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Against prudery

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, June 7, 2011 19:17 EDT
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I don't want to keep hammering at this, but here's a link to my Alternet piece on why I'm so concerned about this whole Anthony Weiner scandal.  I won't revisit it at length here; please read the article.  My biggest problem is that the pretense of public interest was completely abandoned, and this was just a matter of the "ick factor". Now that this door is open, and simply making people uncomfortable is considered reason enough to condemn someone and demand their resignation, I'm really worried.  My gut feeling on this is that Weinergate really is confirmation of a suspicion I've had for awhile that America has quietly become more prudish in the past few years, and this is a very bad thing.

Now, I get that some people are sexually unadventurous, and god knows that's their right.  I find it silly when sexually unadventurous people get belligerently defensive that they're not as interesting in this way as adventurous people, which is like having picky people get angry that their stories of eating the same three things garner less attention than the stories of the gastronomically curious.  Or having people who stubbornly stay at home get defensive when people who travel a lot get more attention.  Or people who haven't bought a new album in 20 years lash out at "hipsters" for being so bold as to think they're cool. I could go on, but you get the picture.  All of us have areas of our lives where we're not that interesting.  Sex can be one of them.  The whole "prude pride" thing just seems silly to me.  

Silly, and unfortunately dangerous, as recent events demonstrate.  Because it's one thing not to be sexually adventurous, but quite another to sit in judgment of people whose sexual curiosities ick you out, whether done out of meanness or defensiveness.  And lately, I've just generally noticed a trend towards more openly bashing people for seeking pleasure, even and often especially if they harm no one else in doing so.  Hipster-bashing is actually a good example!  Between prudes and libertines, there's a major imbalance, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that libertines just aren't nearly as interested in getting into the business of prudes as vice versa.  And in a way, it's a lot easier to be prudish, to stick your nose in the air and claim that you're too good for base interests in humping and sucking and just giving yourself over to pleasure.  The fact that we are conducting sex scandals that don't actually have any public importance is only part of it.  I compiled a mental list of examples over the course of the day, and hope I can even remember them all:

*Trend stories about women who are just so tired of sex

*The surprisingly little amount of pushback that the Republicans have gotten for suddenly, as a party, moving towards an anti-contraception stance.  They're still hedging their bets—they're only against it if you're too poor to afford it on your own—but the fact of the matter is this is a radical anti-sex position that they would have been afraid to have a few years ago.  Even a few years ago, most conservatives wouldn't have been so eager to close down Planned Parenthood and screeching that you need to just shut your legs if you don't want to have babies, but now that's becoming a mainstream sentiment that is getting very little pushback from inside the Republican party.  From the outside, there has been resistance, but the vast majority of it has been rooted in the "necessary evil" argument—i.e., that we have to have these services because of public health problems if we don't—and very little has been geared towards saying, "Sex if fucking awesome, and anyone who's against it can suck my left one."  And part of the reason is that even liberals are afraid to defend sex. 

*To an extent, the ongoing hysteria over pop stars being sexy.  I just don't completely grasp why the fact that Miley Cyrus wears booty shorts is such a national scandal, honestly. When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, I loved Michael Jackson and Madonna, and both of them blew any kind of naughty crap Cyrus does out of the water.  Pop stars are supposed to be sexy. 

*The Twilight books.  Sex-and-woman-hating propaganda like that should be provoking a national outrage, not a spate of high-grossing movies.  If I had a child reading this crap, we would be having a series of talks about the importance of test driving cars before you buy. 

*That the reaction to SlutWalk involved, on any level, discussion about why women who are wearing short skirts are asking for it.  I feel more people are saying this in 2011 than they were in 2001. Just a hunch; obvs, no stats. 

*A study is released that shows that 1/3 of young people 15-24 have never had sex, and this was published uncritically in the vast majority of media outlets as if it was an unobjectionably good thing, on the grounds that less sex is somehow automatically better. The questions that came to mind for me were fast and furious, with the first one being, "Why on earth aren't we distinguising because 15-year-olds and 23-year-olds?" It's certainly not a problem if many 15-year-olds are virgins!  But if we're seeing a rise in 22-year-old virgins, that's not a good thing.  I would argue that's a bad thing, at bare minimum a symptom of major problems, either in their social lives or their sexual development. (There's even evidence that people, at least men, who wait until their mid-20s to start having sex suffer from greater levels of sexual dysfunction.) I did look into it deeper and found that the stats are misleading, and the percentage of 23-year-old virgins is really low, but the fact that people weren't even asking the question concerned me.  

*The word "vajayjay". 

*Gail Dines. 'nuff said.

*Talking about grown men who cheat in the same exact terms you discuss children caught snatching cookies from the cookie jar. 

*Calling Dominique Strauss-Kahn's problem a "sex case".  Or that of any other accused rapist.  The implication here is that it's the sex instead of the grotesque violence that's the problem.  Prudery is generally causing a collapse in the distinctions between "accusing" someone of having illicit but consensual sex and accusing someone of rape. 

*That Mike Huckabee, who I recall was treated when he was first governor of Arkansas like the fundamentalist freak show that he is, now gets a major pass in the mainstream media.  

*The explosion of wedding porn, and the accompanying obsession with "baby bumps" in the tabloid media. Especially in conjunction with the prurient obsession with bad girls who are drinking and sleeping around.  Our tabloids are a daily propaganda mill of shame for "bad girls" and adulation for "good girls", and of course all the accompanying redemption tales of "bad girls" who are baptized with a wedding gown and a baby emerging from the vagina.  

*Bristol Palin's inexplicable fame.  

*This is like the third article I've seen recently about Molly Jong-Fast, whose claim to fame is she's a judgmental prude who seems to have it out for her famous mother, Erica Jong, for not being a judgmental prude. In a saner world, this would be like reading an article about Jakob Dylan where he sneers at his dad for being one of the most important rock musicians of all time, and then turns around and prides himself on producing mediocre crap that is only appreciated by douchebags who have a deepset fear of being challenged by art.  But in New Prude America, the fact that Jong-Fast is a judgmental prude who picks on her much more interesting mother is considered not only newsworthy but arguably admirable.  Barf.

I could probably go on, but it's getting tedious.  I remember, about a decade ago, the first time I was confronted by a queer activist who was adamantly against marriage as a gay rights priority.  His argument was that marriage is a toxic institution that was invented to stifle human freedom, especially women's freedom.  And that by making it the focus of gay rights, you were reinforcing the notion that human rights are contingent on one's compliance with prudish, patriarchal norms.  I pooh-poohed this in my mind, and kind of have since.  I felt that most arguments I heard for gay rights were based not on compliance with stifling sexual norms, but were more about a combination of practical concerns and love.  Major gay marriage advocates like Dan Savage were basically the definition of anti-prudes, you know?  My hope, and I still hold it, is that by redefining marriage to include gay people we can in fact open the door to a real understanding that human beings are too damn diverse to all be shoved in the same box and held to the same standards. 

Now I fear this argument may have some validity, because it seems that support for gay marriage is rising as prudery is, and part of the reason is that many people have determined that gays want to be as square as everyone else.  Which is great for square gay people, but doesn't do much for the rest of us who also want full inclusion of the slutty and the kinky and men who like to wear dresses.  Not only do I think the queers and weirdos and sluts and whores of the world are still being left out, I fear they're being squeezed out even more, and it bothers me.  The effects of this aren't small.  I was struck by how bad it can get just this morning, as I was reading this really wonderful article about the families of the victims of the Long Island serial killer. The families feel, and I think they have a reason to feel, that because their loved ones were considered sexual deviants that this case isn't getting the attention it deserves.  Certainly, there were some up front irregularities, and if you take a step back, the truth of the matter is that murderers target prostitutes precisely because society shuns women whose sole crime is letting men pay them to have sex with them.  (Even as we often are gentler towards johns, who are far more likely than prostitutes to be abusive, evil, cruel, or even just morally indifferent people.) I teared up reading this one quote:

When I ask Cann about Maureen’s life as an escort, she says her sister was desperate. “I found out after she was missing that she had eviction court the next day. It was her last resort.” Cann knows people judge her sister. “I don’t like how they’re talking about her,” she says. But to Cann, it doesn’t matter what Maureen did. “She was still a mother. She still meant the world to her daughter, and me. She was in her mid-twenties. Who’s to say that she was going to be doing this her whole life?” 

During the heyday of fighting over abstinence-only, I really came around to the idea that we shouldn't argue, "Hey, kids are going to have sex whether we like it or not, so let's at least minimize the damage."  I was  more in in the camp of arguing, "Kids should be taught to honor their sexualities, to demand the right to feel pleasure (with the enthusiastic consent caveat!), and to value sexual diversity, because sex is a good thing.  It's part of being human. Pleasure is how we know we're alive."  A more radical, pro-liberty, pro-pleasure approach is the only way to win this argument.  Once we start to put the burden of proof on the arguments for pleasure and privacy, instead of on the arguments against it, then we've lost the battle.  I know many of us are the types to err on the side of the libertines.  What I ask is for us to get bolder in doing so.  

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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