Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sexuality, Desire, and Desirability in American Culture

   In contemporary American society, heterosexuality is privileged over homosexuality and bisexuality - legally, politically, socially, culturally, economically, and religiously. This is true for LGB women as well as LGB men. One can be familiar with these dynamics, even intimately and personally so, and still feel that it is vital to comment on another interesting and not unrelated dynamic in our culture. While male desire (whether towards women or to a lesser extent other men) is widely regarded as an accepted part of male identity, female desire (whether it is channeled towards men or women) is often taken to be aberrant, and in other words, queer. Men are expected to be active participants in pursuing sexual gratification while women are expected to be active participants in perfecting their status as sex objects. For women being desirable is supposed to be a substitute for desiring. For men desiring is supposed to be a substitute for being desirable. In a truly healthy relationship everyone involved is going to want to desire as well as to be desirable. However, American culture has socialized men and women into dualistic ideas regarding sexuality. This creates dysfunction in both same-sex and different-sex relationships.

   It is depressing for me to hear women that like men describe themselves as "gay men trapped in women's bodies." Why do heterosexual and bisexual women feel that the best way to describe their attraction to men is to appropriate the experiences of homosexual men? It is depressing for me to hear the idea espoused over and over again that for men sex is an end in itself whereas for women sex is a means to an end (financial security, love, commitment, feeling attractive, social status). No one is as one dimensional as these caricatures suggest - all people have various motivations for almost anything they do. And because of biological susceptibilities to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases that men do not have, women are likely to be more careful about heterosexual intercourse than men simply because they are rational creatures. But this does not tell us as much about women's sexuality as it does about the human capacity for rational decision-making. It also perhaps tells us something about socialization in a society where women are disproportionately held responsible for the negative consequences of sexuality.

   These attitudes towards sexuality are damaging for our society. It perpetuates what many feminists refer to as a "rape culture" in which it is assumed that women will never be willing to have sex with men outside of bribery, coercion, or trickery, thus legitimating the use of these tactics for men to have sex with women. It is bad for gay and bisexual women who lack an understanding of how to initiate intimacy in relationships with each other. It is bad for gay and bisexual men who feel that the most appropriate way of expressing attraction to one another is through risky, casual, and often unprotected sex. It is bad for men and women in relationships with each other who lack a common frame of reference by which to interpret one another's actions and expectations.

   This is not an argument about whether our society needs to become more or less sexually permissive. It is an argument about how we view double standards and their negative impact on our entire culture as well as individual lives. Recognizing that all persons have complex motivations for sexual activity and that all persons need to find others attractive and be found attractive by others in relationships is still a revolutionary idea and about half a century after the "sexual revolution" it shouldn't be.