I honestly believe that a lot of our problems in this country are a direct result of an attempt to enforce some national prudery standard that relentlessly tries to shame any and every one of us for the perfectly natural and normal human functions of our body. We are seeing this again in this modern age, as the Morality Police (who are all-too-frequently hiding some horrific skeletons in their own closets) try to get books banned, discussions about sex and sexuality and gender stifled and silenced, and entire segments of the population erased from public view and hidden away again because it makes them, well, uncomfortable.
Well, semi-automatic weapons, religion, and bigotry make me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t matter, apparently, as I am (to borrow a phrase from John Irving and The World According to Garp) a “sexual suspect.”
Ironically, I distinctly remember what television was like back when it was heavily censored and what was considered wholesome family entertainment was aired. It didn’t mean sex wasn’t talked about, it just meant that it had to be implication rather than outright said–which led to incredibly stupid phrases to stand in for sexual contact, or sexual intercourse, that were completely transparent and frankly, kind of stupid. That was the kind of television I grew up with, where everything was plastic and phony and created a false sense of what the country was really like (where, for example, are Mayberry’s Black people?), and some people watch those old shows and think, oh, what a better and simpler time we lived in then! We must get back to that world of innocence!
Which, of course, is complete and utter horseshit. Television of the 50s and 60s most certainly were not reflections of culture and society as a whole, no matter how much someone might want that to be the truth…it was not.
When I was a child, I hated the stupid, coy euphemisms screenwriters employed to mention sexual activity and escape the censors; “hanky-panky” is perhaps one of the worst. “Making love” is another one that puts my teeth on edge; “making whoopie” still another, and perhaps the worst offenderof all was ‘vo-dee-oh-doe’ from LaVerne & Shirley. Even when I was a kid that kind of “nudge-nudge wink-wink” kind of thing annoyed me; I can remember thinking, many times, “just say fuck, for Christ’s sake.” “Making love” is one that was really popular on soaps, and it’s always said tearfully; it also made me want to slap the speaker (and of course the movie Let’s Make Love really should be Let’s Fuck). The fact that we don’t have a common, easy to use word to substitute for fucking that delicate sensibilities won’t consider profane is part of the problem in this country, frankly. Oh, no! Sex is dirty, we can’t talk about that! We can’t come up with a non-offensive word for it because just thinking about sex upsets some people. God forbid we actually have a realistic, honest conversation about sex and sexuality. I hate to break it to you prudes, but sex is normal and healthy. The fact that our culture has tried so desperately to appease the prudes by turning sex and sexuality into something we’re just not supposed to talk about has put braces on our brains, and anchored fear and loathing to our sexuality; if our mightiest God in this country is Money, the second mightiest is SHAME. Having your body react to stimulation by getting aroused? SHAME ON YOU.
When I was growing up–and granted, things have gotten a little better since then–even masturbation was considered something shameful that no one would ever admit to; nothing like learning repression when you’re going through puberty. It was an insult to call someone a jack off; you mocked boys by talking about them jacking off…which was something I did pretty regularly, so even more SHAME. And when you take into consideration the fact that even as young and sheltered as I was, that I knew my sexuality–my physical and intellectual and emotional attraction to other men–was wrong and something else to be ashamed of; not only was I masturbating but I was thinking about men while I was doing it: DOUBLE WHAMMY.
It took me years to shake off that prudish conditioning, and it wasn’t until I stopped feeling shame about sex and my sexuality that I finally started to actually live my life, rather than having a life that just happened to me. Fear and shame had made me passive; afraid that being myself and living the kind of life I wanted to would cost me friends, family and employment; afraid that embracing having sex with other men (and exploring every element of what that meant) would lead to an infection that could kill me; afraid afraid afraid.
I often say that I refuse to live in fear, but that I am also sensible; I always am acutely aware of my surroundings and everyone around me–while that may have developed from being gay and knowing that made me a target, I think it’s prudent and smart to always be aware, regardless of who and what and where you are.
Given my prudish upbringing and conditioning, as well as the shame and fear I lived with for so long, it is kind of interesting that I started write erotica in my late thirties. Writing erotica for me was an education in many different ways. I learned a lot about myself while writing it, for one thing; for another, I taught myself how to write short stories by writing erotica (beginning, middle, end is never as apparent or obvious as in an erotic short story), and I was also able to work through a lot of my own issues with shame by writing erotica. The first erotica story I ever wrote, “The Wrestling Match,” was a liberating experience for me; I found myself blushing with embarrassment as I wrote it, which was an interesting (to me) phenomenon. Why was I so embarrassed to write about desire, lust, and sex?
Because years of conditioning to associate shame with desire and sexuality had taken firm root in my mind. It was an interesting experience–and the next time I wrote an erotic story, tit was an entirely different situation; there was no shame or embarrassment. Apparently, all it took was writing that first story to work through it…it was also interesting, because around that same time I was trying to get caught up with all the queer fiction and nonfiction I hadn’t known existed for such an extended period of time, and reading has always been how I learned about anything. I was reading Dorothy Allison’s essay collection Trash (which should be required reading, really), and Dorothy’s point that if we spoke honestly and openly about sex and sexuality (and other aspects of human life that for whatever reason we’ve been conditioned to think we can’t talk about) a lot of the stigma and shame most people feel would be eliminated. As long as your fantasies don’t involve hurting anyone or children–if everyone involved is able to give informed and full consent–there’s nothing to be ashamed of, really. But we’ve been conditioned in western civilization since Catholicism conquered the Roman Empire to consider anything of the body to be sinful and shameful; things of the mind and spirit are what we are supposed to focus on while denying the earthy sinfulness of our sexual desire. (This also goes for other bodily functions, like waste and gas) This is particularly true when it comes to kink. We’ve been conditioned in this country to think anything besides missionary position between a man and a woman is something so beyond that it must be shamed, and reacted to with revulsion. Why? As long as no one is being hurt and everyone is on board, I don’t care if you like being spanked, or lashed with cat o’nine tails; or if you like to wear leather and get a thrill from it. My own kinks primarily are focused around the domination/submission play of wrestling; I’ve written about that extensively enough to not feel the need to go into it again here (but check out my erotic pro wrestling novel, Going Down for the Count, available at any bookseller on-line!).
We don’t have honest conversations about sexuality and desire in this country. Writing an erotic short story was incredibly freeing for me; it broke the bonds of shame that indoctrination had built up in my brain. It may not be the case for everyone else, but it’s always interesting to me that people never question themselves when it comes to their own prudery, lusts and desires. (The way they depict it on the hilarious animated comedy series about puberty, Big Mouth, is particularly genius: the Shame Monster.) If you feel shame about your sexuality and your desires, shouldn’t you examine that? Where did it come from? Why do you feel this shame, and what is its root cause?
I do spend a lot of time gazing at my own navel and trying to figure out where all of my phobias and fears and so forth come from, so it’s always interesting to me when people don’t and seem to have no interest in self-examination. Maybe it’s just another form of my own narcissism and self-absorption; that could easily be the case. I sometimes wonder if the reason others don’t reflect on themselves and self-evaluate is because they are somehow more comfortable in their own skins than I am in mine. It’s certainly possible.
But the only way we can stop a lot of the bigotry and hatred in this country is to start being open and honest about sex, sexuality, and desire. To stop shaming people for being interested in sex, and exploring their fantasies and desires. Almost all of our prejudices are rooted in this fear of sex and sexuality; white supremacy is, in some ways, about protecting the “purity” of their blood and “womanhood” from the sexual predation of non-whites. (That was really what the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird was about; but interestingly enough Harper Lee, in illustrating Southern white bigotry through a rape trial, was also unintentionally sending a very strong message to her readers about class structures in the South; but that’s a subject for another time. White people really love that book….)
Banning books and discussion of sexuality and gender doesn’t make those things go away; instead, it just makes them even more enticing as forbidden, things that are dirty and we aren’t supposed to talk about.
Then again, if we are going to talk about these things, people also need to listen–and the ones who need it most? Never are the ones listening in the first place.