The extraordinary rapidity of change in our lives over the past two generations has not left our sex-lives unaffected. A handful of factors reign supreme: The birth control pill, the Internet, our extended life spans, greater sexual equality, and the resulting openness on our sexual behavior — although not necessarily in that disorder. In 2013 both the social concern and the changing outlook have led to massive over-exposure as evidenced by the stream of daily media coverage: features on gay marriage, sexting, restrictions on prostitution, paedophilia and pornography are complemented by the exploitation of sexuality in advertising.
One of the foremost challenges facing the older generations is how to deal with the sexual education of the young. It is said that Internet pornography has become the leading educator for children between the ages of 10 and 15.1 The effects of this are evident when a vast number girls in the UK between the ages of 13 and 16 shave their public hair because they think boys expect this as all women in porn films are shaven. Alas, for many youths spending hours on end glued to their screens, life on the Internet is their first life and real life comes second.
Many parents find it difficult to acknowledge that sex is an aspect of the process of maturing for which they deserve to be educated. Few can admit that sex begins even before birth: In the womb unborn males may experience erections. Both genders often masturbate while babies and toddlers harbor a natural interest in their genitals as they do in all other basic activities.2 It is impossible to deal with the sexual education of children by sweeping the facts of life under the carpet as the Victorians attempted to do. We are all sexual beings — the product of mating. To accept this means recognizing the various forms our sexual drives may take. It also demands open-mindedness and understanding which many religions have denied.
Acceptance is not always easy. Even Romans struggled with the problem of incest, for example. My descriptions of father-daughter incest in the Augustan age proved painful for many readers. Yet it mirrored this recurrent theme in Ovid some 2000 years earlier!3. The promiscuity of the Roman gods was driven by the sexual desires and drives of the creators. Divine communion was often portrayed as sexual intercourse between gods disguised as animals and humans. Romans were also fascinated by sexual duality. When gender identity is ambiguous, as in hermaphrodites, it challenges our conceptions of who we are writes psychiatrist Coline Covington.4 In part this is because it can also “trigger anxieties about our own unconscious homosexual fantasies.”
Rapidly many of us in the western world are catching up with the Romans in the acceptance of homosexual relations. This has certainly been one of the most reported advances in the United States and Europe in the past few years. Even the new Pope is bravely trying to cope with the complexities this problem presents for the Catholic Church. Here the younger generation has been much more open than their elders.
There is now far greater tolerance of sexual experimentation than two generations ago. The recognition of the elements of bisexuality in our being has become more widespread. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Life Styles has revealed that in the UK the population has become increasingly accepting of sexual diversity. For example, Growing numbers of women in the UK have had some kind of homosexual experience.5 Censorship of sex scenes in motion pictures has also become far more relaxed. Even sexually explicit S&M in the film being shot of Fifty Shades of Grey is most likely to pass censorship.
The desire of large numbers of both men and women to express themselves through exhibitionism has become evident on the internet. Some would seem far more eager to display their private parts than their faces! Pushed by the glamour of the young film stars, many women, desirous of being admired for their bodies, are having their lips, breasts, buttocks and even their labia enhanced. But there is also protest here from the older generation. (I receive dozens of unsolicited emails every week for male enhancement!) The still youthful actress Lynne Segal writes: I see the media’s endless production of eroticized young female flesh as feeding a sense of shame attached to older women’s bodies.”6
The extended lifespan of both men and women has created its own set of sexual challenges. Many women in their seventies and eighties still have strong sexual yearnings but fewer opportunities for relations with men. A discouraging 70 percent of women over 65 in the UK now live alone. I did not come across a figure for the number of men over 65 in a similar position.
All too many members of society sit uneasily with the notion that when it comes to sex, “anything goes.” The extreme levels of narcissism are increasingly matched by the practice of sex without attachment. Sexual mores no longer seem be keeping up with the unprecedented advances in communication. The rapid decay of any sexual boundary in the 21st century disturbs both editors and readers. They see pornography with its often brutalizing images as dehumanizing the pleasurable vistas of sex.
So where is sex going? The institution of marriage is suffering in part because of the greater economic and social equality for women. They have become bread winners as well as wives, mothers and lovers. A fundamental change has been the equalization of desire between women and men for sexual satisfaction. Women have become open about their wants and sexual needs. The “cougars” of tomorrow are likely to be far more public. However, excessive exposure could swiftly lead to boredom before turning into fatigue!
It is likely that marriage rates will continue to decline for a while before the sexes reach a truer equality and the decision to have and raise children will become steadier. For the destiny of sexual desires resides with our children. Those now in the ages between 25 and 50 look back on their divorced parents and grandparents with their serial or “open” marriages and their sexual betrayals and say: “No, thanks. We don’t want more of that!”
The “Bad Sex” awards by the Literary Review (UK) are getting more tawdry with very passing year. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future there finally will be a “Good Sex” award … and a reward for its many joys to all of us as humans.
1See Cindy Gallop in a TED talk promoting her web site www.makelovenotporn.com
2Hannah Betts, “We can’t shelter kids from sex completely,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, p.19
3Yorick Blumenfeld, The Waters of Forgetfulness (2009)
4Coline Covington, Shrinking the News (2013) p.115.
5“Love in a cold climate,” The Economist, November 30, 2013
6Lynne Segal, “Growing old erotically,” The Guardian, December 16, 2013