Cory Silverberg will join Esther Perel, Amy Sohn, Leonore Tiefer and Ian Kerner for a conversation called "Sex in America: Can The Conversation Change?" The symposium is co-sponsored by the Huffington Post and Open Center and will take place in New York City on Friday, February 20th. Click here to register.
Writing about the opportunity for sexual change in the Obama age, Ian Kerner wrote in a post last week:
"The time is upon us to cleanse, rejuvenate, and rebuild: to make ourselves healthy and whole again."
As I was thinking about this I began to wonder, what would it be like if we chose a slightly different metaphor for sexuality? There's something about describing Americans as having been at one point sexually whole (or clean for that matter) that doesn't ring true for me. It's a generalization to be sure, but my impression of North Americans is that, sexually speaking, we are deeply fractured. And the breaks feel very, very old.
Starting a new sexual conversation in America has to be about more than changing the topic of discussion. Our current cultural obsessions with infidelity, cyber sex, sex work, and pornography (to name only a few examples) reveal absolutely nothing new about us. We need to change the terms of the conversation and invoke new frames and metaphors through which to see ourselves and each other. We have to be able to do this using our own language and experience.
When I think of my own and America's deeply conflicted experience of sexuality, I think of what it's like to take two magnets and intentionally turn them around so they oppose. It takes both attention and energy to keep the magnets apart. Sexuality, being a complex interaction between mind, body, and spirit, between individuals and society, is like having dozens, or hundreds of these magnet fragments. Some represent sexual behaviors; those things we want to do that we call sex. Other magnets represent who we want to do things with; our fantasies, our sexual hopes. Some of the most powerful magnets represent our gender identity; how we feel as masculine, feminine, neither or both. We expend much of our time and most of our energy working to keep these pieces apart (pieces which when oriented a slightly different way are drawn tightly together) that we barely have the energy to take any individual piece in our hands, roll it around, feel what it's like, and enjoy the surprising "click" when two pieces come together.
We're holding all these fragments at bay when we dig our heels into old and tired arguments about women being complicated and men being simple; people being always straight or gay; man or woman; safe or perverted. And we waste a great deal of our energy arguing that these fragments are simply a matter of genetic fact, rather than thinking about their social production and historical roots.
One of my sexual heroes, the disability rights activist Barbara Waxman Fiduccia, once wrote:
"To realize our sexual freedom, our goal must be to infuse the dominant sexual culture with the richness of our own experience."
She argued that the functional differences that are the source of so much degradation also contain the seeds of sexual liberation for people living with disabilities. I would argue that this is true for all of us, regardless of age, identified orientation or gender, religion, ethnicity, and race.
I was reminded of Waxman's words in President Obama's inaugural address when he suggested that that American's "patchwork heritage" (or what he once described in himself as "being a mutt") is not a source of weakness but of strength. My point is the same: The loudest sexual conversation that happens in America is all about our differences and how these are a source of vulnerability that must be covered up. This is the conversation led by everyone from Larry Flynt to the New York Times, from Dr. Phil to the FCC.
If we want to truly change the sexual conversation, we've got to start by shutting those people up, and speaking with our own voices, finding our own metaphors, and understanding that being sexually whole is never a fait accompli, sexuality is never one thing, and the value of questing for some sort of more perfect sexual union is almost entirely about the questions and rarely about the answers.