A Sexual Evolution II
Last week, Part I of A Sexual Evolution? took a look at how the cultural equation was changed when the purpose of sex shifted from reproduction to recreation. It also explored how sexual fluidity and gender shifting could mean the end of sexual identity, as we know it. This week, we explore how we get off, who we get off with, and how those choices define our concept of both sex and self.
Is Web Cruising Hazardous to Your Mental Health?
Has the computer screen replaced the television as the most important boob tube in your life? Has the void in your lonely heart been filled by intimacy forged from the exchange of messages and photos? Have you found a worldwide community of like-minded people who share the same kinks, peccadilloes and perversions that you feared were yours alone? And, if so, are you better off knowing that there are others out there with the same hopes, fears and needs?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, chances are you’re a member of Generation X, Y or beyond. Although Baby Boomers have certainly embraced the Internet, whether you use it for self satisfaction or self discovery seems to depend on whether you grew up with it as a given or grew into it when it was the next new thing.
"We don’t commit the resources to really understanding what’s going on with sexual behavior." says Kinsey Institute Director of Communication Jennifer Bass. "If we did, we’d be looking at the real impact of the Internet." Bass cites a preponderance of anecdotal evidence seeming to indicate negative consequences resulting from heavy viewing of web-based erotica: "There’s a lot of fear around this; a new phenomenon where people are compulsively using the Internet for sexual release or pleasure to the exclusion of relationships." Bass is concerned that we do not yet now what the effect will be on children who’ve grown up consuming these materials with y regarding the Internet’s physical disconnect as a normal way to explore and engage in relationships.
Drawing on her experience as a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist Stephanie Buehler (website - the Buehler Institute) links the net’s unlimited access to sexual expression to intimacy issues within a committed relationship: "One thing I’m observing is that mature women are not putting up with their partner’s porn addictions. A lot of men are looking at pornography on the Internet; pretty hardcore stuff. The woman are angry." That anger stems not just from the consumption of sexual imagery, but at what it says about how they regard others as sexual objects. Buehler sees women frustrated that "at this age, they still haven’t gotten that you are supposed to love the person behind the eyes."
But what will the long-term effects of web-based sexual exploration be for the current generation? As a technology still in its relative infancy, the Internet’s effects have yet to be fully realized. Surely, we’re all poised to grow hideous tumors in a few decades from constant exposure to plastics and cell phone radiation. Might we also eventually display irreparable damage (or at the very least, lasting psychological influences) from our time spent in front of the computer exploring various forms of sexual expression? Not so fast, cautions Ross Dale. As author of the book "Embedded: Confessions Of A TV Sex Journalist’ and as a producer for Playboy TV’s Sexcetera, Dale acknowledges that the Internet’s "Knowledge and exposure is always good" but adds that "porn is a powerful drug you need to be able to handle like your booze."
Bass backs up that assertion by citing "some studies out of Sweden and Europe that show young people who are exposed to porn who have problems in late adolescence" not only bonding with real life people, but separating what’s "normal" from what truly constitutes deviant behavior. Bass calls for much more extensive research so we can "know the effects on the way you live your life and form deep, intimate relationships outside of the Internet."
For Dale, however, the Internet’s detrimental effects on intimacy are outweighed by its democratization of access to information and its normalization of sexual curiosity: "The Internet helps get everybody out of their own closet, promotes dialogue The more strange or bizarre the fetish, they all have the same story, I thought I was the only one." Lifting the veil of shame regarding something as extreme as fetishes or as innocuous as preferences significantly helps to "promote dialogue. Before, they’d have to go into some store; and not everybody wants to do that. The Internet allows people to explore their curiosities, their own sexuality and the sexuality of others in private."
Still, surfing the web for sex can be like hitting the stores with an unlimited credit card. With that in mind, Buehler notes that "When it comes to looking at porn, you have to do it with some consciousness." Dale, however, emphasizes the nonjudgmental nature of the web: "Google does not come with a disparaging remark when you ask it something. It will just tell you like it is."
Polyamory :: The Next Wave?
Assuming we can lean to use the Internet as a pathway to sexual enlightenment that will enhance our relationships, there’s still the dicey question of what a relationship will mean once we’re not clinging to outmoded concepts about sexual identity. As an increasing number of adolescents and post-adolescents become more comfortable with exploring and declaring their options, Abell sees "The notion of what’s normative in a heterosexual monogamous family unit being questioned. The pot is being stirred by this generation. Young people are having conversations and questioning if traditional monogamy is for them."
Cunning Minx is a Polyamory advocate whose weekly podcast can by accessed at www.polyweekly.com. Nailing down the generalities of a practice whose variations seem to exclude it from a singular definition can be a challenge. While academics debate the matter, Minx personally lives the concept as "a lifestyle which recognizes the possibility of more than one long-term committed relationship with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved."
Those raised to see monogamy as the only viable, legitimate and moral structure for a committed relationship might be taken aback by the freedoms and variations offered by Polyamory. Like homosexuality, it’s been attacked as a profane and indulgent take on the sanctity of the man/woman/child structure. But at the heart of its philosophy lies a commitment to "long term loving relationships. It’s not about any specific sexual act or fulfilling any specific sexual need." Nor does she view it as a hostile takeover of the nuclear family -- although it will continue to assert itself as an option: "I do think we will see more people openly embracing this as a lifestyle as opposed to trying to force themselves to be monogamous when they’re not.
One of the most threatening concepts of Polyamory seems to be its refusal to confer a singular label on any one person at any one time. With so much sexual freedom, is society destined for chaos? For people who still can’t wrap their minds around all four concepts in LGBT, the notion refusing to embrace a singular partner or gender identity can seems as threatening as it is radical. That presumably sizable chunk of America will likely derive no comfort from Minx’s custom-made version of self: "I’m a big fan of creating a label that works for you. I created the label myself of Boobiesexual." As fun as it is to say as it must be do, Minx explains its origins as coming from her fascination with women’s breasts but her relative disinterest in what’s going on below the waist. Minx: "I wasn’t comfortable with the term bisexual, so I created this term to describe how I feel that I am."
One trait that Polyamory shares with monogamy is the quest for a viable structure. No matter the gender or the number of partners, humans seem programmed to search for ways to bond. Minx notes that once you choose to reject monogamy as a relationship structure, "You will discover there are all kinds of different forms that the structures can take." She describes a threesome as not only a couple plus one, but "taking the form of a V; which means only two are coupled at once. There’s the triad version, which many people consider to be the ultimate goal of Polyamory; partnered non-monogamy is where you just want to have additional partners. Some decide they want more of a network of four or five or six close knit people who all love each other. Sometimes they decide to be what we call polyfidelitous, which means it’s a closed group of people and they don’t date outside of that group."
If that conjures up images of the Summer of Love, communes and hippies, Minx cites an essential difference between "the free love movement of the 60s and the swinging movement of the 70s. Those others tended to focus more on the men." The founders of Loving More Magazine and the book "The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities" (widely regarded as the bible of polyamory) were, Minx points out, women. She also points out that even though there are books and Webster and gatherings, we can’t yet call it a movement (which brings its own complications in terms of definition, identity, loyalty and common agenda). "Not yet. There are communities and they are growing." She describes this slow process as one that’s currently paralleling to early days of the gay rights movement: "You see a lot more coming out as poly; going to groups, being curious about it; saying I’ve always been this way, can I talk to you about it? If we can call it a movement, that’s where we are with it today."