The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Sex, Shame and Consent

How Sin Talk Destroyed Communication and Created a Crisis

Some years ago I was reading a book on abstinence education and its failure. It was actually promoting a conservative, evangelical view of sex. But it made some points about how people approach sex, which I don’t think it intended to make, but which I found important.

Their basic approach is waging war on human sexuality. This creates a problem because they are mesmerized by sex and fear it at the same time. They damn it and want it. The author compared American teens to Dutch teens and was somewhat take back that the liberal Dutch with their more laissez faire attitude had pregnancy rates — and abortion rates — well below those of their teen counterparts in the United States.

For instance, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is about 16.7 per 1,000 females aged 15–19 in 2019. In the Netherlands it is 3.2. And, as will become clear shortly, it is important to note religious states in the U.S. have higher teen pregnancy rates than the more secular states.

It briefly mentioned that Dutch teens went into sex knowing the facts and planning for sex, while American teens were dicey on the facts and just “had” sex without consciously planning to do so.

Now, think for a moment about how evangelicals speak of sin — a term widely used by them to describe anything they dislike. They will speak of non-evangelicals as sinners who are out to offend God intentionally, but when it comes to their own sin they speak of “falling into sin,” or having “Satan ensnare them.” Your sins are actively chosen while sin for them is something that happens to them. So they repent and go on to sin another day, while all you can expect is eternal hell fire and damnation.

While they will acknowledge their “sin” is still sin it’s not quite as bad as those who consciously plan on it. It’s one thing to go out intentionally looking for a sexual encounter and quite another to meeting someone accidentally and “one thing leading to another.” No plan, it just happened for them.

But, if planning for sex is far worse than “one thing” leading to another, then precautions cannot be taken in advance. A precaution taken is proof you planned on sinning and that’s worse.

They want the ability to say they were tempted and fell as opposed to admitting, “I spent days thinking about it in advance.” It is the devil and temptation that is at fault, not their planning to indulge in evil sex. To use a condom meant planning on sin. To take birth control meant one was planning to sin.

Christianity, in order to control people and empires, needed a means of imposing guilt on everyone. It concocted two doctrines to do that. One is everyone is born with original sin and the second is sexuality is inherently sinful and at best, can only be justified by procreation. The original sin argument didn’t go very far as most people see injustice in being blamed for sins other people committed.

But anti-sexuality hit the jackpot. It is one human need akin to eating, in that everyone tends to have an appetite and wants satisfaction. But, unlike food it isn’t absolutely necessary for the individual to survive. It is a largely universal need built into human nature and thus it is normal and natural for people to have sexual thoughts, desires and to seek out sexual pleasure. Now, make them feel guilty for that and you pretty much have them under your thumb from puberty until death — and as for the children, they are easy enough to control with threats and intimidation.

One result of this pervasive guilt was shame and with shame came a reluctance to talk about sexuality. In addition to refusing to take precautions it also meant sexual partners were not to discuss the topic in advance. Saying it out loud was acknowledging your sinful plans. You could never really know if your partner was consenting or not because neither of you were to talk about it.

To make it worse this mentality encouraged people to resist sexual advances even when they wanted them. “No” in that culture didn’t actually mean no, or more precisely, maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. It could also mean yes or mean maybe and the other sexual partner had no clear way of discerning. In a modern, consent driven society the matter is resolved by asking.

This mentality was hardest on women who were to say no, especially when they meant yes. They were supposed to resist temptation even if only feigning resistance. But, this lead to all sorts of problems. Under that sexual morality you said “no” if you meant no and you said “no” if you meant yes.

This is really what is depicted in the lyrics to the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” It wasn’t about rape or assault, as it is sometimes now interpreted, it was about feigning one behavior while wanting another.

It reflected the sex-guilt ethos of the era in which it was written — the early 1940s — and I think gets unfairly interpreted using a 2020 ethos.

Note the first partner, usually female, talks about what her mother will do, what her father will do, what the neighbors will think, but not what she wants. Her wants were secondary to social expectations.

My mother will start to worry
Beautiful what’s your hurry?
My father will be pacing the floor
Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I’d better scurry

The neighbors might think
Baby it’s bad out there

My sister will be suspicious

My brother will be there at the door

My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious

There’s bound to be talk tomorrow
Think of my life long sorrow!

Repeatedly the guilt over how other people will feel, if she spends the night, is what is depicted.

Then she ends it saying, “I ought to say, no, no, no sir” but then asks “mind if I move in closer?” It’s about what she “ought” to do in the moral sense, in conflict with what she wants to do but can’t acknowledge. The conflict is between what she has been told proper ladies want and what she wants. She wants to say yes, but cannot.

This puritanical view of sexuality was widespread in this country in 1944 and it still is. Many people understand better now but many still cling to the old dysfunctional ethics. That’s a huge problem, a major cultural divide. Now, thankfully the evangelical is loosing support and reason is slowing winning out, but it makes communication damn hard.

It certainly was the dominant view in my youth, one I ultimately rebelled against and have fought for some decades now. When two people wanted sex, unless both were openly “wanton” there wasn’t so much communication as action. One would make a move by touching the other and the other would feign resistance in order to comply with the puritanical ethic and minimize their guilt. The initiator would have to push ahead until the partner felt they had resisted long enough in order to retain some virtue before acquiescing to what they wanted to do all along.

Consider the language used by both partners in consenting relationships, or those who thought it was consenting. We hear words like “Well, one thing lead to another.” “It just happened.” “We got carried away.” It was always this idea that one didn’t make a choice but something sinful just happened to them, almost as if both of them were victims of some force outside themselves — Satan maybe! It is the language needed to avoid the accusation of intentional sin, as opposed to something just happening to them.

This sort of linguistic game was also played out among gay and bisexual men, and probably women as well, especially if one or neither of the partners was open out and uncomfortable with their own sexuality. The uncomfortable could drink alcohol or get high and then blame what happened on that. It was the notorious “Boy, was I drunk last night” excuse often accompanied by “I can’t even remember what happened.” Of course, they remembered but they couldn’t admit it.

The alcohol was used to give plausible deniability to guilt-ridden partners whether for their own conscience or because someone discovered what they were doing or had done.

You can see how this would create problems — the Puritanism led to a lot of human suffering. Whether the partners were two men, two women, or opposite sex couples, this inability to communicate damaged people. It hurt those who were legitimately saying “no,” but whose actions couldn’t be differentiated from those playing by the Puritanical rules. But, it also leads to situations where individuals who believe the other person is actually playing this dysfunctional game are later accused of assault because they honestly thought it was the game in motion and not genuine resistance.

I have no doubt many aggressors knew their partner’s “no” was genuine and went ahead anyway. But I also have no doubt some thought they were playing by the rules of a screwed up culture, which still control entire sections of the country. These were individuals who thought this was a dance they had to go through and both were willing, but were genuinely wrong.

This is the culture war down and dirty and lives are being ruined because there are still too many people who think sexuality is sinful. That makes them unable to talk about it, or plan for it. The result is miscommunication for some, rape for others, unwanted pregnancies and seeking out abortions because the church told them a condom in your pocket made you a worse sinner.

Like many aspects of the culture war — most I think — the original values were irrational and contrary to reality, thus utterly dysfunctional. They ultimately had to fall, but in the process of social evolution there is a great deal of conflict. We’ll all be better off the sooner people can openly and honestly talk about sex, and the old role-playing of the anti sex Puritans dies out permanently.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.