Richard Feynman is reported to have stated: “Science is a lot like sex. Sometimes something useful comes of it, but that’s not the reason we’re doing it.” If we reverse the relationship a bit and see sex as rather like science, then sex becomes this powerful force behind much of humanity’s progress, a process full of testing, exploration and anxious inquiry, with a great many people passionately attempting to define just what is and is not appropriate within its boundaries.
The difficulty with determining the boundaries of human sexuality is, like many questions of deep social impact, an issue concerned with where one begins to ask. Is there an open curiosity, based on the humility of uncertain knowledge and the acknowledgement that our species and the societies it has created are a constantly evolving organism? Or is there a demand for rigidity, of appealing to a set standard assumed from the start so that even the questions about sexuality become constrained?
Respect My Authority
The demand for rigidity is an attempt at avoiding chaos. Certainly, what constitutes chaos is a personal and/or group determination, but the desire to have answers, to have a direction for one’s behavior, is a deep need nobody is ever fully removed from. Only the degree of that need changes. In every decision made there is an empowering sense of having done the right thing, our minds providing a sense of personal authority to avoid the sometimes debilitating practice of skepticism and doubt. That process is the same for authoritarianism, just writ large into the foundation of a worldview.
To explore further, we can look at the definition provided by Peterson and Zurbriggen (2010):
“Those scoring high on authoritarianism (1) adhere strongly to conventional moral values, (2) are submissive to established authorities, and (3) are willing to aggress against others if they are perceived as unconventional or threatening.”
“Biological sex is a commonly used way to categorize people into two primary groups: women and men, or girls and boys (Hare-Mustin& Marecek, 1988). Deﬁnitions of female and male are often organized around gender-speciﬁc mutually exclusive characteristics for women (e.g., submissive, emotional, and dependent) and men (e.g., dominant, stoic, and independent). This kind of rigidity in categorization and the creation of distinctions are characteristic of authoritarian thinking.” (Peterson & Zurbriggen, 2010)
Blaming Religion Is Unhelpful and Too Simple
Religion is an easy scapegoat for any particular or global problem because of its ubiquity. Everywhere one looks there’s some behavior, in word and/or deed, being connected to religious ideology of some kind. For those looking for a simple relationship, there’s no need to go further, and therefore no need to question why everyone who declares themselves an adherent of a particular religion doesn’t act in exactly the same way. Thankfully some researchers have recognized the limitation of using ‘religion’ as a catch-all term and have begun parsing out the variations in affiliation to find the nuances of connecting belief and behavioral tendencies.
“Differences in intercourse behavior were largely found between nonreligious women compared to women from moderate to conservative affiliations (e.g., Jewish, Monotheist Christian, and Fundamentalist participants). These findings suggest that a lack of religious belief may dispose women to engage in more unrestricted premarital intercourse behavior because they are less likely to model their sexual activity after dictates of religious doctrine. In contrast, no significant affiliation differences in any sexual behaviors were found in men.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)
Two things here. One, sexual activity is referred to as a modeling activity, a recognition that what is considered sexual is not simply a matter of biology but what has been determined by the group one belongs to. Two, while the differences existed with women, they disappeared with men, meaning regardless of the authority structures, men’s behavior was less tied to them, perhaps because they’re the ones setting up such standards.
“In women, fundamentalism and spirituality were consistently negatively correlated with multiple forms of sexual behavior, and paranormal religiosity showed a small but consistent positive correlation with female sexual behavior.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)
Again, two things. One, fundamentalism, which has a greater degree of authoritarian-like thinking, results in a reduction in the forms of sexual behavior exhibited by women. Two, for those women interested in the merely paranormal, the opposite occurred. Considering that the paranormal encompass a wide array of beliefs, it is little surprise that an authoritarian structure is reduced, leading to a more open appreciation of sexuality.
The entire study is well worth more fully exploring, but fundamentally it should be recognized that:
“One of the clearest conclusions that can be formulated from the current study is that the way in which religiosity is defined will determine how the relation between religion and sexual behavior is characterized.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)
Sexuality is More than Behavior
The relationship between authority and sexuality is not, as some would like to paint, a simple matter of societal control. Societal structures and organizations are made up of individuals. As such, the authority and sexuality is often a matter of organizing the behavioral parameters between individual sexual relationships.
“Women and men higher in authoritarianism also reported beliefs consistent with an adversarial model of sexual interactions. In romantic or sexual situations, the ‘opposite sex’ is considered almost as an enemy, one with his or her own strategies, goals, and tactics, one who should not be trusted. This is consistent with authoritarian intolerance of ambiguity.” (Peterson & Zurbriggen, 2010)
Notice that this isn’t merely a male point of view, but a particular frame for adjusting one’s behavior and guiding perception of another’s actions. The ‘war of the sexes’ that continues to be the focus of too much media programming is a direct social result. While it’s debatable whether there’s anything inherently wrong with such thinking, there are consequences which bear being aware of.
An open, skeptical, uncertain frame based on a recognition of the evolution of self-concepts and social mores, will bring consequences of uncertainty and lack of clear boundaries when it is applied. A grounded, structured, and clearly marked authoritarian frame brings easy hierarchy to relationships and obvious (to those who adhere to this) boundaries for what behavior is acceptable. As in the starting ground for discussing sexuality, the beginning frame sets the tone of the inquiry and the parameters of the questions to be asked. However, there need not be a singular frame of reference, certainly not one that ignores social context.
Where the authoritarian frame goes awry is in ignoring the inevitable changes that occur in concepts of sexuality, a biological force that is intimately tied to the ebb and flow of shifting social practices. Where the more libertarian frame goes awry is in the attempt of ignoring the evolutionary history of a biological system millions of years in the making, years that make the thousands of human civilization a mere blip on the time scale.
We can and should explore the vast potential of human sexuality. As in any biological force, like curiosity and imagination, artificial and arbitrary boundaries serve us no good, cutting us off from potential responses to suffering and difficulties that could open up new frontiers of discovery and creation. With any push into uncertainty, however, we should never forget the pull of wanting the security of authoritarian structure. It is not a pull only some have and others have left behind. In every journey of discovery there are moments of wanting to sit and reflect without the chaos of movement. These moments should be respected, for they are just as human as the frenzy of exploration.
© David Teachout
Farmer, M. A., Trapnell, P. D., & Meston, C. M. (2008). The relation between sexual behavior and religiosity subtypes: A test of the Secularization hypothesis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 852–865. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9407-0
Peterson, B. E., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2010). Gender, sexuality, and the authoritarian personality. Journal of Personality, 78(6), 1801–1826. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00670.x
Nagoshi, J. L., Adams, K. A., Terrell, H. K., Hill, E. D., Brzuzy, S., & Nagoshi, C. T. (2008). Gender differences in Correlates of homophobia and Transphobia. Sex Roles, 59(7-8), 521–531. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9458-7
Samuels, A. (2005, Jul). Fundamentalism-its appeal to “them” and its fascination for “us”. Tikkun, 20, 52-55. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/212296439?accountid=134574