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Sexuality: Rewriting the Past

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Enrico Fianchini via Getty Images

A few days ago, a client and I were discussing our first experiences with sexual awareness. Different conversations immediately began to overlay one another as we reacted to what we were saying to one another, asking rhetorical questions so quickly that it quickly became a huge conversational jumble. Whew! Who knew we had so much to say about sex!

Out of that conversation, one of the things I found myself still thinking about days afterwards was the way that certain people -- especially cultural and religious advocates -- talk about sex and sexuality; how social norming and forming takes place. Sometimes, those we look to for guidance have a tendency to rewrite time as if sex is understood today the way it has always been. For example, I once had an ethics professor say that homosexuality was a "modern development in human history, unknown before the 18th Century." This was a laughable statement, but one that I noticed had taken root as the term went on, and a false assumption that made sense once I got to know the instructor outside of class.

Though I may have come to understand the whys and hows of that moment, one of my great professional frustrations is when I hear or see individuals, even entire communities, rewrite history to conform with their ideology. The things we think, feel and believe today about gender norms, family planning, even biomedical ethics, are dependent on history and cultural evolution. Our understandings of sex -- different or foreign though they may be at times -- are each part of a long history that came before. While my professor saw the wide arc of human evolution as periodic, even sporadic events, I see those same events as building off one another.

Perhaps you were raised like I was to believe that sex was defined by boundaries, polarized at times by language about "right" and "wrong." We know what is right and wrong because that is the way it has always been, no questions asked. But my guess is that you, like me, intuitively question this. The morals and folkways of our parents are as different from our own today as theirs once were with their parents. Why should sexual understanding be any different? There is a measure of comfort, isn't there, in taking ideals off the shelf. When we find out new information -- Gasp! Grandma was married to someone before she married Grandpa?! -- there may even be a thrill of solidarity. Oh, you mean I'm not the only one who fooled around or didn't get it right on the first try? Looking to what came before, we seek meaning in the sexual history of the past to normalize our sexual present.

Thomas Goster in his book, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (2014), argues that we find identity through the sexual expression of our predecessors. In a myriad of ways, the history of the people who have had significance in our lives shapes who we are and how we discuss sex as much as our own experience. It is when we become convinced we are alone -- no, I've never felt/thought that. Something must be wrong with you -- that the probability of making uninformed and incorrect assumptions (i.e. "risky behavior") dramatically increases. That is, without knowing our history, we will believe that it is only us, today, in our own circumstance, that faces this crisis. If we think, as my professor once did, that homosexuality is a new development in human sexual behavior, we will see anything other than Victorian sexual expression as a challenge to the status quo. What is new is aberrant and a threat to stability. We will rewrite history, morals, laws and science in light of this notion, ignoring historical evidence with one hand and inhibiting future growth with the other. Put another way, we will maintain the lie and discourage the pursuit of truth if it serves our own ends. "Maintaining" becomes our task, not taking a necessary risk to go farther.

This is, I suppose, why I feel it is so important to promote sexual education and untangle history, to normalize so that we might have a better understanding of why we do the things we do. My grandparents had -- and maybe even enjoyed -- having sex. Puritanical as our predecessors may have been, our continued existence is evidence that they were able to overcome any indoctrination that sex was shameful. Why should we allow their beliefs to convict us in the present? Why should we be denied the same pleasure?

In the end, you're (probably) normal. You're not the first person to fantasize about the things you fantasize about, and if you are, then congratulations for pioneering -- but you arrived at them because someone else made it possible. Whatever the intensity of your desires, there have been and currently are thousands of people like you. Don't allow anyone to tell you that you're alone or rewrite things so that they can feel safe.