It has been said that an intellectual is someone who has found something better to think about than sex, so call me a proud philistine. Not only does thinking about sex matter, but it matters more to humanity than sex in itself. There are many instances of the damage wrought by bad thinking about sex and they are not difficult to identify. Rape culture, homophobia, slut-shaming and, in my opinion, anti-contraceptive religious beliefs, trigger warnings and extreme political correctness are all examples of bad thinking about sex.
Questions about how we think about things are often referred to as hermeneutic — so here is my horny hermeneutic. The question of how to approach sex in the 21st century is really a question of how we think about sex. To interrogate our sexual ideology we must start at the most basic level and ask: What does sex mean today? This question may seem ridiculous at first; sex is a resolutely physical act and is not traditionally an apparent symbolic one. But the truth of the matter is that sex is fraught with social and cultural significance even if it is, at its core, meaningless.
Wait, you might be thinking, how can sex be fraught with symbolism, but actually be meaningless? It is because sex must be made to mean. There are so many different interpretations of sex, from Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted adage “Sex is about power” to Woody Allen’s “Sex is the most fun you can have without laughing.” But what is sex about? Power, love, fun, pleasure, pain, health, religion, reproduction? Is it political, is it moral, is it art? Is it for money, partnership, community? Is it freeing, or oppressing? What does it mean?
Sex is, at base, physical acts. But what this signifies, what these acts are for us, is all interpretation. When you performed oral sex, was it an act of love or just a drunk hookup? Was it because he’s your teaching assistant and promised to raise your grade, or because he was Sheila’s boyfriend and Sheila’s been such a pain lately? When you lost your virginity, was that a sin, or the pleasurable beginning of a new and exciting dimension to your social life? When you decided to have sex without a condom, was the sex intended for procreation, or did this choice stem from a lack of education about safe sex? This is how sex is made to mean.
In some ways, thinking about the ideology of sex is a relatively new phenomenon. Modern relationships, from the period roughly between 1900 and 1950 were much simpler. Religiosity, firm moral and national standards such as the nuclear family, made clear the purpose and meaning of sex. Sex was intended to be with someone you loved, to whom you were committed, for the purpose of having kids. But of course you would be sorely mistaken to reminisce about this period when LGBTQ relationships were forbidden, interracial relationships shunned, black and minority love devalued and sex-negative cultural practices like slut-shaming and emphasizing abstinence were prominent.
Postmodern sex, conceptions of sexuality starting roughly in the late 1960s and continuing through today, is very different. We have all heard the oft-used liberal-feminist refrain of “Gender is a social construct, sex is a biological one,” but sex is in fact a social construct. Now, of course I know that sex here is referring to the genital distinction of men, women and intersex persons, but the point stands. Sex no longer means one thing and no longer holds the same weight for many Americans. Postmodern sex leaves everything kind of … well, gray. Here, I am decidedly not referring to lines between consensual sex and rape, a clear and increasingly well-defined boundary, nor am I referring to any E.L. James book. I am referring to the fact that the onus of interpreting sex, understanding what sex means, has rapidly shifted from society to the individual, or individuals, having sex.
The Sexual Revolution from the ’60s to ’80s that brought us remarkable benefits like third-wave feminism, more nuanced sexual education, wider contraceptive care, greater STD prevention and opened the door to gay rights has also left our sex lives with a new emptiness, one that we are ill-prepared to fill without proper thought. The recalibration of our sexualities has created a New Hedonism which has culminated in the so-called hookup culture. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as many an undergraduate can tell you: Having a fling with no attachments can be really fun. It just means we have to give a substantially greater amount of thought to sex. And we’re doing it — no pun intended. Our generation is more open to discussions of things like female masturbation and orgasm, friends with benefits, social constructions and sexual identities.
Going forward we need to consider how we reify — that is, create concrete meaning for — our sexual norms, practices and culture. This is the first column in a series I will be writing on contemporary culture war. This column will cover issues from contraception as a social good to using Wikipedia as a source. Thinking about cultural issues, such as sexual ideology, in the 21st century could be more fruitful than ever before if we don’t refrain from shutting out alternative narratives of sexuality. And better thinking now will mean better sex later.
Jack Bennett is a junior in the College. CULTURE WARPED appears every other Friday.