The Religious Right’s been warning us for decades. A Supreme Court justice warned us in Lawrence v Texas. Various institutions have been warning us for centuries—about the sexual, and therefore social, impact of Boccaccio and Chaucer and of women on the theatrical stage, of mixed-gender schools, cheap mass “literature,” talking movies, and of legalizing “rubbers.”
Today they’re warning us about the increasing social acceptance of same-gender sex, non-monogamy, and S/M.
And they’re right. We’re approaching the end of normal sex.
Socially-defined “normal sex,” in contrast to socially-defined “abnormal sex.” With a clear bright line between them.
Historically, “normal sex” has always been about defining and imposing boundaries. Various sexual activities, thoughts, and ideas were demonized, even criminalized. Most people really did fear, condemn, and stay away from whatever forms of eroticism they learned were abnormal. The adventurous—Oscar Wilde, Marquis de Sade, Margaret Sanger, Hester Prynne—were punished.
Much of this was about controlling procreation. Some of it was about ignorance toward female pleasure, and hostility toward female enthusiasm. Some of it was about dividing the body into clean and dirty areas, hence clean and dirty activities. Some of it was about managing virginity, which was valuable family property.
Beyond all this, a key reason religion and repressive government have always wanted to control sexuality is because it’s a place where people can experience profound autonomy. Since the beginning of time, even the poorest, least intelligent, least attractive people have been able to feel powerful during sex. Even when you have absolutely no power over the important circumstances of your life, you can, if not instructed against it, still do and imagine whatever you want in bed. What powerful social institution would NOT want to control this bottomless well of personal power?
Therapists find that when people become empowered around their sexuality, they often keep growing: “If I can be uninhibited in bed, where else can I express myself? If I can make up my own rules in bed, why not in my relationship, my family, my community, or even with my God?”
So defining and patrolling normal sex is an important political tool. Every religion and every government knows that.
And although politically our country is deep into a 21st century Dark Ages—abortion virtually criminalized, sex offender registries now used as throwaway gulags, pornography relentlessly demonized as causing violence and addiction—in bed, fortunately, Americans are increasingly out of control. Utah homemakers reading 50 Shades of Grey. Men and women waxing pubic hair. Everyone under 40 trying anal sex at least once. Straight college students self-identifying as queer. From Wal-Marts to Amazon, vibrators unbuckling the Bible Belt.
So is this, in fact, the end of the world?
Depending on what your world’s based on, the answer is yes. Those who say that “morality” is about restricting sexual expression rather than living by a humanistic code of ethics are clearly on the wrong side of history. Virtually all Americans have sex by age 21, and they’re not going back. Most people who have genital sex have oral sex, and over a third have tried (or still do) anal sex. Virtually all American Catholics use “artificial” birth control. And this is clearly a Golden Age for both sex toys and swing clubs in every one of our 50 states.
Oh sure, millions of today’s politically conservative young people loudly demand that politicians continue to criminalize alternative sexualities, but many of them privately do those very things. The really religious ones (often home-schooled) talk about virginity until marriage, the unreliability of condoms, the horrors of commercial sex, masturbation as infidelity, and strict heterosexuality in thought, deed, and fantasy.
Until, of course, they get drunk, those blissful few hours when they love strip clubs, premarital blowjobs, and watching girls make out with girls.
They’ll support a narrow, punitive vision of normal sex once again when they sober up. But for the rest of us, no matter how ordinary our sex lives are, the days of normal sex are just about over.
And it’s about time.