Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Compartmentalization of Sex

This is an issue that comes up for me frequently on flickr, but is applicable to many other contexts besides. As a sort of introduction, let me say this: there is tons of porn on the internet. I don't have a problem with that fact, obviously - I think porn, in general, is great. (And anyway, great or not, sex is a huge and important part of most people's lives, so trying to get rid of it is futile).

The way porn is mostly dealt with on the internet, however, is that it is (usually) placed behind a sort of filter. Search engines often have "safety" or "content" filters of this sort that mostly prevent porn from being displayed (much more than anything else - such as hate speech, violence etc. - which is also reflected in the law via the concept of obscenity; the idea that there is speech that is just so offensive it doesn't deserve to be protected by the first amendment, and that for some reason this speech is necessarily of the "prurient" (that is to say, appealing to one's sexual desires) variety).

Porn sites, on the other hand - dedicated as they are to sexual media - instead of filtering it out, generally provide a sort of warning before you get into the meat of the material. This, incidentally, also provides a sort of legal protection, as minors (persons under the age of majority, frequently and in the case of the United States designated as 18) are technically not allowed to view porn, even where no law exists barring them from actually bumping uglies themselves, as opposed to watching someone else do it (which is a whole different discussion).

Meanwhile, people on message boards, blogs, discussion sites and things of that sort often (as rules of social etiquette deem it polite) provide NSFW ("not safe for work") warnings when providing links to material of a sexual nature (and frequently also material of a nonsexual nature that nevertheless contains nudity), seeing as browsing material of that sort can get a person in hot water while at work, or in certain company (e.g., when kids or girlfriends or conservative friends or whatever are in the room).

All of this contributes to the compartmentalization of sex in media and as a discussion topic, much as the actual act of sex is confined to private quarters and generally not put on display in public or in front of non-participants as a social rule. And despite what you may be expecting me to say by this point, I actually don't have a huge problem with any of that. I harbor fantasies of an alternate reality where perhaps sex is as casual an activity as frisbee, as common a topic of conversation as the weather, or as popular a subject of art as flowers, but realistically, I know that most people aren't that comfortable with sex (though, in a vicious cycle, their discomfort makes me more uncomfortable than I'd like to be), and the last thing I want to do is get in somebody's face and expose them to something that is extremely uncomfortable for them (even if that is sometimes necessary, under the right conditions, for social change).

But, here's what actually does bother me. It's the expectation that, despite the fact that we are all sexual organisms, and most of us have sexual desires, we almost have to pretend like we're not, and make sure that that fact is hidden and ignored as much as possible. Sure, we joke about sex among friends, but generally in the company of family, or among professionals, the very insinuation that we have a sex life is not only undesired, but can have disastrous consequences, in the right (wrong?) situation.

As pertains to my usage of flickr, I'm constantly aware of the dichotomy between the "porn" I post, and everything else (like, you know, pictures of flowers and things). The porn is hidden behind a safety filter, which is great, because it means people who don't want to see it can still look at my flowers and whatnot. Theoretically, I don't need to maintain alternate accounts - one for porn, and the other for everything else - and I'd really prefer not to have to juggle multiple accounts (I have enough accounts to keep track of on the internet between websites not to have to worry about multiple accounts per website!).

But in reality, I frequently fear the potential overlap that may occur by not keeping - in certain words - the sex in the bedroom. Other, more conservative flickr members have noted that once you open your house to perverts, they'll take it over. In a sense this is true, as though perverts usually aren't interested in pictures of flowers, you will occasionally hear the raunchy dialogue drifting out of the bedroom and into the living room (if I may stretch the metaphor further). This is especially true (and especially problematic) when you have pictures (like of family, friends, or models) that might appeal to the perverts, but for reasons they may or may not be privy to, a sexual comment on which might be extremely uncomfortable.

As it stands (and as much as I hate to admit it, as it gives a bad reputation to perverts - although 95% of anything is crap, and sex is as popular among morons and ingrates as it is among the polite and well-educated; and what's more, the former is more likely to be open about that fact, given the reputation it brings - which is something I'd dearly like to see change), but many perverts lack tact, and have a poor sense of social context. The widely anonymous, context-fluid internet atmosphere makes this even worse. It takes a bit of subtlety for a person to recognize that just because a person posts sexy pictures of himself and appreciates raunchy comments on those pictures, he may have a different opinion about comments on pictures he posts of his sister-in-law (who herself may have a very different opinion on getting "sexual compliments" - from creepy strangers on the internet, no less - as he does).

Personally, I think this is all pretty basic level human interaction stuff, but you'd be surprised (or maybe not) how many people don't pick up on that. Hence the "need" to further compartmentalize sex, with a "better safe than sorry" mentality, to account for the morons (as well as the well-meaning snafus, which do occur). Of course, this irritates me, because it feels like I'm being forced to go out of my way to cater to the "differently advantaged", instead of expecting better of them, and forcing them to go out of their way to cater to a more civilized mode of human interaction.

But there's another element to all of this, and it's this assumption that people who get squicky about sex (mention of sex, acknowledgement of sex) are entitled to their being offended, and us better adapted to the truth of life and its sexual connotations (you're alive now because (in most cases) your dad stuck his throbbing, erect penis into your mom's wet, quivering vagina once upon a time - and then you squeezed out of it!) ought to cater to them, to preserve their modest, easily offended sensibilities. Instead of, you know, acknowledging that sex happens, and is popular, and that its existence as a fundamental part of life is, I don't know, not a big deal, and that even though most people don't want to see people fornicating in the streets...if, for example, Janet Jackson accidentally exposes a nipple during a live televised broadcast, we should maybe, um, NOT get all bent out of shape and ohmigodshehasbreasts! and act like the world is gone to hell.

Meanwhile, we ought to begin to treat "perverts" as human beings, and not pretend like the fact that somebody likes to indulge in sex means they are not fit to join the family for Thanksgiving dinner, or that somebody likes to post sexy pictures of himself on the internet means they are not fit to make that presentation to the corporate office, or that somebody used to have a job as a stripper means they aren't fit to teach children in schools, for fuck's sake. Of course, there's that whole Moral Supremacy thing going on where sex is a vile sin, and immodest, unchaste people are devil's spawn, and the last thing we want to teach our next generation is that sex is natural and can even be kind of fun. Because, you know, teaching them that their natural impulse to procreate is the devil's temptation is totally healthy and everything. That's why modern, Western society (you know, the one that's shoving its ideals down the throats of indigenous cultures the world over - and then demanding they swallow) has such a healthy approach to sex, right?

Yeah, right.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Werewolf as Sexual Metaphor

I had an epiphany the other day, regarding the symbolism of the mythical werewolf as a cultural symbol related to sexuality and the sex drive (as it sometimes is). Going back to the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, you have the wolf that is a predator the young girl must watch out for. In some interpretations, the color of the girl's hood can be seen to represent menarche, indicating that, as one being initiated into her sexual awakening, she must become alert to the danger of the wolf - that is, the sexual predator, or, more conservatively, the average grown man's sexual appetite (consider, for example, The Company of Wolves).

More recently, films like Teen Wolf (for guys) and Ginger Snaps (for girls), have taken advantage of the fecundity of the symbol of the werewolf ("man-wolf") as a metaphor for puberty. Think about it. The werewolf is a person who finds him/herself undergoing an unfamiliar transformation, growing hair in strange places, and developing animal cravings. It's a no-brainer to equate this with sexual awakening itself (rather than, in Red Riding Hood's case, the dangers that sexual awakening exposes one to).

But there's a problem with that. Which I only just really grasped during a discussion of Jack & Diane, a movie that has a subtle and confusing undercurrent of werewolf symbolism. And it's this: using the werewolf - a violent predator - as a symbol for sexuality encourages the view that sexuality is a monster. In Riding Hood's case, we can see people (specifically, misandrists who parade around in feminists' clothing) who equate the male libido with a kind of ravenous, predatory appetite. And in the case of people transforming into werewolves, you can see it as a sort of danger tale that any abstinence-positive sex "educator" (read: ignorator) would approve of.

And the problem is - I don't see sex as a monster. And I think that presenting the image of sex as a monster - especially to impressionable young minds who are just being introduced to their own sexual feelings - is dangerous and contributes to the fucked up attitudes we have about sex in this culture. We view sex almost as if it were a form of violence, a predatory hunger that demands to be sated, an animal desire we (or at least men) have little control of. At the same time, it is an overpowering desire, and few can successfully resist it - and those who can't feel ashamed for indulging in it, like the guilt a vampire feels after succumbing to his irresistible thirst for blood, despite desperately not wanting to become a murderer.

And while it's true that puberty and adolescence can be a troubling time in one's life, and that navigating the waters of sexual awakening is difficult - especially in light of all the unhealthy information and attitudes that get passed around about sex in casual conversation and popular media - the fact is I never viewed sex as a monster. It wasn't a powerful, irresistible drive that filled me with fear and anxiety. Actually, I had a pretty responsible (if unrealistic) view of sex, and I had no trouble resisting it until far too late (in hindsight). I was taught to view sex as a super private, super intimate act, but never did its shadow threaten to destroy my interpersonal relationships (except perhaps where compatibility was the problematic factor).

And today, more than ever, I view sex as a positive force in my life that has the power - not to destroy - but to give me (and others) pleasure. And I think that's a far healthier way to view sex than as a monstrous, animal hunger. Even if there are wolves out there (and certainly, I believe there are), by tainting our view of sexuality overall to try (unsuccessfully, I might add) to scare people away from indulging in it, we're doing more harm than good, when only a certain level of care and caution is needed to do a reasonable job of avoiding the wolves out there (which, I'm sorry to say, it simply isn't possible to ever be 100% protected from - as that's just part of the risk in life).

Quite simply put, the werewolf as metaphor for sexual desire is a very sex-negative image.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Re: Beauty Contest Controversy

"Beauty is only skin deep. All girls are beautiful, inside and out."*

But some girls are more beautiful on the outside than others. And that's why beauty contests exist.

*Actually, this is a lie. Some girls are, unfortunately, ugly, whether on the inside or on the outside. Some girls who are ugly on the outside are beautiful on the inside, and vice versa. It's important for girls to find positive aspects about themselves in order to fuel their confidence and self-esteem. But telling girls a hollow lie like that they're all beautiful only hurts them. It reinforces the belief that a girl must be beautiful in order to be worthwhile (i.e. that her value depends on her beauty), and is easily beaten by mean, hurtful comments.

I understand the positive intentions behind the "every girl is beautiful" mantra, but when a plain-looking girl tells herself "I am beautiful", and then some bitchy supermodel tells her she's ugly, there's a kernel of truth there, in that the plain-looking girl is NOT objectively and physically as beautiful as the supermodel, and she knows it, and that eats away at her self-confidence, because deep down she knows she's not the most beautiful girl in the world, no matter how much she tries to tell herself that.

Granted, beauty is largely a subjective quality - and it's important to temper one's ideas of 'objective beauty' with the knowledge that different people find different looks beautiful, and that if one person thinks you're ugly, it doesn't mean you're ugly, it just means that that person thinks you're ugly, and there is still a good chance someone else will think you're beautiful. But again, that's all that beauty contests are - a contest to see who is rated the most beautiful by the most people.

It's superficial - yes, absolutely. But people do judge other people by looks, and people love to rate other people's looks on a sliding scale; it's part of human nature. The solution to bolstering girls' self-esteem isn't to pretend like that doesn't happen, or that the people who do it are monsters. It's to reinforce the fact that beauty is truly only skin deep (unless we are talking about non-physical beauty, but then, talking about both at the same time, like the first line of this post, is contradictory and extremely confusing), and there are other qualities a person can have other than physical beauty (like kindness, intelligence, sensitivity, all sorts of different talents, athleticism, and so on) that make a person valuable.

As long as you focus on the fact that people are judged by their looks in some cases, you're feeding into the belief that judgment of looks is the only important factor in a person's worth, and that the only way to help girls who aren't particularly physically beautiful gain self-confidence is to patronize them and tell them they're just as beautiful as the supermodels who win beauty pageants, and then shout and scream at those same people who judge the beauty pageants and try to force everyone in the world to stop judging other people by looks, because that's the only way a plain-looking (let alone ugly) girl is going to have any confidence in herself, because, after all, the only value she could possibly have is her appearance, so the only way to boost her self-esteem is to stop reminding her that she's not as physically attractive as the supermodels of the world, right?

Puh-leeze. If you don't like beauty contests, then focus on the fact that there are prizes awarded for intelligence, or skill at any number of endeavors, athletic and otherwise, and that there are better rewards in life than winning a contest - like the love and companionship of friends who are good people who treat each other well, and finding who you are and pursuing your dreams in life. None of this requires that everyone in the world forget the basic fact of nature that some people are more physically beautiful than others, and getting in a huff about people judging others based on that quality only reinforces the idea that it's the most important thing in the world. So get over it. Please. For the good of girls everywhere.