I’m still amazed at how some acquaintances make casual racist remarks and then become belligerent when it is pointed out to them. It’s as if they believe I should take whatever they say in stride. I don’t find this to be as true in my “real life” interactions, but it happens almost daily on the internet. Maybe I shouldn’t be “amazed.”
* * *
-=[ Are You Normal? ]=-
Are we simply romantically challenged, or are we sluts?
-- Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City
I loathe Sex and the City. I will admit to watching it in the beginning, but it quickly grated on my nerves. Why? Well, aside from the rampant devotion to consumerism, the main raison d’etre for the show was… marriage. Three grown-assed women, highly skilled, well-educated, beautiful, and ultimately their sense of worth was predicated on whether they could rope a man. To be fair, the book that inspired the series (and now two films) is completely different. In many ways, the book is affirming and positive.
Perhaps it’s because I am a man (blah blah blah) that I don’t “get it,” and you know what? I don’t want to get it. However, one of the things I liked about Sex and the City was the sex talk. It was one of the few shows that spoke openly and frankly about sex. It also showed how modern sexuality is intrinsically connected to how we view ourselves -- our self-worth. And then there’s always the question about “what is normal.”
I hate to generalize but I am going to do it right now ::grin::
From my (admittedly male-dominated) perspective, women are more likely to internalize situations. For example, whenever women talk about a sexual problem they’ll usually follow with, “Is there something wrong with me?” Most men I know would never even dream to ask such a question. I am not trying to put down women here, folks, I am making an observation. I do think women generally tend to internalize while men tend to externalize.
Sex and the City actually built a successful fan base by exploiting these tendencies. Not married? Then something must be wrong with you. Unable to maintain a long-term relationship? That’s not “normal.” That hunk of a boyfriend can’t bring you to orgasm? Something is definitely wrong with you. Sure, he’s commitment-phobic, or an asshole, or a self-centered slob, but in the end, who’s left feeling “less than”? In fact, most of the mental ruminations of the lead character, Carrie Bradshaw, center on questions of normalcy. Sure, these three women are sexually aware and unafraid of exploring their sexuality, but in the final analysis the central premise of the series (if not explicit certainly implicit) came down to, “Is there something wrong with me?”
The paradox is that the presentation of the “problem” is often framed differently. For example, a friend explained that her husband hasn’t touched her in months and wanted me to explain her husband’s problem (someone I barely know). Another despaired that a friend was pressuring her to have sex, when all she wants is to maintain the friendship. She’s afraid that if she consents, that the friendship will take a backseat to the sex. She prefers the friendship, though she would be more than happy to have sex with him (if it didn’t affect the friendship). Finally, another complains to me that the men she’s meeting are requesting “freaky sex,” sex she oftentimes finds at best deviant, at worst demeaning. She asks, “Is this normal?”
My sense is that while women are intellectually aware that sexual and intimacy problems aren’t their problem alone, emotionally they feel something is wrong with them. To be fair, the way modern sexuality is constructed, everyone’s self-esteem is intimately tied to it.
These women have been unable to get the men in their lives to give them straight answers, have not gotten answers at all, or haven’t been able to ask the men directly about the problem. In my experience, the average person doesn’t fully appreciate how most complex sexual problems are solved “merely” with improved communication, but as anyone with any experience knows, it’s extremely difficult to change communication patterns established by couples.
I am also struck by the fact that most of the questions do not emphasize sexual “function” or pleasure, so much as the psychological gratifications related to sex. The first woman misses intimacy, closeness, and the feeling of being desired. The second woman wants to maintain her self-esteem and does not want to feel betrayed. The third woman wants her expectations met and wants to feel respected.
Why are people so eager to ask these questions? The easy (overly simplistic answer) is that questions about sexuality have always existed in people’s minds, but discussing sexual matters openly has only recently been accepted. This is something Sex and the City certainly proves. Dramatic changes in broadcasting and publishing rules about explicit sexual language and imagery, this argument goes, have served to open the floodgates of a public discussion of sexual issues that have been on people’s minds since, like, forever.
Another hypothesis is that people today are less willing to put up with sexual dissatisfaction and less embarrassed to try to make things better.
I believe the explosion of sexual discussion and the epidemic of insecurity is generated by a new social construction: the idea that sexual functioning and intimacy is a central, if not the central, aspect of a relationship. Such an emphasis certainly leads to a tremendous preoccupation with sex and intimacy, and a greater need for guidance, education, support, and a variety of services.
The recent importance given to sexuality and emotional intimacy in relationships is one result of large social changes in how we view marriage and life. Marriage is no longer merely about economic necessity. The purpose of marriage is about companionship and as a result there are changes in its obligations and expectations. Changes in social attitudes and advancements in contraception have freed women to view sexuality as separate from reproduction and now see it as a path for personal evolution, self-expression, and pleasure. Finally (and most importantly), people today are relying on personal relationships to provide a sense of worth they otherwise lack in their public lives.
These, and other, social changes provide the basis for a reconstructed sexuality in modern life. But most people are not prepared for the increased importance of sex in relationships and personal identity. Sex, for the most part, is still a private and secret matter. Most people, for example, do not talk honestly about sexual activity, and until recently there was no formal education in public schools about sex.
Until very recently, norms for sexual activity came from religious authorities who were mostly concerned with enforcing control and moral boundaries. Sexual activity was governed by an outmoded right/ wrong mentality, with homosexuality, masturbation, and multiple sexual partners deemed as morally reprehensible behavior. As religious authority over everyday activities eroded and the authority of science and science-based medicine grew, deviations from socially accepted behavior came to be seen less as a violation of god’s law and more the product of sick minds. The authority for interpreting deviations of behavior shifted from the domain of sin an evil to that of disorder and abnormality. In other words, we’re back to “what is normal?”
But that discussion will have to wait till next week.