Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Repressed & Oppressive Sexuality of Modern Society

I try to stay informed about modern feminist theory. And I do actually consider myself a feminist – much to the chagrin of some online acquaintances who consider themselves part of the “men's rights” movement. But I'm not big on the Andrea Dworkin school of thought and I'm quite sure that most feminists don't actually believe that all men are latent rapists who should be castrated at birth. Nor do I believe that everyone in the growing “men's rights” movement is a hate-filled misogynist. Still, it is fairly clear that there are a lot of hateful people who unfortunately identify with both movements.

My goal in writing this isn't optimistic enough to believe that we can somehow repair all of the damaged people who have redirected their pain into the avenues of sexist hate and oppressive practices, but I think this is a subject worthy of attention. And, while I'll try now to offer some frank comments on a complex and difficult subject, I realize that I live in a repressed culture and probably will have some points of contention with other good-willed people who also grew up in a repressed culture. Nevertheless... I do hope that I can offer up some subtle and pertinent points which may often be overlooked in typical discussions about sexuality.

The following critique largely will center around monogamous hetero-normative relationships as they are traditionally perceived. This is not intended to deny or dismiss the existence of other types of relationships, sexual or otherwise, but is rather intended to demonstrate what is commonly presented as “normal” in modern society and how that standardized normality undermines modern society.

Let's consider a typical marriage in the United States. It starts when the wife typically takes her husbands last name. Maybe there is a prenuptial agreement before that (if they are wealthy). The newlyweds basically swear an oath that, for the rest of their lives, they will never have sex with other people. On a related note, children are often expected (if not demanded). Children may or may not enter the picture. If they do enter... typical Judea-Christian values are likely to be instilled within them. Even those couples who don't go to church probably buy too much into the idea that “the man of the house” should wear the proverbial pants and make the important family decisions. It's typical standard practice, generally speaking with definite exceptions, for the woman in the marriage to take care of the children, make the meals, and clean the house. This is regardless of whether or not they both have jobs where they are working 40+ hours a week. Even if they do both have jobs, the woman will often hit the glass ceiling and make less money – which often puts her in a position where she won't be able to contribute as much to the economic situation of the marriage contract. Things often become stressed for many of the above reasons. And woe if either of them should ever want someone else in their life. While not exactly common... if a woman “cheats” on her husband, then, all-too-frequently, that amounts to a death sentence – just like in any backwards 3rd world fundamentalist nation. Our society is violent enough that even men often suffer physical harm if they stray. And even if a marriage doesn't end in violence... it often ends in anger – with the children learning all to much about that subject.

What I was trying to get at here are the politics typically engaged in by a typical American couple. And this will, undoubtedly, be where I lose some people. Most couples probably aren't talking about revolution. They're talking about maintaining the status quo or making mild reforms to the system which is destroying every living thing in its path. At best... a typical couple might consider voting for the less warmongering candidate – but there are plenty who will vote for the most. They might vote for the pro-choice candidate (because he's thereby deemed a feminist), but they don't consider the drone bombings which that candidate has previously ordered and which have subsequently killed innocent women and little girls at wedding parties and funerals – some feminist indeed. On the other hand... the typical couple is almost as likely to vote for the candidate who overtly wants women oppressed and who doesn't want equal pay or adequate healthcare to be provided to women. Even if they don't vote or discuss politics, per se, almost all of the pair's actions are still actually political – from driving the kids to soccer practice in the SUV, to working in the accounting department of some bank, to going through the drive-thru at at some fast food joint.

The Branches and Roots of Repression and Oppression

At this point I hope I've started to show (or at least hinted at) how the typical sexual relationships in this society have broader implications. With the common patriarchal lineage and enforced monogamous contracts between men and women often being a part of our most intimate personal relationships... is it any wonder at all that other forms of stifling and oppressive social conditions coexist alongside this paradigm? It may or may not be a leap of causation, and common patriarchal oppression may or may not be the direct effect (or cause) of other forms of oppression – but it all clearly fits together incredibly well.

The tolerance of typical oppression, which is found in so many of our intimate relationships, breeds a tolerance for other forms of oppression. For example, eco-feminism, as the name implies, studies the link between traditionally conceived patriarchal abuses and the destruction of the environmental factors that we all require to live. Destruction of mother Earth may be the most extreme form of oppression there is.

But it doesn't stop there (or at least it doesn't start there). If someone beats the woman they share their bed with, for example, and if they beat their children born of that woman, or even if they just silently claim (and wield) some sort of authority over their family's freedom... then why would you generally expect such a person engaged in this sort of activity to be a humanitarian in other aspects of society? What, by extension, can you expect of their formal politics? War itself can be connected with this system of common oppression which is present in so many lives.

And, in the final analysis, the “men's rights” crowd should recognize that even the raping of men (at historically unprecedented levels within the United States of America [because of the incredible number of tortured prisoners]) is, actually, the result of an oppressive patriarchal system. This is undoubtedly a feminist issue. Feminists don't want their husbands, fathers or sons raped any more than they want their sisters, daughters or mothers raped. 

The Most Obvious and Direct Sexual Oppression

Well... it would be difficult to have a comprehensive and meaningful article about sexual oppression without stopping to take a look at this subject. As I pointed out in the last paragraph... this is not just violence directed towards women. Historically, it's fair to say that more women have been raped than men. And an argument can be made that individual women often suffer the effects of a rape more than individual men (if only in terms of possibly of getting pregnant). But just ask the Catholic church if men and boys are ever raped. Do you think it effects men and boys minimally when they are raped?

Rape is such a huge subject, and such a terrible act, that I can hardly believe that anyone ever really tries to tackle the topic. The word itself, undoubtedly, brings a flood of negative emotions to many people. And the psychological and emotional scars associated with rape may be worse than the physical scars. Rape victims will often suffer PTSD. For both men and women there is an incredibly unfortunate stigma which goes along with being raped and many people never discuss the fact if they been victimized by such an attack.

On the other hand, because of those aforementioned facts, rapists also carry a huge stigma with themselves if their action is discovered – and quite justifiably so. I feel that when a person is proven to be a rapist then the victim and their immediate communities should have some sort of meaningful input about how the rapist is to be punished. I really don't trust the criminal justice system to bring closure for anyone in relation to this issue. I don't know if I could be any more extreme or level-headed in my aforementioned recommendation for justice. 

However, along similar lines... I feel that rape accusations ought to be carefully contemplated. I've heard many accounts from many people about spurious rape accusations and I think that adds in yet another horrible aspect to whole subject. It's so emotionally charged that even the weakest of accusations can have friends and family members immediately flying off the handle in retaliation. This is a subject which I think many people would like some prominent feminists to address more thoroughly.

It doesn't help that the definition of rape seems to be so frequently twisted. For example... begging for sex seems nearly equivalent to rape itself in some circles. If a couple wakes up in the morning and the woman asks, “Hey, wanna have a quickie before work?” and her male lover then replies, “Not today,” well, then, it is tantamount to the highest level of villainy if she coaxingly says... “Pretty please, with sugar on top?” Don't get me wrong... begging for sex even a little bit is certainly very unbecoming, and it's something which should be considered in terms of whether or not someone might want to continue a particular relationship. But even ten minutes of someone begging on their hands and knees is not the same as physically assaulting someone in a sexual manner. It's really not the same thing. Even if one were to acquiesce to such begging, it's not exactly the same thing. I'm not trying to be an apologist for that activity, but I think a clear delineation needs to be made because loose definitions of rape don't really help those who are sexually assaulted.

As one last example... if two people get very drunk, and both engage in sex acts, without forcing the other at all, I don't necessarily think that the first person to claim rape after such an instance should be allowed to essentially ruin a life with such accusations. And there can be obvious incentive for such accusations. For example, imagine two flirtatious co-workers losing their inhibitions at an office party and sneaking off to have sex. If the women got pregnant, and/or if their spouses found out, well... some people will simply throw their indiscreet co-worker under the proverbial bus. I think it sucks that either of those people would have the burden of being called a rapist placed upon them. And how much worse is it if there are charges or violence subsequently brought upon that person? Of course, there may also even be political motivations or motivations of revenge and jealousy associated with unfounded rape accusations.

Moving on from a difficult subject, I'll just say that both rape and the practice of making false rape allegations are both pretty heinous offenses in their own ways. One of the ways that both of these actions affect society is by making people more repressed and more afraid to intimately connect with others by means of sex (which is a pretty basic, wonderful, and natural thing). An argument could be made that this subsequent sexual repression (in psychological terms), and the subsequent fear of even consensual sex, could actually lead to more rapes taking place – insomuch as a society with more repressed people is likely to have more oppressive sexual values which will then lead to more rapes occurring. This could be one of the worst feedback loops ever.

Is there a better way?

Rather than being afraid of sex or a healthy sexuality... how much better would it be if, instead of vigilantly upholding monogamous Judea-Christian values, we were readily able to have consensual sex with any number of partners over any course of time we saw fit? Would that really be so awful? What if those who couldn't find consensual partners (or didn't want to have sex [or children]) weren't derided because of that fact? What if the church and state didn't impose unnecessary external conditions on who we could love or how relationships with them must be structured? If two (or more) responsible adults want to have sex together, why shouldn't they be allowed to do so?

More to the point... rather than struggling to make ends meet in the modern rat race, what if people spent much more time having sex? I don't mean sex for the purposes of continuing the family name or passing on property – I'm talking about sex for mutual pleasure (and maybe physical fitness). What if, rather than spending so much time accumulating material goods, we instead spent more time cultivating passionate sexual relationships with the same enthusiasm? That, arguably, could undermine the entirety of Western civilization.

Modern homo sapiens are the most domesticated animal on Earth. We behave in ways of life that are not efficient and not in our individual or collective best interests. Many (if not most) work at jobs they dislike to maintain a lifestyle they don't really want. As the saying goes... “We work to drive to work to drive to work.” And how much worse would it be if you were working on the assembly line at a sweatshop or dropping deep into a mine each day?

But it hasn't been like this in all societies throughout history. The First Nations didn't have 9-5 jobs with an hour long commute both ways. And, contrary to outdated revisionist history, they did not suffer incessant hardships at all like the hardships that the westerners brought with them when they invaded. The people of the First Nations had knowledge of herbal medicines (including birth control) and they had food, family, shelter and all they needed. What they didn't have, again contrary to revisionist history, was an underlying patriarchal system of control. In fact, the women of First Nation tribes traditionally played important roles in decisions made by tribal councils. This can be seen in many tribal societies that had limited contact with Western civilization. Of course those societies changed somewhat after encountering Western civilization (especially when invaded and given smallpox), and old ways have undoubtedly been lost in many areas, but a balanced look at the anthropological evidence (which doesn't present tribal people as miserable unholy savages who needed civilization to save them from themselves) will show that they were living happy sustainable lives in relative peace. This, to me, suggests the likelihood of healthy sexuality. It is known that homosexuality was previously not a cardinal sin in many tribal societies. With means of birth control, and knowledge of their reproductive cycles, the women and men of the First Nations were free to choose their lovers without the notion of harsh consequences. This, I believe, is a definite hallmark of an ideal society – and it runs counter to almost every aspect of our modern techno-industrial society and what it produces.

Now, arguably, modern women in the West do have a great deal of sexual freedom (even if it's regularly under attack and even if they are sexualized at inappropriate times). But there are important aspects which I feel feminists need to consider in this regard. The consequences of Western consumer society reach far beyond the wealthy first world nations. If a woman in Paris or Berlin is able to freely wear stylish and provocative clothing, and if she is freely allowed to engage in any sort of sexual practices... to the extent that she supports her nation's economic system (and the luxuries she sees associated with it) she is also part of the exported exploitation of women in poor third world nations around the world.

Have no doubt that economic oppression is related to sexual oppression. Similarly, environmental degradation amounts to sexual degradation. It's safe to say that toxic waste dumps and polluted waterways are not usually aphrodisiacs. So... the relatively “free” Western woman is largely free because the nation in which she lives effectively exports the oppression for all practical purposes – via sweatshop labor, war for oil, a Western diet, et cetera. And, frankly, I don't think it's good feminist practice to support such a system.

The Big Finish

The intention of this article has not been to address each and every nuance of modern and historical sexuality. And, with the author being as repressed as he undoubtedly is (much unlike my dear readers, I'm sure), it's difficult to tackle (from a personal socio-political perspective) every subject. I tend to think that erotica and sex workers are not the bane of modern society, for example. (This isn't at all to suggest that I've appeared in many erotic films or that I've ever paid for sex.) But the larger subject at hand, the implications of the typical sexuality which underlies much of the rest of what we do in modern society, is largely taboo. We can discuss issues we see raised in Dan Savage's column, and we can even have the most uninhibited sex imaginable, but there are still underlying factors which are taboo to discuss and which are potentially stigmatizing even to mention.

Underneath it all, I feel that we need to look more closely at the root causes and consequences of sexual repression and oppression. These twin factors run rampant through the most fundamental aspects of modern society. If you want to put a stop to sexual oppression, then you must also work to end every other form of oppression – because these things work in turn to create both sexual repression and sexual oppression. Sexual liberation cannot occur on a broad scale while wars rage, while nuclear waste accumulates, and while forests are clear-cut. Sexual liberation can not occur while people are oppressed for the color of their skin or the cheap labor they can provide. Sexual liberation requires total liberation and the broader population is only sexually liberated to the extent which they are liberated in every other metric of freedom. “There can be no liberation without sexual liberation.”

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