How enlightened are modern myths of sexuality?
by Bruce S. Thornton
If you want a good guide to the pathologies of the liberal mind, look no farther than Frank Rich’s weekly column in the Sunday New York Times. In everything he writes, Rich combines an arrogant pretense of enlightened rationalism with a laughable indulgence in modern myths and irrational prejudices, an intellectual incoherence typical of most self-styled “progressives.”
Rich’s column of December 12 is particularly revealing in this regard, for it touches on what is fast becoming a liberal paranoid obsession: the pernicious power of the Christian “fundamentalists,” those unsophisticated, undereducated zealots whom Karl Rove manipulated into reelecting George Bush, thus creating what Rich calls a “cultural twilight zone” as the cowardly media rush to kowtow to this powerful constituency.
What set Rich off was the New York PBS station’s short-lived decision not to run an ad for “Kinsey,” the just-released movie about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, whom Rich calls a “pioneer” for his 1948 “Kinsey’s Report,” which according to Rich taught Americans that adultery was widespread, that “women have orgasms too and that masturbation and homosexuality do not lead to insanity.” In other words, in Rich’s universe, Kinsey is a hero, a torch of scientific reason dispelling the murky fog of disinformation, shame, guilt, and neuroses brought on by sexual repression.
As such, Rich’s take on Kinsey plays into one of the modern world’s most powerful myths–the myth of enlightenment. According to this gratifying tale, the neuroses and ignorance fomented by Christianity had kept people enslaved to their fear, shame, and guilt, leading to unhappiness and destructive behavior. Then came the fearless clear-eyed thinkers of the 18th-century Enlightenment and their heirs, who began to shine the light of science and reason on the dark clouds of religious stupidity, so that the knowledge of the true nature of man and the world could liberate us from all the evils that afflict us. Particularly in terms of sex, thinkers like Freud and later Kinsey exploded the old superstitions of religion, which had deformed the natural innocence of human sexuality, thus paving the way for the sexual revolution of the sixties. Today, only the throw-back religious fundamentalists are preventing this liberating knowledge from freeing even more people from the old oppressive intolerant strictures that turn them against their own sexual identities, incite them into repressing the sexuality of the liberated, and prevent people from acquiring the knowledge and contraceptives that could make their natural sexual experiences pain-free and fulfilling. To use the Times headline for Rich’s column, these religious nuts are carrying out their “plot against sex in America.”
This is the story, one our culture repeats incessantly in television sitcoms, movies, pop songs, popular psychology, and the advice of self-help gurus like Dr. Ruth. And despite all the assertions that this story is simply a rational account of fact, it is instead a self-serving myth full of historical error.
First, Kinsey’s significance lies not, as Rich thinks, in revealing new information about sexual behavior to an America mired in Puritan ignorance; Richard Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis was available in English as early as 1925, and a watered-down Freudianism had for decades been seeping into popular culture and establishing as received wisdom the notion that “sexual repression” was a bad thing and that science was better placed to guide our sexual behavior than were the old-fashioned superstitions and taboos of traditional religion. Kinsey is important because he popularized this movement, and because, unlike Krafft-Ebbing, he didn’t designate any of this behavior as “deviant.” Also, Kinsey’s success at becoming a media sensation occurred because the culture was ready for such a message, particularly in the flush triumphalism of the post-war years, when everybody was in the mood for cutting loose and enjoying the new freedom created by the war. Kinsey simply gave a patina of science to a message many Americans were already primed to hear.
As for Kinsey, what we now know about his personal life seriously compromises the claims that he was some objective, crusading scientist simply recording the truth of human sexual nature. In fact, Kinsey was what used to be called a “pervert,” an omnivorous sexual obsessive whose research provided cover for indulging his proclivities. According to James Jones’ sympathetic biography, “Within the inner circle of his senior staff members and their spouses, [Kinsey] endeavored to create his own sexual utopia, a scientific subculture whose members would not be bound by arbitrary and antiquated sexual taboos. What he envisioned was in every sense a clandestine scientific experiment, if not a furtive attempt at social engineering: unfettered sex would be the order of the day.” With the exception of sex with children (according to Jones), “Kinsey decreed that within the inner circle men could have sex with each other, wives would be swapped freely, and wives, too, would be free to embrace whichever sexual partners they liked.”
I may be old-fashioned, but this all has a creepy, Jonestown vibe to it, and at the very least certainly raises serious questions about the value of “research” carried out on a topic in which the researcher has such an intensely vested, not to say neurotic, interest. Nor did this sexual “liberation” seem to make Kinsey happy; according to one of Kinsey’s favorite male sex partners, “Mr. Y,” during sex Kinsey got “‘a kind of long-suffering look on his face . . .’ like a man,” Jones writes, “who seemed weighted down with some awful burden . . . . Mr Y. remarked that Kinsey ‘looked almost grotesque.'”
Kinsey hasn’t been the only person to discover that “sexual liberation” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We’ve all found out that the promised boons of throwing off the sexual shackles and inhibitions our culture had developed over the centuries didn’t quite materialize, and in fact that our liberation simply subjected us to a whole new host of evils. This is where the myth of enlightened sexual liberation Rich preaches fails most obviously: the way it ignores the destructive effects of the sexual license that exploded in the sixties: venereal plagues like AIDS, the debasement of women, the vulgarization of popular culture, teen pregnancy, rampant abortion, the explosion of pornography, and the general cheapening of our humanity that follows when we are reduced to the lowest common denominator of appetite and pleasure.
Rich’s myth is wrong as well on the role Christianity presumably played in sexually oppressing us. Another popular myth holds that before Christianity–and in those parts of the world not afflicted with it– a more natural and tolerant attitude towards sex held sway. The Greeks, we are told, were jolly hedonists, blithely hopping from boys to girls and back. Then came a grim Christianity with its irrational hatred of the body as the devil’s playground, and all that sexual happiness disappeared, to be replaced with shame, guilt, crippling inhibitions, and all the psychological maladies that follow such repression.
Again, the story is not even half true. The Greeks were very distrustful of the power of sexual passion, and developed a rich vocabulary and imagery to convey that destructive power, comparing eros to fire, disease, insanity, and the violence of war. They recognized that irrational passion is a force of disorder unless controlled by the taboos, laws, and customs of culture–look at the story of Troy, a whole civilization destroyed because of the adulterous passion of Paris and Helen. There were, of course, differences between the Christian and the Hellenic understanding of sexuality, but in many respects there is a definite continuity in both cultures’ awareness that irrational passion is a volatile, potentially destructive power it doesn’t do to trifle with.
So too with the idea that non-Christian cultures, particularly primitive societies, were paradises of sexual freedom. This myth of the sexual noble savage explains how easily anthropologist Margaret Mead was duped by the Samoan girls she interviewed, who spun lies about their carefree sexual freedom that Mead faithfully recorded and that many sophisticates held up as examples of how our middle-class, Christian civilization had warped our natural innocence. The simple fact is that human sexuality and passion can be a force of destruction and disorder, which is why every human culture develops various restraints and taboos to control it. Only in the modern world, where modern science and technology mask (at least for a while) some of the physical consequences of sexual license, can we indulge the myth of sexual liberation as the road to happiness.
Rich’s use of these common cultural myths, however, ultimately serves a political point. In the next few years we will be subjected to a campaign of disinformation as liberals attempt to protect the entitlements that were given to them by activist judges and that stand little chance of succeeding in the arena of democratic politics, where such issues are supposed to be decided, and where Supreme Court justices who respect the Constitution will send them. Thus Rich warns against the “right-wing groups” that will press President Bush for “further rollbacks” of “gay civil rights” and “reproductive rights for women,” serving the “larger goal of pushing sex of all non-biblical kinds back into the closet and undermining any scientific findings, whether circa 1948 or 2004, that might challenge fundamentalist sexual orthodoxy as successfully as Darwin challenged Genesis.”
That last sentence encapsulates beautifully the arrogant ignorance of too many liberals, who dress up their self-serving myths and quasi-religious creeds in the robes of rationalism, just as Alfred Kinsey camouflaged his sexual obsessions with the mantle of “science.” And that arrogance is indicative of the modern world’s greatest delusion: that it can discard the wisdom of centuries, explain all the mysteries of human life, and create a world that suits our desires rather than adjusting our desires to the reality of the world.
©2004 Bruce Thornton