On a blog devoted to coaching intelligent, socially conscious, creative, and outside-the-box people, why did I suddenly decide to talk about sex? Why did I reference some controversial topics like open marriage and polyamory?
Recent worldwide protests have highlighted the ways in which our current system can inadvertently squelch the human spirit. Frustrated citizens have demanded reforms in such areas as economic distribution, environmental stewardship, and race/gender equality. During the Pittsburgh G20 a few years ago, I witnessed first-hand university students being charged by police on horseback, an LRAD sonic gun truck patrolling the streets, and so on. Similar dynamics have continued throughout the US and in a number of other countries.
One thing has become very clear to me: Regardless of whose diagnoses or proposed solutions one agrees with, and regardless of whether some protest groups are better informed than others, major aspects of how we currently do things aren’t working. It’s not just about money or the current financial system—it’s more complex. It includes freedom of expression, and freedom to relate to one another. It includes religion, agricultural practices, and energy. And in different ways, our sexual practices are linked to each of these areas.
In other words, we literally have a fu**ing problem. And there may be better ways of doing things.
Sexual repression impacts both women and men, and the journey toward greater sexual liberation will require some temporary discomfort for both genders. This is the case if we wish to lessen double standards and confusion.
Thus far in my own life, I’ve been a relatively “vanilla” person in the realm of sex. I’ve appreciated the sense of security that accompanies many of our most cherished social institutions. This includes the traditional (at least “traditional” for recent human history) marital relationship, especially the aspects such as sexual monogamy. Along with many mutual emotional benefits, there are also many practical and health-related benefits, such as lack of need to worry about STD prevention precautions, no chance of a pregnancy with someone with whom you don’t already have an established relationship, and so on.
However, as with any social institution, creation of security may come at a significant cost to ourselves and others. And as we’ll discuss, the security may be largely illusory.
Questioning some of the foundations of how we relate, including how we generally structure marriage, initially made me a bit nervous. Over time, however, I’ve come to sense that we need to do some editing and tweaking. This is very different than proposing eradication of an institution, which is foolish when many elements of it do work for many people.
Sexuality, a powerful element of human nature, underlies our social and economic structures in more ways than we usually consider. It also mediates our relationship with nature and our surrounding world. As a species we are relatively ignorant when it comes to sex, largely because sex, religion, politics, and money are often considered taboo discussion topics. This slows critical questioning and advancement of knowledge, which perpetuates fear, jealousy, and so on. That makes us prone to manipulation and conflict.
While I think there are some people who intentionally use this to their advantage, I think it’s largely just a result of honest collective errors made as our species continues to evolve.
Just as a starting point, simply consider all the sex-related scandals that have been a consistent media staple over the last several years, involving politicians, churches, sports figures, and so on. Every week it seems like an otherwise outstanding citizen is having their reputation, and thus much of their ability to have influence in the world, destroyed by something related to sex. Sometimes the punishment fits the crime because the behavior truly impacted others adversely, but other times we’re forced to wonder whether the behavior would have been better left as part of the person’s private life.
Even kids have gotten into serious trouble, sometimes damaging their resumes for life, through activities like sexting. Additionally, consider how well the traditional marital model really works, as measured by divorce rates. Look at how popular “have an affair” services like Ashley Madison have become. What’s really going on here?
In this multi-post series, I hope to get your brain gears churning, and to introduce several sexuality-related concepts and ideas for further exploration. If some of it makes you uncomfortable, then that’s probably a good thing. The truth is, I haven’t fully thought through all the implications myself, but I felt it was more important to start sharing them rather than waiting until every little detail was worked out.
Over the next several posts, we’ll explore controversial questions including:
- How did our sexual norms come to reinforce a scarcity and ownership model?
- How might alternative models, such as polyamory, lessen competition and increase environmental sustainability?
- How does sex relate to localization, community interdependence, and even our food system?
- How do we ethically stereotype people based upon sexual behavior?
- How do current sexuality attitudes segment voters, skew political candidate selection, enslave our political leaders, and undermine democracy?
- How might sex-related paranoia lead us into a surveillance scenario that not only impacts privacy, but could be abused for control over current and potential public leaders?
- How do our current sexual norms really preserve families and provide stable environments for raising children?
- How do our current sexual norms impact family economics, including the housing market, and parenting?
- How does the idealized soul mate myth contribute to environmental harm, in addition to creating frequent unhappiness on an individual level?
My thinking has been inspired by several recent readings, most notably Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. I highly recommend reading that as a next step, especially if you’re a policy maker, parent, educator, coach, or therapist. Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity also makes some good points I’ll reference later, as do David Schnarch’s writings such as Intimacy and Desire. These books vary in their focus upon two-person versus more open relationships. (Later edit: Since writing this series, I’ve read several additional sexuality books including Love in Abundance, Opening Up, and The Ethical Slut; I may add more thoughts drawing upon them in the future.)
It’s impossible to say whether upcoming thoughts and concepts will actually impact your behavior and attitudes, if at all. I’m not yet sure whether or how they’ll impact my own.
What I would suggest is to try to avoid attaching too many broad, stereotyping labels to the ideas. For example, you might be tempted to call the ideas very liberal. But some of the discussion entails inquiry regarding how we related to each other long ago, before we became so enthusiastic about government-supported social controls and regulations. In that sense, you might call some of my thoughts a bit conservative.
Or, you might call some of the ideas anti-religious. This is hard to debate, because it depends largely on one’s religious beliefs. I’m open to the possibility that while religion has many great elements, it’s a human-engineered institution. As such, it may sometimes stand in the way of a simpler yet more profound collective spiritual connection we may have once enjoyed with other people, nature, and whatever higher power(s) and energies exist beyond our current everyday perception. Sex may well be a part of this.
So how did I become so interested in this area?
Sexuality has been highly salient throughout my life. In elementary school, I was teased for having a very high-pitched and soft voice for a male. Even as a heterosexual male, I learned first-hand what it was like to be called “fag” by one’s peers. This later led me to do some volunteer work on same-sex rights, and to wonder how anyone who doesn’t adhere to the sexual norm in some way, whether small or large, is ostracized.
I witnessed a multi-year struggle where someone I care about almost went to prison because policy makers didn’t (and still don’t) understand the relationship between their common disabilities and sexuality. While a number of caring people kept that from happening, it turns out that the non-prison “treatment” doesn’t always make sense either. I’ve also known a few people who have been impacted pretty directly by church-sex scandals. Later, I’ll get really candid on how I think our sex hangups can result in flawed “blanket” social policies in the sexuality arena.
I know a number of caring individuals who struggle daily—not just with sex, but with other intertwined areas of life—because current social norms don’t fit who they really are, and because sexual discussion taboos often delay our self-understanding until later in life. Even my long-term partner’s sexuality wasn’t apparent to either of us until recently. Some estimate that at least 1% of the population is asexual, i.e., they have never experienced physical attraction at any point in their lives, and there is no currently identifiable medical or psychological “problem” at play. Many enter traditional relationships just like we’re all encouraged to do, assuming that their feelings will change with enough time and love. But when they don’t, such couples face difficult decisions. Do we stay together in the traditional “monogamous box marriage” that requires consistent compromises from each of us, do we eventually separate and give up all the wonderful things we have together (like nearly half of all married couples end up doing), or do we risk the social stigma of going outside the box to lessen our compromises somewhat? Because we love each other very much, we’re still exploring the possibilities here. And we are very, very far from being the only ones. The 80′s-90′s “coming out crisis” of gay-heterosexual marriages was just one byproduct of societal sex fear.
When I wrote my self-empowerment book Naked Idealism, I posed naked–just from the waist up–in a rain barrel for the cover shot. It was fitting, as the book was partially geared toward eco-conscious readers. However, that freaked some people out. At presentations where I used the photo in one of the first slides, I noticed the occasional blushes and nervous shifting in seats. At first I thought that maybe it was because the photo was taken in January and I had no tan, but I think it’s more that we’re so sexually anxious that even nakedness makes us nervous. (It’s possible that I was actually wearing shorts, but I’ve declined to answer that.)
I recently attended an intensive two-day workshop at the national conference for AASECT (American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists). Amidst such activities as passing around colorful sex toys, talking candidly about our sexual preferences and physical features in small groups, and viewing a film with people of various ages, races, and orientations getting it on, I was forced to face the fact that I am a sex geek. In a sex trivia competition where we won a pen for each sexual slang term we correctly defined, I ended up with the biggest pocketful of pens. Upon arriving home that evening, I told my partner, “Yes, I’m excited to see you, but that is a bunch of pens in my pocket.”
Pens (and penises) aside, I also learned many things that I hadn’t known, even though I had participated in a few prior courses devoted to sexuality. This made me wonder how little most of us probably question our sexual attitudes and norms regularly. I still have much to learn, as do most of us.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve assisted with research on families in poverty, run a data project on community factors impacting child and family well-being, co-authored an environmental public health project, studied how diet impacts the environment and health, and counseled or coached a number of individuals. Interestingly, sexuality issues have continued to resurface in relation to these various topics. The dots have connected in many unanticipated ways.
My backgrounds in public policy/management, counseling, and coaching have led to questions like, “How can we increase individual fulfillment in a way that also leads to happier, more peaceful, and more stable communities?” Foster parenting an infant for 9 months got me thinking as well: What kind of world will she grow up in? What types of messages will she get from society? How will these help or hinder her? What societal changes might eliminate the need for foster care altogether?
I’m probably not the only one with such questions. In the upcoming weeks, I encourage you to join me in courageously exploring some challenging topics that tie sex into the larger picture.
Dave Wheitner is a certified life, career, and transition coach based in Pittsburgh, PA who welcomes phone-based clients from around the world.