's Religious Studies department. I took a course called "Christian Sexual Ethics," and it was taught by a male professor who was probably in his mid-fifties at the time. In the course of the semester, the word "penis" was said once by the professor, in reference to an article we read, and he couldn't say it without giggling. If a fifty-plus-year-old professor of sexual ethics can't utter the word "penis" without giggling, what hope is there for a mature discussion of sexuality, with all of its anatomies and activities that are better addressed directly and honestly rather than euphemistically and by suggestion?
Semantically speaking, there are all sorts of misunderstandings that permeate our modern sexual discussion. The use of the word "vagina" on prime time television has increased dramatically in the last fifteen years, and yet it is not the proper word at all for what most people are referring to when they use it. Several other organs that collectively are known as the vulva is what most people are discussing when they say that someone has a "camel toe" and the like. The preference for this word highlights the objectifying, utilitarian view of sex in our culture; the vagina is the only female sexual organ of consequence because it is the "counterpart" and the very literal "sheath/scabbard" (as that is what "vagina" means in Latin) for the male's penis. The labia and clitoris, it seems, don't even get to play second fiddle to the all-important part that the phallocentric overculture sees as the target for its collective guided sexual missile.
This brings me to one of the issues I have with the Robin Thicke song in particular, which is the language around sex and sexuality that understands it with euphemisms that denote "dirty," "filthy," "nasty," and so forth. If the problem of not knowing how to talk about sexuality directly and maturely with correct terminology and understandings is large, then a further adjunct of it is that what vocabulary there is often ends up being pejorative in origin. One of the only direct references to sexual acts in Thicke's song is the line "must wanna get nasty."
Honestly, there is nothing "nasty" about sex or sexuality. There are many things in the world which are dirty, filthy, and disgusting, including corporate greed, social injustice, government corruption, environmental degradation, and the like, all of which involve not only figurative "filth," but also spiritual miasma, tsumi, and other such terms of defilement on a moral and spiritual level. Sex, sexual desire, and sex organs, however, are not "filthy" or "dirty" or "nasty" in themselves. The fact that sex often is done in squalid conditions, secretly, in an embarrassed and lurid fashion, has contributed to the pathologization of it. This stems from religious arguments that see sex as the root of "original sin," starting as early as 1600 years ago with Augustine of Hippo's thoughts on the matter.
This also leads to the "protest" in the lines of Thicke's song about a woman expressing sexual desire: "But you're a good girl." Ignoring the other ways in which the song represents a rape culture mindset, and how referring to any woman who is mature enough to legally have sex as a "girl" is profoundly offensive, exploitative, and even infantilizing, this line sets up the "Madonna/whore" dichotomy quite explicitly: "good girls" are virginal, don't ever have sex, and never will (i.e., "Madonna"), but if they suddenly do, they've become a "bad girl" and are no better than any shameless whore that has ever lived. In reality, outside of these reductionistic, abusive, and unrealistic Christian theological stereotypes that are endemic to the Western overculture, there are plenty of good women who have sex, who enjoy having sex, and who express their sexual desires toward diverse others in ways that are appropriate, provocative, flirtatious, and enjoyable for everyone involved. Miley Cyrus, and all of the women in Thicke's video, were not doing anything of the sort, and while I do not think that "slut-shaming" (which follows from the Madonna/whore complex) is at all appropriate in this case or any other; nonetheless it highlights the exploitative nature of the male gaze in many situations of this sort. It frankly surprises me that so many people have reacted as they have against Ms. Cyrus, but have not likewise reacted to Mr. Thicke, who was just as culpable. That the male performer has not been critiqued in this way more than he has is a further example of the flawed nature of these matters in our neurotic overculture.