I want to say this clearly. Sex, and I do mean genital activity and everything surrounding it, can really be a great thing. It’s one means of communicating between people that can embody a range of messages.

It can be either intimate and close or detached and distant, whether it’s a “one night stand” or sex with a committed partner. If we’re clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we can choose what any sexual activity will mean and what it communicates.

But that’s the rub, so to speak. We are seldom clear about what’s going on when we have sex.

In her 2009 book, for example, When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts & Minds of People in Two Relationships, therapist Mira Kirshenbaum wrote of 17 reasons someone might cheat on a spouse. None of them has to do with sex itself.

From youth, our culture has done everything it can to pass on numerous sick messages about sex. And it has installed this sickness in everyone so deeply that we have difficulty sorting them out and clearing them from our consciousness and our unconscious.

We’re told that sex is the key to everything. Sex sells.

The insecurities that our society installs in us about our inadequacies drive home the message that buying something else will make us more sexually desirable according to the standard of “appealing” that’s driven by consumption.

Then, we’re taught, such sexiness will get us the human closeness we naturally desire. But that’s a false promise.

If it did, we would actually find closeness and then quit buying stuff. Our ravenous economy can’t afford that level of fulfillment. So, even those who make this promise know it’s a lie.

We’re also conditioned to believe that sex is not just one of many possible ways of expressing closeness but a means to actually achieve or secure closeness with someone. For men, the further message learned from our culture is that sex is the only means of getting close.

The psychological pressure behind mainstream conditioned male sexuality is so insistent that sex takes center stage dysfunctionally, completely out of proportion to its reality. Women wonder why it’s so important to men. And some psychologists even counsel women to get with this kind of program too.

By labeling what I’ve called “The Nine Layers of Getting Laid” learned by high school as “the male sex drive,” woman are also taught that their only hope is to respond to these layers to get a man. It’s just how men are.

The conditioned impersonality of teenage male sexual conditioning actually turns sex into a way of distancing. The fantasies that substitute for really being emotionally present are even encouraged by some therapists so that sex becomes a means of staying away from people by being hooked to dreams.

Add shame about sex acts and guilt to the male conditioning that it’s an impersonal activity – something you do, not a process of being with someone – and we get the inability to look continuously and deeply into the eyes of the real person during sexual activity. The act becomes so distancing instead of intimate that it’s impossible for many to even perform when looking lovingly into their partner’s eyes, which would be an act of real intimacy.

Then include the dominant religious sexual morals ingrained in us successfully and our attention is diverted to other issues, thus maintaining the political, economic, and religious status quo. With all the condemning and shaming messages about sex, our psyches fill with guilt over sexual pleasure.

This ensures that our energies will never threaten what’s really wrong with this culture — the systemic, anti-human institutions that are profit-oriented and coping-oriented and not functional for human beings and their healing. It’s our personal sicknesses that need changing, we’re supposed to believe, not a crazy-making system.

When we actually act sexually with all these messages, we run up against the further cultural message that sex is somehow dirty and shameful, particularly if we happen to enjoy it. Isn’t that old message something like: “Sex is dirty; save it for the one you love?”

We can all get beyond this. It takes much personal work to counter the mainstream culture of sexual sickness.

But we won’t if we aren’t willing to examine our assumptions and don’t get clear about what this fun, playful, intimate thing called sex really is as opposed to what we’ve absorbed unconsciously. And if we don’t, there will always be something ultimately unfulfilling in sexual activity.

Contributed by

Bob Minor

University of Kansas
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies
A national resource for information on gender issues and gay/straight relationships for organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and media outlets such as NBC and USA Today, Bob Minor, Ph.D. …

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