The Influence of Culture on Sexual Activity and Practices

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In my opening treatise on sex, (Sex from a 75 year old perspective) I used a metaphor in which I described sex as a continent that had two regions.  The Region of Permissions and the Region of Prohibitions.  There are three seasons for each region:  A Cultural Season, A Political Season and A Religious Season.  In my second blog on Sex:  The Region of Permissions and the Region of Prohibitions, I described the influence of religion on our sex lives in respect to what is permitted and what is prohibited.  I will now discuss the Cultural Season of Sex and what impact it has on Permissions and Prohibitions relating to sexual activities.

The Cultural Season of Sex:

The Cultural Season brings influences on sex based on traditions and beliefs about what sex should be like, who we should have sex with and how sex may be performed.  Cultural practices have the over arching purpose of keeping a community viable and safe.  Throughout history whether a culture sanctioned monogamy, polygamy, abstinence until marriage or free love, the major reason for any practice was to align the goals and desires of the community.

There are two important cultural factors that one must understand about sex.  Beyond individual notions of what is proper and what is not, the cultural diversity in relationship to sex dictates that what one culture may accept as legitimate may be rejected by another culture.  Thus, in the early days of Islam, multiple wives were acceptable.  This was not the case in Judaism.  “In Judaism the Law tolerated though it did not enact polygamy; but custom stood higher than the Law. From the period of the return from the Babylonian Exile, monogamy became the ideal and the custom of Jewish married life.” — Jewish Encyclopedia.

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In Islam, polygamy was the norm for centuries if a man could afford it.  “Traditional Sunni and Shia Islamic marital jurisprudence allows Muslim men to be married to multiple women (a practice known as polygyny and polygamy)—up to four at any point in time.” — Wikipedia.  Many a follower of Christianity might envy the Muslim man but given the traditions in Christianity, one can only imagine the problems of multiple wives or multiple husbands.  In the early 18th Century, there were a number of experimental communities in the United States where open relationships were practiced.  In these communities’ men and women could choose who they wanted to sleep with even if they were married.  Most of these communities eventually died out both for economic and psychological reasons.

0996E9F5-F96D-4F32-B12E-0C7772CF1AE7-e1623525310665The second major factor that one studying cultural sex practices must understand is the changing notion of what is acceptable over time.  Not more than a hundred years ago in parts of the USA and even today in some cultures, a young woman is expected to be ready to marry and have children right after puberty.  Few people in the USA today would approve of their 13-year-old daughter or son marrying.  Times change and so do expectations that address what is acceptable and what is not acceptable concerning sex.

The USA had always had very different cultural expectations governing which ethnic groups and which religious groups could have sex together.  These beliefs have changed greatly over time.  My Lutheran wife was expected to marry another Protestant or practically any other Christian except a Catholic.  Years ago, mixed marriages were more than frowned on (We will talk about laws and politics in the next blog).  Couples crossing forbidden boundaries were belittled and ostracized by their parent communities.  I was in Minnesota in the early 60’s before I ever saw a Black man and a White woman walking together.  It took many years before I knew any Black women who were married to a White man or vice versa.

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So what, you might be saying!  What is my point?  Where are I going with all this?  Who cares about cultural practices in relationship to sex?  I bring these issues up because sex practices are too often regarded as either right or wrong, moral or immoral, normal or deviant.  Only by looking at the history and totality of sexual practices in the world can we develop a healthy attitude towards sex.  Sex should be an occasion for joy.  Sex is not sinful as some Christians seem to believe.  If you are married and you have sex with someone else, whether it is immoral or not will depend on what you and your spouse have agreed to.  Living in a nudist colony does not make anyone a pervert.  Having sex with multiple partners may be a choice made by some married partners and perfectly moral for them.

This does not mean that various cultural sex practices will always be navigable.  No more than a trip down a river will always be tranquil and benign, sex between individuals may be fraught with difficulties.  A friend of mine once said that “I don’t know if sex will improve or hurt your relationship, but it will certainly change it.”

downloadI tend to believe that there are some biological drives that influence cultural traditions and vice versa.  In sociology classes, there was always an argument concerning nature and nurture.  Sometimes it seems that the advocates of nature have the winning argument and other times it seems that the nurture or cultural advocates win.  It is very easy to say that life is composed of both nature and nurture, but it is much more difficult to delineate the amount that each impose on a given cultural practice.  Is monogamy part of nature?  Is it built into our DNA?  Are there multiple survival benefits from a monogamous lifestyle?  Are these still valid in today’s world?

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A more difficult question to answer might be how I can convince my wife to let me engage in extramarital sex with other women.  She has never embraced that idea despite my facetious arguments that men are not naturally monogamous.  Thus, in this case, nurture trumps nature.  228-2281833_husband-beaten-by-wife At least is seems to. 

“So she thoroughly taught him that one cannot take pleasure without giving pleasure, and that every gesture, every caress, every touch, every glance, every last bit of the body has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it. She taught him that after a celebration of love the lovers should not part without admiring each other, without being conquered or having conquered, so that neither is bleak or glutted or has the bad feeling of being used or misused.”  ― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

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