Professor Debby Herbenick of Indiana University, one of our foremost experts on all things sexual and a tireless proponent of “sex positivity”, has started a campaign to, as she puts it, “make sex normal”. Herbenick told Salon that she hopes to promote discussion and education about sex in order to make sex “almost mundane”, to encourage people to, as she and her colleagues do, “talk about it like it’s no big deal.”
I respect Professor Herbenick a lot, and I think her campaign is an inspired one. We live in a political climate where practically every day some politician makes some astonishingly ignorant statement about sexuality, and schools are, under the guise of “abstinence only education”, perpetuating truly dangerous myths about the subject. We need to make sure that people, especially young people, have access to good, accurate information, and we need to promote tolerant, inclusive attitudes towards everyone regardless of their sexual preferences or orientation.
Reading some of the media coverage of her campaign, however, I worry that people who fall into the “sex positive” camp (let’s call them Positives) don’t really understand the views of the people who oppose them. Many Positives think that the opponents of sex positivity are people who really just don’t like sex, or who hold conservative religious or political views that teach them outdated attitudes. And there are certainly lots of people like this. But there are also people who genuinely believe that sex is wonderful and important precisely because it is a “big deal”, that it is unlike eating nice meals or going on roller coasters or any of the other things we do for pure enjoyment. I call these people Significants. Significants don’t want sex to become mundane. They oppose casual sex, and casual attitudes towards sex, because they think that viewing sex as just a bodily process, on par with eating, degrades one of the most wondrous aspects of human life, one that has to be viewed with a kind of reverence. They see it as intimately and inextricably linked with love, something we should preserve as a special part of committed relationships, and they believe that if we lose that link and that specialness, those relationships will suffer.
Pretend somebody decided that they were worried about the way in which Catholics viewed their churches: as special, divinely-inspired places that provide them with a space to get closer to God. This person starts a campaign to “make churches normal”. She insists that churches are just buildings like any others, made of brick and mortar, and we should just get past all this hocus-pocus about them being some kind of sacred space. Why, she asks, should we treat a church any differently than we would treat a school or a mall? Even an atheist would see, I think, that the members of the church would have reasons for feeling misunderstood.
For Significants, the specialness of sex is something fragile, that we should actively try to preserve and protect. Yes, it CAN very easily be viewed as just another bodily process, in the same way that a church can be viewed as just another building. But for them, that’s precisely the problem. In our society there is already constant pressure to take the significance out of sex. To Significants, Professor Herbenick’s campaign can look like another step in promoting society’s pervasive casualness about all things sexual.
I’m not a Significant. And as I say, I think the objectives of Professor Herbenick’s campaign are laudable ones. Significance does not have to go hand in hand with ignorance, and the significance view of sex should never be an excuse to shut down debate about sexual issues, condone prejudice, or promote misinformation. But I think we need to understand why people are Significants. They are not merely ignorant or hung-up. They genuinely see sex differently than Positives do. And we are not going to change their minds till we understand them.
(This is the first in a series of posts on “Sex and Significance”, which will explore the debate between what I have here called Significants and Positives.)
Image: Nineteenth century newspaper advertisement, source needed.