March 2, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
In America, sex is never sex
How to accidentally reinforce the sadistic politics of sex.
To me and my brethren in the commentariat, sex is what we call evergreen. It needs no news peg. It’s always timely. It’s always controversial. It exists between historical time and political space. It’s our way of talking about God.
But like talking about God, we make a mistake. We assume things about audiences we never should – first, that sex is sex, not something else.
I think me and my brethren can be forgiven. Most of us came from fairly educated, fairly enlightened backgrounds in which sex was sex, not something else. But that’s the source of the problem.
Most of us do not understand that for hee-yuge chunks of these United States of America, sex is never sex and never will be. To the extent that we talk about “sex,” it’s contained in a context in which people taught to believe sex is bad are always trying to force people taught to believe sex is good to (a) stop having This Thing that’s not good and (b) believe what they believe, which is that sex is bad.
Me and my brethren should take the idea of sex versus not-sex seriously. We’re professional communicators, after all.
When talking about This Thing, it’s best to have in mind that lots of people see it as The Other Thing. It’s best to have in mind that a lot of people do not think in terms of concrete reality. This Thing is never This Thing. This Thing is a representation of The Other Thing.
Continually talking about This Thing as if it were This Thing and not The Other Thing reinforces the sadistic politics of sex in America.
Even when members of the commentariat talk about sex as sex, not not-sex, they end up talking about not-sex. Magdalene J. Taylor, for instance, recently wrote a terrific piece for the Times. Her thesis was that Americans are not having enough sex, that this dearth has potential though so far unknowable societal ramifications, and that the solution to yet unrealized problems is more of us having more sex.
After citing data from the General Social Survey, which suggests Americans are having less sex than ever, and after linking sexlessness to increases in bad health, loneliness and fragmentation, Taylor said:
The loneliness epidemic may be a societal issue, but it can be solved, at least partly, at the level of individual bedrooms. Those of us in a position to be having more sex ought to be doing so. Here is the rare opportunity to do something for the betterment of the world around you that involves nothing more than indulging in one of humanity’s most essential pleasures.
All of this is wonderfully naive. I suspect Taylor knows it.
High up in her piece for the Times, she hyperlinks to a previous piece she wrote for Mel Magazine, where she had been a staff writer, in which she reported on the strange behaviors of young men who alleged to be “involuntarily celibate.” These “Beta Men” troll the internet censoring pornography – pixelating images and such – to prevent other young “incels” from enjoying it. (They don’t prevent anything.)
One of her sources rationalized this behavior, saying he was doing his fellow travelers a favor. By heightening the mysteries beneath women’s clothes, or in this case the mysteries beneath pixelated images of unclothed women, he’s heightening their erotic experience. Taylor:
As he goes on to explain, the subreddit is meant for guys who enjoy the subjugation that comes with the “beta” title. The humiliation and being undeserving of enjoying the sight of a naked woman is exactly what they crave.
There will be punishment
I concede Taylor’s point. Americans would probably be happier, healthier and willing to compromise if they had happier and healthier attitudes toward sex and had more of it. I’m a member of the United Church of Katt Williams. The comedian’s credo, underappreciated, is that you, me and everyone we know should “do more fucking.”
But we live in these United States of America. We don’t do more fucking. In Taylor’s reporting, we can see the inklings of why.
Sex isn’t sex. It’s always something else. It’s the hierarchies of power – who deserves the experience of pleasure and who deserves punishment for the crime of experiencing pleasure.
It’s ownership and the entitlements of ownership. The appeal of female virginity among men is less about moral purity than about what other men have had, when they have had it and how frequently. It’s about commodity value in the marketplace of male privilege.
It’s sadism. (This can’t be said enough.) It’s about the feeling that if I can’t get what other people are getting, even though I’m the one choosing not to get it, my chief goal in life therefore will be preventing other people from getting it and punishing them when I fail.
To the extent that “involuntary celibacy” is a social ill, and to the extent that it can be addressed by talking frankly about sex, any debate is limited by the fact that lots of people who deny themselves pleasure, for reasons that make no sense to people who see sex as sex and not something else, are going to dedicate themselves to taking revenge on people who permit themselves sexual pleasure.
Even if sex were the cure for the social ill of American sexlessness, sex is not the cure for a society whose white mostpeople are still much in thrall to the idea that sex is bad, and that sex is evil when the outpeople – Black people, brown people, LGBT-plus people – are having it. They must be punished. They will be. They are being punished.
A woman in Florida was denied an abortion though a diagnosis showed a devastating abnormality that would shorten the baby’s life outside the womb to hours. If sex were sex, not something else, this wouldn’t happen. In this world, sex is not-sex. If she didn’t want to give birth to a dying baby, well, she shoulda thought twice before having sex.
In this context, alas, Magdalene J. Taylor’s terrific essay recommending Americans have more sex, for their sake and everyone’s sake, turns sensible personal advice into gothic literature. “Having more sex is both personal guidance — your doctor might well agree — and a political statement. American society is less connected, made up of individuals who seem increasingly willing to isolate themselves.” She added:
Having more sex can be an act of social solidarity.
Sure, if we’re all talking about the same thing. We’re not.
We probably never will.
America will likely always be a country in which those taking pleasure in their humanity must fight with those denying their humanity to take pleasure in punishing those who take pleasure in their humanity.
Asking us to have more sex won’t fix that.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.