Sexual History

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by Randall S. Frederick

A few days ago, a client of mine and I were talking about  our first real awareness of sexual issues, and a lot of different conversations immediately began to overlay one another. We were posing questions to each other, reacting to the things we had learned as kids, and asking rhetorical questions so quickly that it 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 walked away and thought about for a few days afterwards is that way that people – especially cultural and religious advocates – discuss sex and sexuality, it’s like they have a tendency to rewrite time, as though the way we understand sex today is the way it has always been.

I once had a doctoral professor say that homosexuality is a modern development in human history – that it was “unknown” before the 18th Century. Laughable. When I pressed, pointing to multiple examples to the contrary (not least of which being Roman sexual practices upon entering Greece), it became clear that this professor was fully convinced of what she was saying, despite contradictory evidence. Though she finally admitted pederasty existed (when an older male “initiated” younger males into sexual activity), this did not constitute “homosexuality” but rather a “social agreement.”

What is sex, if not a social agreement (or violation thereof)?

I share this as a good example of the way we norm and form our ideas of culture and history, around topics like sex and sexuality. One of my greatest frustrations is when I hear or see individuals, even entire communities, rewrite history to gloss over important details. The things that we think, feel, and believe today about gender norms, family planning, even biomedical ethics are dependent on the history of the last century – they did not arrive from on high. Our wisdom is not divine, it is learned. That is, our understandings of sex did not emerge, fully formed like the Athenian goddess from some collective unconscious or – if you prefer – from the depths of cultural chaos. Rather, sex as we understand it and discuss it today is part of a long history of what came before. It is not new, as though we are the first ones to discover it.

Perhaps you were raised like I was to believe that the topic of sex was defined by boundaries, described by polarized and at times polarizing language about “right” and “wrong.” We know “right and wrong” because that is the way it has always been, and no one ever questions that. But my guess is that you know, deep inside, this is not how things really are. Rather, there is a measure of comfort knowing our tradition… and then gently questioning it. When we find out new information – Gasp! Grandma was married to someone else before she married Grandpa! – there may even be a thrill of excitement. We’re not alone. We do not bear the responsibility of learning everything afresh, because someone else did it before we did. Looking to what came before us, we seek to find meaning in the sexual history of the past so that it might “normalize” our sexual present. Indeed, I suspect along with Thomas Foster in his recent book Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past that we find identity through the sexuality of our predecessors. In a myriad of ways, our sexual history and the history of the people who have had significance in our lives shape who we are and how we discuss sex.

When we presume we are alone, that we are the “first” ones to discover a sexual activity, this assumption comes with a strange payoff. Loneliness and fear. Without paying attention to the cyclical nature of culture, we make assumptions which are both uninformed and incorrect.

Allow me to digress for a moment?

During WWII, comic books were a cheap way to entertain, inform, and educate soldiers in the trenches. During WWI, propaganda was easily disseminated through illustrated texts. Illiterate soldiers could “get the point” enough from cartoons, literature soldiers were entertained by the pictures, and both had an active interest in the novelty of the comic form. Returning home, the soldiers had children and younger brothers who they exposed to the new medium and comic books quickly became interesting to a new generation. In competition with one another, they became better. Superheroes emerged and two publishing houses took priority – Marvel Comics was concerned with social issues and DC Comics was concerned with science fiction; both were at times explicitly political. A perfect example of all this is the classic cover of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler, Batman taking on the crime bosses of Gotham/ Chicago, and Wonder Woman visiting the troops overseas. Like all things political, it wasn’t long before there were detractors.

In 1954, psychologist Frederic Wertham published the groundbreaking book, Seduction of the Innocent. There, he claimed that comic books were corrupting the youth of America with sexual impropriety. As he saw it, comic books made children gay, made adults into pedophiles, and those colorful panels seduced women into rejecting their proper place as housewives. A woman who believes in herself, and wants an education? An outrage! All of these things, Wertham claimed, were a direct threat to the stability of America. Thus, Wertham concluded, comic books were a vehicle for Communism and appealed only to the sexually aberrant.

Laughable? Hardly.

Within the year, Congress passed a bill for “the American Comic Code” (ACC) which established a governing code of conduct for comics. Setting a precedent with the ACC, it wasn’t long before Congress pressured the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to help reform America’s youth. While the MPAA had been established for movies in 1922, with the extreme emphasis on sexual discretion in comic books, legislators sought to re-engineer society. These two agencies, the ACC and the MPAA, raced each other towards post-WWII stability. It was around this time that Senator Joseph McCarthy whipped America into an anti-Communist frenzy. McCarthy ushered in the “Red Scare” of Hollywood which ended the careers of hundreds of filmmakers and caused those who remained to become paranoid. Art stagnated.

But then that generation of children who grew up reading government-authorized comics and watching government-endorsed movies began to break the mold. Raised under such strict guidelines, they simply shrugged them off, creating a sudden growth of masterpieces by the likes of Scorcese, Fellini, Polanski, and Allen. Most of the “hit” movies of the late 60’s through the early 80’s had what the MPAA would consider “gratuitous sex.” Nudity really wasn’t a big deal, it seemed. Indeed, all of the “classic” films of this period had nudity, sexuality, violence, and adult themes. Certainly, there were those who objected or preferred “clean” movies like True Grit (1969) with John Wayne, but the tide had turned. A sexual hairflip, like the one in Gilda (1946) which had once been so scandalous, now went entirely unnoticed. Wonder Woman, who has always run around in panties and a corset, stopped hiding behind horses, trees, and cabinets. The curvy midriff of her corset was no longer so flat and shapeless. Her feminine assets were not edited out of a panel.

It was not long until the MPAA and ACC were under pressure again. The cheesy, “safe” movies of the 80’s began to eclipse the masterpieces of the 70’s. The tide turned once again. Ratings standards had changed a bit on paper over the years, but it wasn’t until the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 80’s and early 90’s that things began to move into the form that we see around us now – where labels like “Boston marriages” and “confirmed bachelor” were replaced with “faggot” and “the homosexual”, then replaced again by the more politically correct umbrella term, “gays.”

America was beginning to feel jerked around – morals one day, licentiousness another. Like McCarthy before them, the members of the Moral Majority heightened their rhetoric to make citizens feel like they had to choose a side in what they called “The Culture Wars.” And so it was that things mellowed out – at least on the surface. Movies became tame again. Art stagnated again. Televangelists were given more operating licenses for radio towers. America was “safe” from the scourge of debauchery. And then, after a handful of political and religious scandals during that time, the leaders began to succumb to the pressure they had created. The pressure to be “moral” and “godly” was their undoing. With the “failure” of these leaders, what were citizens to do? Become more entrenched, it seems. Inflated on a steady diet of pietism, individuals began to believe that they were more moral than the people that had looked up to. And then, as you might expect by now, things changed again. 1994’s Pulp Fiction inspired a new generation of filmmakers to “go gritty” and tell sexualized, violent stories.

Now why is all of this important, and what do comic books have to do with any of it?

Culture has always driven the way we see ourselves and our morality, but we so easily forget that culture, our society, even our morality, moves in cycles. We forget what came before, believing What Is Now is What Has Always Been. When Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, it was instrumental in changing the way sexuality was discussed. The Victorianism of England, which many believed was What Has Always Been, was giving way to the influx of intercultural interaction in America, especially in urban areas. The writings of Freud, together with Continental philosophy, the American Renaissance, Western migration, the gentrification of liberal theology into the Midwest and expansion of new races & cultures into urban centers had begun to change the American experience. Wertham’s work sought to repeal all of these efforts by focusing on the corruption of youth and a call to renewal of the former Victorian ways instead of allowing progress to continue any further. Women belonged at home and uneducated. Children were born to help their parents. Races should not mix. And any form of “new” sexual expression was to be suppressed at all costs. Is it any wonder that the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution took place shortly thereafter as an intense rejection of this kind of suppression?

But – and this is the point – without seeing this kind of history, we suppose that it is only now, today, in our own time, that we face social crises. For instance, when we think homosexuality is a “modern” development in human history, we have to rewrite everything in light of that belief. We have to intentionally ignore history. For a second instance when we, like Wertham, believe that change must be stopped, it causes us as much as others to feel abnormal. We become the architects of our own demise.

Many of us share similar stories, stories of psycho-spiritual-sexual whiplash caused by confusing, even at times, competing narratives. It becomes difficult to feel normal – one decade, you’re en vogue, the next you’re accused of all manner of evil. The moral authorities may have had good intentions, but let’s keep things in perspective. Their primary concern was how showing a woman’s thigh (ex: Wonder Woman wearing panties and a corset) was a greater scandal than the genocide of Germany or Rwanda. What adults do in the privacy of their own home is of more concern than multi-national conflict. Personal morality becomes more important than starvation of millions.

When we sew these pieces of information together, it tells a very different narrative than the one we grew up with. Most of us grew up believing that you didn’t have sex before marriage because “that’s what God intended.” And you did what God intended “because that makes you a good American.” And if you’re a good American, “things will work out for you, and you’ll have a safe retirement in the suburbs.”

But as we know all too well… that was a lie. And we do not have to live a lie.

This is the reason why I feel it is so important to promote sexual education, and encourage a better understanding of history. Your grandparents once had – and maybe even enjoyed – sex. So did the Founders of America, their slaves, and the Europeans before them. We can choose to continue believing this lie of What Once Was Always Is, or we can see it as What Is Always Has Been. Indeed, that you are reading this right now is evidence that your fore parents – stretching all the way back to the dawn of humanity – have had sex and (at least occasionally) enjoyed it.

So why should you be denied that same pleasure?

You’re normal – whatever the intensity of your desires, there have been people like you before you, and there will be people like you after you. Do not allow anyone else to push a false history or a false understanding of how things should be on you.

You are okay just the way you are.

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