There’s a lot of talk about sexuality these days. Whether it’s about sex outside of marriage, LBGT issues, pederast priests, celibacy as a lifestyle, or gender change – everyone has an opinion, and most opinions are heated. Let’s take a step back from sexuality and consider instead physicality.
We as a society are far too sexualized. Too many choices and behaviors are thought of as sexual when they are really something else. Young children are being forced to consider issues of sexual identity when they should be working on getting along and growing up. Devout, restrained, and modest people are told that they are repressed and need to get in touch with their own sexuality – and presumably talk about it every chance they get. People who aren’t very interested in sex of any kind are barraged with voices telling them that they have to “self-identify” as something or other, whether they want to or not.
But sexuality is only a part of us – I’d even say a small part. It can color other aspects of ourselves, but it is not the only determiner of who we are. My intellect, my conscience, my perception of humor, the acuity of my senses, my talents – some of these may be affected a bit by my gender but not much by my sexuality.
Why has sexuality taken center stage these days? Freud and his philosophy are the facile answer, but I’m not sure if he is a cause or an effect. It may be that technology has had as much impact as philosophy. Because of the technology that we now enjoy, our lives have much less “physicality” than our ancestors’ did. And living isolated from other bodies affects us. We are not just intelligences carried around by a fleshly apparatus that any year now will be replaced by something more efficient; we are an inextricable blend of the physical and the spiritual.
Physicality was more easily satisfied in pre-modern times. Travelers shared a bed with other customers of the inn. Children shared beds with siblings; parents slept with their children. Babies were more often breastfed and for a longer time than is typical now. Kids played games involving physical contact – Red Rover and jump rope, cat’s-cradle and clapping rhymes, not X-box and Mass Effect. Grown-ups danced together, hand in hand with both men and women. More workers touched and manipulated physical objects in their work than they do now. More workers touched each other, even if it was just a brush of hands in exchanging a cooking pot or a tool. Many adults felt bare earth with bare feet as they worked. Women gave birth at home, with female friends and relatives in attendance. Sick people were nursed at home by family members for long periods of time; dead bodies were laid out by relatives on the kitchen table. People smelled stronger and more individual than they do today.
Even our religion, for many of us, used to be more physical than it is now: incense, food and drink, bowing, kneeling, standing, crossing ourselves, chanting – now these are often replaced by sitting in chairs with isolating armrests and listening to either an emotional music performance or an intellectual sermon.
The physical world used to impinge on all of the senses all of the time. And that’s as it should be. We are physical beings. We were made so by God. We eat, sleep, make love, and defecate. We cuddle for warmth and comfort. These things are all healthy and satisfying –and not sexual. We have a need for physical satisfaction of all kinds, not just the sexual; we must have it to be healthy. In our digital, cubicle-dominated modern world, we are starved for physical interaction. Because we’re starving, we try to satisfy basic needs for contact, comfort, and belonging –which the surrounding culture tells us to do through sex.
Don’t misunderstand me. First, I’m not idealizing older and more difficult times. I wish we had more folk dances, but I like having my own hotel room and not having fleas. Second, I know that there are specifically sexual needs and always have been. Meeting those needs has always provided pleasure, intimacy, and the perpetuation of the species. I also know that not everyone will be driven to express and satisfy these sexual needs in the same way. But that’s not important right now, to quote Leslie Nielsen – I’m not talking about an ideal past or about genuine sexuality. I’m talking about the misguided message we get from our society that all physical needs should be met sexually. Really? The kindergarten boy who likes to hold hands has chosen a gay lifestyle? The teenage girl who finds comfort curling up in bed with a girlfriend to talk about her troubles needs to be a lesbian to do so? When did these become sexual activities? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
We’ve fought hard for equal rights in the last century, in many cases with success. But we still peg and stereotype people cruelly: not by race or gender so much, but by sexuality. I remember the lament of a young male ballet dancer I knew: “Do I HAVE to be gay to be a ballet dancer? ‘Cause I kind of like girls . . .”
For our society to become healthier and more balanced, we have to consider physicality as a separate need from sexuality. Although we often find each other difficult, hot, smelly, and loud, we fulfill each other in many ways. And although creation is dangerous, extreme, and uncomfortable, we were made to interact with it. People who long for physicality, who need to touch and be touched, should not be expected to satisfy that longing only sexually. Attempting to meet all one’s physical needs through sex shows not only a misunderstanding of human nature but a real lack of imagination.
Everyone will have to come to terms with sexuality, but as adults and in private, considering desires, experiences, and conscience. Most people, judging by statistics, will chose to be heterosexual and more or less monogamous. Some will feel drawn to alternative forms of sexual expression that may or may not be allowed in their societies. Some will also, for part or all of their lives, just not care much about sex at all. But whether they are having sex or not, are culturally “normal” or not, they all need physical touch; they need to see, hear, feel, and smell people around them. They need to be hugged and jostled and patted and curled up with. And they shouldn’t be forced to buy the satisfaction of that need with sexual coinage.