Monday, May 08, 2006

The Fear of Sex

The anti-contraception post below is really about regulating sex. In the Christian United States sexual intercourse should be unsafe and rare, to paraphraze one of those moderate pro-choice statements about abortion. Only what is absolutely needed for procreation is allowed.

I have spent much time thinking about the fear of sex which is so common among the fundamentalists of most religions. The logical translator is inadequate here, the one which asks how the churches or mosques or synagogues benefit from an anti-sex attitude. That they do benefit is clear but the benefits can't explain the strength of this fear of sex, something that comes close to panic, something that equates unbridled sex with apocalypse.

Consider this case from Saudi Arabia some years ago. A girl's school was on fire and the Religious Police refused to let the girls not wearing a hijab escape the fire. Seeing an improperly clad girl was worse than death:

One witness said he saw three policemen "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya".

The Saudi Gazette quoted witnesses as saying that the police - known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice - had stopped men who tried to help the girls and warned "it is a sinful to approach them".

The father of one of the dead girls said that the school watchman even refused to open the gates to let the girls out.

"It is sinful to approach them." More sinful than letting them die.

And then there is this statement about clitoridectomy:

Clitoridectomy has no precedent in the Koran, Abdo pointed out; it is a pre-Islamic African practice. The objections she raised with an Islamist leader, Sheik Mohammad al-Berri, prompted this explanation:

A woman can be aroused at any moment. Even if a woman is riding in a car, if she hits a few bumps, she can become sexually aroused. Once this happens, a man loses control. So you see, this practice certainly is not meant to punish women. But it is necessary.

The fear of the floodgates being opened, the dams bursting. Something terrible must happen if people have sex. Everything collapses, everything is lost. It is necessary to mutilate women to stop this collapse, to bar them from fleeing a fire.

These examples are about Islamic fundamentalists but the tone and the message of the Christian fundamentalists is not that different. Sex is frightening, scary, something wild and primal. If it is let out of the cage it will hunt and scavenge and kill? The world will end.

I am trying to understand this feeling, very hard. Is it like fearing a world war? Like fearing a nuclear attack? The death of all I love? The American fundamentalists who argue that vaccinating girls against the human papillonoma virus is bad because it would increase sexual license, are they saying that death is better for these girls than having sex?

When I was quite young I used to read old novels my uncles had hoarded, many by Zane Grey, and they talked about something called "a fate worse than death". I didn't know what that fate might have been, being young, and I decided that it was torture.

What it really referred to was rape. In some ways the fundamentalists see all sex as rape, but not the rape of women (or men) but of the civilization, a fate worse than death. A return to animal instincts, the law of the jungle? Is this why sex is so frightening? Do the fundamentalists see sex as rape by hordes of men?

Some do, or at least pretend to do so. But note that the solution is never to lock the men away. It is always the women who are locked away. As Ampersand pointed out in his excellent post, one view of sex is as something that women possess, a piece of property that they dangle in front of the needy men, men who want it very much but can't just take it. A trading system is needed. What happens when women refuse to trade? Will they be forced to trade, by rape or by arrangements where fathers pass their daughters on to carefully selected husbands? These are two out of the three systems the fundamentalists advocate or at least see as inevitable. The third one is prostitution: an escape valve which keeps the unsatisfied men docile enough to be ruled.

There is very little about female sexuality in this view of sex. Whether women enjoy sex doesn't matter in the trading system. It's all based on exchanging sex for something material. But women do enjoy sex. How does that fit into the fundamentalist framework?

On the one hand there is the view of women as always sexually frustrated, always ready for sex, in need of being controlled. The view expressed in the above clitoridectomy quote. And note how the man is helpless in front of this nymphomaniac woman. He must succumb to the lusty succubus. No virginity pledge will keep this woman chaste! Something much more severe is needed, such as genital mutilation.

Then on the other hand there is the woman with no sexual desires whatsoever, the girl made out of sugar and spice and incapable of even spelling "orgasm". The woman who must gatekeep the men so violently rocked by their sexual desires, the woman who is ultimately responsible for sex not taking place. She wears a chastity ring or a virginity necklace and only when she gives the man a key to the heart hanging from the necklace will a penis enter the vagina.

Which is it? Are women sexual demons or cold ice princesses, eternally virginal? The temptresses of men or the victims of the same?

I'm trying to understand but I just don't get it. I understand the fear of rape and sexual violence in general, but I don't understand the fear of sex as such, the fear of sex so strong that it surpasses the fear of death. This idea of sexual license as an apocalypse, the end of everything. What would it actually end? Would there be copulation out in the streets? And if so, how many days would that last? Wouldn't people still need to eat and work and sleep and take care of their children?

When I read fundamentalist writings on sexuality I am reminded of how starving people talk about food, reminesce about the best meals they ever had, imagine meals they might cook one day. They can't stop thinking about food because food is what they do not have, and so they imagine enormous feasts, gorging on massive amounts of unbearably delicious foods.

The fundamentalists appear to do this with sex, imagining lots of it and bizarre forms of it. But instead of having some themselves they then go out and try to make sure that nobody else is having any, either. Because if we did do what they imagine the world would end?