Sexual Liberation: An Unfinished Job
Sex is either great or awkward, but it’s still not normalized
As a product of the late 70s, I have no direct memory of the mythical sexual revolution experienced by my parents’ generation. The 80s and 90s – the years of my education - were years of growth, optimism, and a rise in women’s participation in higher education, jobs, and independence. The advancement of gender equality was often attributed, at least in part, to the battles older people – and women in particular - had fought to take sex out of the codified “married couple” and to de-couple it from reproduction.
My generation banked on the expanded opportunities created by the internet revolution and felt that we were free to pursue social models that were different from those of our parents. Sex was not really on top of our minds; we were too busy getting top grades and de-provincializing our lives. The expression of sex was something for fancy advertising and fabulous fashion models, it has to do with push-up bras and skin-tight dresses rather than intimacy. The outburst of HIV brought concerns over safety, but we lived in the illusion heterosexual sex had been spared by those types of issues. Until sexuality was back on stage again, this time to discuss massive sexual harassment, Revenge Porn, and a number of other sexual abuses. Disappointingly, a huge step backwards. Are we back to square one?
The answer is complex. On one hand, our societies have become more sexualized. Digital applications designed around random sexual “flings” have boomed. Unmarried couples and families are becoming the rule rather than the exception. Social media has been invaded by the display of sexy body parts. Acronyms such as BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism) that were once mysterious have found their way into mainstream books and cinema. Netflix airs documentaries on female sexual pleasure.
On the other hand, the normalization of sex continues to be hindered by social norms. Acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities remain lukewarm at best. Both men and women continue to view women who appear at ease with their sexual selves with suspicion. Sexual violence is on the rise. Girls and women are blackmailed with threats of dissemination of their intimate photos as a means to destroy their personal and professional reputations. Technology allows greater access to sex but by no means prepares one to sex. In only a handful of countries, sexual education is taught at school, but we are planets away from that becoming a standard practice everywhere.
Thus, on balance, true sexual liberation remains a radically unfinished project, to say the least. ‘Unfinished’ because we continue to deny sex an honest and intelligent place in our culture. What should have been ‘liberated’ in theory, is still very much ‘imprisoned’ in practice. How did we fail so badly?
Throughout our century, a huge influence on how people thought and felt about sex came from psychoanalysis. Centered around sex being connected with almost everything else in our lives, the work of Sigmund Freud moved sex from being a marginal topic to the center of the conversation. Freud’s work was a breakthrough, but it also depicted sex as a sinister and ‘dirty’ ever present thought, dominating us and contaminating every other interest. This has influenced us in positioning sex as the “embarrassing hidden truth”.
Religion, on the other hand, has condemned sex to a temptation we should resist, other than in the accepted forms of conjugal intercourse - and with minimal room for creativity and fun. This conception does not reflect only on religious people. The general idea that what is good and bad, right and wrong, worthy and unworthy, is guided by principles that are “higher” than human preferences and desires permeate all parts of societies with strong religious baggage.
And then there is romantic love, of course – the ideal of it, but also its morals. Sexual liberation movements may have eroded the institution of marriage (and, to some extent, of monogamic love), but they didn’t significantly alter our romantic ambition for ‘real’ and long-lasting love. The place for sex in this context is far from being unproblematic, especially if we view love relationships as venues where our best selves are realized, leaving our ‘dirty’ sexual impulses outside the door. The hostility surrounding female sexuality has a lot to do with women still carrying the role of guardians of the family, traditions, and the most orderly and decent sides of our lives. How can they be mothers and teachers and, at the same time, engage in carnal and ‘uncivilized’ sex?
Furthermore, emancipating sex from procreation has left a void as to the “why” of sex, creating a space for uncertainty and ‘fear’. Can sex be considered a need, like that of eating? Is it a left-over of our animal origins? Is it a pure means to pursue pleasure? Is it primarily, as many psychologists claim, a way to achieve connectedness with others? Or is it all of the above plus a means of procreation?
Our inability to untangle this yarn means we may individually have many types of sexual experiences, but we do not yet have a collective way of addressing the subject. There is sex available for all tastes, but it stays undercover, and we do not take responsibility for it. We engage in sexual jokes, pornography, paid sex, and polyamorous relationships but we pretend it’s only other people who do that.
With our young, we hope that it will be someone else educating them because we are too embarrassed. As a result, they don’t have a way to know whether what they’re feeling is normal and how to integrate those impulses and emerging desires into their lives. By behaving this way, we are also failing to provide critical reproductive health and safety information that could prevent unwanted pregnancies, sexual diseases, and psychological dysfunctions. And since we don’t engage in honest conversations, we equally miss the opportunity to explain loud and clear that when performed safely and consensually, sex offers a great deal of physical and mental health benefits.
The sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s had aimed to remove the guilt or judgment that comes with freely meeting sexual needs but framed sexual liberation as a politically charged issue when in fact it concerns absolutely everyone.
Fifty years later, it’s time to finish the job.
Sexual liberation doesn’t mean abandoning all control, embracing every impulse or giving up our privacy. The point of true liberation is to reduce the unnecessary, debilitating burden of shame with which we continue to wrestle and direct to ourselves and others. It means discussing the tension that exists between sexual desires and fantasies and our ideals about mothers, fathers, professionals, etc. It means to stop judging other people for their sexual behaviors – so long as no harm is done, of course.
I encourage political leaders to embrace this agenda and to make it part of building stronger democratic societies. As Margaret Atwood imagines in her best-selling book The Handmaid’s Tale (which inspired the hit TV series), the risk of neo-Puritanism may be just around the corner.