Sex & Relationships

America's Insane Attitude Towards Sexual Pleasure

America is still a puritanical, consumer nation bent on policing sexual expression, while selling smut and sanctimony steeped in shame.

MTV Video Music Awards delivered the biggest sex story of 2013 as 20-year-old Miley Cyrus—Disney’s Lolita princess graduate in flesh-tone latex underwear—pointed her giant masturbating foam finger toward another cultural watershed, a la Janet Jackson at Super Bowl halftime. Like the overnight infiltration of “wardrobe malfunction” into the mainstream vernacular, “twerking” wound its way through morning talk shows and the evening news, even rubbing against “selfie” for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. A decade apart, America united in shock and fury when yet another female pop star busted out of acceptable commercial bounds of sexualization.

Like Janet’s vilified overexposure, Miley sparked legitimate protest about gendered double standards and commodified racism, where black women are reduced to sexualized props. But the avalanche of outrage glided over both of their male cohorts and fell on her doing what she’s groomed to do in an industry where the female half of all shades are props for the adolescent male gaze. And “sexy” remains the only currency that matters: what a skank, how disgusting, disturbing, did you see how saggy her tits or flat her ass…what shall I tell my kids! A Cyrus-hosted "Saturday Night Live" skit parodied the outsized public flogging in a post-apocalyptic world triggered by her VMA performance: "the day America ended.”

But the good thing to come from Cyrus’ arguably bad stage is awareness of sexuality vs. sexualization. Her in-your-face sex romp, minus business-as-usual sexy, yanked down the curtain from what America has been selling us from all corners of the cultural divide: sex without pleasure.

The real story here is how we’re such a hypersexualized, yet pleasure-starved culture. America is a Christian consumer nation bent on policing sexual expression, while selling smut and sanctimony steeped in shame. Profitable sexual transgressions are the norm, yet apparently the only threat to childhood innocence. So conversation about healthy sexuality to combat today’s paradoxical messages must be squashed to “protect the kids.” Conservative culture warriors—aided and abetted by an infotainment media that feeds off of extremes—conflate the progressive push toward sexual freedom and justice with the toxic byproduct of anything-goes commercialism.

Producer MTV—master purveyor of sexploitation—released a statement after both national moral panics saying its gal went astray, the act more brazen than was practiced or promised. But business, politics and religion all bed together telling the same “sexual tightrope” story—purity vs. perversion, performance vs. pathology—that drums into girls and boys of all ages how we’re supposed to act, love and desire: who we’re supposed to be. Anyone who deviates—the young, the aging, gender and sexuality queers, disabled and poor—destabilizes the family and Western civilization. Shame on you for not living up to the schizophrenic sexual ideal propagated by capitalism’s synergistic special interests.

Cyrus, now the liberal mascot of modern perversion, was dragged into the latest culture war firestorm. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential Republican presidential candidate, pitted her against instant traditional values icon Phil Robertson—the "Duck Dynasty" patriarch A&E suspended for home-spun homophobic and racist witticisms—as an example of Christian persecution. In “Liberalism Twerks Normal Americans,” Townhall columnist Kurt Schlichter rallied the troops against liberals who want to control your mind “by destroying our values and our norms, leaving us empty vessels without the support of morality or tradition or religion.”

As if Cyrus’ cultural appropriation of twerking had to do with liberal values of equality and social justice rather than capitalism-gone-wild. Those of us challenging traditional bigotry are “if it feels good do it” advocates of mandatory pre-school orgies, rather than realities-based, principle-driven citizens working to shift America’s commodified and politicized sexual script to a more honest, inclusive and pleasurable one.

Culture warriors, who push Bible-based policymaking for America and legislate non-marital abstinence for all, are the same anti-government conservatives whose deregulation triumphs have opened the floodgates of sexualized media and marketing to ever-younger consumers. Stripper-pole toys, playground pimp tees for toddlers, drunk and randy reality TV shows, cable news celebrities moralizing over the next scandalous B-roll…there’s no escape! Free-market purists jump at the inevitable Miley moment to dump “sex sells” fallout onto progressives challenging the sexual status quo of shame and silence. But feminists from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge) are on the front lines combatting the same sexist stereotypes that traditionalists insist are the natural order, and sold by mass culture creators like Disney, which last spring gave its princesses a sexualized makeover.

As if feminists aren’t battling the ubiquitous sexual objectification and rape culture glamourized by Cyrus’ grinding partner, Robin Thicke, in his consent-challenged summer hit, “Blurred Lines.”

“MTV has once again succeeded in marketing sexually charged messages to young children using former child stars and condom commercials—while falsely rating this program as appropriate for kids as young as 14. This is unacceptable,” stated the Parents Television Council, whose founder Brent Bozell works tirelessly with Family Research Council (powerful Beltway-insider and Phil Robertson-defender) to elect nationwide anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-sex ed, anti-science Republicans.

As if condoms, a consciously respectful means of experiencing sex for pleasure, send the same damaging messages to young people—the demo we most sexualize, while denying their sexuality—as does the sexist, racist trappings of MTV programming.

Though Cyrus isn’t the first virginity-pledging child star to grow up and shock our selective sensibilities, Trojan Brand Condoms is the first sexual health brand to sponsor the annually racy VMAs. Trojan’s earlier cultural breakthrough came in 2005 with our nation’s first prime-time condom ad, which featured men as pigs. Rightwing reactions, including from hate group American Family Association, a fierce PTC and FRC ally in “reclaiming America,” urged political leaders to pressure networks into pulling the ads. FOX and CBS, whose programs included at the time "Temptation Island" and "Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show" respectively, refused to air Trojan’s commercial. So, a sexual health product encouraging mindful sexual decision-making is more offensive than mindless objectifying titillation?

Toward the Stars—a marketplace alternative to the “commercialization and sexualization of girlhood”—tweeted early last summer, “#BraveGirlsWant a childhood free of sexualization and an adult life blessed with healthy sexuality.” Given today’s thriving, sprawling marketplace of sexual insecurity, most adults have no clue. As one 54-year-old grandmother of six from Utah (divorced from her adulterous childhood sweetheart, who’s still a leader in the Mormon Church) told me, “I don’t know what healthy sexuality looks like.”

Let’s talk: can healthy sexuality exist without pleasure?

To improve sexual health by making condoms more pleasurable, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued a global challenge to design the “Next Generation Condom,” and awarded in November $100,000 each to 11 first-round winners.

At the 2013 AASECT (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists) Summer Institute in St. Louis, the founder of SexSmartFilms.com, Mark Schoen, showed HIV and pregnancy prevention PSAs from Kenya to Belgium depicting pleasure as key to healthy sexual behavior change. In ad scenarios featuring a range of ages and pairings, the driving message of other developed countries seems, “sex is fun, and sex is more fun if one of you puts on a raincoat.” Still many U.S. sexual health professionals fear the power of pleasure, as I witnessed when another Institute presenter concluded her talk on STIs: “pleasure is our greatest obstacle.”

Practical challenges exist, especially when sexuality professionals reliant on public funding must tap dance to just do their jobs. And when disciplined culture warriors lie in wait to twist an example of safer-sex play into perversion. Three years ago, the National Sex Ed Conference organized by Planned Parenthood’s Center for Family Life Education took the historic step of making "pleasure" that year’s theme. Topics covered the lifespan, including for cancer survivors. New Jersey Tea Partiers protested out front with signs, expressing to me particular disgust with an anal health workshop they called, “anal bleaching for kids.” Keynoter Paul Joannides, author of the lauded Guide to Getting It On, argued the imperative to talk pleasure with this first generation raised on a ruinous combo of porn and abstinence-only, and then became the target of an online smear campaign.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders—fired by President Clinton after being smeared by culture warriors for answering honestly a press question on masturbation—now in her 80s, preaches the three Ps of sex: “One is procreation. The other is prevention. But let’s face it, 99.99% of sex…is about pleasure.”

Though the politics of pleasure has actually regressed since the Right toppled the first African American to become our nation’s top doc, the explosion of social media over the past few years has energized talk about pleasure, power and privilege. Diverse voices are creating platforms to call bullshit on hypocritical sexual shoulds and share stories previously buried in shame. Those traditionally silenced are building networks to challenge the national norm that says your sex belongs to church, state or Madison Avenue.

How can American freedom exist without sexual freedom? How can we be sexually liberated when politicians and big business dominate America’s sexual narrative? Though a hypersexualized nation, we’re hardly open about sex. Otherwise we’d expand the conversation beyond slut shaming and victim blaming when the next sex scandal or crime hijacks our infotainment highway, whether another pop culture shockwave, Steubenville, or Penn State. As sex therapist Gina Ogden, author of The Return of Desire, asked me, “How is it we can talk about sexual abuse, but not sexual pleasure?”

The idea of consequence-free sexual pleasure is scary. Sexualized violence—or punishment for being sexual—is clearly more acceptable given Motion Picture Association of America ratings. As actress Evan Rachel Wood protested about MPAA cuts to her new action-comedy, Charlie Countryman, it’s fine for people to have their heads blown off, but not okay for a woman to receive head. Even real-life rampant gun violence is a more digestible American standard. Follow the money. We’re a nation invested in denying sex is fun. Shame is the most profitable moral of the story. Shame—for not being right or good, too sexual or not enough, desiring too differently—keeps us in line and buying the prescribed products.

But the scrubbed sanctity sex that reactionary pundits and politicos feed us is no more real than the salacious silconed sex Hollywood and corporate vultures sell us by pecking at manufactured insecurities. Vaginal rejuvenation surgery and penis enlargement pills, anyone?

Questioning the stories we tell ourselves about sex frees us from having to squeeze into any Silver Slipper sexual ideal. To unlearn shame culture we must teach something else. To break the chains of purity vs. perversion, performance vs. pathology binaries, change the conversation. Let’s start with the elephant in the room, America’s unspoken taboo: pleasure. Talking sexual pleasure can be tough when most conflate pleasure with hedonism and selfishness. But sex is not only fun. While most of the animal kingdom does it solely for procreation, sex for pleasure is what makes us human.

Lara Riscol's writing has appeared in the Nation, Salon, AlterNet, RHReality Check and Religion Dispatches, plus chapters in several college textbooks. She is writing a book called Ten Sex Myths That Screw America: a pleasure polemic.

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