Leftside-Sex and Selfies

The Problem With Sexual Mores Today Is Not That They Are Too Loose Or Too Strict; It’s That They Are A Reflection Of A Culture At Odds With Itself

I remember vividly the first time I saw a naked woman. Well, a photograph of one, at any rate. I was 12 years old and hanging out with my friend Al one Saturday afternoon, when he said, “Come here, I gotta show you something.” He reached under his mattress and pulled out a copy of Playboy that he’d stolen from his father’s stash. With wide eyes and slack jaws, we opened the centerfold and gazed in wonder.

How times have changed. Today, I suspect, most 12-year-olds would be unfazed by such a sight, having, as they do, access to an unlimited array of hardcore pornography on the internet. In fact they don’t even need to go that far. Some Hardees commercials, while stopping short of nudity, are more sexually provocative (not to mention sexist) than any 1970s Playboy layout.

At the same time, American society is still afflicted by a strong Puritanical streak. The uproar over Miley Cyrus’ twerking is but one recent example of this.
Talk about conflicting messages.

The question is, to what extent has the amplification of sexuality shaped sexual morality?
Certainly there are a lot of people who think sexual mores have been eroded. In an October 2012 article in Forbes magazine, for example, writer Bill Frezza argued that Millennials “are totally unencumbered by the social mores we Baby Boomers grew up with. They appear to have no shame, no sense of privacy, no modesty, and no concern about their reputations. They treat sex like another form of recreation, like videogames only messier. They want to have commitment-free fun, and they want it now.”

There’s a case to be made that he’s right—in part. It seems irrefutable that sexual privacy and modesty have been eroded, thanks to social media. I know young people who not only send sexually provocative photos to each other on their cell phones, but share them with friends.

This, in turn, has fueled the rise of “hookup culture”—a notion, embraced by many young men and women, that it’s not only possible but often desirable to have sex with no strings attached. And yet, as Thomas Moore argues in his book The Soul of Sex, “all sexual acts have strong repercussions in the soul.” Hookup culture can be especially damaging to sensitive men and women. And I think it reflects a broader trend that is damaging to all of us: a growing disconnection between people.

Those of us who are in midlife or beyond should be careful, however, to be too quick to blame “the younger generation.” This, indeed, is where I take issue with Frezza’s argument. To say, disparagingly, that Millennials are “unencumbered by the social mores” that Baby Boomers grew up with is to ignore a host of historical realities.  

For one thing, some of the changes in social mores are all to the good. It’s clear, for example, that Millennials are far more accepting of homosexuality than any previous generation. And while social conservatives see this as a decline in morality, I see it as moral evolution. I can think of few things more immoral than a society that tries to shame millions of individuals for their sexual orientation—and passes laws that relegate them to second-class citizenship by denying them the right to marry whomever they choose.
The woman’s movement has also led to a moral upgrade, as it were. Any episode of Mad Men is a reminder that sexual harassment in the workplace used to be condoned and that women had little power to do anything about it.

These more enlightened attitudes took root when the Baby Boom generation was young and have blossomed over time. By the same token, so did sexual “liberation” in general. The active embrace of the notion of “free love” in the late 1960s set the stage for today’s hookup culture. No matter that when once-idealistic boomers settled down and had kids they had second thoughts about all of this.

Such attitudes are nothing new, of course. Every generation for thousands of years has grumbled that “the younger generation” falls short in some way—forgetting, conveniently, that their generation created the culture in which young people grew up.

So let’s move on from the blame game and consider whether sexual culture has changed, on balance, for better or worse.

To my mind, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand there’s the aforementioned progress on rights for gays and women. On the other hand, as I said earlier, I can’t escape the nagging sense that porn culture and hookup culture are detrimental to our collective psyche.

The answer, however, is not to pine for the days when Puritanism ruled, creating an atmosphere of sexual repression across the board. Nor is the answer to embrace porn culture—by which, again, I am not referring simply to XXX websites but to a kind of adolescent fascination with sexuality in mainstream culture.

There is, it seems to me, a middle ground that we have yet to find: A societal attitude that celebrates erotic expression as an affirmation of life itself while also embracing the notion that sex has ramifications for the heart and soul and should not be taken lightly.

Tom Robotham is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 22 years. He can be reached at tomrobotham@gmail.com or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.

Categories: Left Side