New Worlds December essay, redux

On request, I’m reposting the next-to-last non-theory essay from the New Worlds Patreon, since the downing of the Book View Cafe website has rendered it inaccessible. Also, for those of you wondering what happened at over BVC, the short form is: we’re gearing up to give the site a major and long-awaited overhaul . . . and in the course of the gearing up, it, uh, went belly-up. >_< But the good news is that we’re on track to roll out the new! improved! site! very soon, and it’s going to be so much better once we do.

(Caveat lector: This essay will talk quite frankly about what kinds of sex people have.)

What is appropriate for people to do with their naked bodies and each other’s? What’s inappropriate? And how much are we allowed to talk about such things in polite society?

First things first: there’s probably nothing new under the sun, except insofar as technology facilitates new approaches. Anything you care to think of — positions, fetishes, role-play, sex toys — probably existed in the past, with modern innovations running along lines like “if you install Bluetooth on the toys, then it’s possible for a partner to control them remotely.” (Yes, this is a thing that exists.) So any time somebody tries to sell you on the idea that our modern, degenerate society has invented a lot of perversions that didn’t exist in the morally purer past . . . yeah, they’re full of it. Although the evidence for sexual behavior in the past is limited, and often destroyed by later and more puritanical generations, what we know suggests that historical people got plenty kinky.

I mean, to start with, what even counts as “kink”? That notion is really defined in contrast with what’s considered mainstream, and unsurprisingly, that’s going to vary from place to place. Nineteenth-century Europeans were scandalized when Richard Burton published a heavily edited version of Bhagwan Lal Indraji’s English translation of the Kama Sutra — specifically, the parts of it that deal with sexual technique (which, contrary to its reputation, is far from the whole text). To the Victorian mind, different positions were shockingly kinky. Heck, at times the Christian stance on sex has been that even taking pleasure from it is morally suspect, and people should do only the bare minimum necessary to achieve insemination. Meanwhile, Judaism has a tradition that a man who wants a son had better make sure his wife has an orgasm before he does.

These kinds of traditions are possible because people historically have often not been nearly as embarrassed by sex as the modern world (and in particular, the modern U.S., which is still dragging around the lead ball of its Puritan origins). After all, if you’re living in an agrarian society, the odds that you’ve seen animals mating are high. Caring for livestock means you’ve possibly had your hands all up in their bits, which aren’t that much different from our bits. Also remember, it used to be very common for many people to sleep in a room or even a bed together — so the idea that children must be sheltered from the knowledge that sex exists? Historically, they’ve often been right there when their parents got it on.

Of course, one of the things we don’t know is where the healthy line is for such things. Just because children witnessed sexual intercourse doesn’t mean that was good for them, any more than the frequency of physical punishment meant that was good for them, either. On the other hand, much of what determines whether we cope well or badly with a thing is how well we’ve been prepared for it. Unexpected, culturally unsanctioned violence is more likely to cause PTSD; ignorantly stumbling upon people having sex is probably more likely to cause a negative response, too. And what about engaging in it yourself? When’s the right age for that? It probably varies from person to person, based on not just physical but psychological maturity, and it’s damn hard to gauge what the latter really looked like in the past. Even researching the question wanders close to some uncomfortable lines, when “but they’re so mature for their age” is a defense commonly used by pedophiles.

But back to the point about awareness of sex being more public. Even simple modesty is a highly variable line, one that can be in different places depending on what activity you’re looking at. Americans are fairly accepting of kissing and other displays of affection in public; Japanese generally aren’t. But in Japan, communal bathing is far more common than here: not just same-sex baths, but mixed-sex ones in some natural onsen, and familial bathing up to a certain age. They’ve also got religious festivals that involve running through the streets with a giant phallus — can you imagine that in the U.S.?

This isn’t just about Western culture versus Eastern, either. Consider the case from fourteenth-century England where a woman divorced her husband on the grounds of impotence. As part of that trial, a witness testified that the husband’s brother tried to help out once with a handjob, but to no avail. Other, similar cases involved wives flashing their husbands and manually stimulating them in court, in order to prove the impotence was real. One poor fifteenth-century fellow had his penis examined by over a dozen people, all of whom testified before a judge as to its qualities. Bodies were not nearly the private things we’ve considered them in other time periods, and neither were the things we did with them.

In fact, we’ve talked about adultery before, but we haven’t talked about its counterpart: the conflict that can arise over sex within marriage. Under some legal systems, sex is a duty spouses owe to each other — and not just in the sense that wives owe it to their husbands, the way we tend to assume, but that husbands owe it to their wives. That’s why that Englishwoman could divorce her husband for impotence, because he was failing to uphold his end of the deal.

That raises the interesting question of desire, and how it’s been viewed. We’ve already talked about sexual orientation, including the notion of asexuality, but there’s also a gendered component in how society conceives of people’s libidos. Are women insatiable temptresses, or asexual creatures whose only motivation to copulate is obedience and the production of children? Both views have existed (and I’m tempted to speculate that the latter view was used to prop up the belief that women had no need for gratification in bed). There’s a little more consistency on the male side, in that they’ve pretty much always been assumed to have desire; the variation there is whether men are characterized as temperate and self-controlled (usually paired with the “women are sirens” notion), or horndogs whose base impulses must be kept in check by female modesty.

Which starts to take us around to the dark side of the sexual coin. What happens when people misbehave in bed? For that, come back next week.

2 Responses to “New Worlds December essay, redux”

  1. Marva Grossman

    Thank you for posting this here, and for the update about BVC. I hope the blog archives will be accessible once more when the new-and-improved website goes up, because I remember interesting reader discussions around past New Worlds essays and I really would not like them to be lost.

    • swantower

      Alas, I’m not sure we’ll be able to recover that. We’ve been having some serious issues with our (soon to be ex-)hosting service, and I don’t think we’ll be able to just restore the blog from backup.

      For what it’s worth, key bits from those discussions have gotten incorporated into the revised versions of the essays that go into the yearly collections. I know it isn’t the same has having the conversations themselves (especially when those touched on personal experience or tangential-but-interesting topics), but they’ve definitely had an effect on the final product!

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