Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Condom as Moral Principle

[Notice: some readers have expressed a preference for my positive, constructive posts. In truth, I prefer them myself. Nevertheless, today's post is not going to fall within that category. Forewarned is forearmed.]

In the beginning condoms were a reasonably effective contraception.

During the Great American Sexual Revolution they were touted for their hygienic capabilities. Under the mantra, Safe Sex, condoms were extolled for their ability to reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, STDs.

Finally, condoms became a moral principle. As more and more people accepted sex as a universal human right and a staple of a healthy lifestyle, adolescents were led to believe that sexual activities were morally acceptable if a condom was involved.

If we ask how all of that has been working out, the answer is: not too well.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 19,000,000 new cases of sexually transmitted infections in the United States every year. We may well be declining as an economic power, but we are still one of the world leaders in STDs.

How can we explain this? According to Michael Weinstein, the reason is that we have such a negative attitude toward condoms. Link here.

You might give Weinstein credit for being counterintuitive, but we can also tax him for failing to appraise the situation objectively.

The Safe Sex message is pervasive in the culture. Whenever sex is mentioned on television, someone will add that a condom must be in use. [They really mean that if a male is involved in the sex act, a condom must be used.]

Condoms are widely available in drugstores and convenience stores. They are not hidden behind counters; they are not whispered about behind closed doors. Men carry condoms with them at all times. Women carry condoms with them at all times. If you dare say that condoms contribute to immoral behavior you will be quickly shouted down as a modern day Typhoid Mary, an enabler of contagion.

Condoms are everywhere, but so are STDs. Is this a puzzlement?

Not to Michael Weinstein. He explains that the epidemic of STDs has been caused by the Puritanical culture that systematically disparages condom use. Yes indeed, you heard that right.

Weinstein feels that there are not enough condom ads on television. And he adds, in his Huffington Post column, that our culture has failed because we do not openly distribute condoms in coffee shops, beauty salons, and barber shops.

In Weinstein's world, the next time you have lunch you can choose among soups, sandwiches, beverages, and strawberry flavored condoms.

One suspects that he will not really be happy until the Catholic Church finds a way to include condoms in the Eucharist.

You will be thinking that it serves me right for reading the Huffington Post. I will concede that you are partially right. But reading the HuffPost allows me to analyze cultural influences from all possible angles. Just because someone cannot write or think clearly does not mean that he does not exert a cultural influence.

Anyway, Weinstein continues that European cultures have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections. How does he explain it? Like this: "Sex positive European cultures... are sexually permissive but don't have the level of disease or unwanted pregnancies that we have. America-- moralistic in its attitudes, yet hedonistic in its behavior-- makes for a dangerous brew."

Do your best to ignore the syntactic muddle of that last sentence. I suspect that something got lost in the editing.

Presumably, European countries, with their more enlightened attitudes, make condoms more readily available. Do you think that this applies to Roman Catholic countries? Are condoms readily available in Parisian beauty salons?

And don't these countries have a rather moralistic attitude toward sexuality? How did it happen that these sexually repressive cultures, places like France and Italy, produced some of the world's greatest hedonists. I am thinking of the Marquis de Sade and Boccaccio's Decameron.

For all I know European countries have fewer STDs because they have suffered less of the influence of the Great American Sexual Revolution and had enough sense not to induce a generation of young people to practice the art of hooking up.

One strains to imagine how the culture that invented hooking up, Girls Gone Wild, and Bill Clinton is moralistic. Or how young people who grow up with a steady diet of pornography are guilt ridden because of our sexual past.

Is it fair to say that American youth do not talk about sex enough or that they talk about it too much? That they know too little or too much about STDs? That they have received too little or too much instruction in the proper use of the condom?

As I see it, condoms are as much the problem as the solution.

Once you tell children that only one moral principle defines whether sexual behavior is right or wrong-- is a condom in use?-- you are also giving them permission to do as they please. Supposedly, the condom protects them.

But, against what does it protect them? Against some, but most certainly not all, sexually transmitted diseases. That much is true. But it does not protect them against the emotional consequences of random, anonymous sexual acts. And it does not protect them against their own moral sense, against their intuitive understanding that some sex acts in some circumstances are wrong.

Think what you will, sexual behavior has always been subject to prohibitions and prescriptions. Some sexual acts are prohibited and others are prescribed. There is no such thing as a human culture that judges all sex acts as created equal.

Don't you get the impression that condom merchants like Weinstein are trying to lull young people into a false sense of security in order to induce them into becoming sexually active before they are ready?

Besides, if hooking up were such a natural and normal thing to do, why do young people need to get drunk to do it? Keep in mind that drunkenness is a primary reasons young people forget to use a condom.

Let's say that Weinstein is asserting his adult moral authority to encourage condom use. Why would young people take his word for it? Now that we have spent decades trying to disembarrass young people of their tendency to respect authority, why would they now respect the authority of someone who touts the virtue of condom use.

If young people do not respect your authority, then they are going to try to find out for themselves whether condoms are a good or a bad thing. After all, the parents who tell them to use condoms all the time must have had some experience of condomless sex... by definition.

Call this adolescent rebelliousness, if you like. Or say that children need to learn some lessons by trial and error. Do you really want them to learn the lesson of unsafe sex by trying it out?

And they are going to try it out.

Even if an adolescent understands the risk, he or she might also understand that greater risk produces greater pleasure. As Susan Walsh suggested on her blog, Hooking Up Smart, high risk behavior produces an endorphin rush that enhances pleasure.

If pleasure is the meaning of sex, as many enlightened critical theorists insist, then why would people not forgo condoms in order to have more pleasure. If pleasure is good for your mental health, isn't more pleasure better for your mental health?

Keep in mind that for Weinstein, among many others, sex is not really about reproduction. He writes: "The last tie between sex and reproduction was severed by the pill."

Sacre bleu! Whatever does that mean? We know, as a matter of scientific fact, that human sexuality distinguishes itself for the fact that it can take place without there being any possibility for reproduction. That does not mean that sex has nothing to do with reproduction, it means that human sexuality functions by a calculus that differs from that of other mammalian species where females experience estrus.

And, just because the experience is pleasurable, that does not mean that the meaning of the experience lies solely or primarily in the pleasure experienced. A simple analogy will explain this well. Eating sushi is a pleasurable experience; no one with a whit of sense would say that the purpose of the experience is to provide a new and different way to feel pleasure. The purpose of the experience is nourishment.

One might take the example of thumb-sucking. For an infant this activity might be pleasurable, and it probably does not provide much nourishment. But this does not mean that when the same infant suckles his mother's breast, he is just in it for the pleasure.

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