Not everyone who showed up at the sex activists' conference was pierced, tattooed, and draped in leather. It was an edgy assembly for sure, but many of the men and women making their way to workshops at the recent CatalystCon East sported a classic, casual style.
Dee Dennis, creator and founder of the CatalystCon conferences, called for "a melting pot of sexuality" and she got it. The lively, non-judgmental, wildly diverse mix of attendees ("Hey, look at Dragon Tattoo over there with Betty Draper!") was a microcosm of the world Dennis wants to create. Her goal is to change how our culture talks about "normal" sexuality, as well as how we talk about and treat people who practice sex in ways perceived to be outside the norm.
Sex is a core human experience, but much public discussion remains mired in prejudice, anger, and disgust. The sexologists, social workers, activists, and mental health professionals who contributed to the CatalystCon discussion clearly yearn for a day when dialogue can be tolerant and composed. "Imagine living in a society free of repressive attitudes and policies, where we celebrate our similarities and our differences and are truly kind to each other," mused senior sex educator Joan Price.
In spite of its sex-positive agenda, the conference was more nuanced than naughty. Speakers explored ways in which activists could influence educators, legislators, social service administrators, religious leaders, and others to move toward greater understanding and acceptance.
Sex is certainly a worthy subject of inquiry, being arguably the most powerful socio-economic force in America. It drives the $600 billion fashion apparel business and the $50-billion cosmetic industry, as well as the huge, multifaceted entertainment industry, in which a single Hollywood film grossing less than $100 million is hardly worth making.
Sex makes millions for psychologists, lawyers, artists, pharmaceutical companies, and sex toy manufacturers. It provides a bully pulpit to politicians and pastors, to abortion rights activists, to LGBT advocates, and mental health workers. It sells toothpaste and tires, detergents and bathtubs, coffeepots, cars, and computers. Sex empowers lovers, grants couples pleasure and progeny, and is the most-often-cited cause of divorce. It teases and taunts, comforts and terrifies, and it holds our society in thrall.
It shouldn't be this way, anthropologist Ava Mir-Ausziehen told the CatalysCon audience. "Sex isn't some strange, ethereal construct. It's as normal and necessary as eating and sleeping." Mir-Ausziehen believes that "when we regard sex as something apart from the mundane, we're causing anxiety, fear, and dysfunction."
The sex-is-special mindset can be found all along the social spectrum, generating not only conservatives' fear of same-sex marriage, but suburban wives' obsessive reading of the Fifty Shades trilogy.
Lawmakers, too, hold sex apart from daily life. Legislation lags far behind community practices, and interpretation of many laws can be entirely subjective. To pass through the maze of laws around obscenity, for example, a work must show "redeeming social value."
Most victimless crimes in the U.S. are sex-related, says the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexuality. In the view of Hirschfeld researchers, laws regulating behavior between two consenting adults are "absurd and dangerous." They write: "If the American sex laws were rigorously and equally enforced, the country would have so many sex offenders in prison that there would not be enough innocent citizens left to guard them."
Ava Mir-Ausziehen credits sociologists Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, authors of Theorizing Sexuality, with calling attention to the idea that sexuality is better understood as a routine part of everyday life. Missing this perception, sex becomes a game of skill, which in turn feeds consumer frenzy for products that will aid performance - erectile dysfunction drugs, how-to books, porn videos, sex-power diets, exercise programs, and Tantra training.
"To be bad at cooking, bad at soccer, it's no problem; but to be bad at sex is inexcusable," says Mir-Ausziehen wryly. Sex, she implies, doesn't have to be ultra-ecstatic every time. If there is to be dialogue about repression of sex in our society, there is an emerging irony. Insistence on perfect sexual performance is a different kind of repression.
It's not clear how long it will be before dialogue about sex will be open in a wider community. Social mores change rapidly or slowly, depending on your point of view. In 1964, the Beatles made their first trip to the U.S. to a mix of acclaim for their music and fear that their "decadent" long-hair style would undermine the country's moral fiber. Fifty years later, same sex marriage has been made legal; birth control pills are the contraception standard; "Illegitimate" no longer describes a child born to a single parent; the use of Viagra and sex toys is openly discussed; and everyone knows what a clitoris is.
Is this fifty years of progress? Is this a sign of society loosening its repressive grip on sexual expression? Then: Beatle hair. Now: labia piercing. What will sexual expression be like in 2063, fifty years from now?
Sienna Jae Fein blogs at www.datingseniormen.com