Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why Are We Ashamed of Sex?

I’ve been told more than once that my stories exhibit a remarkably innocent take on sex. (Some might say a remarkably unrealistic take as well.) I’ll admit I’ve never been into the sordid side of sex, although I do understand that a large chunk of the population like their erotica raunchy and that’s a fact. Why do I try to keep my stuff so “wholesome”? I guess because I feel like there are plenty of reasons why we are ashamed of sex, and I’d just as soon come up with some reasons not to be.

So I’ve never really addressed head-on why the emotion of shame is so closely tied to the erotic. I started thinking about it recently while emailing with my fascinating new acquaintance Laura, who worked for ten years as a video chatroom hostess. Speaking of innocent (or to be more accurate, naïve), I didn’t even know there were video chatroom hostesses. But it’s a service that obviously would thrive on the web: users pay for the privilege of video erotic play.

The topic of shame arises not in that I think Laura or her visitors ought to feel guilty. I believe love and sex make the world go ‘round and in most cases this kind of thing is probably quite harmless. No, the shame element is demonstrated here by the fact that people can’t get their needs met in this regard in any other way than going to a stranger.

Take the guy with the milk fetish that Laura told me about. Maybe his significant other wouldn’t want to pour milk on herself, but it’s just as likely the guy simply doesn’t want to admit his erotic fascination with milk to anyone who knows him personally. Point is, people are frequently unwilling to reveal certain aspects of their sexuality to anyone--unless it is a stranger and they can keep their identity secret.

We use the term “kinky” for any sort of sexual affinity not in the mainstream. It is usually not taken as flattery. But in truth, everyone has his or her kinky side. That is, each of us gets turned on by something we find too embarrassing to admit to, not even to our life partners. The nature of sex is that it’s very Pavlovian: the most unusual things can become associated with arousal, and a person is very quickly conditioned to that association, sometimes even exclusively. He or she may wish the association could be reversed, but usually it can’t.

So, you have a secret that is embarrassing, private, and out of your control: it’s a set-up for shame.

Should the milk guy be ashamed of his fetish? I don’t see why. But because he’d rather it be kept secret from his family, friends and co-workers, he feels shame. I suspect even without the constraints of society and religion, people would feel plenty of natural shame about their sex lives, even when there’s not a thing morally wrong.

Interestingly, since for many of us shame is such a recurring element of sex, it can often become a fetish in and of itself. A book isn’t erotic unless it’s “naughty,” we can’t get aroused unless we’re “being bad.” For a lot of people, the innocent, wholesome sex I write about just isn’t erotic--they can’t be turned on unless the raunchy language is there, etc.

Yes, first we feel shame for being turned on, and then we get turned on by that shame. Sex does get quite complicated.

And speaking of complicated, I can imagine how complicated it might get for one of Laura’s chatroom participants if, for example, he got caught by his wife. And all the while, it’s perfectly possible the guy has no morally justifiable reason to feel shame. He may well love his wife, be totally devoted to her happiness, and even have a fine and satisfying sex life with her, and still have outlet for his erotic life that he keeps secret. It’s too bad that it’s so difficult to sort out the shame we feel about sexual things simply because they are embarrassing, private, and out of our control, even though they may not be wrong.

If my attitude about that example surprises anyone, I’ll elaborate a bit. I know what real sexual betrayal is from experience, since I was married for 15 years to a gay man who had an active sex life outside our marriage. The betrayal happened not so much in the acts he committed, but in his choice to marry a woman knowing he could not commit sexually to that relationship. My point here is, a person can have some secret fetishes in which he or she indulges in fantasies, or even in the occasional “acted out” fantasy of a video chatroom, without needing to feel guilty. I’d ask how that person treats the human beings s/he lives with every day, including his/her partner, before making that judgment call.

But feeling a little shame about sex is simply human. It’s powerful, private, and very complex, as Laura can attest to as well as anyone. (She’s thinking of writing a book, and I say she better!) I’m not sure we as a culture will ever perfectly sort out which aspects of sex we ought to feel ashamed of and which are “normal and healthy.” Even in my “innocent, wholesome” erotica stories that’s still a matter of great debate.


laura said...

Well Diana I always say "Pervs are People Too". You would (or maybe you wouldn't) be surprised at the wide variety of people that come in, from all walks of life. I see myself kind of as a tour guide on a "Total Recall" type trip deal, a vacation a little outside of the realm of reality. You really give me a push to keep writing and I thank you for that!

bainst said...

At almost thirty, I still have this slight shame of sex. Whenever I am intimate with someone, I have to beat back this sense of guilt I have about "doing it." I know it's the Catholic school upbringing, but also from my mother, who I love dearly, but she was one of those old-fashioned types who thought if you told your child "it" was dirty and bad, they wouldn't do "it" till they were married, or at worst, an adult. It worked since I didn't have my first kiss till I was twenty-one, and my first sexual encounter till I was twenty-two. I've only had two partners, which I have no problem with since I am picky about everything, I just wish the niggling guilt I experience during sex wouldn't dampen something I find for the most part, very special and lovely. I have a feeling, though, it will only go away when I'm married, and know that it's totally okay to sleep with my husband.

Diana Laurence said...

I guess the synergistist message of these two comments (from Laura and Bainst) is that a lot of us are in the same boat. I hope that eases your guilt a bit, Bainst, because I suspect you ought to feel nothing but innocence! And Laura, you are the unique tour guide indeed!