The first word by which I learned to define myself was “pervert.” From the time I was a toddler, my closest family members found this an appropriate word to describe me because I had not yet learned to make a secret of my interest in the appeal of the female body.
I cannot say what the best parenting approach may be vis-à-vis childhood exposure to nudity and sexuality. Cultural norms vary enormously around the world. I personally subscribe to most of the theories presented by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha in Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (2010), but theirs is by no means the final word.
I can say I personally regard it as a form of child sexual abuse to teach a child they are a pervert. If this sounds a bit extreme (maybe your first instinct is to call it puritanical or otherwise characteristically repressive but not exactly on a par with molestation, for instance), consider the impact such a complex might have on a mind which will eventually develop adult sexual desires, which will always be at least somewhat cognitively associated with deviance.
To what extent that experience influenced my development, I am far from certain. I have certainly not grown into a typically healthy mid-twenties male with a normal sex life, but much of this can be plausibly attributed to my autism, social anxiety, extreme introversion, lifelong struggle with depression, et cetera.
Actually, as opposed to feeling demeaned, the emotion I most associate with that treatment is perplexity.
You see, even at that tender age, I knew I was always going to find naked women beautiful, in one way or another. I could sense my family was trying to condition me when they applied the word pervert to me in a derogatory tone but I could not comprehend how they expected that to change me. But what really baffled me was the unmistakable impression that they too recognized the beauty I admired and were trying to convince me of the inappropriateness of appreciating that beauty in spite of that knowledge.
Most confusing, however, was the impression that there must be some reason underlying this prejudice, incomprehensible and irrational though it remained to me.
In hindsight, of course, I recognize the importance of teaching children to be careful from the first buddings of their sexuality. Children need to be protected from predators and, as they grow old enough to understand the risks of sexual activity, to be taught to take those risks into account before they grow tempted to experiment.
My family, like many others in the Abrahamic world, went too far in their attempts to condition my childhood sexuality. That does not concern me here. My question is the same as it has always been: What is the big deal with sex? Why does it inspire such strong emotions in us, with the capacity to occasionally traumatize us worse than any other form of violence? Why does it preoccupy so much of our private and social existence, and inspire such cognitive dissonance?
The Art of Sexual Discovery
In Luis Bunuel’s film Belle de Jour (1968), Catherine Deneuve portrays a sexually repressed housewife, Severine, who takes a position in a Paris brothel to satisfy her masochistic fantasies. The film opens with a dream sequence in which Severine is dragged through a forest by her husband and a coachman in antiquated attire, and subsequently stripped, bound, and flogged. The sounds of cattle bells and cats’ meows fills the soundtrack. Brief flashbacks later suggest the character may have been sexually abused as a child. Following her liberation in the arms of her clients, she finally takes her husband to bed for the first time.
What are we to make of all this? Bunuel was a surrealist, who in his early career collaborated with Salvador Dali. All his work was profoundly dreamlike, and profoundly kinky.
There is nothing unusual about this in surrealism, which seems, by its very nature, to lend its narratives to sexual odyssey. Surrealism celebrated the “capacity of sexual desire not only to overcome inhibition and taboo,” writes Jennifer Mundy in Surrealism: Desire Unbound (2001), “but also transform perceptions and memories, as it were, to eroticize the world…”
When Severine applies to work in the brothel, what is she seeking? Sexual discovery, surely, but what does this entail? What do we learn through sexual intimacy that we cannot learn through any other experience?
It is all too common to speak of social stigmas and peer pressure when we talk about the cultural experiences of virginity, the loss thereof, and sexual experience in general. These pressures exist and undoubtedly contain problematic aspects, but such discussions overlook not only the social relevance of sexual relations but also their relevance to individual development.
Whatever sparked the fantasies of Deneuve’s character, she seeks not only to replicate but to understand when she becomes a prostitute. Severine wants to know why these fantasies appeal to her. Theory can only go so far. The imagined experience of anything, and especially of anything as complicated and unpredictable as sex, is vastly different from the lived experience. Countless nuances of the self can be viewed only through the prism of the latter.
To become aware is to become less overawed. Severine’s husband does not overnight become the bold, godlike presence she desires, rather she is transformed overnight into a more confident, mature, unabashed woman through the fulfillment of her fantasies. What she has come to understand is not about sex but about herself. To harness what influences our desires is to harness ourselves.
Sex is fundamentally an interpersonal activity, but it is important to distinguish between its personal and interpersonal dimensions. Individual experience is, after all, ultimately solipsistic. In the film, Deneuve is introduced to the brothel by a friend of her husband, a character who emphatically states that everything but sex is a waste of time. Severine rejects his advances repeatedly but he appears, quite sinuously, in several of her fantasy sequences. Through the power of empathy, humans can project their internal experience onto others, but only to the extent those internal experiences exist.
What does sex teach us about ourselves?
Sex is scary. As an interpersonal activity, it requires us to be vulnerable with at least one other human being in a way required by no other activity. It comes loaded with the potential for pregnancy, disease, unwanted entanglements. Most of all, it is scary because it can potentially teach us things we do not want to know about ourselves.
This is the aspect which, in my opinion, too often gets overlooked in sexual discourse. Sex-positive education commits this error as often as abstinence-only “education” and religious attitudes. By treating sex solely as an interpersonal activity, we fail to address what it is about the activity that makes it so important to us as individuals, even in fantasy.
Sex teaches us how we respond to pressure. It teaches us how we respond to what we thought we desired when we have it before us in the flesh. It shows us how different another body can be compared to our own. It demonstrates that our ability to give ourselves sexual pleasure is distinctly different from what gives us pleasure – or doesn’t – in another body. In so doing, it demonstrates for us how well we can handle these disconnects.
One could go on forever in this vein. Someone who has never had sex cannot fully conceive the extent to which intercourse is a workout. Experience alone teaches the individual both to give pleasure and to receive pleasure through sex. The female orgasm is an infamous enigma, but there are many strata for both sexes. Disappointing sex does not necessarily lead to sexual disenchantment, while sometimes one satisfying sexual experience can produce long-lasting fulfillment.
This is why sex is intimidating. This is why sex can be traumatizing even when it is not overtly violent. We cannot know what sex will reveal to us about ourselves until we have become sexually experienced. Merely losing one’s virginity does not reveal much, but it marks a profound shift in understanding, hence its cultural significance.
The self-knowledge sex generates is not trivial. It is interlaced with self-confidence, ego, self-awareness, self-control, physical and emotional strength, courage, selfishness, generosity, desire, stamina, fantasy, perception, with all the countless strands that comprise selfhood.
This is not an argument for blissful ignorance. Quite apart from the ubiquity of sexuality, the self-knowledge it entails is a fundamental part of growing up. Like all good things, self-knowledge, whether sexual or otherwise, must be rationed to retain its value, but rationing is not the same as never lowering the bucket into the well.
The latter is what my family was telling me to do when they called four-year-old me a pervert. This is not the way to raise a child to healthy adulthood. Repression is not rationing. Health adult sexuality is being able to know the difference.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in