Free-Floating Hostility

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

How Important is Sex?

At this time of year I often reread Little Women, but I only recently put my finger on what draws me back to it. March family values need surpisingly little updating. The older girls work (and it is good for them, though they don't always like it), the younger ones go to school and the four sisters are forever making each other laugh and learning the art of forgiveness (superhuman forgiveness in some cases--has any reader really forgiven Amy for burning Jo's manuscript?). But here is a passage I hadn't remembered, one which is not only prescient, but actually more radical than our own mainstream notions of marriage. On the topic of love, Mrs. March advises her daughters, "Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not." When was the last time we saw, heard or read a mother suggesting to her daughter the possibility that she might not get married?

Our population is more single than ever, but the pressure to pair off and mate has not changed. 800 years of literature and music combine to convince us that love is the answer to every one's deepest lack--you're nobody till somebody loves you, right? I racked my brains for a work of art that suggests a happy life plan for a single woman, and the only one I could come up with was Waiting to Exhale, which is not a very good movie. If memory serves, the scene where Savannah discovers that she has grown beyond the need to chase a man isn't even in the book.

That doesn't even touch on the less measurable pressure from peers and families. I, of course, am in the unusual position of having spent my formative years rehashing some version of the protest "Because, Mom, all the guys I know are shitbags, and you can get herpes." But I think it's fair to say most people experience the same pressure, though usually from more orthodox sources. To die single, or without children, is to be the object of greatest pity. And therefore most single people have to choose between defending their worth for the rest of their lives or hooking up with someone who makes them unhappy in order to prove that they can.

Many of you have heard me on this well-used soapbox before, but I was reminded of it today while discussing the Vatican's continued embargo on premarital sex and contraception. I am in many ways persuaded of the value of abstinence for clergy and perhaps for the unmarried population in general. How much time do you spend obsessing if not actually over finding and keeping a mate, then over persuading the general public that you would be attractive if you were on the market? There are so many more productive, more self-respecting uses for that energy.

The problem, to my mind, is that the hard line the Catholic church (and some other Churches) has taken on sex has had the opposite effect, and placed it at the very center of Catholic life. Catholicism has lasted so long because it is adaptive, because its dogma was never entirely rooted in the bible or even a school of writing but drew heavily on the dictates of tradition and policy set by living clergy who could change that tradition. Poverty and obedience have been loosely adapted to fit the contemporary world and continue to evolve, so why has chastity become the touchstone of Religious America? Out of all the beautiful and ugly traditions Christianity comprises, why has this one taken hold of Christian hearts? And why have so-called values voters decided to spend their precious suffrage on issues which are largely beyond the control of legislators and presidents?

I believe the answer is the same as the answer to why Americans allow their worth to be distilled to their performance on the dating/marriage market. Because it's easy. If you say you're the church of the poor, then you have to confront the reality of overwhelming worldwide poverty, and that is deeply, psychologically distressing. It feels so large as to be utterly beyond the grasp of any one person or church, like imagining the end of the world (also a feature of Christianity with less and less creedence in modern times). How much less frightening, even subconsciously appealing, to linger over sex. Similarly, it takes real courage to confront dissatisfaction with ones own achievments, or ones relationship to ones parents, or compulsive behavior. How much less frightening to linger over ones loneliness.

From the standpoint of Public Health, sex is incredibly important, because it involves the spread of disease and shifts in population. But the root issue, I believe, is the behavior that underlies it, the psychological detachment that makes dangerous sexual behavior so alluring. Louisa May Alcott was writing in 1868, a time when marriage carried with it even heavier financial, social and biological destiny than any we face today (after all, the most common way for a woman to die was in childbirth). Yet even with so much at stake, she taught her readers to look to their own needs and their own characters both for the formation of happier unions and for the formation of a happy independence.

I tip my hat to Terry McMillan for trying, but as for the rest of you: don't teach your grandmother how to suck eggs.

2 Comment(s):

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at December 16, 2004 6:54 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Well let's get one thing straight, sex is very important. And if you or anyone else does not think so, you do not get to have a discussion with Sharon ever again.

    Ok... but what I think your larger question is, is why romantic (or pseudo-romantic) relationships are deemed so essential to a person's life in our society? Why do people always respond positively to people being in these relationships and negatively to these relationships ending? Why did I spend the majority of my college career asking, "Why is everyone having more fun than me?"

    In explicitly traditional societies, marriage is one of the indicators that you have not gone off the reservation. When people get married, it is a clear confirmation they are not off the path, that their parents were good parents, and most importantly, that the world view held by everyone at the wedding is right, just, and true. I am sure there are more reasons, but these are the best ones I can think of.

    Now if you take away Catholicism, Judaism, or whatever was preventing that cute girl to "Bend it Like Beckham" from the equation, I am not sure why a secular, consumer driven soceity still imposes this psychological torture on its subjects, disproportionately against women. My best theory is that marriage includes responsibilities, obligations, and limitations on people's lives and in our "your way, right away" culture, this is the rough equivelant to arsinic. And thus herds of married people exert their happiness monopoly on the unmarried through such hedgemonic methods as happy endings in movies, break up songs, acting happy together at holiday parties, and, of course, saying things like, "You found someone, that is wonderful!" Try getting a couple to discuss what bugs them about their relationship. You would have a better shot at getting a member of the Central Committee to present somethings Stalin could improve on during his next term.

    Any of this carrying weight?

  •   Posted by Blogger BrooklynDodger at December 18, 2004 7:32 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • This is more about marriage than sex. The majority of married people voted for George Bush, 60-39 for men, 55-44 for women. The majority of unmarried people voted for John Kerry, 53-45 for men, 62-37 for women. This may reflect the association between marriage and higher income [possibly higher income causes marriage?] more than social status, since the majority of people earning more than 50,000 a year voted for Bush.

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