Friday, April 11, 2014

Sex In the Eye of the Beholder

Before I was married, I thought that I thought about sex "a lot". Come to find out, having sex does have a bit of that "fruit of the tree of knowledge" quality in that suddenly the way you think about sex explodes into so many more categories than "I want to have sex" and "this is how I imagine sex is". I spend a fair amount of time thinking about sex still, but it has scintillated into a topic with 1000 facets.

I'm much more willing to talk openly about sex and learn about it since getting married because I can't get in trouble for it and there's no threat of shame. One of the first new thoughts I had about sex upon getting married was how ill-prepared I had been for it, in more ways than one. What I had to learn about the physical aspect paled in comparison to everything I had to shift in my mind. Literally everything I had previously thought was skewed.

Though I don't have any particularly scarring memory about the Church's version of sex-ed, it had a major hand in twisting reality, which resulted in a rude awakening for me upon experiencing sex, even (especially??) within marriage. I very quickly realized upon getting married that sex was not strong enough to carry all that marriage is. Even great sex can't support two humans meshing, clashing, growing, and sworn to each other for all time. Even though no one ever said that it would, that was very much my subconscious expectation given how I idolized sex after 20 years of careful avoidance, yet anticipation, of it. [image credit]

I now know more than ever that it is impossible to impart the gravity of sex before you have experienced it, as many youth leaders make it their life mission to try and accomplish. The bond created between two people during sex transcends the physical indescribably, and how could you explain that to children or teenagers? It's a very difficult thing to take on faith, and frankly, it just sounds kind of cheesy and lame when someone tries to warn you about it - it is something unbelievable, really. I know I didn't get it as a teenager. It's unrealistic to assume that that warning will do much to hinder people. I don't think it's wrong to mention how "you children just can't comprehend it", because that is true, but what does that accomplish? Who does it help or convince? [As a bit of a side note, my dad always warned me about sharing my heart too intimately, which I also didn't entirely get, but I think that can affect a person just as much as sharing physical sex, and is a little easier to understand as a teenager, and therefore worth devoting more teaching time to.]

In fact, I believe that "talks" such as the afore mentioned are building blocks that result in placing sex on so high a pedestal that a) the natural human response of curiosity and desire for and about sex becomes associated with fear and shame and b) it is over-glorified. Premarital sex is not the worst choice you can make and sex is not the holy grail of marriage, as I'm embarrassed to say I truly believed it was.

Jonas called me on a break from work as I was writing this and got nervous when I said I was writing about sex. I assured him I wasn't discussing our personal sex life, but rather how our perception of sex has changed before and after marriage/sex. He agreed that it's not what he had anticipated either, and said somewhat sheepishly (I assured him that it didn't hurt my feelings) that it's hard work, which he didn't expect. Not just that people in movies have superhuman stamina, but that sex is about much more than the physical and all of that takes maintenance and thought in a way that we weren't prepared for.

Don't get me wrong, I want to impart the gravity of sex and my sincere hope that my kids wait for marriage to them, but I also want to be a safe place for them to ask real questions and know without question that I will love them the same regardless of their sexual experiences.

My parents were willing talk with me about anything growing up, but I wasn't comfortable discussing how I really felt and what I really wondered about sex, and though I don't think this was completely their fault, I felt strongly that I would be more or less an outcast if I had sex before I was married and anyone found out. I don't want my children to ever feel that way, but I know my parents didn't want me to feel that way either, and that makes me worried that my kids won't come to me, no matter how available and loving I am. Sometimes the best we can do as parents is to be there, and whether our kids choose to take shelter in whatever comfort we can offer is up to them.

Aside from the major shift in my expectations since actually experiencing sex, my thoughts on social/public sex in culture has shifted as well.

Growing up, my mom was "that mom" who would jump up and dance in front of the TV during sex scenes so that no one could really see. Though it was annoying and embarrassing, I appreciated her commitment to her values when it came to things like that, and let's be honest - actually watching a sex scene or vaguely looking away or what have you when watching a movie or TV with your friends or family is pretty awkward too. When I met Jonas, I was surprised and endeared by his similar conviction and obvious discomfort at watching sex. He never failed to look away, and it impressed me less because I might be upset if I thought he was too interested in watching but more because again, it communicated that he didn't take his own values lightly, even in the face of looking silly in front of his peers.

I, on the other hand, was more half-hearted in my attempts not to see anything too crazy. Not because I really wanted to see it that badly, but because I didn't want to look prudish by so vehemently avoiding it, I guess. And I was curious on some level, too. Sometimes it was almost a test of will to see how calmly I could endure something uncomfortable. Even when I watched TV by myself, it's not like I was pulling out a magnifying glass, and that balance between looking but not paying full attention remained.

Since being married, that hesitation to watch sex has almost completely faded away. It doesn't make me feel remotely guilty any more! I think the reason I felt I wasn't supposed to watch it before was because it was tempting to me as a being who was trying NOT to have sex or it was an invasion of a private world that I wasn't invited to, whether that be sex in general or the relationship between the characters on screen.

I still question the choice of actors to display some of the sexual acts they do because I think it can cheapen their personal lives even to act out something so intimate that ultimately should be shared with their real lover, but I now see sex in media as a story-telling maneuver. There's no doubt that sex sells, but sex is also a part of real life, and therefore a feature in both fiction and non-fiction, and I find it at the very least realistic that it should be portrayed as such.

I had an english teacher who once described our consciences as metal triangles in our hearts that spin around and prick us every time we do something wrong. But the more we spin the triangle, the duller the edges become until we cease to be pricked by the triangle at all. That image has always stuck with me, and part of me worries that I've worn the edges off a great deal of triangles in my life, but then I wonder whether the existence of those triangles in the first place were merely my own constructs? If sex is a legitimate part of life and is therefore an acceptable topic in storytelling, why be ashamed to discuss it or see it? I'm well aware that it can be twisted to be irreverent and even disgusting, but that leads me into my next point...

I make a big distinction between dramatic sex and comedic sex. As I've been saying, I accept and even appreciate sex as a part of reality, and therefore can watch it with little restriction in the context of drama. However, I find that sex in comedies or more often talk about sex in the realm of comedy tends to rub me the wrong way. It strikes me as making a mockery of something that is sacred. Not just sacred because I am a spiritual person, but because sex is an intimate act, no matter how brutal the setting can be at times. I find it tragic that sex can be made light of and defiled by jokes - it reduces something precious, or at the very least highly personal, to a cheap laugh, and I find that offensive and difficult to watch.

One of my all time favorite podcasts, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, had a great discussion recently about nudity in media. I'll touch on a few of the highlights here for a minute. First, I thought their distinction between sex on TV in the US vs. the UK was interesting. They posited that because of Europe's long tradition of the nude in fine art, they are more comfortable with nudity, whereas the US has a more puritanical background which makes sex or nudity on TV fall into two categories - either to titillate or to disgust. Rarely is it used just as a normal aspect of life. They mention the show Girls as portraying slightly more realistic aspects of nudity (young women who share a house being naked around one another) and a fight scene from the movie Before Midnight in which Julie Delpy's character is topless during an argument - they praised this scene as an instance where something potentially sexual was not used for its erotic factor, but as something that would happen in real life. A husband and wife get in to a fight in the middle of changing their clothing, and the woman feels no need to put a shirt on while ramping up her argument.

I've never watched the show True Detective, but a lot of people have been in to it recently, and apparently there's a lot of nudity. In the PCHH podcast, they mention an interview with the creator of the show talking about how some level of sex on TV is mandated (to reel people in?), which Linda (of PCHH) said she found kind of troubling because it doesn't serve a real purpose. It becomes just a ploy to draw the attention of the male eye, which I agree is a degrading way to use sex on television. Furthermore, they discussed how they felt that sex is so often "de-erotisized" because they (albeit, they are media critics) said they can "feel the contract negotiations" behind those scenes. Basically, in a scene from the Wolf of Wallstreet (which I also haven't seen), some blonde in bed is showing everything, yet Leonardo Dicaprio gives only the impression of nudity and doesn't really reveal anything.

On the one hand, great! I am glad he - and many of the other powerful people in Hollywood - don't care to flaunt truly private parts. On the other hand, I again find it degrading that that job of actually showing sex, whether to draw in a crowd or make some narrative point is left to women or actors who need the money that comes with agreeing to be nude. As Linda points out during the discussion, another reason that nudity often falls to women on the big screen is because we have boobs, which show something private, but not "the whole package", and men don't have an equivalent private part to the boob.

What I don't find degrading is the normal portrayal of the human nude. In fact, I have a large painting in our home that is a self portrait of my bare back holding Ishmael as a baby (inspired by this painting by Klimt). Even before I was married, I had decided I wanted to have a partial-nude painting in my home, and it gives me secret pleasure to see people's reactions. It's somewhat of a litmus test. I want it to make people question their reaction to the naked human form, and what is art? I've wanted to take a live drawing course for ages now, partly to work through my own feelings about seeing the nude as art, or not. I think live drawing can be a very real study in real nudity - live models are often much more "real" than sexy, I assure you. Different people will fall on different points of the spectrum for sure, but I think it's an interesting question to present to people.

I personally find nudity fascinating and beautiful, but also sometimes grotesque. I don't see it as shameful when its not used shamefully. My pastor once said (though he was talking about men admiring women) that noticing beauty is not a crime, but a human hardwired tendency to appreciate that which is lovely. It's what we do with that appreciation that becomes a moral question, whether we're married or not. Among Christians, I think many people are wary of the nude body being a sexual temptation, and as I mentioned before, what is deemed tempting is in the eye of the beholder. I think it is dangerous to bombard oneself with images or opportunities if one is prone to being tempted in a way that violates one's conscience or beliefs, but for me, the nude image is not a forerunner to sin.

Some may say that I am not tempted by nudity because I'm a women. Let me just say that anyone who thinks that women aren't visual creatures hasn't spent much time around women. Just because nudity doesn't tempt me doesn't mean it doesn't affect me. Actually, I find the female nude vastly more visually appealing than the male. However, I don't think that appreciating nude beauty is always equated with lust. In my case, any feelings conjured by an image do not result in lust toward the object that I'm viewing, but rather turn me toward my husband. I don't see that as a bad or sinful thing. But it does raise the question for me of what porn is. If seeing an image results in a sexual experience, is that porn? And if so, is all porn bad? I tend to think that porn is degrading to the subject of the image or gross or irreverent in some way, but thinking of my reaction to sexual images in print or on screens has made me ponder these things.

I think I would react differently (as indeed I did) to sexual imagery as a single woman than I do now as a married women. Being fully aware of sex and free to engage in it as I please within the confines of marriage, I find myself with far fewer boundaries as far as what I try to keep my eyes from seeing or where I try and keep my mind from going. I am of the opinion that if I'm not cheating on my husband with my eyes, my lips, my words, or my thoughts, there is very little that is off limits to me. I think that Christ grants sexual freedom within marriage, and I extend that to art and media in my life.

What do you think about sex and nudity in media? Is it all bad or wrong? What about nudity in fine art?
If you're married, how have your thoughts on sex changed? If you're single and in the Church, do you feel equipped for what sex really is? 

1 comment:

  1. I knew Sonya Bailey when I lived in Istanbul, and so this article popped up on my newsfeed on Facebook. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so freely- go you! I have lots of thoughts and feelings on the topic too. I feel it is so sad and unfortunate that so many people are taught (explicitly or implicitly) to associate sex with shame, fear and guilt-- these things take a long time to unlearn! Maybe one day I will write an article- or a chapter or a book! I live in Cape Town in South Africa now. If you ever come down this way you sound like you'd be a lovely person to meet up with! Hope you're having a wonderful day! x Julia

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