Mark Twain expressed himself on America's oft seemingly schizophrenic sexual attitudes in his Letters From the Earth, long suppressed by his family and just recently published for the first time: A fallen angel visits earth and describes, with some incredulity, what he finds there to archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel. "There is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal. His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists—utterly and entirely—of diversions that he cares next to nothing about, here on earth, yet is quite sure he will like in heaven. Isn't it curious? Isn't it interesting? You must not think I am exaggerating, for it is not so. I will give you details.
"The human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys—yet he has left it out of his heaven! The very thought of it excites him; opportunity sets him wild; in this state he will risk life, reputation, everything—even his queer heaven itself—to make good that opportunity. Yet it is actually as I have said: It is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place."
Religious puritanism pervades every aspect of our sexual lives. We use it as a justification for suppressing freedom of thought, expression and, of course, personal behavior. By associating sex with sin, we have produced a society so guilt-ridden that it is almost impossible to view the subject objectively and we are able to rationalize the most outrageous acts against mankind in the name of God.
But what sort of God would have man deny his God-given sexual nature?
Some members of our society sincerely believe that sex has a single purpose: procreation. As such, sexual activity is logically limited to coitus within the bounds of marriage, since children benefit from the presence of both parents, and a stable familial environment is best established within the bounds of wedlock. But life is more complex than that. To deny the true emotional and physical significance of sex in society is to turn our backs on all the knowledge about man that the sociological and psychological sciences have given us. In suggesting that the sole purpose of sex is the perpetuation of the species, we reduce man to the level of the lower animals.
So intimately is sex interrelated with the rest of human experience that it is impossible to conceive of a society existing, as we know it, without benefit of the primal sex urge. Most certainly, if such a society did exist, it would be a very cold, totalitarian and barbarous one. The existence of two sexes, and their attraction for one another, must be considered the major civilizing influence in our world. As much as religion has done for the development and growth of society, sex has done more. The tendency in modern times to reduce the differences between the sexes and create the cultural illusion, if not the physical fact, of a single sex has grave implications for society and we shall explore them at length a bit later.
Stimulation and Sublimation
Religiously inspired sexual suppression is harmful to society: It is never desirable to have a significant gap between the professed principles of a society and its actions; as with an individual, any serious conflict between beliefs and behavior produces emotional instability. When it is a normal physical drive that is being rejected, the resulting trauma is apt to be more severe; when an entire nation attempts to deny a basic urge, the results can be catastrophic. Human sexual behavior remains relatively unchanged generation after generation, but man's attitudes toward that behavior vary greatly.
As recently as 1959, in the preliminary report of the California State Subcommittee on Pornographic Literature, there appeared the following statement: "It is still the principle of our nation that premarital and extramarital sexual activity is an undesirable thing, and anything that incites or lures or glorifies premarital or extramarital activity is objectionable."
On such a premise, the censor and the prude are free to do their dirtiest deeds—ban our books, suppress our speech and take from us any semblance of free choice in our most private affairs.
If the report of the California State Subcommittee is to be taken seriously, then the "pornographic literature," with which they were concerned, is only one small and relatively insignificant aspect of their problem. If they really considered objectionable "anything that incites or lures" men and women into premarital and extramarital intercourse, they would have to face up to the banning of all tight or revealing clothing, bathing suits, romantic music, dancing, liquor, perfume, makeup and—if those ads from Mad Ave are to be believed—most every deodorant, mouthwash, toothpaste and hair oil on the market. And even after that, their job would not be done.
Kinsey has listed a seemingly endless number of sources of erotic stimulation reported in preadolescent boys, including such nonsexual stimuli as taking a shower, punishment, fast elevator rides, skiing, sitting in church, boxing and wrestling, swimming, anger, being late to school, seeing a policeman, being alone at night, looking over the edge of a building, big fires, marching soldiers, seeing name in print, running away from home, fear of a big boy, long flights of stairs, motion of a car or bus, receiving report card and hearing the national anthem.
Kinsey has commented that preadolescent boys are sexually aroused by "a whole array of emotional situations, whether they be sexual or nonsexual." By his late teens the male has been so conditioned that he rarely responds erotically to anything except direct physical stimulation or to psychic situations that are for him specifically sexual; in the still older male even physical stimulation is rarely effective unless accompanied by the proper psychological atmosphere. The pattern is a continually contracting one in which a person responds initially to a wide variety of stimuli which then becomes more specific, through experience and conditioning, as he matures.
Kinsey stated: "For most males, whether single or married, there are ever-present erotic stimuli and sexual response is regular and high."
If any group like the California State Subcommittee on Pornographic Literature ever hoped to eliminate those "objectionable" sources of stimulation that might serve to "incite or lure" the unwary into premarital and extramarital sexual activity, they would be doomed to failure before they began. For even if they could successfully eliminate every anticipated source of sexual arousal, the potent human sex drive would simply affix itself to some other psychological and/or physical stimuli. And the danger of attempting to eliminate the more direct heterosexual sources of stimulation in society is the obvious possibility that the sex urge will become conditioned to less socially desirable stimuli.
In The Playboy Panel on "Sex and Censorship in Literature and the Arts" (July 1961), Dr. Albert Ellis commented on the diversity of sexual stimuli thusly: "How can you ban desire? Some people go out on the street and look at a clothesline with drawers hanging on it and get aroused. Should we therefore censor clotheslines?"
Which reminded Publisher Barney Rosset, of Grove Press, of a book by the French new-wave author Robbe-Grillet, about a man who derives sexual stimulation from a piece of string. Rosset said: "He sees this piece of string throughout the book and concocts extremely erotic fantasies around it. He uses it in various ways; it might be a clothesline in one instance, and the next instance he is imagining tying a girl up with this piece of string. It gets down to almost anything being used as subject matter for erotic fantasy."
Judge Thurman Arnold then warned about the danger of removing one source of sexual stimulation only to have it replaced by another more objectionable one: "Human beings can be trained like Pavlov's dog, so that they are stimulated by sights and sounds completely unrelated to the things they desire. A strict standard of obscenity contributes to such unhealthy training. Taking the pin-up girls away from American soldiers would not make their minds more pure. It would only mean that they would be aroused by some less healthy or attractive substitute. At the turn of the century the old Police Gazette had a nationwide pornographic appeal. A dance called the cancan in which the chorus girls kicked up their legs covered with black stockings was wicked and highly stimulating. Today a person with an appetite for pornography would not pay ten cents to see either the magazine or the dance. This is how censorship makes material sexually stimulating which would not have any stimulation at all if that censorship did not exist. And that is why anything but the most tolerant standards creates an unhealthy psychology."
The possibility of conditioning a person to less healthy erotic stimuli is especially pronounced in the preadolescent period and we think about this whenever anyone tells us, somewhat self-consciously, that he enjoys Playboy himself, but he doesn't like to leave it around the house where his children might get hold of it and look at the pictures. We wonder just what sort of stimuli this parent would like his children to associate with sex instead of the beauty of the human body.
This attitude is prompted by this mistaken idea that the sex urge is only aroused by the more obvious erotic stimuli and that without them it would remain quiescent. But if a normal child is denied sexual stimulation by beautiful images he will be stimulated by ugly images; if a child is not stimulated by heterosexual sources, he will be stimulated by homosexual ones. And with any luck at all, the misguided parent will succeed in passing on his own feelings of guilt or shame to his offspring also.
A related misconception surrounds Freud's theory of sublimation. A great many people assume that the basic sex urge itself can be "sublimated," with the need for sexual fulfillment being redirected into other, more socially acceptable, activities. This is untrue. Dr. Theodor Reik has stressed that the primal sex drive, while easily satisfied, "is entirely incapable of being sublimated.... The satisfaction of this particular urge cannot be fulfilled by the substitution of another goal."
Reik points out that it would make as much sense to try to convince us that other natural urges, like thirst or hunger, could be redirected into the accomplishment of cultural achievements, as to suggest that man's basic sex drive would be put to such use. What can be used for cultural achievements is, rather, the energy of ego-drives, says Reik, of which love itself is one of the main ingredients, along with the need for social recognition, competitiveness, vanity and vainglory, its less popular relatives.