by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on October 6, 2005.
"When I get that feeling, I want sexual healing." If a cappella leaves you cold, you haven't heard the hot Boulder band Face. Face gave the crowd some oral stimulation at a party I attended last month, when the all-male group sang a sultry rendition of "Sexual Healing." The energy among the audience was palpable. Faces were flushed. Bodies were grooving. Significant glances were exchanged. A couple people laughed, I suppose in anticipation.
We take a lot for granted in modern western culture, including our freedom as consenting adults to enjoy sex without fear of persecution. It was not always so, as I was recently reminded while watching the film Kinsey, about the biologist who wrote Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.
In our own country not many decades ago, masturbation was widely regarded as sinful and aberrant, and children were sometimes punished or even physically harmed for it. Oral sex -- even with one's spouse -- was often considered a crime. In 1873, the Comstock Act turned the interstate sale of contraception into a federal crime. The police confiscated pornography and sex toys. Homosexuals were legally persecuted and, too often, brutally beaten or murdered.
Sex was poorly understood and as much a source of guilt as pleasure. Kinsey (the film) even includes an example of a girl who was beaten by her father for menstruating.
It gets worse in more repressive cultures. Andrew Bernstein, who recently criticized religion in a talk at the University of Colorado, noted that one invention of the Christian medieval era was the chastity belt. In the worst of modern Islamic subcultures, girls suffer genital mutilation, adulterers and homosexuals are murdered, and women are sometimes persecuted for being the victims of rape. Elements of the modern American religious right want to outlaw all abortions and the "morning after" pill, ban pornography and use tax dollars to encourage sexual abstinence.
Despite his flaws and mistakes, Kinsey helped to break up oppressive sexual taboos and legal codes. Unfortunately, judging from the movie, Kinsey erred in the other direction by throwing off sensible, life-enhancing moral guidelines governing sex. Even Austin Powers recognized the excesses of the '60's "free love" movement.
Monogamy is a good idea. It fosters deep romantic relationships and strong families. While sex before marriage can be healthy, there's a lot to be said for waiting till marriage. Promiscuous sex can be both physically and emotionally damaging. Careless sex can result in disease and unwanted pregnancy. That a significant number of American children lack two parents is a real and serious problem. Irresponsible practices that lead to unwanted pregnancy and abortion should be socially discouraged, though in a caring manner.
Good sex means throwing off both sexual repression and the irresponsibility of "free love."
In his lecture, Bernstein described three traditional approaches to morality. The first is religious: Something is good or bad because God says so. The second is social: The collective determines right and wrong. The third is emotionalism or subjectivism: Do what you feel like.
Bernstein, a philosopher influenced by Ayn Rand, argued that none of those approaches is correct. Instead, ethics has to be grounded in what is objectively good for human life. The whims of a deity, society or the individual cannot provide that. By implication, when it comes to sex, we need principles grounded in human nature, not religious taboos or emotionalist urgings.
Notice how the religionists and the emotionalists are mutually reactionary. The evangelicals point to AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, emotionally shallow sex, the high divorce rate, etc., and offer as the alternative the religious view of sex. (At least modern evangelicals tend to be enthusiastic about sex and the use of birth-control among married couples, and they tolerate masturbation, as far as I can tell.)
And the emotionalists, the "free lovers," point to the repression, the history of persecution, the outright violence and murder associated with traditional religious views about sex. Dostoevsky claimed, "Without God, everything is permitted." The emotionalists take this to imply that all possible sexual activities are permitted.
But Dostoevsky was wrong. Subjectivism is not the only alternative to religion. The other, superior alternative is a life-based ethics derived from the requirements of a thriving human life, an ethics that treats people as volitional, conceptual and value-seeking.
At the same time, healthy principles of sex allow plenty of room for individuality, including homosexuality. In my paper, "Wasteful Spending by Colorado Government" (Goggle-able), one of the (minor) items I complain about is the use of state tax dollars to expose school children to a "radical feminist" theory of orgasms. Sex can be improperly politicized in more ways than one. One problem with this case is that no balanced or scientifically grounded view was offered.
Another is that the theory of orgasm described is false. "Medusa's Orgasm," claims that the vaginal orgasm is a myth and that "there is no such thing as a vaginal orgasm, only a clitoral orgasm." Yet as dialogue in Kinsey acknowledges, women and men, though they share certain universal characteristics, are each unique. The blanket claim that no woman can experience a vaginal orgasm is wrong and badly motivated.
Sexual healing, then, requires that we throw off the biases and hang-ups of Christians and subjectivists, conservatives and leftists. As Face reminds us, "Sexual healing is something that's good for me."