Marriage can’t bear the weight of our culture’s expectations for sex today. Sex as defined in America is ruining marriages.
After pouring over redundant discussions about sex, monogamy, biology, evolutionary anthropology, and clinical studies, I’m not convinced that the difficulty is based in something inherent in humanity. There’s no reason why a human being cannot be monogamous if it’s their choice.
We’re not helpless creatures who are victims of our biology. We can, and often do, make choices; and we can, and do, live by them.
But sex is so patterned in our culture that no institution, relationship, or lifestyle (open or not) can provide for us what sex is supposed to give. Why we actually have sex and what sex is supposed to mean to us is a problem.
Sex Is Not a Natural Act, writes Lenore Tiefer in her book by that title. What sex is and should be is defined by our culture with rewards for researchers and therapists who promote the culture’s idea of what’s normal.
The authority that tells us where good sex resides is no longer religious institutions. It’s a “science” that receives its funding from industries that promote drugs and products that promise to get our sexual act together.
What is an “adequate” erection? What is a “healthy” female sexual response? How often is “normal” for having sex?
“The message of the new sexual health centers,” Tiefer points out, “really comes from the global pharmaceutical industry that bankrolls them: the proper sexual life consists in perfect, routine, regular desire for ‘normal’ sexual performance, i.e., intercourse and orgasm.”
We worry less about what is morally “good.” In the last century we became more likely to ask: What does science tell us is “normal.”
“The authority for interpreting deviations of behavior shifted almost imperceptibly, category by category, from the domain of sin and evil to that of disorder and abnormality,” she explains. “And once norms become clinical standards, it’s very difficult to identify those psychological problems that might not exist if social conformity weren’t so important.”
Sex continues to be some standard we were to live up to. And it isn’t just a “scientific” one. It’s also a fantasy that the media (both mainstream and pornographic) set before us that isn’t even the lived experience of the actors whose sex we are to idealize.
It’s a standard we are to be convinced we could attain. And marriage is the place where all that perfect sex will take place.
It isn’t realistic or human, but we are to believe that sex does all that the media portray it doing. And our feelings of failure can be exploited to sell us any product on the market.
So, there’s more to it than science’s dictation of how sex should be. Sex has become the bearer of a load of cultural messages that have little to do with actual sexual activity and everything to do with what it’s supposed to fix about us.
Instead of seeing sexual activity as a chosen expression to communicate to another, it’s become a place to prove something about ourselves, a basis for getting something. In sex we are to take something we need psychologically that isn’t about sex at all.
It’s a major substitute that’s engaged in with the expectation of fulfilling needs that would only be finally addressed in therapy or support groups, with listening friends, and through other expressions of intimacy. But at least for a few seconds, if not for minutes, it could feel has if these are addressed.
Sex now is something people engage in to — prove they really are whatever a man is, feel that they are a woman, convince themselves they’re still attractive to others (in the face of all the cultural messages of what about us isn’t supposed to be attractive), get close to someone, forget their feelings of failure, perform their power over someone, convince themselves someone liked them, get attention, be special, feel wanted, feel less lonely, convince themselves and others they’re good lovers or sexers, prove they’re loveable, relieve boredom, fight fears about aging, have at least one pleasurable experience in life, feel I belong to a group, and on and on.
Whether one should engage in sex for any or all of these reasons is another question. But to the extent that these are to be accomplished through sex with someone, no relationship will last.
No one act can do this and, thus, no one relationship can be expected to endure this. Yet, somehow that has become expected.
And since it can’t, as long as we maintain these expectations, we’ll search for another lover who we fantasize will provide a sexual life that will do it. And then on and on unless we settle for what we consider is a disappointing status.
We can go back to that early Christian leader, Paul, whose insensitive recommendation as a counselor to the church at Corinth was to get married in order to take care of your sexual lusts — “It’s better to marry than to burn.”
Of course, marriage wasn’t about love in those days anyway. A good marriage was an advantageous match between families, with the man thoroughly in the driver’s seat of marital sexuality.
But if we want relationships to matter, and even want to save marriage, the answer would not be to accept that sex is to do all the things therapy should address and then wonder why it’s failing.
Our country is acutely sick about sex. Getting comprehensive, accurate, and realistic sexual education to our school-age children has been a bust. Fighting messages we get from all over about how sex should be and what it should do is a constant battle against what we’ve internalized.
And convincing ourselves to define “normal, healthy” sex in our own way for ourselves, is to fight even a mainstream clinical practice that will lead us to pills, and techniques that promise to make us feel that our relationship is what others say it should be. And that’s not working well at all.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.