The Seductiveness of Secrets

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Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were a pair of prominent Twentieth and Twenty-first Century actors who shared marriage and love for almost 60 years. During some of that time, the couple agreed to attempt an open relationship. In Outlining their thinking in the joint biography With Ossie and Ruby: In this life together, Ossie expounds upon the decision:

“It occurred to us, from observation and reasoning, that extramarital sex was not what really destroyed marriages, but rather the lies and deception that invariably accompanied it — that was the culprit. So we decided to give ourselves permission to sleep with other partners if we wished — as long as what we did was honest …”

Talking about sex can be hard …

America has a complicated relationship with sex, largely because, as a nation, we’re terrible at discussing it — with our children, our partners, and even ourselves. A CBS article explores how Americans don’t even agree on what sex actually is, a discord which muddies discussions about consent, fidelity, and other matters centered on one of the most elemental realities of our lives. Discussing sex is important because, at the very least, it helps us understand our personal motivations for doing it.

One of the more alarming facts to come to light after the Ashley Madison website hack was that out of approximately 46,000 American zip codes, only three in the entire country did not have an Ashley Madison client. That breadth of activity doesn’t suggest that everyone has secrets regarding sex — some zip codes likely only had a small number of participants — but it does suggest that the need to keep secrets about sex is everywhere.

Doubtless, a secret itself isn’t intrinsically dangerous. Ossie and Ruby also required that they each kept their extramarital liaisons private from outsiders. But conversation is to understanding as consent is to sex. The latter never happens without the former, a viewpoint which makes a Havelock Ellis quote especially piercing:

… conversation is to understanding as consent is to sex. The latter never happens without the former.

“Sex lies at the root of life, and we can never learn to reverence life until we know how to understand sex.”

I used to read that quote as saying we can never reverence life until we understand sex. But, actually, Ellis was saying that being able to appreciate life hinges not on understanding its most bemusing qualities, but on knowing how to understand those qualities. If sex was to be compared to a Rubik’s cube, it’s because of its constant shifting and varied presentations of colors and patterns.

… because sex can be pretty weird …

Sex is multifaceted. Saying you understand sex is like saying you can see the front and back of an object at the same time.

For former concubine and 7thcentury Empress Wu Zetian of the Chinese T’ang Dynasty, sex was apparently power. Numerous texts, and several paintings, depict that Zetian decreed that all visiting diplomats and government officials would kneel before her upon their arrival. And then, after she lifted her dress, those officials would be required to perform cunnilingus.

The notorious William George Heirens, also known as the “Lipstick Killer,” praised burglary as an explosive path to sexual release. In the 17thcentury, strangulation was prescribed as the Viagra of the ages. So, along with sex also being multifaceted, it can also be horrific, and weird. Not wanting to talk about it isn’t difficult to understand.

… and unpredictable, but still …

Yet, the questions to follow the Ashley Madison hack were manifold, largely centering on why so many people, overwhelmingly men, would cheat on their families. Natasha Caruana, a photographic artist, recently released a book reflecting her project The Married Man, in which she took photographs of 54 men she met through affair websites over the span of a year — though never of the men’s faces. What Caruana believes she learned about men who cheat felt like finding a thorn in an angry lion’s paw:

“I now think affairs are 100% an emotional thing. So many of the men talked about how they could go and have sex with a prostitute, but using those [affair] sites was to get something else. There is this fantasy of an affair, and I was able to show the reality — the mundanity, the loneliness,” Caruana told The Guardian, adding that the men she met, in her opinion, had “to have a macho character at work and at home, and they didn’t really have anyone to talk to. It was just pattern after pattern. Some of the men would talk about sex and be very desire-driven, but there would still be hints of that loneliness.”

… not talking about sex …

Melissa Tapper Goldman, creator of the Tumblr blog Do Tell, where women crowdshare their experiences with sex, says in a Salon article that in regard to sex, “Silence is not just an absence of input — it actually creates an environment of shame. We cultivate stigma when we avoid the topic of sex.”

Silence is not just an absence of input — it actually creates an environment of shame.

According to scientists at the University of Groningen, sex is actually uncomfortable enough to necessitate a study exploring how we’re even able to accomplish it. The research eventually showed that being in a state of arousal suppresses our ability to be disgusted by squeamish activities in general.

Daniel R. Kelly, an associate professor of philosophy at Purdue University and author of the book Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, though not involved with the study commented, saying that disgust is an evolutionary “extension of our immune system,” and an emotion which guards “against eating things that might poison us, or coming into close physical proximity to things that might carry infections.”

If only we were able to flip arousal on and off like a switch, so as to lower our inhibitions on command and facilitate healthy sexual conversations.

Or, maybe we should discover what our disgust, as an “extension of our immune system,” is protecting us from.

… has consequences as well.

Maybe we’d learn that, all along, we’ve actually been defending ourselves from much greater pains than the cheating, and manipulation, and broken families that we already endure — extensively because we can’t talk about sex — or maybe not.

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Originally published at www.qluke.com on October 16, 2015.

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