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How our society got so fucked up about sex: a brief tour through history...

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Mark Carrigan

on 3 March 2012

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Transcript of How our society got so fucked up about sex: a brief tour through history...

Radio 4, Woman's Hour, 29th Feb
Jenni: Mark, why do you think we seem to find it a difficult concept to deal with?

Mark: Well this has come to fascinate me, and I came to it in a similar way, I happened to meet an asexual person socially, and I just didn’t understand it, you know I just didn’t get it, I didn’t understand it, and as I’ve gone on with the research I’ve found that this is a universal experience that asexual individuals have; they tell people and they don’t understand it, and I think it’s because somewhere in recent history we’ve come to change how we see sexuality and the value we place on it and how we see it in terms of human nature. There’s the pervasiveness of what I term ‘the sexual assumption’: the idea that everyone has sexual attraction and that it’s the same thing in all cases, and I think historically this hasn’t always been the case and raises the question of ‘what's happened? What’s changed?’
people begin to think and talk about sex with a degree of explicitness and visibility never seen before
this becomes a topic of conversation in its own right,
as people talk about the fact that people are doing it and talking about it
this feedback loop intensifies when the print media, expanding broadcast media and later lifestyle journalism get in on the act
The 1960s onwards: a discursive explosion...
Sex education, 1960s style
Am when this happens, people begin to ask... "am I normal?
Although I agree that as long as there have been human beings there have been questions about sex, I believe that the current deluge reflects less eternal inquisitiveness than a modern epidemic of insecurity and worry generated by a new social construction: the idea that sexual functioning is a central, if not the central, aspect of a relationship. Such an emphasis naturally leads to tremendous concern about sex and a greater need for advice, education, support, and a variety of repair services.
The new importance given to sexuality and emotional intimacy in relationships is one result of large social changes in how we view marriage and life:

Leonore Tiefer, Sex Is Not a Natural Act, Pg 11, Westview Press
What began to change?
The purpose of marriage has shifted from economic necessity to companionship, resulting in dramatic changes in obligations and expectations.
There has been a shift in how we measure a person's "success" to include physical vitality and life enjoyment along with material achievements.
Divorce and "serial monogamy" have become increasingly acceptable, making people anxious about maintaining relationships.
Changes in social attitudes and improvements in contraception have allowed women to view sexuality as separate from reproduction and as an avenue for self-expression and pleasure.
People are relying on personal relationships to provide a sense of worth they lack in the public sphere due to increased technology, mobility, and bureaucracy.
Leonore Tiefer, Sex Is Not a Natural Act, Pg 11, Westview Press
These trends gave a new discursive prominence to an earlier existing tradition of academic inquiry, which had itself at points generated much popular discussion (most notably Kinsey). People writing/talking about sex/sexuality seek concepts within and through which to articulate themselves. Both in the media and in everyday life (with the former feeding into the latter).
Pathology and normality
Elements of the conceptual architecture of sexology begin to structure everyday thought and talk
(un?)fortunately some 60s therapists also felt the spirit of the age...
The new sexual-medical ethics
Sexual Behaviour
normative trajectories of sexual
the rationalization of sexual anxiety
reducing sex to the biological
overcoming un/anti-scientific prudism about sex
(cc) photo by theaucitron on Flickr
The expansion of LGB visibility, as well as the political contests that continue to come with it, furthers this process but they don’t challenge these underlying conceptual structures. Our basic models for thinking abouts sexuality are taxonomic: people are categorised according to their object choice (same / other / both), a function of their ‘sexual orientation’, and influential strands within the LGB movement seek normalisation as a prudent political strategy (“we’re just like you, it’s just we’re attracted to the same sex” etc). This is compounded by the way certain debates play out politically as totemic electoral wedge issues, particularly in the US e.g. gay marriage.
What's the problem?
The category of sexual normality has shrunk even though it has been extended to SOME within non heterosexual groups.
The category of sexual pathology has grown massively.
These categories have been stripped of clinical context in their popularisation
(and they were problematic within that context already)
We have come to see sexual anxieties in a rationalized way, as problems to be overcome through technical intervention. Many people do this merely in the deliberative categories they use in relation to sex. But many do it in the most literal sense possible.
Sex and identity becomes a site of accute anxiety as late capitalism progresses....

Not least of all because 'sex sells'
www.markcarrigan.net www.asexualitystudies.org

normality - being within certain
of normal
Full transcript