Westminster Faith Debates: ‘Too much sex these days – the sexualisation of society?’
Last week, I attended a seminar put on by the Religion & Society Faith Debates, convened by Dr. Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University. This particular seminar/debate (I hesitate to call it a debate as it’s more of a panel discussion) centered on the questions: Too much sex these days-the sexualisation of society?
The panelists were Maurine Kendler, Jenny Taylor, Donna Freitas, and Catherine Pepinster (their bios are on the website).
Here is a short, 2 minutes video-overview of the discussion and the website also contains podcast and other listening material.
My personal take on the evening was mixed. While the panelists were a highly diverse bunch, they were all women. If we are talking of sexualization of society, an all women panel sort of implies that only women are sexualized and paints a picture of young women as victims of their social surroundings. Now, some of the panelists mentioned men throughout the debate and others talked more broadly of ‘sexualized youth’, but I was quite disappointed by how neglected the sexualization of society affects young boys as well as girls. Maurine Kendler (who was my second favorite speaker of the evening) mentioned the sexualization of young men more than a few times and made some incredible points throughout the event.
I was also quite taken aback at the fact that all of the speakers seemed to be advocating for celibacy of one form or another. Jenny Taylor, in particular, was unapologetic about voicing her belief that celibacy was the moral high ground for youth and seemed to qualify that statement by alluding to her ‘dicey’ past as one who slept around and got drunk. Now, I really just hate the preachy way that it sounded, as if her experience alone was enough to condemn casual sex for others, but I also recognize she was asked to speak from personal experience, so I’ll go right from bitchy to indifferent.
I won’t really touch Catherine Pepinster, as she was there as a representative of the Catholic Church, and spoke with their authority-an authority, mind, of celibate talking heads speaking about young persons’ sexual urges and casual sexual encounters seems a far cry from ‘relevant’ if you ask me. However, Catherine spoke clearly and succinctly.
This leaves me with Donna Freitas, a Professor of Religious Studies in New York. Donna has been studying ‘hook-up’ culture for 8 years and had found that, while not all college students engage in casual sex, many (if not all) feel pressured to either being doing it or lying about doing it. What struck me most after her snippet and discussions (as well as the other speakers) is that none of the panelists defined what they mean by ‘sexual encounter’ or ‘sexualization’. While many got close to the point, there was no overall discussion of what ‘sex’ was (though Donna mentioned broadening the definition of ‘sex’ to include many other aspects than our narrow, male-female, vaginal penetration). For myself, this raises the bigger question: What is sex for? If, in casual sex, the main goal is to have an enjoyable, sexual encounter (generally speaking, with both partners achieving orgasm), then casual sex is definitely not the way to go for women, as most don’t achieve orgasm during casual sex. However, if sex is being used (as hook-up culture seems to suggest) as a social status signifier, then we can’t merely say that ‘sex is bad’, but we must also understand where the pressure to engage in casual sex is coming from.
My personal opinion is that sex is great and can (and is) used to physical enjoyment as well as emotional development with a partner. I don’t believe that sex needs to involve ‘love’, as I believe ‘love’ is a wishy-washy term that means different things to every single person on the planet. I would, rather, encourage ‘respect’ as the signifier of a healthy sexual relationship. And before you jump down my throat, I think respect is a far more easily transferable value than love. Respect, in its simplest form, implies a believe that another human being is valued and recognized as being like me, and from there, that they deserve to be treated as I would like someone to treat me. I know it’s hard to respect people sometimes and our judgements and assumptions get in the way sometimes, but I rather think that it’s a worthwhile thing to work on.