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

Queer from a Straight Perspective

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I am a straight guy.  Over the years I, like many other people in the world, have had to grapple with a number of questions that challenge my view of the world.  They challenge my view of how things should be.  They challenge my view of what is right and what is wrong.  I want to first look at some of these questions.  Then I will give you my background with gay men and gay women over the years.  Encounters I have had with them.  Friends I have had who came out or did not come out.  Finally, I want to give you my opinion about what is the fundamental question that fuels all controversy concerning homosexuality.  That question is “Are homosexuals normal or abnormal?”  This is basically the question that upsets people who want normalcy in the world. 

Some Questions:

How would you feel if your only daughter wanted to marry another woman or your son wanted to marry another man?  Although same sex marriage was legalized in the USA in 2015, many states still have laws on the books making such marriages difficult.  To date, only 29 out of the 195 countries in the world have legalized same-sex marriage.

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How would you feel if your church had an openly gay minister or a lesbian priest?  In more than fifty percent of all churches in America, homosexuality is regarded as a sin.  Pope Francis said that the Catholic Church cannot bless same sex marriages, never mind ever ordaining a lesbian or even a woman priest.

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What if your granddaughter told you that she was changing her name from Ashley to Fred and was going to undergo gender transformation to become a man?  A record number of bills to limit transgender rights have been introduced this year in state legislators across the country, with lawmakers in 28 states considering 93 bills targeting the rights of transgender Americans according to the Human Rights Campaign.  Many state legislatures are weighing measures that would bar transgender youth from participating in sports or receiving medical treatment. 

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2020 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the US: 45 transgender people were killed, up from 26 in both 2018 and 2019. This year is already on pace to be even deadlier, with 15 killings in the first 109 days of 2021.

My Queer Experiences:

I was born to an Italian father and Irish mother in 1946.  My father was 6’4” tall.  He was a decorated WWII veteran and had fought professionally as a boxer.  He was as macho a man as ever lived.  He would have put John Wayne to shame.  I grew to the age of 14 with no knowledge of gays or queers or any words to even describe them.  They were not part of my universe.  I was a fighter like my dad and had no problem in bare knuckle fighting to resolve problematic issues.  Somewhere along the way, I grew to hate bullies.  Some of my earliest fights involved kicking the shit out of some bully who was attacking a friend or even a stranger.

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When I became old enough to hang out nights with a street corner gang, the issue of queers became more salient.  It would seem that several guys on the corner would get “blow jobs” from gay men.  Some other guys would go out on Friday nights down to the docks to roll some “queers” and take their money.  I had several invitations to pursue these endeavors.  I had no desire to get a “blow job” from a guy.  This smacked of homosexuality to me but the guys on the corner who participated never thought of themselves as queer.  I also had no desire to roll a queer or take their money.  No gay man had ever done anything to hurt me, and I did not have any inclination to hurt them.  I can’t say I spoke out against this practice, but I never joined in. 

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Years later when I was in the military, I was assigned to a new base.  Upon arriving at the base, I was befriended by another service man who offered to show me around and be a buddy.  I appreciated his offer and we started hanging around together.  Soon, a bunch of other soldiers approached me and warned me that Mike was queer, and I had better stay away from him.  I did not break off all contact with Mike, but I limited my time with him after this warning.  I did not want anyone to think that I was “queer.”  Mike shipped out a few months later and never made any passes at me.

In the later seventies, something called the “Men’s Movement” started to emerge.  A “Men’s Center” was started in Minneapolis and I became a member.  I ardently attended men’s support group meetings, seminars, conferences and read much of the literature being published by leaders of the movement.  In due time, a straight men’s support group was formed, a gay men’s support group was formed, and a mixed group was formed.  Curious about the gay perspective on this movement, I joined both the straight men’s group and the mixed men’s group.

gay90-1d61x8dAt one of our mixed support group meetings, a gay man from our group challenged the rest of us, mostly the straight men to go out to a gay bar.  A popular one was the Gay Nineties on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.  We accepted the challenge and decided that after our next support group meeting, we would all (straight and gay men) go to the Gay Nineties for a drink. 

We arrived there and found a table together.  There were about nine or so of us sitting down at a large round table.  There was a bar and a dance floor.  Many same sex couples were dancing, both male and female couples.  There were also some mixed couples.  We had a few drinks and talked for a couple of hours.  During that time, I watched somewhat nervously as men at other tables were approached by other men and asked to dance.  I was hoping to avoid any kind of an encounter like that.  However, during my time there, no one came up and asked me to dance.  I began wondering if something was wrong with me since I did not have any invitations to turn down.  I thought my conflicting feelings were somewhat funny. 

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In 1981, I became a Manpower Counselor II with the WIN program in Wisconsin.  I had received my M.S. degree in Counseling, and I took a state test to apply for this position.  The WIN program was the Work Incentive program, and the aim of this program was to help get AFDC or Welfare people back to work.  The program was a Federally funded state effort.  It involved joint cooperation between the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (DILHR).  DSS assigned a Social Worker, and I was assigned by DILHR to work together to form an employment plan for eligible AFDC applicants.  The social worker would provide social support and I would provide logistical support to help applicants find suitable employment.

I met Lisa Patefield, who was the social worker for the program, during my first month on the job.  Lisa was cool to me and did not seem very friendly.  She was an attractive and athletic young woman with an M.S. degree in Social Work.  Several weeks went by and she continued to seem very distant and almost hostile towards me.  One day just before a meeting with a client, I confronted Lisa.  I asked her if I had said or done anything to offend her.  She put her head down and started crying.  I asked her what was wrong, and she raised her head and said, “I am a lesbian and whenever anyone I have worked with finds out, I am soon ostracized and ridiculed.”  I replied that I had no problem working with her nor did I have any qualms with her love life.

Lisa and I became good friends.  We often went out for lunch and a few times she came over to my house to visit.  One day, Lisa asked if she could take my daughter, who was about 12 at the time, to a baseball game with her.  I must admit that my first thought was, “What if she turns my daughter into a lesbian?”  Then I thought, “How stupid.  You don’t turn anyone into anything.  People make their love choices for any number of reasons.”  Lisa was as good a role model for my daughter as anyone I ever knew.  Chris went to the ball game and until I left the WIN program Lisa and I remained good friends.  I have often wondered what happened to her. 

I grew up.  I got older.  I have had many gay friends over the years. 

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Are homosexuals normal or abnormal?: 

A 2020 FBI report shows that victims targeted for their sexual orientation – listed as gay, lesbian, or bisexual – comprise the third largest victim category at 16.7 percent, the report notes.  The FBI report says there were a total of 1,195 hate crime incidents targeting victims because of their sexual orientation.  Out of that figure, 746 are listed as anti-gay male, 115 as anti-lesbian, 17 listed as anti-heterosexual, and 26 listed as anti-bisexual.

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The Bible, the source for many people on what is right or wrong condemns homosexuality in no uncertain terms.  Christian and Jewish religions are quite fond of using the Bible to support their bias against gender choices.  These same religions conveniently overlook the Bibles condemnation of adultery, lying, prostitution, divorce, and pre-marital sex.  You would be hard pressed to find a single human being on earth who did not daily violate something written in the Bible.

When we look at the question of “normality” we need to first define our terms.  Normal means to reflect what is generally accepted by a majority of the population.  It is the usual, average, or typical state or condition.  Abnormal means to deviate from what is accepted by the majority.  It is the unusual or untypical.  When people do not follow the conventional social or moral rules of their society, their behavior is considered abnormal.  To be abnormal carries a negative bias or connotation. 

If you think about these definitions for a second, you will realize how ridiculous the terms and concepts are.  First, if everyone were normal, there would be no creative or innovative people.  Normal people would never do abnormal things and the world would be very boring.  Innovation is based on people doing things that have never been done before. 

Second, the idea of normalcy is based on averages.  The problem here is that an average throws everything into one pot and comes out with a mean to represent a group.  The average or mean height for a man may be 5’9” but there are plenty of people who do not fit that mean.  We have a world full of averages that ignores variation and looks at differences as deficits.

Finally, life and social mores continue to evolve.  Slavery was once “normal”, but slavery was and always will be evil.  Prejudice against religions, race, ethnic groups, and other nations is quite normal in our world but such prejudice is and always will be evil. 

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Prejudice against people because of their gender choices is evil.  If you want to be prejudiced against anyone or anything, you should be prejudiced against politicians that divide people instead of uniting people.  You should be prejudiced against religious leaders that preach intolerance instead of tolerance.  You should be prejudiced against people that attack or harm others because of lifestyle choices that do no harm to them.  The only harm gay people do is to disturb their petty ideas of what is right and wrong.

We live in a world of too little tolerance for others.  We have too little respect for differences.  We have a world full of myopic views of how life should be lived.  It is time we start embracing the magnificent array of choices that life brings to us.  We will only make a better world when we stop discriminating against people who are different from us.

“It is absolutely imperative that every human being’s freedom and human rights are respected, all over the world.”– Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

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